A new chapter for Gorky Park

Roman Abramovich is a key backer of plans to transform Moscow's historic but rundown green space

Shaun Walker
Friday 08 April 2011 00:00 BST

Gorky Park is a fairly depressing place these days. On a visit earlier this week, saccharine Russian pop music blasted from loudspeakers at the entrance, grubby kiosks sold lukewarm hotdogs and the tacky rides stood shuttered and empty. Just a handful of visitors trudged along the pathways, lined with piles of half-melted dirty snow. A harassed young mother dragged a screaming toddler along by the elbow, while a teenage couple in matching black tracksuits engaged in frenzied groping on a bench.

But there are ambitious plans underway to transform this chunk of central Moscow into one of the world's most impressive parks. The plans will be bankrolled by Moscow's new mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who will finance the restoration of a vast brick building inside the park which will serve as a new venue for his girlfriend's art gallery. One of Mr Abramovich's lieutenants, Sergey Kapkov, a former Russian MP who ran the oligarch-backed National Academy of Football, has been put in charge of the renovations.

In the heart of Moscow, Gorky Park was first opened in the 1920s by the early, utopian Bolsheviks, who called it the Culture Factory, and wanted it to be a place where Muscovites of all ages could come for relaxation and ideological betterment through culture. Later, it was renamed after the writer Maxim Gorky, and became an iconic landmark of central Moscow.

In recent years, however, Gorky Park has fallen into disarray, and indeed there are no pleasant parks in central Moscow. The Russian capital is a big grey monster of a city with wide, clogged roads, and few green spaces. Nowadays, the parks that do exist near the centre tend to be almost more depressing than the urban sprawl, and Gorky Park is no longer an exception.

This lack of decent parks in Moscow was not lost on Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian President. "I happened to be in London recently and saw Hyde Park," he said back in 2009. "We need to talk to the Moscow authorities, they should make their own Hyde Park, plant the same trees and so on."

Yelena Soboleva, 65, has worked at the park for 20 years, but has been coming since she was a child, and remembers it as a magical place. "The park has always been a part of my life," she says, recalling trips with her parents to go on the rides and see ballets and dances; later her first date and her first kiss all took place here. "The state of the park today is a reflection of everything that has happened to our country," she says. "Everything here is in ruins. The last 20 years have been catastrophic for the park, and for the country too."

Of course, one person who has done rather well from the last 20 years is Mr Abramovich, and it is his money that will help restore one of the park's most iconic buildings, the "Hexagon". Once an exhibition centre and the largest cinema in Europe, the vast hexagonal brick building is an extraordinary space that was gutted by fire; now all that remains are the charred walls, with no roof.

Within two years, however, it is expected to be open for business as the new venue of the Garazh, the contemporary art gallery run by Dasha Zhukova, Mr Abramovich's girlfriend and the mother of his child.

John Mann, Mr Abramovich's spokesman, confirmed his boss would be funding the restoration of the Hexagon, but said it was "too early" to talk about whether he might get involved in other parts of the renovation project.

In an interview in his new offices at the park, Mr Abramovich's associate and the park's new boss, Mr Kapkov, said that the project would be funded by "the city government, Roman Abramovich, and other investors we hope to attract". He denied that Mr Abramovich had only got involved because of Ms Zhukova's gallery. "Roman Abramovich lives in Moscow and as such, he wanted to get involved in such a great project in his city," he said.

Mr Kapkov said there would be no large-scale construction in the park, but merely the renovation of the many buildings that already exist there and are mostly in disarray. There are, however, plans to build an observation wheel similar to the London Eye. "In the mornings, old ladies will come for walks with their grandchildren," said Mr Kapkov. "In the afternoon there'll be students who have finished their studies, and by evening the whole of Moscow will descend on it – to restaurants, art galleries, bookshops..." He says the renovation will take around five years, and by the end the park could expect over nine million visitors per year.

The former Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, was notorious for outlandishly kitsch construction, often arranged under rather opaque contracts. He was sacked last year, and Mr Kapkov claims that under Mr Sobyanin, things will be different.

First of all, there will be a long consultation period, when Muscovites of all ages will be asked what they want to see from the park. Then, a competition will be held for Russian and international architects and designers to come up with a concept for the park.

Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, president of the Strelka Institute for Media Architecture and Design in Moscow, says: "It's the largest park in Europe, and this will be a chance for the new mayor to showcase his intentions for the city. It's very simple, really – I want it to be the best park in the world."

A backdrop for change

Gorky Park has become an artistic backdrop for Soviet intrigue and political change in the 20th century.

"All nights should be so dark, all winters so warm, and all headlights so dazzling," begins Gorky Park, the novel written by the American author Martin Cruz Smith in 1981. Narrated by an investigator who discovers three frozen corpses in the park, it paints an eerie picture of the Soviet Union using what was once one of Moscow's most celebrated public spaces. The film of the book was released two years later.

The German rock band The Scorpions also embraced the Gorky Park metaphor in their song "Wind of Change", which summed up the mood as the communist bloc fell apart in 1991. This time, the park (also featuring Moscow's Moskva River) proved a more positive setting for the lyrics: "I follow the Moskva/ Down to Gorky Park/ Listening to the wind of change." The song has endured: Mikhail Gorbachev personally requested The Scorpions play their hit at his 80th birthday bash in London last month.

Enjoli Liston

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