Moscow has a park culture unlike anything, any city I’ve ever known. In our first couple of months here, Emma and I noticed a trend: Every time we’d ask a student what he or she was going to do, does, and did on the weekend, the answers was “walk in the park with my friends.” It was such a standard that Emma actually banned the response from her classes. Privately, we concluded that “walk(ing) in the park with friends” must be one of those drilled responses learned in state school English programs, a sort of slightly more advanced version of “How are you?” “I’m fine, thanks.” After all, who on earth goes to the park that often?
Muscovites do, that’s who, said little Suzie Who. Our theory soon went down like a submarine. When winter holidays rolled around, despite frigid temperatures, the two places our Russian gal pal, Dasha, recommended we go were parks: Tsaritsyno Park and Kolomenskoye Park. We went, and they were both respectively beautiful, Kolomenskoye dotted with beautiful wooden buildings and hilltop churches, Tsaritsyno with a sprawling maze of pathways that wiggle around a lake before leading to a massive palace. When Emma’s father visited, my student suggested Victory Park. A student whose grandmother lived in London cites Hyde Park, not Big Ben or The Millennium Wheel or The Tower Bridge, as her favorite vestige.
This is no judgment as we, too, are lovers of the stroll, that most directionless and exquisite of park behaviors. Visiting New York a couple of years ago, we spent over half of our time wandering through Central Park. We also have been to Hyde Park. I like to run in parks, contemplate life on park benches, or have a coffee, a chat, and smoke in the park. I like to write in parks, to picnic, watch live music, find shady spots, see peculiarities, discover hidden quirks that architects tossed in for the astute regular to enjoy. The fact is, though often an overlooked prize of the modern urban landscape, what with our lack of horses to hitch or wagons to pull, our thirst for free parking and expressways, a good park is something to appreciate. Still, I’ve never done it so regularly as now.
We’ve been to more parks in Moscow than months we’ve lived here, and Gorky Park, the queen mother of them all, which is at least half-an-hour metro excursion, has seen us half a dozen times. Gorky, originally built in 1928, includes 300 acres of prime riverside real estate in the city center. It used to be a bit of a withering carnival with out-of-date rides and junk food stalls, but as of 2011, the old swath got a makeover, doing away with rickety roller coasters and admission prices. The Gorky we know is full of trees, wonderful gardens, and a slew of cool attractions: an mock-up space shuttle from back in the day, a massive display of old communist statues, and an influx of seasonal happenings, such as ice sculptures, a field of hundreds of snowmen and an ice skating rink.
The ice rink, which is what prompted our last visit to Gorky Park, has taken over a large section of pavement and made it into a skating Mecca. Utilizing the rather infamous Russian cold and the tendency for sidewalks to ice over, Gorky’s rink, instead of being pond-like or ellipses, incorporates many of the pathways to create 15,000 square meters of skating trails, complete with refreshment stalls, resting coves and benches, a raised observation walkway, and an elite set of railing on which a novice can keep his or her balance. It’s a place of fantastic offerings, a candy shop for the blade-bound, and I honestly can’t imagine anywhere else swaying me into strapping on the skates for my first time. So, I did.
Moscow, like any great city, is full of the big things that define it: the Kremlin, Balshoi Theatre, St. Basil’s, Red Square…but, it’s really something special to live in a place and find bits of its true pulse, what the inhabitants, who are sick of Red Square already, get up to in their free time. Parks—What a concept! Every city has some version of them, big or small, dirty or dangerous, but Moscow, when you are inside it, boasts them, its citizens holding them in a reverence, using them with a practicality, that seems different than any place I’ve ever been. It's a piece of this city, which, from time to time, has left feeling chewed up and spit out worth taking with me: I'll never live somewhere again without exploring what parks are on offer, and for that, I am eternally grateful.