War Museums in Moscow

People visiting Moscow from abroad usually spend much of the time in the Kremlin and the nearby districts, where they can find many cultural attractions, as well as fashion stores, great hotels and restaurants. Among the features of Russia’s capital city less known to the average tourist are the many monuments and museums dedicated to war history, which in some cases host extremely interesting exhibitions and artifacts from various ages, which would tell the visitor as much as the most prominent attractions in town.

Three I could visit in person are cited in this post, all of them easily reachable with the usual metro rail in a few minutes from the downtown.

The following photographs were taken during a visit to Moscow in September 2015.

Central Museum of the Armed Forces

This is a purely Soviet installation Cold War buffs will definitely like very much… Despite the old-fashioned website – which after all contributes to the picture of a Soviet-state-owned company… – the building was built following WWII, better known in Russia as the Great Patriotic war of  1941-1945. On the outside, besides the entrance there are a missile and a tank. Once inside you immediately find yourself in a large two-levels hall, dominated by a sculpture of Lenin and a huge mosaic wall, plus paintings of battles and other war-themed scenes all around.

From soon after your arrival, you get to grips with the only real ‘problem’ of this installation, where – just like many others touristic sights in Russia – everything – including the escape plan in the event of fire… – is written in Russian only. So, from the viewpoint of history, you’d better go prepared if you want to get the most from this exhibition, for you won’t find any understandable written information, unless obviously you understand some Russian.

There are several halls in the museum, related to historical moments from WWI up to the present day. A first notable room presents a lively reconstruction of a WWI trench fight, with lights and sounds.

The path through the museum follows the course of history, including the revolution, which put an end to WWI for Russia. Then follows WWII. I have to say I never found a collection of Nazi artifacts so rich as the one preserved here in any other place I visited. Literally hundreds of items, from propaganda posters to flags and banners, weapons, medals, papers,… Also present in due quantity are flags and banners of the Soviet Union, as well as Soviet uniforms, weapons and medals from the age of WWII.

Probably the most notable items from the time are the red banner raised on the Reichstag in Berlin – the corresponding b/w photograph is today one of the symbols of the end of WWII – and an original metal eagle with a swastika, probably taken from the Reichstag or the Reichkanzlei. The flag and the eagle are put together in a kind of monumental installation in a large central hall, celebrating the victory of the Soviet Union in the Patriotic War.

An old coat and a hat belonging to Stalin are also part of the exhibition.

Moving on to the Cold War period, a first focus is on the early history of the Soviet atomic program, leading to the detonation of the first nuclear asset in 1949, and to the testing by the Soviets of the largest thermonuclear device ever. Many models and some documentation are available – I could not understand the details, in that occasion I really regretted having no knowledge of Russian! The development of strategic missiles is covered next, including the much connected race to space.

The highlight of this part of the exhibition – at least for western visitors – may be the wreck of Francis Gary Powers’ aircraft, downed in 1959 by a SAM, basically a Soviet invention, during an illegal flight over the territory of the USSR ordered by the CIA. A large part of the fuselage and of the wings can be seen, with technical labels in English. Also part of the ejectable seat and other parts of this Lockheed U-2 are packed together somewhat inelegantly. Some original papers and maps the pilot had with him at the time of the accident are exhibited, together with many photographs. Extremely interesting.

Approaching the last stage of the Soviet Union, scale models, mockups and parts of larger nuclear missiles are presented. Also the war in Afghanistan is mentioned and the more contemporary war actions in Chechnya and other theaters following the collapse of the USSR are outlined and artifacts and photographs showcased. A window from the relic of the ill-fated Kursk submarine remembers this more recent tragedy – together with a monument on the outside to the right of the entrance.

Finally, the backyard is full of interesting items like missiles, gantries, heavy vehicles, tanks and so on. Unfortunately, it started raining heavily at the time of my visit, so photographs were not possible.

All in all, I would say one of the best museums in Europe on the topic of 20th century war history, and probably the best on Russian/Soviet operations in the 20th century. The presentation may be perceived as antiquated for todays standards, nonetheless this may be appreciated by people who are not totally new to this piece of history and who are more interested in seeing valuable and unusual ‘hardware’. I would recommend at least a full hour for the interested visitor, extendable to 1.5 hours rather easily including a detailed visit to the outside exhibition.

Getting there and moving around

The museum is not far north from downtown Moscow, less than .2 miles from Dostoyevskaya metro stop (line 10). The building can be approached walking along ul. Sovetskoy Armii, on the side of the park. The neighborhood is decent and safe, I had no bad feelings visiting alone.

Museum of the Great Patriotic War

Moscow is scattered with monuments remembering the Soviet effort and the victorious outcome of WWII, but the focal point of the celebration is the park at Poklonnaya Hill with the museum of the Great Patriotic War. The park is an extensive area, built around a perspective leading to the top of the hill, where the museum can be found (website here). This is hosted in the curved building behind the very tall spine which can be seen from the distance.

Approaching from the east, from the famous Kutuzovski Prospekt where many important political players of the USSR used to live, including Brezhnev, it is possible to spot first a huge arch, just in the middle of the road, and departing from it the perspective leading to the hill, just to the left of the Prospekt. To the left of the hill as well as beyond the spine there is a park with several smaller installations remembering war actions involving the USSR and more recently Russia, and following WWII. It is also possible to find there an exhibition with cannons, armored vehicles and other warcrafts.

The museum, accessible from the front of the circular building, is intended basically to celebrate the heroism of the Red Army in the war against Germany. It acts as a place of remembrance for the many who never came back, and during my visit there I coincidentally could assist to a ceremony with high ranking military staff celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII.

Inside the most notable items are huge and very vivid dioramas – I must say, very well made, especially for the age – reconstructing some scenes from some especially dramatic battles of the war against Nazi Germany.

In the crypt it is possible to find the very interesting ‘Hall of sorrow’, a more modern monument to the fallen soldiers, with many crystal drops hanging from the ceiling, representing the tears of Mother Russia. These should be really many, with a proportion to the number of soldiers actually lost in the conflict.

The exhibition of artifacts includes a selection of items from various moments and fronts of the war. I could not tour this part freely because of the above mentioned ceremony, but what I could see was interesting. Unfortunately, I could not see the Hall of fame.

Above all, the plan of the whole installation and the Soviet style adopted, not so bombastic in this case, are extremely interesting. Touring the museum may take less than 45 minutes. If you are interested in moving in the park, you may need more. Distances here follow monumental proportions, so monuments are not really close to each other as they might seem on a map.

Getting there and moving around

The area can be reached easily from Park Pobedy metro stop on line 3. The perspective leading to the museum starting from the arch (and from the metro station) is about .6 miles long.

Museum-Panorama ‘The battle of Borodino’

You can find this museum very close to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War described above. The theme of the exhibition is here the battle of Borodino during the war against Napoleon and the French Army.

Borodino is located about 80 miles west of Moscow. There the advancing French Army faced the full power of the Russian Army. Napoleon himself was present and led war operations, while Kutuzov and Bagration, the top-ranking generals of the Tsar, were among the strategists on the Russian side. The battle was a prototypical battle of the time, with wild fire from cannons, infantry and cavalry, all in the arena. It turned out very cruel, taking a huge death toll on both parts. As a matter of fact, the Russian Army, which had constantly retreated avoiding the contact with the French until that great battle, continued back towards Moscow, which was finally abandoned and set on fire as Napoleon’s Army was reaching it. On one side, the Russians failed to stop the French at Borodino, on the other they set for the French a deadly trap – the French did not quit chasing the Russians until the winter of 1812 finally struck when they were infinitely far from home with no active supply lines, nor food nor resupply storages at hand. The season killed basically 9 out of 10 on the French side, triggering the end of Napoleon’s dreams of power.

The museum was recently refurbished in a modern key, with a detailed description of some moments of the battle on wide screens and interactive panels – again, unfortunately all in Russian. Uniforms, weapons and artifacts add to the visit, but the highlight here is the beautiful panorama painting. This is similar to the cyclorama in Gettysburg, PA, and it is a more than 300 ft long circular painting vividly depicting some important moments in the battle of Borodino. As you can learn from the website, the painting was made in 1912 (before the Soviets) to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the battle. The building was renovated in 1962.

The visit may not take much, especially if you are not interested in the war against Napoleon, but I would suggest going there even only for the uniqueness of the installation as well as  for its artistic significance. In any case, the visit may not take more than 45 minutes, especially if you don’t understand Russian.

Right behind the museum it is possible to see the wooden hut where Kutuzov and his staff discussed and decided for the destruction of Moscow in order to jeopardize the plans of the French to find a shelter there for the approaching winter season.

Getting there and moving around

The museum can be reached easily from Park Pobedy metro stop on line 3, like the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. From the metro stop you can walk west on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, and you will soon find the museum on the left (northern) side of the road, about .2 miles from the station.

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