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.

Vogelsang – Soviet Nuclear Base in the GDR

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‘The lost city of Vogelsang’ – this is the complete name often attributed to this former Soviet installation built under Stalin’s rule in 1952, located about 35 miles north of Berlin in the former territory of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR, or DDR in German). Actually, the base was among the first three of the kind in size, housing about 15.000 Soviet troops of tank and artillery divisions, service staff and their families – much more residents than the majority of ‘normal’ cities in the region.

In the case of Vogelsang, two facts add to the usual grim aura of a deserted Soviet base.

Firstly, it was never much publicized among the locals, being large enough to contain all services needed by the troops and their families – it was basically a ‘secret base’. The trees now invading all free areas between the skeletons of the remaining buildings were not there until the early Nineties, when Russian troops left the former territory of the GDR – during 1994. Yet even when it was active, the place was hidden from the eyes of those passing by, thanks to the very rich vegetation. Its very location, pretty far away from everything, surely helped in shrouding it into secrecy.

Secondarily, at least in one instance in recent history, in the years of Khrushchev, of the latest Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, this place was used for the deployment of an arsenal of strategic missiles pointing to European targets, reportedly in core Europe and Britain. Much confusion exists about dates and many details are missing – the deployment was so secret that even the government of the GDR didn’t know about it, so the existence of the base and its role are a somewhat ‘inconvenient reminder’ of the recent past for Germany. Today this base is still really hard to spot.

Anyway, I visited the site several times between 2016 and 2020, and I took the following photographs. While from the sequence of my visits it is apparent that the installation is quickly decaying, thanks to the combined action of the government and of ignorant writers, both showing a bothering null respect for history, there is still something left to see. I give also some basic info for getting to this site on your own.

Getting there and moving around

The village of Vogelsang can be reached by car from downtown Berlin in about 1 h 30 min – the road distance is about 40 miles, but a substantial part of the itinerary follows local roads, resulting in a pretty long time needed. Be careful when pointing your nav, for there are several towns named ‘Vogelsang’ in Germany. This one is in Brandenburg, located north of Berlin, along the road 109. The closest major town is Zehdenick, a few miles to the south of Vogelsang on the same road 109.

As usual with military bases, there is a railway track reaching Vogelsang, and getting there by train is of course possible. During my stay I heard the whistle of various trains passing there – even though I noticed only a very small station and nobody around, so possibly there’s no ticketing service. I noticed the scheduled time for arriving by train from Berlin is identical to that needed moving with a car. If you don’t want to be forced to stick to timetables, I suggest going by car.

Once there, I parked my car on the grass close to the only crossroad in town – where the 109 is crossed by Burgwaller Strasse. I parked behind the info table – there is obviously no info on the base, just about ‘regular’ nature trails in the area. Nobody complained about me parking there, and I found my car intact about six hours later…

Burgwaller Strasse crosses the railway and heads straight into the ‘zone’. Please note that soon after crossing the railway a) the road is not paved any more, b) there are prohibition signs about vehicle traffic, so you can’t go further with a car.

For moving around you will need an electronic map and possibly a GPS, cause the site is huge, and the area is covered with trees and vegetation, and many former roads are not visible any more, so getting lost is pretty easy. Moreover, from Google maps you can’t spot much from above, because of the trees. This makes a GPS + map of the site very important for the particular case of this site, differently from other bases.

I used my iPhone and it worked perfectly. Just install the free Ulmon (aka CityMaps2Go) app (app website here) and download the offline Brandenburg map – this provides an incredible detail. Furthermore, there is a strong Internet signal over most of the base – strangely enough, the area is well covered.

Anyway, if you don’t want to depend on the Internet once there, you can pinpoint the places you are more interested in on the offline Ulmon map before going – I did also this as a backup, cause I didn’t know whether Internet would be working.

I suggest not to overlook this point. Thinking back, I would have hardly made it without a cell phone with a GPS + map. You have to walk in the trees quite a bit before reaching any buildings. The trees hide everything and you can easily get disoriented – wasting much time moving around. Everything is solved with a GPS and a good map.

Over five visits, I spent almost 20 hours touring the place. During my first visit (lasting about 6 hours), I just concentrated on the southernmost part of it, which is of course the richest in remains, electing not to reach the launch pads closer to the village of Beutel (see this chapter). On that first visit, I walked approximately 11 miles standing to my iPhone, so be ready to walk. Even though there are no great physical barriers for moving around, the place is really abandoned and vegetation is wild. Probably you will need to walk in nettles and brambles at some point, so choose your clothes and shoes carefully.

On the plus side, you will see much wildlife!

Many interesting sights are outdoor, some are indoor. As usual, all abandoned buildings, except perhaps the nuclear storage bunkers that are very sturdy, must be considered dangerous. You should observe through the windows or enter at your own risk.

Sights

Missile Launch Pad

This is the southernmost, isolated launch pad on the site. You can see a concrete platform at the level of the ground about 20 feet long, with metal holding points. It was used to anchor missile-carrying trucks before tilting the missile canister vertical and preparing for launch. It is highly probable that the missile system intended to be installed here was the R5 ‘Pobeda’, NATO codename SS-3 ‘Shyster’. The relatively small range of this missile is in support of a deployment in a region so close to the border with european NATO Countries (see this chapter also for a general map of the missile installations in this area).

The road leading to the missile pad and from there to the main complex of the base today is barely visible. Traces of a barbed wire fence, delimiting the external perimeter of the base, can be found here, together with a network of trenches and dips once needed for the missile launch system (which included technical trailers with generators, control system panels, …).

The territory of the base is scattered with tokens from their former owners, from mugs to batteries, to military material of all sorts.

Southeastern Inner Access Post

Walking along the barbed wire fence from the missile launch pads to the core of the base, you will come across a long concrete wall. Soviet bases are often divided into sealed sectors. Access to the ‘service part’ of the base, with living quarters, schools, … was past this wall. The gate has disappeared, but you can find traces of it where the wall is interrupted and a concrete-paved road points into it. A cage for watchdogs can be found close to this checkpoint.

In a first building for the guards, with window railings, look for Russian writings even on the ground.

Buildings by the entrance post include a garage with writings in Cyrillic, with an apron for maneuvering trucks or cars. On the cranes inside the garage, you can find inscriptions by the Soviet troops occupying the base. Leaving this type of ‘autograph’ was typical for Soviet troops (see for instance the traces left in the theater of bases in Poland, here).

Nearby the entrance, a clubhouse, visitor center, or something alike can be found, with a pleasant architecture – large windows and a bar.

Entertainment Quarters

Two main buildings here, a movie theater and a clubhouse.

The theater is still in good shape. Some of the original lights and traces of the performance program board can be seen outside.

The road leading to the front entrance is still visible, but the façade is not imposing any more, for trees are now hiding it.

Signs and propaganda posters in Cyrillic alphabet and with photos can be spotted here and all around the base.

The café, with an original banner in Cyrillic, can be spotted to the left of the theater, close by a small warehouse with a loading platform.

Some kitchen furniture and gear can be still spotted around.

Between the theater and café buildings, you can find an incredible Soviet sculpture. The most striking feature you can see in the pics is a portrait of Lenin!

The Lenin panel was moved in 2017 to a Soviet-themed museum in Wünsdorf (see this dedicated chapter about this incredible place and its museum). The rest of the mural was there as of 2019, still reasonably resisting to the weather and spoilers.

Mural monuments are among the most interesting features of Vogelsang. Not far from this base, you can find another example of these Soviet creations described in this chapter.

Children School

This is rather creepy – even the curtains are still in place on some windows…! On the ground floor you can access a small gym.

Much of the heating system – made in Germany – is still in place.

On the first floor some very interesting murals can be easily spotted, together with traces of a small theater and special classrooms for language teaching and other purposes.

Soldiers Sports Ground

This has been turned into a corn field. Something of the original tribunes still stay, with original decoration made from parts of machinery I guess.

Water/Heating Plant

A small water pumping/heating plant occupies a building nearby the gym (see next section). Traces of the original hardware can be found, with writing in Russian.

Also a small living room, likely belonging to a technician looking after plant, is part of this small construction. Traces of the original curtains are still there! Unofficial writing in Cyrillic can be found on the concrete wall making for a small backyard to the plant.

Soldiers Gym

Very creepy! Gym apparel, subscription forms, record boards and gym gear still around…

To the back you can spot a former Turkish bath with no roof and trees in it.

Soldiers Barracks

There are pretty many buildings of the same kind aligned along a still visible concrete paved road between the school and the training center. Many of these buildings look like being close to collapsing. Some interesting halls and various items can be found in some of them.

Soldiers Canteens & Training Center

There are various canteens and entertainment centers scattered over the territory of the base.

Some nice murals in pure Russian naïve style can be found in some of the buildings. Some of the halls are very very large.