This quaint call booms over a massive, boat-and-duck-peppered reservoir. The female announcer’s voice is strangely soft and personal, nothing at all like the detached manner in which a shop’s manager might ask “the owner of a red Toyota Corolla to come to the south entrance.” The message and the tone in which it is announced, through a rusty-sounding megaphone, add to the throwback feel of the place.
On a hot, almost-Summer, day Moscow’s Izmaylovsky Park is a bit of a time capsule. Like something out of a 50’s-60’s Soviet film it immerses one in an idealized USSR urban experience.
Families picnicking in the tall grass. Cotton candy and hot ponchiki stands swarmed by children. White-washed pavilions lending shadows to the romantically inclined. Carousels, Ferris wheels, and little wagons for the kiddies buzzing about. Fishermen nodding off on a pond’s edge. Row boats that look like they’ve put in a few decades of dedicated service. Orderly lines for catamaran rentals. Vintage tunes with that signature vinyl noise. Group aerobics en plein air. Decommissioned tanks and rocket launchers set on marble pedestals. World War II memorials. Beds of fiery-red tulips.
Izmaylovsky has held a special place in my heart ever since I was a kid. My parents, ever keen on healthy living and maximum outdoor time, took my sister and me to city parks at every opportunity, and Izmaylovo was one of their go-to’s.
My family knew the neighborhood very well. For many years, after moving from Leningrad to Moscow my father rented an apartment nearby. When we started receiving foreign guests (my father’s colleagues in academia) and traveling abroad ourselves, souvenir stock-up at the adjacent Izmailovo Vernisazh became a must. But of course there was more to the Izmaylovsky Park’s appeal than familiarity and convenience.
Despite being fairly compact, the park itself feels pretty wild. A few meters off the paved path and you’re surrounded by the resplendent Russian woods. Sturdy maples, wispy birches and fuzzy larches blend their crows together to form a lush forest ceiling, while wildflowers of all colors weave a bright and fragrant carpet. Sunlight, leaves and shadows all play together to create a nature’s kaleidoscope. Nightingale trills take your breath away.
For the less lyrically-inclined, Izmaylovsky offers all the attractions expected of a modern Moscow park: rides, toys, cafés and the like, with an asterisk: Izmaylovsky is the budget version of the “Moscow Park” experience. And therein lies its appeal.
Back in the not-so-good-old 1990’s Russia was getting its first taste of the Western Entertainment Experience. Everyone – from the government to businesses to the general public – was starved for anything that was modern, glossy, cool. Democracy was cool. Coca-Cola was cool. Barbie dolls were cool. Roller coasters were SUPER cool. Eager entrepreneurs, eager to capitalize on this hunger, eagerly build facilities that would accommodate this new demand. The famed Gorky Park became THE capital-D Moscow weekend Destination, complete with shops, restaurants, and wannabe-Disney amusement park.
Gorky was modern, glossy, cool. It was also beyond ridiculously expensive.
Back then, my family, comparatively speaking, did well. My father worked abroad. We lived in The Center in a big apartment. I went to a prestigious public school. My mom always managed to save up some cash to spend on books, museums and theater tickets for the girls. Even when we had to spend five hours in line to buy the butter rations or dozens of toilet paper rolls, even when I could only wear second-hand clothes and we broke out humanitarian-aid cookies for the holidays, I never felt deprived. I knew how much more fortunate we were compared to 95% of the country – families without income despite working multiple jobs, without electricity despite living in the most energy-rich country in the world, without medical care despite Russia’s scientific and welfare legacy. I learned to prioritize. I knew what things cost and what they were worth. I would never – could never – ask for a toy, when I knew my grandma needed medicine and my sister needed shoes and our apartment needed wallpaper.
Walking around the fancy attractions of Gorky, I, as a tween, would look at the prices for the roller coaster rides and know that two tickets for me and my sis equaled our family’s weekly groceries budget. Who in the world could afford this?! And yet there were lines around the block, crowds so robust you had to strategically maneuver to avoid bruising. Even in retrospect I do not understand this. Anyway, of course we always desperately wanted to go on the rides, but I knew that my parents wanted us to go on the ride even more, so, if they were not offering, it meant that we couldn’t, or at least shouldn’t.
Which brings me back to Izmaylovsky Park.
Much smaller, simpler and cheaper than Gorky and other vast city park & entertainment complexes like Sokolniki and VDNKh, Izmaylovsky allowed my parents to be the indulgers they wanted to be. Sure, the rides were closer to what you’d find at a county fair than at the Six Flags, but we got to go on all of them, over and over and over. The spinning “Saturn” was my life, while my sister dominated the racing carts. No fancy imported gelato? No problem! For the price of a few scoops at Gorky, at Izmaylovsky we could get two plates of shashlyk (grilled kebab) and a bag of ponchiki. And because it was a lot less cool, Izmaylovsky was also a lot less crowded, allowing for the feeling of a real peaceful getaway “onto nature” – or at least as much as such thing is possible in a city as frenzied as Moscow.
Going to Izmaylovsky Park became somewhat of a pre-school year and post-school year ritual for us. The rides would usually shut down for the winter, and for the three months of summer my sister and I usually camped out at the dacha. That left those warm few weeks of May and September to find our bliss, and Izmaylovsky was the place to do it. And still is.