Although many monuments of Socialist realism around town have been deposed, a few remaining examples are worth viewing if you're in the neighborhood. The Gagarin Monument is a sweep of steel rocketing toward the cosmos, topped with a sculpture of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin remains a cult figure in Russia, seen as the man who made the world finally take Russians seriously (Gagarinskaya Ploshchad; metro: Leninsky Prospekt). The Lenin monument on Oktyabrskaya Square shows the Soviet founder with a crowd of enthusiastic followers at his feet preparing to build a nation (Oktyabrskaya Ploshchad; metro: Oktyabrskaya). The Worker and Collective Farmer is the best and biggest of the collection, but was under renovation at press time. It's an oversized statue of a man and woman reaching boldly toward the sky; he's holding a hammer and she, a sickle (at the entrance to the All-Russian Exhibition Center; metro: VDNKh).
Most cities' public transit systems are necessary eyesores. Moscow's is a masterpiece and worth a mention here. Central planning meant that Stalin was free to pour funds and artistic energy into creating the metro. Today it's the world's busiest subway system, yet even trains that run every 90 seconds aren't enough to diffuse crowding. The system is still cleaner than most other big-city subways. Its oldest stations, dating from the 1930s and 1940s, are its grandest, particularly those on the Circle Line. The newer stations at the edges of town are corridors of bland but well-polished white tile. Even if you don't use the metro to get around, take a peek at one of the following stations: Ploshchad Revolutsii, with its bronze sculptures of Soviet swimmers, mothers, and sailors holding up the marble columns; Kievskaya (Circle Line stop), with its cheerful mosaics portraying Ukrainian-Russian friendship; Novokuznetskaya, with its cast-iron streetlights; and Novoslobodskaya, with its Art Nouveau stained glass.
For an even closer view of the metro, with models and an avalanche of statistics, visit the tiny Metro Museum atop the Sportivnaya station (tel. 495/622-7309; free admission; open to individuals Thurs 9am-4pm; open for groups only Mon-Wed and Fri 9am-4pm). The friendly director is a former metro driver who has a lifetime of stories to share (though in Russian only). Most stations are quite deep, and all have head-spinningly long escalators; some of the stations such as the mosaic-ceilinged Mayakovskaya were even built as bomb shelters during World War II.
Conquering the Cosmos -- The big, bad Soviet Union, America's rival in the race to space and nuclear superiority, was as surprised at its superpower status as the outside world. An unwieldy mass of illiterate peasants before Lenin came along, Russia took just a few decades to reach the scientific heights needed to conquer the cosmos.
The Soviet government poured funding and pressure on its rocket scientists, who stunned the world when they beat the Americans in sending the first satellite into space in 1957. Sputnik, the name of the vessel and the Russian word for "satellite," instantly entered the international vocabulary. A month later a Soviet mutt named Laika orbited the earth. She was merely setting the stage, however, for the Soviets' next breakthrough: Yuri Gagarin's first manned flight in April 1961 -- a month before U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard made the journey. Gagarin came to represent Russia's victory over its own backward and repressive past, with a literal and figurative blast into the future. The anniversary of his flight, April 12, is informally celebrated as a national holiday, and his smiling image is one of the few Soviet-era faces that evokes universal pride. Just 2 years later, textile worker-turned-cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkhova became the first woman in space, a full 20 years before the United States sent Sally Ride into orbit in 1983.
The Soviet space program suffered plenty of defeats, including the deaths of four cosmonauts in accidents on the Soyuz-1 in 1967 and the Soyuz-11 in 1971, but propagandists largely concealed them from the public. Pilots from dozens of countries flew to space on Soviet rockets, and it wasn't until the late 1980s that the bankruptcy of the Soviet Union started crippling its once-mighty space machine. Mir space station became a remarkable symbol and victim of Russia's post-Soviet plight. Launched in 1986, just weeks after the U.S. shuttle Challenger exploded in tragedy, the Mir orbiting lab was built to last 3 or 4 years. But when the country that launched it crumbled in 1991, the Mir's crew was told to stay aloft for another 6 months while the government found money to bring them home. The station and Russia's space program scraped by, helped out by a once-unthinkable partnership with NASA, which had no space station of its own. After a string of accidents in the late 1990s, the Mir was finally sent to a choreographed demise in the Pacific Ocean in 2000.
Russia's space program has since dedicated most of its energies to the International Space Station -- and to sending the world's first "space tourists" into orbit. The once-secretive compounds at Star City and Korolev outside Moscow now occasionally open their doors for well-paying tourists, who can test their stamina on centrifugal machines even if they don't plan any space journeys.
For a cheaper and less stomach-churning way to learn more about the Russian space program, visit the Museum of Cosmonauticsor climb aboard a real Buran space shuttle in Gorky Park. Three, two, one, blastoff . . .
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