Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Parks of Miracles: Russia's Homegrown Amusement Parks

BOULDER, Colorado -- On Tuesday, the Moscow Times ran a piece (which appears to be more like a paid advertisement or press release than an article) about a new amusement park that just opened outside of Moscow. "Ethnic World" is meant to be a showcase of the world's cultural diversity, featuring reconstructions of traditional dwellings from cultures around the world, though they only seem to be bothering to build exhibits of ethnic groups found within Russia.

The park is still only partially completed, and the biggest attraction so far appears to be a giant model of a traditional Russian stove. This is not the first such effort to build a major amusement park in Moscow, and like past efforts, this one doesn't really look like a winner. So let's take a look back at the many abortive attempts to build a park Russia could truly call its own.

Most famous perhaps was the park billed as Russia's answer to Disneyland. "Park of Miracles" was meant to be a vast and opulent family attraction, but without the tawdry commercialism of Mickey's parks. The project was begun back in 1992, when the government awarded a parcel of land on an island in the Moscow River to a development company headed by the world's foremost public art terrorist, Zurab Tsereteli (more on him later). The land sat unused for more than a decade, during which time several different developers stepped forward with proposals for the site, including in 2002 a group which wanted to build a Bible-themed park. After that fell through, construction began in 2005 on an amusement park based on Russian fairy tales and folklore, designed by Tsereteli himself. From the outset the proposal was fraught with problems, including a lack of infrastructure in the area and unreliable access to the island, as well as the fact that much of the area was protected forest land. Within two years, the entire project had collapsed, the courts ordered the construction stopped, and the plan was scrapped.

Though his amusement park plans were foiled, Tsereteli has already firmly placed his mark on Moscow. An artist of negligible talent, he nonetheless has won nearly all of the city's most prominent public art commissions, largely as a result of his close personal relationship with Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, of whom he has done several sculptures extolling his virtues. While museums across Russia struggle to pay staff and complete renovations, Tsetereli has a gleaming four-story complex housing nothing but his own tasteless art. The centerpiece of his museum is his massive "Apple," a sculpture of the fall of Adam and Eve. Visitors can step inside the giant bronze fruit, where they are greeted by new age music and two naked figures. The interior walls of the apple are covered in small bronze plates featuring etchings of various sex acts, including countless forms of sodomy and bestiality, such as men copulating with deer.

Other cities have been smart enough to keep him out the public square, and several of his sculptures have been rejected after being completed. He had built a 350-foot statue of Christopher Columbus to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his famous voyage to the Americas, but it was rejected by no less than five US cities. Finally, the city of Catano, Puerto Rico accepted the sculptor's "gift" (which came with a $26 million price tag), but public outcry over the hideous project prevented it from ever being erected. It currently sits in 2,700 rusting bronze pieces on the proposed site overlooking San Juan harbor. Bayonne, New Jersey, however, did not escape his grasp, and it is now home to his monument "To the Struggle of Against World Terrorism." He had shopped the sculpture - also known as the "Tear of Grief" - to nearly every other city on New York harbor, all of whom rejected it. (Honestly, I can go on for hours about how awful this man is, but his work truly needs to be seen to be believed. Just thank the Lord that your fair city is not soiled by his tripe.)

But if the Russians can't have their own Disneyland, then they can at least build one near their vacation homes. In February, a group of Russian investors announced plans to build a Disney theme park in Cyprus. Russia has important economic ties with Cyprus, and in recent years the island has become their Cayman Islands of sorts, as it is major tax haven for Russian businesses. The Boema Group had originally considered building the park in Serbia, but they decided instead to locate it in the UN-patrolled buffer zone between Greek Cypriot-controlled Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. I guess the Gaza Strip turned them down.

Where will Mickey Mouse feel more at home?

Russians should not worry so much about matching Disney or Six Flags - since 1938, Moscow has been home to one of the grandest public parks in the world, the Exposition of the Achievements of the National Economy, or VDNKh. This Stalinist project was built to showcase the country's economic growth and modernization, as well as the harmonious co-existence of the Soviet Union's many ethnic groups. The vast park is dotted with pavilions celebrating the many nations of the USSR and various aspects of the national economy, like mechanized agriculture, electrification, and space exploration.

Since the days of the commissars, however, VDNKh has lost a bit of its luster. It has since been renamed the All-Russian Exposition Center, and most of the exhibits in the pavilions have been replaced by stores selling cheap electronics and farmers markets. Perhaps the best attractions remaining at the park are its ferris wheel and a museum of gifts given by contestants to the host of Russia's version of Wheel of Fortune. Imagine if Epcot Center were suddenly abandoned, and the entire place was taken over by a flea market, and you will have some idea of what VDNKh looks like today (America's own VDNKh, the fairgrounds of the 1939 World's Fair in Flushing, Queens, recently celebrated its 70th anniversary, and WNYC did an interesting piece of the fair's opening).

Russia should not feel bad, however, that a major international attraction has not taken hold there. Disney's most recent addition to its global network of family fun centers in Hong Kong has fallen on hard times, laying off workers and putting expansion plans on hold.

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