Central Museum of the Armed Forces
A large museum in Moscow
, celebrating the military history of the Soviet Union
, and to a lesser extent the subsequent military of the Russian Federation too. It features a stunning collection of original artefacts – on that front it has to rank as one of the richest military museums on the planet. In terms of presentation and ideological objectivity, however, the overall impression is somewhat less unequivocally positive. Still, for any dark tourist with at least a minimum of interest in military affairs this is an absolute must-see institution.
More background info:
The museum originally goes back to plans devised as early as 1919, i.e. just shortly after the revolution and while the Russian Civil War was still being waged. The first incarnation, an exhibition entitled “Life of the Red Army and Navy” opened in 1920 (in what today is GUM at Red Square
– see under Moscow
). It was less than two years later that the museum was first moved to a new location, and again in 1927.
During the Great Patriotic War (WWII
) the museum assumed a significant new function in education/mobilization of soldiers as well as a targeted effort to collect artefacts, photos, documents and narratives directly from front lines of the ongoing war, while at the same time the existing collection was largely moved out of Moscow to safety in Kazan.
After the war, this obviously meant great changes to the museum itself, as it was vastly expanded and transformed. After Stalin
's death and with the onset of de-Stalinization, another phase of transformation followed. In terms of content, the focus on the cult of personality of Stalin was removed, or at least toned down.
The greatest change physically, however, was the construction of an all-new grand museum building, which opened in 1965. The museum collection kept expanding all through the Soviet
era, including a coverage of the post-WWII conflicts up to the end of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1989.
Following the collapse of the USSR
and the turmoil in the wake of this momentous historical phase, the museum faced the tall order of reorganizing and reinventing itself. This not only applied to contemporary military history, but it also opened up for the first time the possibility of looking back beyond the revolution of 1917.
In the 2000s, major repairs and updates of the exhibitions were undertaken. The updating seems to be constantly ongoing, as recent/contemporary conflicts such as in Syria, Chechnya and the Caucasus (see Georgia
) received coverage too. Yet while the end of the Soviet era had removed some former ideological restrictions and canonized Soviet propaganda routines from the museum's obligations, it now became part of a new narrative of contemporary developments in which it is again, within Russia
's current political climate, clearly not so easy to retain an objective, apolitical view on what's happening either.
What there is to see:
The museum announces itself already from a distance by means of a big silver ICBM
piercing the sky in front of the building. Its entrance is in addition flanked by a tank and an artillery gun of plinths, as is so typical for almost everywhere in the former Eastern Bloc
Before heading inside also take a look at the Kursk memorial
in a grove of trees just to the south of the entrance. In contrast to the Kursk memorial in Serafimovskoye cemetery
in St Petersburg
, this is not just abstract, but depicts a submariner standing tall while a scaled-down shape of a submarine by his feet is going down. The sub is strangely bent so that it actually looks more like a breaching whale.
Through/over the fence behind the Kursk monument you can also get a glimpse of the open-air part of the museum – also from the fence to the north of the museum building. It's the usual parade of big guns and tanks, but also includes yet more missiles, several planes and even boats (high and dry). I made do with seeing these parts just from the fence, but of course those who like wandering around amongst such big military hardware should go and explore it properly. The remaining text below only covers the indoor exhibition.
Once you step into the lofty foyer you are catapulted straight back into Soviet days, with a giant Lenin
head greeting you from the top of the grand marble stairs adorned with red stars. The far wall is covered from top to bottom and side to side with fantastically exaggerated socialist-realist
mosaics depicting revolutionaries, soldiers and even cosmonauts.
The exhibition, however, starts on the ground floor. It is mainly organized in a chronological order, beginning with some coverage of the history of the Russian Army before the 1917 revolution
, including a section on World War One
. There are lots of objects in display cabinets as well as life-size recreations of trenches, all drowned in rather garish colour LED lighting, which makes photography often rather difficult (I had to resort to shooting in RAW a lot so that I could sort out/correct the white balance later).
The WWI section is followed by one on the Russian Civil War
after the revolution, including the foreign interventions (see Mudyug “Death Island”
). The grandest thing to point out here is an oversized oil painting just to the left of the doorway to hall 4. It shows a slightly too tall Lenin
in a gloriously victorious pose in the foreground, while a slim young Stalin
stands closely behind him – and amongst the rest of the communist gathering in the background there's even a Trotsky … somehow they must have forgotten to edit him out here. Otherwise this section is rather old school with mainly big Soviet flags and banners, glorifying statues of fighters and lots of black-and-white photos, but fewer artefacts.
The exhibition continues in the north wing … and initially in a rather old-fashioned style too, with loads of photos, uniforms, weapons, medals and other assorted artefacts – all annotated in Russian only, by the way.
I declined using the audio-guide you can hire from reception, and instead relied on my Russianist wife to translate for me where I deemed it essential and couldn't work it out by myself. That way I got by OK.
Things got a bit more interesting in the WWII
sections, or rather: those on the Great Patriotic War
as the war in the Soviet Union
from 1941 to 1945 is better known as here. This is by far the largest section in this museum stretching over the remainder of the ground floor and more than half of the upper floor.
Apart from all the military developments and battles, the exhibition also covers other aspects such as the medical angle in war, but of course it's the machinery of war that is most lavishly represented amongst the exhibits, including all manner of artillery, shells, bombs, machine guns, models of tanks, Katyusha missile launchers and planes, as well as parts of real plane wrecks, and so forth. It's impossible to give an overview of all that here. The photo gallery below
instead picks out just a few remarkable individual artefacts, including some astonishing Nazi relics of types I'd never seen anywhere else before.
One subsection that deserves special attention in our context, however, is that on concentration camps
and the Holocaust
. It's only a small section but includes, amongst the more predictable displays of striped camp inmate clothes, old shoes and a copy of Hitler
's “Mein Kampf”, some rather stunning items such as a framed piece of tattooed human skin from Majdanek
and a photo of a shrunken head from Buchenwald
. In Germany
such displays would be quite controversial these days. So it's quite remarkable to find them here.
The final part of the WWII
section is, naturally, devoted to the glorious victory
of the Red Army. Pride of place is given to a shrine-like glass cabinet in the centre of the large domed hall
containing some special Nazi
trophies, such as a broken Imperial Eagle (Reichsadler) emblem and Cyrillic-graffiti-ed pieces of wall from the Reichstag
, and at the top the (genuine?) flag that was so famously hung from the Reichstag at the end of the battle of Berlin
. Nazi banners that during the victory parade on Red Square were trampled all over are also on display. Needless to say quite a bit of the cult of personality about Stalin
survives in this hall too.
What I found the most captivating part of the museum, however, was the following section about the post-war
military history of the USSR
, i.e. primarily the Cold War
Pride of place in this section goes to one of the most remarkable relics of the whole museum – and its from one of the most significant and media-hyped episodes of the whole era: the wreck of the American
U-2 spy plane flown by CIA
pilot Gary Powers who was shot down over Soviet territory in 1960, causing a major diplomatic incident (he was arrested and tried but later exchanged for the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel at Glienicke Bridge
A lot of the rest of the Cold War
section naturally revolves around the threat posed by nuclear weapons
. The father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, Andrei Sakharov, is duly celebrated here (even though he later became a dissident – see Sakharov Centre
), as is the biggest achievement in the Soviet nuclear weapons history, if going by size and destructive power alone: the so-called “Tsar Bomba
” (cf. Kremlin
). An almost cute little scale model of this and other Soviet nuclear bombs are on display, together with all sorts of documents and photos.
Furthermore there are models of missiles and underground ICBM
silos, all manner of weird and mysterious looking apparatus from such installations and even a life-size base section of a mobile ICBM launcher as well as several warheads.
One non-military nuclear topic is covered too, namely the fate of the “liquidators” who risked (and, in many cases, lost) their lives in the clean-up operation after the Chernobyl
disaster of 1986. In addition to dramatic photos some hats and nose-and-mouth masks worn by liquidators are on display here.
The aftermath of the Cold War gets some coverage too – e.g. in the form of dummies in protective clothing and images of plants dealing with the disposal of chemical and biological weapons.
A rather elaborate section covers the last war fought by the Soviet Union
, namely in Afghanistan
, which to this day remains a heavy trauma in post-Soviet/Russian memory.
A specific trauma of the post-Soviet era gets a lot of space too: the Kursk disaster
of August 2000, when this nuclear submarine exploded while submerged and sank, taking all on board with her. Apart from a model and a large oil painting of the submarine, there are also various artefacts and personal effects salvaged from the wreck on display here. I found this section especially moving. One piece that stands out is one of the broken windows from the conning tower of the sub (parts of this tower have been transformed into a Kursk memorial in Murmansk
that I had visited in 2012, and maybe that's why it so resonated with me).
What I found quite stunning too, not for its size or for what it is, but for its recentness was a piece of wreckage
from the Russian Su-24
fighter plane shot down by the air force of Turkey
at the border with Syria
in 2015. That incident caused Russian-Turkish relations to sour for while back then (although those tensions seem to have long since been overcome).
These last few items are in the final section of the permanent museum exhibition that covers the post-Soviet
and current Russian military
– including its modernization, but also the several military conflicts Russia
has been involved in over the decades since the collapse of the USSR
This includes the inner-Russian wars
as well as the 2008 conflict with Georgia
over the breakaway self-declared republic of South Ossetia
. Here the tone of the exhibition is perhaps a little two one-sided. Especially the story of the Chechen wars can also bee seen from a less Russia
-glorifying perspective …
All in all
, however, this museum impressed me much more than I had anticipated. OK, the early sections are a bit stuffy and old school, but this is more than made up for by the surprisingly up-to-date modern section at the end of the exhibition as well as by the richness of authentic, and often unique and dramatic artefacts throughout. Worth seeing even if you're not a dedicated military history buff – but for the latter it is obviously a must-see institution! It's probably one of the world's most significant military museums (though in my view not the very best – that title I would give to the Military History Museum in Dresden
to the north of the centre of Moscow
, a good two miles (3.5 km) from Red Square
; address: 2, Ulitsa Sovietskoy Armii, Moscow, 129110.
Access and costs: a bit out of the centre but quite easy to get to; moderately priced.
Getting to the museum from the centre of Moscow
is easy by metro: get to one of the interchanges with Line 10 (pale green) and take this northbound to Dostoyevskaya. From there it's just a short, ca. 5 minutes' walk, past the grand Army Theatre (leaving it to your left), then cross the road and head north on Ulitsa Sovietskoy Armii. With its two tanks flanking the entrance and the big silver ICBM standing outside it's impossible to miss the museum.
Opening times: Wednesdays to Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Admission: 250 RUB (students etc. 150 RUB).
Audio-guide in English: 400 RUB, combination ticket (admission & audio-guide): 600 RUB. If you don't know any Russian, it's advisable to make use of these audio-guides, since all texts and labelling in the exhibition are almost 100% in Russian only.
Time required: I spent about two hours in this museum. If you can read Russian and have a profound interest in all things military, then you could probably spend a lot longer in here. Otherwise rather less than two hours may well suffice.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Moscow
The museum combines best with either the Gulag History Museum
, a ca. 15 minutes' walk south, or the new Jewish Museum
, a similar distance to the north-west. You'd be hard pressed trying to do all three museums in a single day, though (and due to only partially overlapping opening times that would only be theoretically possible on certain days, like Wednesdays or Thursdays).
When I went to the Armed Forces Museum I tried to combine it with the Tapan Museum at the new Armenian centre and church round the corner to the north-east. But when I got there I found the museum was closed for refurbishment. So I can't say anything about what its contents might be and whether they include any dark aspects (it's quite likely though, as there was a monument outside commemorating the Armenian genocide
Not really dark as such, but also with a Soviet military association is the huge and impressively-proportioned Army Theatre opposite Dostoyevskaya metro station that you pass en route to/from the museum. The shape of the building, its footprint, is that of a five-pointed Soviet star!
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
There isn't much for mainstream tourism in this part of Moscow
– except perhaps for literature fans: the Dostoyevsky Apartment Museum celebrating this author's life is just to the west of the Army Theatre on (naturally!) Ulitsa Dostoyevskogo (at No. 2). Otherwise head back to the centre of the city.
- CAFM 01 - front
- CAFM 02 - Kursk memorial to the side of the museum
- CAFM 03 - tank in front of the museum
- CAFM 04 - more tanks in the rear
- CAFM 05 - artillery
- CAFM 06 - yet more gear on open-air display
- CAFM 07 - boat and missiles
- CAFM 08 - ICBM outside the museum
- CAFM 09 - entrance
- CAFM 10 - Lenin overlooking the foyer
- CAFM 11 - into World War 1
- CAFM 12 - trench warfare
- CAFM 13 - old-school exhibition halls
- CAFM 14 - Soviet glory and Soviet truck
- CAFM 15 - Operation Barbarossa
- CAFM 16 - the medical side of war
- CAFM 17 - red cross doggie
- CAFM 18 - Nazi helmet with holes
- CAFM 19 - skull helmet
- CAFM 20 - skull tankard
- CAFM 21 - Irrglaube
- CAFM 22 - red Soviet fist
- CAFM 23 - acknowledgement that other nations were involved too
- CAFM 24 - concentration camps section
- CAFM 25 - Holocaust
- CAFM 26 - victory in Berlin
- CAFM 27 - victory and war trophy
- CAFM 28 - amassed iron crosses
- CAFM 29 - ecstatic
- CAFM 30 - victorious Stalin
- CAFM 31 - all his successors
- CAFM 32 - Atomic Age
- CAFM 33 - model of the Tsar Bomba
- CAFM 34 - Sakharov hat
- CAFM 35 - shot-down U2 spy plane wreck
- CAFM 36 - nuclear deterrent
- CAFM 37 - model of an ICBM silo
- CAFM 38 - Chernobyl
- CAFM 39 - chemical weapons disposal
- CAFM 40 - Afghanistan
- CAFM 41 - the Kursk tragedy
- CAFM 42 - items salvaged from the Kursk
- CAFM 43 - plane wreck pieces from 2015
- CAFM 44 - emergency kit for pilots
- CAFM 45 - modern wars
- CAFM 46 - old-school Soviet glory
- CAFM 47 - Army Theatre at Dostoyevskaya metro station