Central Army, Moscow

Central Army Museum, Moscow

 The Central Museum of the Armed Forces is spectacular and quite different from the Armoury found in the Moscow Kremlin. Out at 129110 Moscow, 2, Ulitsa Sovyetskoy Armii; about 15 or 20 minutes north in a taxi (or Metro plus trolleybus) from central Moscow, it is strongly recommended for at least a half day’s visit. Take trolleybus 69 from the Novoslobodskaya Metro station, or trolleybuses 13 or 69 from the Tsvetnoy Bulvar Metro station.

Museum facade
The Central Museum of the Armed Forces in Moscow might have a plain vanilla facade but that belies the
wealth of colourful treasures inside and especially the pay-dirt around the back.

Army and Navy history

Established in 1919, but reorganised in the 1960s, the museum outlines the history of the Russian and Soviet Army and Navy since the 13th century. Entry costs 70 Roubles ($3.80 Aus in October 2008) and it may be visited between 1000 to 1700 Wednesdays to Sundays. (Confirm at www.cmaf.ru.)

There are better displays of medieval body armour and weapons in a couple of small salons in the more centrally located Kremlin Armoury, but the Central Museum’s brochure says they have more than 800,000 items in their collection, including hundreds of interesting weapons and weapon systems of the 20th and 21st centuries. The Kremlin armoury, on the other hand, has no significant modern weapons display.

T-34/85 tank guards the museum’s entrance.

 About 84,000 T-34 tanks were manufactured by the Russians. The T-34/85 model, particularly, with its much improved gun and four-man crew, was a most unpleasant surprise to German forces in 1943. German crews re-christened their anti-tank weapons “doorknockers.” All they did, they claimed, was to alert the T-34s that they were under fire as they simultaneously disclosed their own position.

Flanking the museum’s wide entrance is a WW II-era T-34 tank on one side and a 57 mm gun on the other. Off to the left is powerful-looking rocket. Inside, in a glass case, is the much-faded but historic red flag that was raised over the Reichstag in May 1945. In another salon relating to the Cold War resides a bundle of twisted metal, the remains of the Gary Powers covert photo-reconnaissance Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady shot down by a SAM-2 (S-75 Dvina) 1 May 1960 while conducting a CIA-sponsored reconnaissance mission over Sverdlovsk.

U-2 wreckage
Part of the wreckage of the Gary Powers Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady shot down in 1960.

Biggest surprise

But it is outside, around the back, that elicits the biggest jaw-drop. Row upon row of aircraft, tanks, artillery, missiles and other weapons all demand close inspection. The navy and air force are integral parts of many of the groups and there is even what looks like a well-worn fast motor boat with tank turrets mounted fore and aft. Another area has an interesting row of what looks like ex-destroyer turrets, complete with guns.

Fast Motor BoatSu27K
The outside display is awesome. A well-used fast motorboat (left) has what looks like tank gun turrets mounted
fore and aft. Across the aisle is a jumble of aircraft ranging from a much-weathered but amazing
Sukhoi SU27K Flanker Fleet Defence Fighter to jet trainers and helicopters of all persuasions.

Unfortunately, nearly all of the captions in the display, both inside and out, are written in the Russian language with the Cyrillic alphabet. Those of us not familiar with these hieroglyphics will find a Russian-speaking companion desirable, but certainly not essential. If you are lucky, or plan ahead, the museum might even supply an English-speaking guide at nominal cost. Winter storage? It is a pity that although all the tanks and guns look rugged enough to weather storm after storm for many years, the more delicate weapons that are also exhibited outside, like nearly all of the missiles, helicopters and aircraft, must have a survival problem if they are left exposed to the elements.

As the French found out in 1812 and the Germans confirmed in 1943, it snows with a vengeance in Moscow. If you really want to see the more delicate historic weapons in their relatively pristine state, maybe an early visit is preferable to one put off for a year or two.

Trolleybus etiquette

As an aside, if you are ever trapped inside the “red zone”, between the entrance door and the turnstile of a Moscow trolleybus, a handful of notes and coins won’t work. With no magic card that locals swipe to release the turnstile, even female bus drivers might launch a tirade of vitriolic abuse, but make no attempt whatsoever to take the proffered money. You can tell it’s abuse because the driver repeats the same Russian phrases over and over, getting louder and louder and redder and redder in the face as she gestures derisively at the door. Evidently it’s a heinous crime to stand in the red zone while the bus is in motion.

Trolleybus turnstile
The trolleybus turnstile and yellow ticket-swipe box.

Solution? Just follow the words and mime of fellow passengers. Hop the turnstile into the body of the bus. As one laughing passenger explained, in broken English, that it’s forbidden to ride in the red zone, but “OK jump turnstile, ever-body does”. The driver just smiled, shut up and drove on when I jumped the turnstile. (It’s rather high, be careful of the crown jewels.) The good-natured passengers in the overcrowded bus cheered and applauded. One attractive matron even stood up and laughingly offered me her seat. Perhaps she thought I might have damaged some vital equipment. The logical and legal alternative, of course, is to plan ahead and buy a ticket from a trolleybus booth.

Trolleybusses aside, when you are next in Moscow, do not hesitate to plan a visit to the Russian Central Armed Forces Museum.