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Originally published Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 6:15 AM

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Glitzy replaces grim at Moscow’s Gorky Park

Long a concrete repository of secondhand carnival rides, Moscow’s Gorky Park has been transformed over the past two years into one of the most extravagant, exuberant and excessive urban recreational spaces in a major world capital.

The New York Times

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MOSCOW — The runners and bikers arrive first, gliding along the bank of the Moscow River. Later come the legions of in-line skaters, parents pushing baby strollers, children on scooters, brides tottering on high heels.

But at 8 a.m., it is still quiet. Concession stands stock up on ice cream, corn on the cob, foil helium balloons.

Huge beanbag chairs, spread across the lawns, are empty.

A man-sized samovar stands sentry outside a cafe serving 36 types of tea. Then there is the prototype of the Buran space shuttle, fitting not just as a monument but also because visitors here, especially local Muscovites, seem to have landed in a happier galaxy.

This is Gorky Park, the Central Park of Culture and Recreation, and the day’s fun is about to begin.

“Davai, Yulia! Davai!” Sergei Kolosov cheers on his wife, Yulia Zaugolova, 32, as she lifts weights in a strength contest: “Let’s go, Yulia!”

Long a drab concrete repository of secondhand carnival rides, Gorky Park has been transformed over the past two years into one of the most extravagant, exuberant and excessive urban recreational spaces in a major world capital. Imprinted in many Western minds by the Soviet-era crime novel and film of the same name, Gorky Park celebrated its 85th anniversary in August. It is not just a park in the leafy retreat sense, but is also a psychic respite from the increasingly tense political pressures of modern Russia.

“You can have a rest after the city hullabaloo,” said Olga Sedoykin, who was in the park with her husband, Georgy, a dentist; 10-year-old daughter, Nastya, and 9-month-old son, Ilya. “It’s like an oasis.”

At 10:30 a.m., after Yulia struggled with the barbell, a different sort of endurance test was getting under way at the Pelman Cafe, named for the Russian dumplings called pelmeni: The first beers were on the table; the last would be served well after dark.

Beyond the gardens for strolling and the ponds for paddle boating, the park in its current form is instead an entertainment destination with more than a dozen restaurants, two dance platforms, an outdoor movie theater, and Garage, a buzzy modern arts center housing an exhibition hall and concert space.

There are basketball and tennis courts, and many pingpong tables, but the park also embraces extreme sports in a way that would thrill personal-injury lawyers in the West, with venues for skating, bicycle jumping, skateboarding, and the obstacle-course bounding of parkour and free-running. There is also beach volleyball (thanks to tons of trucked-in sand) and even pétanque, the French bocce, played nonstop outside a cafe that could have been imported directly from Provence.

The park is named for Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik writer and political activist who died in 1936. And in transforming it from the surly and stressed-out Russian capital, the country’s contemporary leaders seem to be echoing a Soviet strategy of making public spaces as grand as possible.

Mayor Sergei S. Sobyanin has an even bigger, multimillion-dollar renovation planned that will connect Gorky to several other parks for a greenbelt along much of the Moscow River.

“There were not enough benches,” said Yelena Kleymyonova, 55, who was lying on a double-sized wicker lounge chair with her companion, Valery Shishkin, 67. “Now it’s all different. No entrance fee. People can ride bicycles, and you can walk barefoot on the grass. It’s all so clean.”

In the evening, colorful lights come on in the central fountain. The crowds thin, but the park does not really begin to empty until midnight, when the fountain shuts off. Even then, crowds linger. The paths are well lit.

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