First woman in space turns 75

woman in space Valentina TereshkovaLast week, Russia marked the 75th birthday of Russian space pioneer Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. In 1963, Tereshkova orbited the earth 48 times in three days, logging more flight time than all the previous American astronauts combined, and becoming the first and only woman to travel solo in space. Before launching into space, Tereshkova exclaimed, “Hey, sky, take your hat off!” The US space program would not send a woman into space for another 20 years, when Sally Ride flew as a crew member on the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Tereshkova later married another cosmonaut, held several of the highest offices in the Soviet Union, and is revered as a hero among women and Russians. Inspired by Ms. Tereshkova? You can go inside the Russian space program this fall for a cool $14,000.

[Photo courtesy Martin Addison via Wikimedia Commons]

Soviet Yerevan

soviet yerevan

The architectural influence of the Soviet years cannot be missed in Yerevan. Two examples in particular viscerally embody the grandiose massive-scale drama associated with Soviet architectural projects: the Armenian Genocide Monument and the 50th Anniversary of the Soviet Armenia monument. The latter can be reached from central Yerevan via the Cascade stairway.

The Armenian Genocide Monument at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial Complex is moving and stark. The monument consists of a tall spire next to 12 enormous slabs of rock positioned in a tilted form around an eternal flame. With ghostly music playing on a loop in the background, the site is a powerful, emotionally-laden place of remembrance. The broad plaza around the monument is so big that it could easily accommodate hundreds of visitors simultaneously and not feel full. The monument dates to 1967.

The monument’s starkness has nothing on the neighboring museum, however, which documents the harrowing genocide of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman soldiers across Anatolia from 1915 through the early 1920s. The museum approaches its tragic subject matter in an extremely methodical manner, listing the regions where Armenians were killed and in what numbers, and providing various forms of documentation of Armenian cultural life during the era in question. Entry to the museum is free.soviet yerevan

The Cascade leaves a less troubling impression. If the Genocide monument is irrevocably painful, the Cascade is joyful, utilized more or less as a park. An enormous terraced staircase, the Cascade connects central Yerevan with the Monument to the 50th Anniversary of Soviet Armenia. Construction on the Cascade began in the 1970s, and the stairway’s development has stopped and started a few times. Currently, the Cafesjian Center for the Arts is housed within it.

The Monument to the 50th Anniversary of Soviet Armenia towers above the Cascade. It is visible at the top of the image above. The monument has three features of note: a stone column, a low-lying rectangular building, closed to visitors, and a massive landing with great views over Yerevan. Cursory research has revealed that this monument was never completed. Today it towers over the city, commemorating Armenia’s tenure as a republic of the Soviet Union prior to independence.

These monuments are interesting and significant places for grasping Armenia’s recent past and current presence. They are essential stops for any visitor to Yerevan.

Check out other stories in Gadling’s Far Europe and Beyond series.

Museum of Socialist Art to open in Bulgaria

Socialist art, BulgariaA Museum of Socialist Art is opening next month in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. The museum exhibits statues of Lenin, paintings of Bulgarian Communist Party leaders, and other artwork from Soviet times.

The former Eastern Bloc country is the last such nation to open a museum to its totalitarian past. The socialist government fell in 1989 and Bulgaria had its first free elections the following year.

Not all vestiges of the past are sitting in museums. Many of Bulgaria’s current ruling elite were members of the old regime, and the last-minute name change from “Museum of Totalitarian Art” to “Museum of Socialist Art” is making some Bulgarians question just what the purpose of the museum is.

I worked in Bulgaria as an archaeologist in 1994, and the country was full of Soviet art. With the economy bottoming out, grannies set up stalls in the streets to sell old medals, uniforms, and busts of Marx for next to nothing. If only I had bought more than a few mementos, I could make a bundle on eBay! Most people were glad the old regime was gone, but the dire state of the economy had many people questioning the value of a free market system. I haven’t been back in more than a decade. Can anybody out there tell me how the majority of Bulgarians feel about the transition more than a decade on?

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. This Soviet stamp from 1969 commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Socialist Revolution in Bulgaria. The text says, “The friendship between the Soviet and the Bulgarian people- indestructible for eternity.”]

Dive Communist plane off the coast of Bulgaria

dive communist planeFish are pretty and shipwrecks are cool to explore, but how would you like to dive a

Communist airplane in the Black Sea? A 1971 Soviet-made Tupolev-154 was submerged this week off the coast of Bulgaria to create an artificial reef for SCUBA divers. Orlin Tsanev, chairman of Black Sea Dive Odesos association, told Reuters: “The submerging of the plane aims to make it an attraction and (a place) for training divers.”

Made for former Bulgarian Communist ruler Todor Zhivkov, the plane’s engines and interior were removed and the body of the aircraft is now 22 meters deep, making it the largest plane underwater in the world. The plane has been grounded since 1999 but once also carried Communist leaders such as Fidel Castro. Zhivkov’s private yacht was previously purchased for cruises on the Danube River.

The new dive site is located near the resort town of St. Konstantin and Elena, just north of Bulgaria’s “summer capital” of Varna. Read more about travel in Varna here.

Photo courtesy AP

Warsaw, Poland: an up-and-coming European museum destination

European museum destination
As an EU member with a good exchange rate and low prices, Poland is becoming a popular tourist destination in Eastern Europe. Most of the love goes to Krakow, with its original architecture and “new Prague” charm, but capital city Warsaw has plenty to offer as a European museum destination. While much of the old town was leveled in World War II, the restorations have been painstakingly done and the tumultuous history makes for a great basis for museum exhibitions.

Like Berlin, Warsaw has embraced its past and given the visitor plenty to learn from and new investments mean state-of-the-art attractions and exhibitions.

Given all of the places to see, Warsaw could easily fill a week (or two) on a Europe trip. Here’s a look at some of Warsaw’s best museums.
Only-in-Warsaw

Warsaw (Up)Rising Museum – Warsaw’s proudest museum is a hi-tech interactive experience detailing the events of the two-month rebellion of the Polish people against the German forces as well as what preceded and followed. It borders on being overly comprehensive, the hundreds of artifacts can overwhelm, as can the crowds who line up daily. Be sure to follow museum signs as you walk through, as the chronological exhibit doesn’t necessarily follow the logical path.

Gestapo Headquarters and Pawiak Prison – Two of the city’s most unassuming buildings were once the most feared. Not as flashy as the Rising Museum but equally effective, the former Gestapo HQ contains a few stark cells that once held prisoners to be interrogated and often tortured before being taken to the prison, along with very professionally-done interactive displays telling the experiences of the poor souls held there. Most of the prison in the former Jewish ghetto has been destroyed, but dozens of artifacts and exhibits explain the prisoners’ conditions and attempt to describe the horrors that happened there.


Fryderyk Chopin Museum – Another hi-tech, multimedia extravaganza, this brand new space dedicated to Poland’s most famous composer goes beyond the usual exhibition with a fully customizable experience. Sample sounds from a rare score, read letters to the important women in Chopin’s life, and see a recreation of his Paris drawing room.

Palace of Culture and Science – Not so much a museum as a gift Warsaw can’t hide away, the tallest building in Poland was a gift from Joseph Stalin and it’s hard to go anywhere in the city without seeing the Soviet beast. Though the building is enormous, not much of it is open to the public. It’s worth a trip to the terrace for panoramic city views (see above photo) or spend an afternoon making sense of the bizarrely curated Museum of Technology.

Want more history? There are also museums dedicated to the Polish People’s Movement and Polish Independence, plus the many churches and monuments of the restored Old City and Krakowskie Przedmiescie street. Warsaw’s Jewish culture is also well-documented at the new Jewish Museum and Wola district historical museum.

Well-done in Warsaw


Center for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle – A few blocks away from the Gestapo Headquarters, the building has a history as a royal residence, medical hospital, and now modern art museum. Some of the most innovative artists in Poland and Europe are showcased here: November saw a show focused on Internet-shaped culture such as a scrolling display of Twitter results for the phrase “Best day ever.”


Warsaw Zoo – In addition to being a nicely-maintained habitat for animals, this zoo has a fascinating and heroic past. Diane Ackerman’s book The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the story of the zoo director who aided in war efforts and saved many Jewish Poles from the Nazis by hiding them in the animal cages.


Royal Castle and Wilanow Palace – Just outside the Old City, the Royal Castle was also rebuilt from scratch and houses a slew of antiques and artwork, as well as excellent temporary exhibitions such as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” and other treasures from other museums. If you visit in good weather, it’s worth a day out of town to visit the grand Wilanow Palace and gardens, the Polish Versailles.

Not exhausted yet? Small museums also specialize in collections of cars, trains, military weaponry, horse-riding, caricatures, and Polish physicist Marie Curie. See the In Your Pocket Warsaw guide for more info.