December 01, 2019

Moskvarium: Making a Splash at VDNKh

Moskvarium: Making a Splash at VDNKh
This is not your babushka's VDNKh pavilion.

One of the shiniest new additions to Moscow's giant Soviet-era park, VDNKh, Moskvarium is a one-building, completely indoors aquarium and oceanarium. The idea for an oceanarium at "Soviet Disneyland" started gestating in 2012, and it opened on August 5, 2015. The 600-meter-long main aquarium section includes underwater viewing areas of charismatic megafauna like beluga whales, killer whales – also known as orcas and actually dolphins, not whales – and dolphins.

The only polar bears at Moskvarium take creepy delight in your arrival.

This modern entertainment complex is not your babushka's Soviet-era VDNKh pavilion. When you enter, you are assaulted by multi-floor flashing video screens. Everything is bright and shiny, white walled, kid friendly, and accessible to people with physical disabilities. You can even track the traffic congestion inside the aquarium area by using Moskvarium's new virtual assistant, the French-named Pascal, a COVID-era innovation in physical distancing. The aquarium area can accommodate 1,200 humans at once and, at least before the pandemic, it felt like there were that many shrieking children bouncing from window to window.

Octopus at Moskvarium
Moskvarium's North Pacific giant octopus on the move with nowhere to go. 

Thankfully, there are no Soviet-era pricing schemes that force foreigners to pay more, as is still the case in some Russian museums. Still, Moskvarium is one of the more expensive attractions in Moscow: one adult ticket will set you back 950-1,100 rubles (about $15). That does not include the cost of the creatively titled "water show" featuring walruses, dolphins, belugas, and orcas (an additional 1,500-5,000 rubles per person, including babies). If you sit in the 5,000-ruble splash zone, your ticket comes with a raincoat – though this budget traveler does not know if you get to keep it or not.

The Russian word for orca is kosatka, and the world-famous American franchise SeaWorld once had an orca in its collection named Kasatka. Like SeaWorld's Shamu, Moskvarium also has a star killer whale, Narnia, along with two supporting cast members, Nord and Naya. Two of the three were introduced rather unceremoniously to Muscovites in 2013. Sight unseen, animal rights activists reported hearing odd splashing noises and the chirping vocalizations of orcas inside VDNKh, calling the police to investigate. An inquiry revealed that conditions in the temporary holding pools were reasonably humane, but how many laws and protocols for orca care were on the Moscow books? In their permanent indoor home, the orcas have three pools and multiple "quarantine zones" for medical treatment. The biggest pool, the show pool, is 14 meters deep, 50 meters long, and 30 meters wide.

Orca at Moskvarium
Move over, Shamu.

Moskvarium is proud that it has "no analogues either in Russia or Europe." But there is a very good reason for the latter fact: Western countries have been increasingly scaling back on large-animal spectacles like flipping orcas and circus elephants amid growing awareness of the unnatural conditions of large-animal captivity. In the U.S., the 2013 release of the documentary film Blackfish had such an economic impact that it forced SeaWorld to change its business model. Ironically, at the same time that Americans are backtracking on large-animal captivity, Russia is beginning to embrace the orca capture model popularized by North Americans in the 1960s. Despite the human delight that oceanaria and aquaria are designed to provoke, potential visitors should remember that it comes at a cost to the animals.

Gift shop at Moskvarium
An ironic and certainly unintentional juxtaposition in the gift shop reminds guests that in captivity, male orcas' tall dorsal fins flop over, but in the wild, they are usually as striking as those of great white sharks.

Visitors to Moskvarium should plan to spend an entire day. With the cost of your entry and show tickets, you have certainly earned the right to be there until closing time. Dining options range from ice cream carts and arena-style counters to a cafeteria and restaurant. Of course, there is a gift shop, called More Toys for the Russian word for sea, where you can take home an entire plush zoo. Plan your time at the underground aquarium carefully; your entry ticket to that section is one-time use only. There are a few snack bars within the paywall of the aquarium, so you will not go hungry. Anyone off the street can eat and shop at Moskvarium without buying a ticket. Fortunately, most of Moskvarium's website is in English, here, if you're interested in paying it a visit the next time you're in the area.

See Also

Shopping in Stalin's Paradise

Shopping in Stalin's Paradise

The All-Russian Exhibition Center (VVTs – formerly VDNKh, the Exhibition of Economic Achievement) is Russia’s answer to Mall America.
Vera Mukhina

Vera Mukhina

A look at the familiar, and not so familiar, work of a famous Soviet-era sculptor.
Cinema in the Round

Cinema in the Round

Before IMAX, before 3-D movies, there was Cinema in the Round. Come with us on a visit to the world’s longest functioning cinema of its type, where films are shown simultaneously on 11 massive screens.

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