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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

A Day Out

Final Part: Circuits Close to Home
Text and photos by Ian Mitchell

The general answer to the problem of taking exercise is to find something you enjoy doing, then do it regularly. With cycling in Moscow, the key thing is to find a circuit you can take from your own front door, yet which is reasonably scenic, tolerable from a traffic point of view, and adequately surfaced.

Backfire bomber

After a lot of experimentation, I have found such a route. It runs from Novy Khimki into Stary Khimki then out into the forest beside the Moscow-Volga canal and on round, past the allotments at Ivakino, then back through the controversial Khimki forest (where they are building the new highway to St Petersburg) and on to the Leningrad Chaussee near IKEA and home. It is 24 kilometres of mostly well-paved road. Roughly a quarter is through Khimki (not an unattractive town), a quarter through the woods and fields nearby, a quarter through a dacha- suburb area and a quarter through the back end of the Khimki industrial park—which has its own interest and surprises.

A 26 km variant misses the last of these sections and instead takes me out to the airport and back along the Sheremetyevo highway, which is as pleasant to cycle on as the MKAD. A 30 km variant which starts on that road, though going in the opposite direction, but then carries on round the east end of the runways, past the north side of the complex (and the original, 1960s terminal) and returns to Novy Khimki after completing a full circuit of the whole airfield and returning through the peaceful 1950s dacha settlement at Podrezkovo. Finally, I can combine the first and third in a 35 km route. These circuits take from 60 to 90 minutes, depending on wind and traffic, which is enough that the lingering Calvinist in me can enjoy a guilt-free bath on a sunny Wednesday morning when all respectable people are hunched over their works-stations.

It was two years ago that I discovered, quite by accident, that the last of these routes goes past an unusual attraction. Part of the pleasure of cycling is the surprises which you would not notice driving past in a car. One of these lies just north of the east end of Sheremetyevo, on an area of concrete hardstanding which was presumably once part of the airfield.

Today it is outside the perimetre road and home to one of the more unconventional of the many fascinating “museums” in and around Moscow—in this case a range of old Soviet-era aircraft. There are perhaps twenty of them partly concealed behind a wall of trees. They range from a giant Ilyushin transport plane, through helicopters (some partly dismantled) and a selection of different Tupolevs to a “Backfire” bomber, as the supersonic, swing-wing, long-range Soviet nuclear strike aircraft was called by NATO. All are standing gathering pollution dust, next to a smaller collection of old Soviet mobile radar trucks.

Radar console from the Backfire bomber

I pulled my bike off the road and addressed the black-uniformed guard and his collection of large but ragged dogs, all on long rope leashes and barking at me in a hostile frenzy. 100 roubles did the trick and I was through the barrier.

Apart from the interest of getting up close to these impressive machines, there was also the fact that a static ladder had been drawn up next to the wing of a Tu-154 of the sort that brought the Polish President and his party to grief a year ago at Smolensk. The escape hatch at the base of the wing was open, so I climbed up, noticing how alarmingly easily the whole wing flapped up and down as I walked on it.

Inside, the seats had been taken out and it was possible to go for’rd to the cockpit, where the instruments seemed to be largely intact. On an old table in the main cabin was a collection of the original typewritten, cyclostyled operating manuals.

The Backfire bomber also had a ladder next it, and I climbed up and peered in at the cramped, two-man cockpit, from which the radar displays had been removed. Underneath, the bombbay was open, showing the area, not much bigger than two coffins laid end-to-end, which would have contained the nuclear weapon. Beneath this, abandoned on the tarmac, lay the battered radar receivers that had been removed from the cockpit.

Looking at the complexity of it all, and reflecting that every single part in all these planes had been separately specified, designed, machined, tested and installed by highly skilled but otherwise non-productive manpower, it struck me what a staggering waste of resources the Cold War represented, especially to a country like the Soviet Union, where most consumer goods were scarce and, latterly, often completely unavailable.

Later I checked the internet and discovered that, though the Backfire bomber was designed in the 1960s, and first flew in 1972, there are still 150 of these machines in service with the Russian armed forces. Why?


Wanting to update the information for this article, I recently stopped once again on this route and went in through the trees to have a look.

No dice. The rickety steel barriers had been crudely welded together, the dog squad reinforced, and the guard’s hut moved so far inside the fence that, despite waving wildly, I could not attract his attention. The lesson of life in Russia, as in all fluid situations, is to strike while the iron is hot: expect the unexpected, and don’t expect it to be there next time you call. I got in two years ago, but now could only look from the outside and shout ancient Gaelic curses at the enraged canine, nearly the size of a Shetland pony, which was leaping up and down with bared fangs in front of me as it zig-zagged back and forth on a travelling leash attached to a long transverse wire, like the safety line on the deck of a yacht, which gave it considerable freedom of movement.

The Tu-154

The open-doored Tupolev was gone, as was the Backfire bomber, though some new jets had arrived. I took a few pictures for the record, then cycled on round my circuit, stopping this time to look at the old Ilyushin four-engined turbo-prop (much like a Vickers Vanguard) which is mounted on a plinth opposite the now-redundant 1960s terminal.

It was a lovely, hot Sunday so I decided to meander off into the roads and factories behind, just to see what I could see. I passed the Aeroflot laundry building and many other Soviet-style installations, until I saw a narrow road which wound away into the trees. Just for the hell of it, I decided to cycle on. After perhaps half a kilometre, the wood opened out into a little clearing which contained—wonder of wonders!—a beautiful little church.

On a work-bench in the shade of the firs and oaks a couple of Tadjik workmen were recreating the mouldings for the cupola bases, using plaster of paris. Inside a christening was going on. The interior was exquisite, and the exterior rapidly becoming so. The grounds were still unkempt, which added to the Russian feel of the whole scene.

On the way back out, I looked for a sign, but there was nothing whatsoever to indicate that this fine little jewel of Orthodox architecture lay just a few hundred metres from the centre of Russian aviation and travel. But that is Russia for you: expect the unexpected. And if you go by bike you will find so much more of it than by any other method of travel. Happy cycling!

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