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Fun isn't cheap in Gorky Park Amusement: Russians will typically spend the equivalent of a family's monthly income for a day at Gorky Park, the faded Moscow amusement park to which they flock.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MOSCOW -- A Disney experience it's not.

The roller coaster ride amounts to a 45-second once-around, its rusting superstructure scarier to look at than to ride. The public toilets cost as much as some rides -- more if you want toilet paper. And there's plenty of soda pop -- most of it Russian-style warm.

But Gorky Park is where the kid in everyone wants to be when Moscow turns green with spring.

The universal amusement park essence -- popcorn smells, the sweaty anticipation of flight, or speed, or fear, and that morning-after sensation of "where did all the money go?" -- is just as strong at this faded Soviet amusement park as it is at Busch Gardens or King's Dominion.

Even in this time of post-Soviet economic hardship, when millions of Russians are months behind in receiving wages, many still somehow carve a place in their budget for family fun.

As many as 40,000 people on a nice day stream into Gorky Park, easily spending a million rubles for entrance, rides and food. The equivalent of about $180, that's the average monthly income for a Russian family.

"The cost of this in no way corresponds to what I earn. This is expensive for us. I only make $200 or $300 a month," said Vera Rusakova, 42, a clerk who had brought her 8-year-old, Galina, with her recently.

Halfway through her first day ever at Gorky Park, Galina was goggle-eyed with excitement, pronouncing the family binge as worth every ruble.

But this is no momentary lark, explained her mother; it's a long-planned, special occasion.

And the Rusakovas, like thousands of others with an old-fashioned non-Western approach to special occasions, were dressed handsomely. Despite the hot hike a day in Gorky can be, women often wear high heels and hosiery and maybe even a sequined outfit; men often wear suit jackets and sometimes ties, and children are often stuffed into their starched Sunday school best.

Rusakova paid 30,000 rubles for admission for two. Most rides cost between 3,000 and 30,000 rubles. But once in the park, she could not afford the separate admission fees for the parks within the park. For 75,000 rubles, a child can roam the Italian-built Luna Park and take its rides for two hours.

For 150,000 rubles each, the Rusakovas could enter the popular Miracle Town, where they could have unlimited rides on new German-built amusements.

"That's as much as my mother gets for her monthly pension," exclaimed Rusakova.

But Rusakova did pay for the steep 85,000-ruble ticket for a ride on Gorky's newest attraction: the Buran. It is an actual spacecraft from the Soviet space shuttle program, owned and operated by former cosmonauts and space program employees. The Buran is getting more use at Gorky than it did in space -- none of the fleet of Burans ever actually flew a manned mission.

While Rusakova stood waiting outside, Galina filed into the Buran along with 38 other passengers.

For 30 minutes, little Galina, who'd never even been on a Ferris wheel, was delighted by the Buran's touted "illusion of space."

However, veterans of Space Mountain would have mutinied.

The Buran "illusion" is this: Three surly stewardesses dressed in aluminum foil miniskirts toss a dried fruit bar and a plastic bag of orange juice in everyone's lap and then strap passengers into bucket seats. Mounted on pivots, the seats swivel about and jiggle with motel-style "Magic Fingers" vibrators. Videotape of views from outer space, loud hard rock music and an array of blinking strobe lights fitted with multicolored filters constitute the height of Russian amusement technology.

"We have to admit that people like the foreign attractions better because our technology lags behind American, Italian and German technology," said Tamara Gerasenkova, a Gorky spokeswoman.

Since the Soviet Union fell apart and foreign influences flooded Russia, Gorky's attractions have expanded with whole sections devoted to brightly painted, new German and Italian industrial-strength amusements like flying teacups and numerous gravity-defying contraptions, she said.

The park's first foreign roller coaster -- called American Hills -- was a perestroika-era concession to Western amusement superiority, and during the late 1980s it attracted long lines of eager thrill seekers, she explained.

These days, there's just a brief wait. American Hills stands like a mediocre carnival ride on an asphalt corner of the park, alongside Niagara, a roller coaster featuring splashing water, and a closed-up roller coaster called Silver Mine.

For 20,000 rubles, a rider gets to go around the several loops of American Hills, including one full circle.

Stepping off a spin around American Hills, Lena Chernashova, a 19-year-old university student, was visibly trembling, the pulse points at her neck bulging.

Was it worth 20,000 rubles?

"It wasn't worth it," she gasped, clinging to her boyfriend, Alexander Arkhipov, 30.

Arkhipov is unemployed, but he was paying for the day at the park. "It was great," he contradicted his sweetheart.

Like so many things in Russia, there's a sort of faded 1950s feel to Gorky Park.

Park signs are often crudely hand-painted; wherever there's paint, it's likely peeling or rubbed off altogether, and it's hard to tell if an attraction is boarded up and closed or just under repair.

But still, always in the air are the screams and laughter of happy customers. The glitz and glare of Western entertainment still hasn't completely spoiled the Russian taste for simple pleasures.

Many just come for a simple walk in Gorky Park, whose 300 acres of forest and many historic mansions were part of a czarist era hunting club "before ownership changed," explained Gerasenkova.

Revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin declared the picturesque spot on the Moscow River a place for the people to have fun, and officially named it "The Central Park of Culture and Rest in the Name of A. M. Gorky," the Soviet writer.

Once the initial 15,000 ruble price of admission is paid, there's plenty of free entertainment just watching.

Some don't pay at all. On a recent day, two teen-age girls were seen squeezing through the 12-inch space between fence posts, pausing to smooth down their miniskirts, comb their hair and touch up their lipstick. The amusement here, they said, was not rides but guys.

The new bungee jump attraction is wildly popular -- particularly among spectators. Few can afford the 400,000 ruble ticket to the top of a multistory crane where, feet bound to an elastic cord, they plummet to within inches of a pond. But thousands stand beside the pond to watch.

One recent day, a teen-age girl unintentionally teased the hooting crowd for a half-hour while she tried to regain the nerve she lost when she looked out over the edge of the crane. She finally jumped in tandem with the ride operator. And grandmothers, parents and babies in strollers clapped, happy with the thrill of Gorky Park.

Pub Date: 5/27/97

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