Grand Model of Russia
2014-07-15 | Text: Evgeniy Nikolaev | Photo ©: Evgeniy Nikolaev | 8798

If you live in a large country, it is practically impossible to form a complete mental picture of it, with all its scattered natural features and cultural spaces. In everyday life each citizen replaces the image of the country with an image of his own hometown, supplemented by scattered observations made while traveling, or by information gathered from books. This means that he knows the country he lives in – the country with which his future is tied – very poorly.  Today we will tell you about a unique project, one that in many respects removes these issues. This project is the museum Grand Model of Russia, where Russia is presented as a miniature composite model. Painstaking craftsmanship and attention to detail make this model a true work of engineering art.  We will talk with Sergey Morozov, the author of this project.

– Sergei Borisovich, how did you get the idea to create a museum like the Grand Model of Russia?

It was a sudden realization, though there were various reasons I came to that realization. There was a time when I traveled abroad a lot and saw how they organize tourist attractions. This is the classic set-up:  as part of a group a tourism follows a tour guide, like a donkey following a carrot, and does what they tell him to: “You need to photograph this over here, you need to eat here, you need to look over there.” But in St. Petersburg we didn’t have a contemporary take on classical museums.  From a business point of view this was a missed opportunity, and I understood that you could make money on it.

On the other hand, I saw with a heavy heart what happened when the Soviet Union collapsed. People have different opinions about the USSR, but it’s a fact there were a lot of good things about the Soviet Union – it had some fundamental values, many of which, unfortunately, we’ve lost. There was a feeling that values were collapsing; nothing united people anymore; no one felt the country anymore. Because of bad roads, poor service, a lack of hotels, and many other reasons, few people think of traveling through their own country. I know many European capitals better than I know Russian cities. This seemed wrong to me, and I wanted to revive in interest in Russia as a whole.

Finally, I have a son who’s always sitting at the computer. Tearing him away from it by force seemed like a bad move, so I wanted to do something that would amaze him and capture his imagination.

And so this project was born through some symbiosis of different factors. At the same time I understood that since I’m not a government figure or the owner of a major corporation, the project would have to, as a minimum, be able to pay for itself.

I gave myself a practically impossible mission – I wanted the museum to be interesting to everyone: to a three-year old, to a ninety-year old, to a man, a woman, a bureaucrat, an athlete, a soldier, a teacher, a foreigner, a Russian… That’s how I got the idea of making the model a work of art, with its own artistic meaning, and gripping, like a game or a movie.

– Are there models like this anywhere else?

There are a few. The largest in area is the one in Hamburg. Ours is the second largest, but then it is located in a separate building with its own adjacent premises. There’s also a model in Berlin, but it’s half the size of ours.

“Russia in Miniature” in Grand Model of Russia’s interactive museum occupies a considerable 800 square meters.

– How did you begin carrying out the project?

Modeling is most highly-developed in German. One in ten people is interested in railroad modeling over there, and that’s on the order of 8 or 9 million people. That’s why the best firms in model production are German. When we set ourselves our first tasks, we looked at what modeling paraphernalia these firms had, and we selected what could be of use to us. We prepared our first stuff in our workshop. Inside the workshop our first overall plans for the structure appeared, though it was impossible to draw up an exact blueprint of the entire mode. It’s probably like how it’s impossible for artists to draw up blueprints of their pictures. The model I had in my mind was dynamic: something had to move, to blink – I wanted to show people the country in a way that was as interesting as possible. 

– What did you emphasize when working on the model?

Fighting for the minds of grown-ups, as I know from my own experience, is pretty much pointless. People at that age don’t draw conclusions; they don’t want to change. To stand up for our nation, we need to fight for the coming generation, and they should understand from the beginning that our country is a single whole. One of our goals was making sure that the model was a single whole, and not made up of pieces. The railroad gave us this link. The child gets the feeling that one train goes from the Northwest to the Far East. And this sticks in the child’s head. Russia should stay in his memory as an enormous country, as a whole that can’t be taken and divided up, and our children should start understanding this from childhood. How can you love and respect what you don’t even know? Imagine that today’s boys go serve in the army, with the possibility that the will have to give their lives, without even realizing that. It’s not right.

In a few cases we resorted to exaggeration and pointed simplicity. I wanted any parent, no matter what his social status or level of education, to be able to look at the model and tell a story or explain something to his child. “Look, here’s a helicopter doing flying-crane work. And there people are gathering mushrooms. And here a mechanic is fixing his car.” In a case like that the parent can feel needed, and the child starts to respect the parent because the parent knows something. Here we have a lot of things that can teach or pass on life experience.  At the same time, if the child sees how well-done the model is, then when he becomes a clothing designer, let’s say, or an automaker, he’ll do his job well, too, because in childhood he saw something good and of high-quality. I believe that our model should be an example of something done well.

In large part our display consists of two cities – St. Petersburg, because that’s where the model is located, and Moscow, because that is the capital of our motherland. The remaining cities and regions are composites. There are 2,500 cities in Russia, and it’s impossible to show them all in the model.  If we did some cities and not others, what would that mean? That people in those cities don’t matter? That’s why from the very beginning we wanted to send a message: don’t look for your city or region – you need to look for something else. I tried to convey the spirit of Russia as I see it today. The model is art, and art should amaze people, should give them something. The model is hundreds of little scenes from our everyday life, often done with humor. Here they’ve turned over a Moskvitch [translator’s note: a make of Russian car] and now they’re fixing it; here are people going for a dip in a hole in the ice; here’s a devil from the works of Gogol skipping running through a graveyard. It seems to me that everything you can think of – everything that people do – is in the model in one way or another. This is what I wanted to show – how people work, study, marry, live, rest, and even die.

– So the model is in reality a collection of little stories, and all of it was personally put together by you?

I manage the model from the first moment down to the very last; not a single piece of it was done without my knowledge, though the craftsmen, of course, have a certain level of freedom. I say ahead of time what has to appear on a given part of the model – what kind of building, what kind of people, what should be going on. So like a director, I tell them what I want to see. But then how many human figurines we need is something the modeler and I decide together. In order to produce something that will satisfy me, half the time work already done has to be done over. My job as boss is to see imperfections. Everyone says:  “Morozov is nit-picky – he only sees the bad.” But I notice the good, too, it’s just that it’s important to see the bad so that you can get rid of it.

– How did you put together a team to realize your concept?

Originally I had my eye on one very good modeler – a wonderful person with a golden touch and a college-level education in technology.  He once made me an incredible collection of twenty model ships. He was my first employee. Then we got a second – a radio-electric engineer. As befits a scientist, he’s a little bit “not of this world” in everyday life, but he knows integrated circuits inside and out. He was the one I gave the first work to. I should say that before this I had no experience at all in model-making, and I also didn’t understand what I needed to do and how. I only saw intuitively what had to happen.

Electrical engineers. Thanks to them everything lights up and moves.

We gradually began to attract new employees. My mistake was thinking that you need to enlist people who know a lot about railroad modeling. I thought that they would do everything and it would be easier to talk to them. It took half a year to understand that the only way of building the model was to get rid of them all. As soon as I did that, things took off. To explain why, I’ll give another case. When the USSR collapsed and the first private restaurants started to appear, they didn’t take people from the Soviet public catering system, because the experience those people had was not right. 

At the service center they see to it that the model stays in fine working condition.

There’s no organization that trains model-makers. Of course, they teach model-making in architectural schools, but the specifications there are different. For that reason we simply started to look for talented people. And they came to use from all kinds of fields. We took on people who didn’t even have any work experience – boys and girls who had finished vocational schools with degrees in craftsmaking. We trained them ourselves, in a more intuitive way. I and technical director, Maksim Stanislavovich Ivantsov, and I took care of this.  The electricians were taken care of by our inventor – Vladimir Valentinovich Arapov.

When the casinos started closing down, that freed up a lot of engineers, mechanics, and electricians who used to do maintenance and repair work on slot machines. Some of them came over to us. The turnover in staff was, of course, pretty high, but now it’s gone down to a minimum. Electricians generally settle in pretty well, though modelers don’t always stay around for long.

– Why?

It’s all very simple. In our country almost no one wants to work – no one wants to go to work day in and day out – no one wants to do something systematic. They want adventures and problems. I’ve been to Japan three times, and in my view it’s the last bastion of order on the planet. A groundskeeper who keeps things clean – he’s more than a groundskeeper. He doesn’t swing a broom; he provides order on the piece of the universe that has been entrusted to him, and he cannot allow himself to do this badly – he’d be ashamed of himself. When you look him in the eye, you see how important it is to him. He has the same air of seriousness that a Japanese leader would have when signing a document on the transfer of the Kuril Islands.  Since I was a child they’ve been telling me about thе Japanese economic miracle. But there really isn’t one – it’s just that everyone there puts some elbow grease into it. The Japanese are willing to do the same exact job every day. And we don’t have that in Russia.  But then again, here we have second-rate, uninteresting, mediocre work. 

On top of that, our people have forgotten how to be responsible. In the Soviet Union there was even a law against technical failures – they were called “workplace crimes” right out. We get upset when we hear that one of our rockets didn’t take off, or a plane crashed, or an apartment building collapsed… And in many cases a person is to blame. For example, I had a head of the boiler room who ruined a boiler – it exploded. I reprimanded him, and he gets up, slams the door, and walks out. I mean, the feeling of responsibility is completely gone – it just doesn’t exist. You can jump a fence, act rude, not let someone by – people have no responsibility for their own behavior, for themselves, for the work that they do. No one’s ashamed to make junk.

Creating the landscape begins with setting up wooden scaffolding over the entire model. This scaffolding makes up the tentative outline of the future surface. Next a layer of plaster of Paris is applied to a metal grid. Once the plaster of Paris has hardened, it is shaved down and puttied until the desired landscape takes shape. Next decorators begin work on the final look. They get a helping hand from ingenuity. For example: to create the impression of thick grass, they use an electromagnetic field, which enables them to make the blades of grass grow vertically. All told, one square meter of the model’s surface takes a specialist about one month to complete. 

– How did you get financing for the project?

The project is completely commercial. There was no outside funding at all. My small businesses – a tourism agency and an antiques shop – were the source of investment money. Because of this they were drained out, completely bled dry. Only am I able to start paying them some attention. They’re all still in business, though – nothing went under, and I kept everything afloat. Now the museum project, even though it was only on the side at first, is becoming the main thing.

– Looking at the model, it impresses you with its vitality. How did you manage to do this?

Strange as this may be, the main reason is that it isn’t surrounded by glass. Many people tell me that I should put glass around it, because visitors are constantly breaking something. But if I didn’t do this earlier, then, believe me, it was for a definite reason. As soon as we put up a plexiglass barrier, the model will become architectural. It will lose its vitality.

The second reason is that little cars move along the model. We developed the mobility system ourselves, and no one else on earth has anything like it. When the Germans saw it, they were ecstatic.

– You say that visitors often break parts of the model. Do you get anything positive from interacting with them?

For me the hardest and most unexpected thing of all was how museum visitors behave. A good, well-mannered person doesn’t leave behind a trace of his visit. There are a fair number of people like that, but then there’s an entirely different category of people… What do you think the young ladies who work here as curators and administrators go through the most? Mild sedatives. They are driven to hysterics by grown-up men who come in – with their wives and children – and cuss them out for the simple request to hand over their backpacks in the cloak room! They claim: “You’re violating my personal rights and you want to steal something from my backpack.” People are incredibly mean. It’s amazing how they are unwilling to comply even with basic, completely reasonable rules.

That’s how people are being brought up today. I’m shocked when I see the things that are going on in St. Petersburg. To me it’s outrageous that people get into fountains and climb onto statues to be photographed. When I was a kid, in Letniy Sad [translator’s note: an important public park in St. Petersburg] there was a twenty-centimeter-high fence, but for me it could have been a line around a minefield; I understood that you just couldn’t go over there. Now people feel like this about fences: if you can get over it, then it’s not a fence at all.

In our museum a lot of people act exactly the same way. We were forced to install an alarm system, which is continually blaring, but even it doesn’t help. There are plaques placed everywhere, but people don’t read them and keep trying to spoil the model. I can’t say that people from this or that city are wilder or ruder. All of society’s becoming like that, and to the same degree – unwilling to think, willing to consume, ready to think that democracy means being able to do whatever you want. They have elevated and overgrown egos, which always want to give themselves precedence over society’s norms.  

There are, of course, positive aspects, too. The guestbook is an important criterion for me. We go through one of them about every ten days. When I read comments, it often brings tears to my eyes. “Finally there’s a reason to live in this country.” “Now I can die happy.” “At least something in our country is done all right.” Things like that. There are a lot of comments like those, and they’re addressed to the entire team. That’s the highest praise for what we’ve done.

– How long did it take to realize the project?

About five years.

– So for a five-year period you were completely absorbed with the project?

Seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. There were times when I was so exhausted that I couldn’t fall asleep. If I left town, it was only on business. I lived and continue to live with the project every day, every hour, and I’m already pretty tired. That’s why I have this feeling – when I sense that I’ve reached a certain point, then I’ll finally take some time off. In spite of all this, these have been the happiest years of my life. Every day I have a new goal, and I try to accomplish it.

– Can you tell us about some engineering solutions in your model that you’re proud of?

We were the first ones in the world of modeling to make use of LED-lighting for the day/night system. Originally we had the idea of making the light burn very evenly. It was insanely expensive, but we did it by installing a half-million LED lights on the ceiling and 300,000 on the floor of the model.

Second  – we have railroad turntables. That means one train goes in, turns, and another goes out. German models don’t have those. And then we have a flying saucer that levitates using a system of electromagnets – it spins, shines, blinks its little lights. It gets its electricity remotely through electromagnetic induction. Seems like it would be elementary, but in reality it took some pretty serious technical solutions.

Our main achievement was something that I’ve already mentioned – the smart-system that moves the cars. Let’s take the model in Hamburg. How do its cars move? They move according to a predetermined program. They stop only in strictly assigned places – those have stop-magnets.  To make turns they use special switches. The cabs of the cars have little antennae to charge the batteries. When the battery gets low, the car drives under the model and stops in a certain spot. When they charge, the contact produces sparks, which creates a risk of fire. 

On the other hand, from the very beginning we set up remote charging using electromagnetic induction. A bus, let’s say, comes up to the bus stop, and while it’s stopped there, it charges. Later on we completely got rid of the batteries. We did that by developing a system in which the car is fed power from under the model by electromagnetic induction. In theory, the car could drive around the model forever. It wouldn’t even need to go away to be charged – it’s always there where everyone can see it. At the same time it has infrared guidance, which means it drives around, all the while giving off a signal and getting signals from other cars. If a car’s getting close to another car, they can slow down or stop completely – in any place at all. Where the German cars have one speed, ours have seven or nine. That takes colossal know-how.

Our cars are a little similar to fish in an aquarium – they can’t go outside the aquarium, but inside the aquarium they behave independently. The switches on the model move randomly, meaning that the cars never move the same way twice. So the cars never pass through a given place twice with exactly the same speed, at a certain time, in a certain order. While they’re moving they even turn on their turn-signals, headlights, and taillights. Sometimes they collide, but wrecks are extremely rare.

By the way, our switches are much smaller than the ones the Germans have, use one-twentieth the energy, and are cheaper to produce. That’s why when I give interviews, I often joke that we’re keeping up an age-old Russian tradition – putting shoes on foreign fleas. [Translator’s note: a reference to “Levsha”, or “Leftie”,  a classic Russian short story by Nikolai Leskov. In it Russian craftsmen outdo their foreign rivals by putting tiny metal boots on toy flea.]

When the owner of one German company saw our system, he put his hands to his face and uttered: “I don’t believe my eyes – it can’t be!” But we had made it. There’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world – that I can say for certain.

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