Moscow tries to soften edges of storied park

MOSCOW — Sergei Kapkov remembers his disgust several years ago when he visited Gorky Park with his young son. The lawmaker hadn't set foot there since his own childhood and hardly recognized the place.
Russia's messy post-Soviet privatization had turned the city's premier green space into a warren of fenced-off fiefdoms — grubby kiosks, rickety amusement-park rides and shady businesses with a rowdy clientele. "All around us were drunks," he says. "It wasn't a park. It was a madhouse."
Mr. Kapkov, who left quickly that day, is back. The park is now his to oversee.
He is leading one of Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin's most ambitious projects, a multimillion-dollar makeover of dilapidated municipal parks, starting with a genteel invasion that has brought Wi-Fi, free yoga classes, trendy cafes and 56,000 tulips to Gorky Park's 270 acres along the Moscow River.
Gone are the wild rides, carnival shooting galleries and blaring Russian folk songs, banished over the protests of many park-goers. So are the gangsters who preyed on park vendors and waged real turf wars. Striped-shirted veterans whose drunken shenanigans on Paratrooper Day gave the park a bad name are still around, but they behaved this year, tamed by a ban on booze and free servings of watermelon.
Olive-clad security agents on bicycles keep order. Soft jazz wafts from loudspeakers. For the first time in the park's 83-year history, visitors don't have to pay to get in.
The transformation is part of an effort to meet rising popular demand for better public services and quality of life in a city of 11.5 million people where support for Russia's leadership is weaker than it is nationally. That makes the parks a political priority for the Kremlin-appointed mayor, whose tasks include delivering a big margin of votes for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's bid to return to the presidency in an election next March.
Mr. Sobyanin, a Siberian who was appointed mayor last October by President Dmitry Medvedev, is the kind of low-key technocrat Mr. Putin favors. The mayor has promised to distinguish himself from his predecessor by making the capital "more European."
Yuri Luzhkov, who ruled post-Communist Moscow for 18 years, was known for grandiose development projects and kitschy construction, often arranged under opaque contracts. Before he was deposed, he had planned to turn Gorky Park, already more alluring to clueless out-of-towners than to Muscovites, into a Disney-style theme park with high-rise hotels.
Those plans, too, are gone. The park is quieter, more accessible, less commercial. "Muscovites are coming back," Mr. Kapkov said during a golf-cart tour of the grounds. "This is an oasis where they can feel at ease."
The park's new iteration has high-level backers. One is Mr. Medvedev, who once mentioned how much he enjoyed London's Hyde Park. The overhaul plan jelled when Roman Abramovich, one of Russia's richest men, agreed this spring to restore Gorky Park's iconic Hexagon and make it the venue for his glamorous girlfriend's contemporary art gallery.
The mayor then asked Mr. Abramovich to take charge of the park. The billionaire investor declined but recommended Mr. Kapkov, who had run his foundation to promote youth soccer. Mr. Kapkov, a member of the ruling United Russia party, gave up his seat in parliament in March to become the czar of Gorky Park. He now oversees all city parkland as head of Moscow's Department of Culture.
He's moving quickly — too quickly for some critics.