A History of Violence: Petersburg Museum of Arms

Photo by: Richard Forsey

With Saint Petersburg being the seat of Russia’s Navy, as well as boasting the amazing Peter and Paul Fortress, it’s a no-brainier to visit a museum dedicated solely to the weapons of Russia. Located humbly between the mighty Peter and Paul Fortress and the cluster of buildings that includes Velikan Park, the Baltic House, and the Leningrad Zoo, lies this three story behemoth that is the Military-Historical Museum of Artillery, Engineer and Signal Corps.

Upon entering the gates of the complex, you will find yourself surrounded by a myriad of a vehicles and cannons, ranging from simple field cannons to hulking missile-bearing trucks.  On some days, there are special displays of the hardware: for example, a small military gathering, wherein an old tank is brought back to life, then started and driven around the grounds–by soldiers in period uniforms of the Second World War.

While one can easily spend a good amount of time outside looking at the hardware, it is inside that the museum really unfolds.  The first floor features an assortment of crossbows and swords from the tenth century to the end of the Tsarist era, as well as armour.  You’ll also find cannons and shells, which are not only immense in size, but unbelievably heavy—to think of the craftsmanship of the men who built such devices and the hardiness of those who operated them brings one to appreciate the times in which we live!

Several important historical battles are presented in the form of scale models, including the Battle of Borodino and the Storming of Kazan in 1552.  Stunning portraits and statues of historical figures bring you face to face with those who helped shape history, from tsars to generals.

If you pass through the small exhibit dedicated to the Second World War on the second floor, you will get to what will be for many the main attraction: the Kalashnikov exhibit.  Though housed in a rather modestly-sized room, this exhibition is dedicated entirely to the life and work of the creator of the AK-47 and other small arms designer Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov.  As well as featuring his most famous guns, there are a number of prototypes on display, including a fire fighting system based on his rifles, a curved barrel machine gun, and variations of his most famous guns with grenade launchers and other accessories attached.  You can also find on display gifts given to him by foreign dignitaries, and awards, such as the Award of Saint Andrew and Hero of the Russian Federation, which is the highest honorary title of Russia.

If you happen to be visiting the Kalashnikov exhibit between 3:30 and 4:30, you can even take part in a hands-on dis-assembly and assembly of the AK-74 assault rifle.  Though some would rather try out all of the guns at a firing range, the dis-assembly/assembly is a pretty good substitute, and an excellent opportunity to become intimately acquainted with the inner workings of this ubiquitous firearm.

The rest of the third floor continues the Second World War theme started on the second floor, before it gives way to a fascinating display of communications including telegraphs and radios.  Though most of the equipment is from the Soviet period, several of the pieces are interactive, allowing you to once again appreciate the simplicity of modern communications.

From here, you descend back to the first floor, where you can view a vast array of missiles and missile-carrying vehicles, along with sections on bunkers, bridges, and other feats of engineering.  There are, however, two small pieces which will immediately catch one’s eye, and those are the exhibits of dogs used during war.  Seeing a dog wearing a gas mask may seem comical, but it makes very clear how close the bond between man and his best friend is.

The museum does not, however, contain only Russian articles.  You may be surprised to find several pieces of German and American weaponry on display, as well as an American uniform decorated for service to the Soviet Union.  But when you consider the fact that history is the intertwined destinies of many nations, it makes perfect sense that one would find the very instruments, at least for comparison to their Russian counterparts.

What may be most interesting about the museum is to note the advancements made in weaponry during certain eras, most notably the Second World War and Cold War.  You can notice a clear uptick in the quality of technology during these difficult times, when Russians developed more advanced weaponry to better meet the demands of self-defense.  A lot of it is utilitarian and rugged in design, clearly designed for maximum effectiveness in battle, but there are some oddities which (probably) never came into full production–most notably Kalashnikov’s curved barrel machine gun!

While the museum is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, for the history buff, gun nut, or military aficionado, there is more than enough material here to keep you busy for the better half of the afternoon.  You can easily spend several hours there, which is a great value for the money.  The only drawback is that without a guide, the explanations of many exhibits (especially the Kalashnikov area) are sparse, and only available in Russian.  For a really fulfilling experience, it would definitely be worth hiring a guide.

The Military-Historical Museum of Artillery, Engineer and Signal Corps is located at park Aleksandrovskiy 7, and can be reached by a short walk from the Gorkovskaya Metro.  It is open Wednesday to Sunday from 11AM to 6PM, with tickets for foreigners going for 400 rubles (150 rubles extra for permission to take photos).  Guided tours can be booked at (812)-232-02-96.

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