Skittles, the Russian way

This article originally appeared as a blog in Russia! magazine in the summer of 2013. Since then a couple of small adaptations have been added to this text.

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A gorodki player launches into action in a Moscow park.

It was a favored pastime of Tolstoy and Gogol – and now the traditional Russian game of “Gorodki” is making a comeback. As Moscow’s parks continue their transformation, Bauman Gardens is now home to a court for this form of Slavic skittles.

Like any good game, the basic idea is simple – a handful of targets, dubbed ‘gorodki’, or townships, are lined up, the player takes a big stick and has two throws (from up to 13m, depending on which rules apply) to scatter them beyond the ‘gorod’ or city sketched out on the ground. It could almost be 10-pin bowling, but with a low-flying missile replacing the rumbling ball of doom. Except, of course, there’s a catch. Even once you’ve picked up the knack of getting your stick to skim into its target (those gorodki are stumpy things, just 20cm high, and you get no points for passing overhead), you need to combine sufficient power and accuracy to push them out of the 2x2m bounds of the ‘gorod’. Knocking them over isn’t enough. Pros, as seen in action here perfect a ‘dive-bomb’ technique, aiming to have their stick land just in front of the target, bouncing up and scattering the pins in all directions.

At its most complex, the game involves differently-shaped targets, constructed out of those gorodki. These were mostly codified in the 1920s when the Soviets sought to turn a popular proletarian entertainment into a competitive sport, and their symbolic recreations of cannons, shooting ranges and the like perhaps reflect the recent and painful memories of World War I and the post-revolutionary Civil War. The ‘star’ and ‘sickle’ formations clearly need no ideological introduction.

The game’s Soviet-era peak saw about 350,000 registered players, many of whom were part of official teams competing in a national championship (the likes of Spartak, ZiL and Serp I Molot (Hammer and Sickle) were regular title-winners, back in the day). However, in the backwash of perestroika and the confusion of post-Soviet life gorodki dropped out of public view except for a few surviving venues, including one near the Krylya Sovietov stadium in the east of Moscow. In the summer of 2013 a new initiative, backed by newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti, aims to bring the city’s parks and courtyards to life with the clunk of flying wood. Weekend sessions at Bauman Gardens are just the start – the plan is to set up playing areas and distribute the necessary kits in other Moscow parks over the summer.

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Hitting the targets at a gorodki court.

Meanwhile, for those who can’t get along to try it for real, the game was also turned into an arcade machine back in the days when the USSR’s top computer scientists began to grapple with entertainment as well as technological advancement. You can play it here or visit the Museum of Soviet-era Arcade Machines at Kuznetsky Most to check out this blocky beauty.

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