Text and photos Ian Mitchell
Just as post-Imperial Vienna has its Palace of Broken Dreams, the Schonbrunn, so post-Stalinist Moscow has its own, VDNKh (pronounced ve-de-en-kha), or as it used to be called, the All- Union Exhibition of the People’s Economic Achievements. A visit to VDNKh conveys more about the 70-year Soviet experiment than a lifetime of reading about it would. The overall impression is of decay and shabby grandeur although around the edges of this formerly grand park there are vigorous signs of rebirth.
The Space Pavilion, which used to celebrate the achievements of one of the few sectors of the Soviet economy with a genuine claim to world standing, is now a plant and gardening-tools market. Outside of it, a Vostok rocket of the sort that took Gagarin into space still stands on a graffiti-covered plinth. Scruffy teenagers clamber over the rusting launch gantry as if it is nothing more than a convenient frame to test their physical prowess.
But everyone seems happy at VDNKh, a sprawling park dotted with exhibit pavilions, food vendors, and even a rollerblade rental. The atmosphere is carnivalesque, and VDNKh is a pleasant place for an outing if your taste leans toward wandering around poorly kept gardens and grubby but well-stocked mini-malls as music blares from lamppost-mounted speakers. In many Western cities such an atmosphere might feel threatening, or at least uncomfortable for anyone without a nose ring or eyebrow stud. But in Moscow it is business and pleasure as usual for family daytrippers, teens escaping parental supervision, Caucasian concessionaires and amusement park ride operators.
The main message of VDNKh is commerce. As we know, consumerism crushed communism, and today VDNKh is cash not collective farms, burgers not barley harvests, skateboards not space capsules. By the Fountain of the Friendship of Nations, there is genuine friendship between people of all sorts of nationalities, both from the near and far abroad. Of course, it was never meant to be like this: The purpose of VDNKh was to focus the national attention inward and not outward. The message was ”Look at us and our achievements! Why do we need the wicked West?”
Amazing as it may seem, this area was quiet countryside in 1935 when the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition (VSKhV) was established. In those days, Moscow ended at Sokolniki Park. The idea was to show to the public the methods and benefits of mechanized agriculture. The context is important.
Two years earlier, Stalin had won a war that he had told Winston Churchill in 1943 was more threatening to him than even the Nazi invasion. He was referring to the war against the 85 percent of the Soviet population that still worked the land, despite the crash industrialization program that had been in place since the inauguration of the first Five-Year Plan in 1928. The method of combat in this war was confiscation of peasant-owned land and forced conversion of the inhabitants into state or collective farmers. Those who resisted were, in effect, starved out. The 1933 famine in Ukraine and southern Russia killed somewhere between 8 and 10 million people.
Stalin’s motive was partly to establish complete control over the least socialistic element of the population, but also partly to allow large-scale mechanization of agriculture, which was possible only on big farms and not on the small holdings that had dominated Soviet agriculture since the large estates were confiscated in 1917- 1918 and given back, in millions of separate bits, to the families who had worked them.
The exhibition at the newly designated park near Ostankino was intended to show off the machines that would be deployed and to celebrate the riches that were allegedly going to come from the new but deeply unpopular approach to agriculture. It was essentially an internal public relations exercise. This type of not-so-subtle propaganda can still be seen at the Meat Industry Pavillion, where the statue over the gate is of two enormous collective farmers bringing home a giant sheaf of wheat. On display at that time were several of the new tractors from the factory recently built by Ford at Gorki (the plant is now called GAZ, and Gorki is Nizhny Novgorod once again).
The first show was scheduled to open in 1937, but by then Stalin had other shows to concentrate on, namely the show trials through which he was fighting yet another war, this time against the Bolsheviks who had created the Soviet Union. As a result, the opening of the farm-machinery exhibition was delayed for two years, during which its designer was arrested along with the commissar for agriculture.
It finally opened on August 1, 1939, just in time for World War II, which soon shut it down again. It was not until 1954 that the exhibition opened to the public in a big way. By then the collectivization crisis had passed, and there was no need to make outlandish boasts about Soviet tractor production or the size of the bulls in the Kuban. The agricultural theme was soon dropped and replaced by the economic and technological progress of the Soviet Union.
Under Cold War conditions, the government’s message to the people was self-sufficiency: We can make everything ourselves. In 1959, the Ostankino showground was renamed VDNKh, and it became a favorite playground of Soviet youth with not much to do on a sunny weekend afternoon — not unlike today, in fact, although at that time the music playing was more Katyusha than Kurt Cobain.
Today VDNKh is interesting as a museum of the Stalinist architectural tradition which dominated the USSR from the late 1920s to the start of the Khrushchev era in the mid 1950s.
Then as now, the main message of VDNKh is commerce. Today the former Space Pavilion feels more like the gardening section of a Home Depot, but photography is still forbidden.
Two Russians who have written authoritatively about this period of Soviet building design are Alexei Tarkhanov and Sergei Kavtaradze, who state in their beautifully designed book, Stalinist Architecture, that when VDNKh re-opened, a year after Stalin’s death, the pavilions were “skillfully executed, but disastrously out of date.” They make the point that the exhibition accented “heritage,” and therefore the past. It was a form of architectural theater, destined quickly to become a museum because “the laws of the dialectic had been changed by official decree and time had stopped.”
Symbolic of the shift in emphasis is the fact that while the visitor enters under the huge sheaf of wheat described earlier, at the far end of the park is the old Space Pavilion. This opened in 1939 as the Pavilion of the Mechanization and Electrification of Agriculture. In 1966 it was transformed into the Space Pavilion.
After moving from agriculture to technology, in the 1990s VDNKh went from technology to shopping. Today the temple celebrating space exploration is simply Pavilion 32 and is more like the gardening section of your local home-improvement store, with a large sign outside reading “Everything for your the garden.”
But the Stalinist spirit still lurks in some of the darker recesses. When I tried to photograph the interior, an official emerged from a guardroom to tell me that photography was prohibited. He held his hand in front of the camera lens in the time-honored gesture of official aggression. When I asked why, he grinned sheepishly and said, “That’s a good question.”
Another guard sauntered up, and we had a brief discussion of why it might be that photography was forbidden in a hall full of cabbage seeds, fruit-tree clippers, and wheelbarrows. They agreed that the restriction was pretty pointless, but they were nonetheless not prepared to disregard it. As we parted, I reflected: First, the habit of obedience that enabled Stalinism had not disappeared. Second, this part of the exhibition had actually reverted to its original purpose, an agricultural display. The only difference is that the dreams of world domination are now as rusty and useless as any 1930s Gorki “Ford” tractor.
“It is hardly surprising that by 1953, when the architectural slogan ‘mastering our heritage’ had become dominant, the system gave rise to the style associated with the VDNKh. This amounted to an attempt by architects to popularize high classical style. Its aim was to make the vocabulary of classicism so comprehensible that the Donetsk miner, the Central Asian collective farm worker, or the fisherman from the Baltic states might feel, on leaving the exhibition, that all the secrets of architecture has been revealed to him. Architecture of this kind had to be read not metaphorically but quite straightforwardly, like paintings or sculptures of the time, typically entitled Public Holidays on the Collective Farm, Lunch in the Field, or The Working Day of the Latvian Fisherman. The symbolism should be decipherable, with every detail capable of being expressed in words. The symbolism was very simple, but carefully developed in theme and composition, so that a single plaster apple (by the laws of architectural magic) represented, not itself, but millions of golden apple trees in the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, or Russia.”
From Stalinist Architecture,
Tarkhanov and Kavtaradze, London 1992