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Moscow’s Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy: A Soviet-era Exposition and the Russian State

By Liya Wizevich (@liyawizevich)

In Soviet Union there was vast human and geographical diversity, leading the government to look for ways to not benefit from it by showcasing the social, economic and geographical differences. This national diversity was grandiosely displayed nowhere better than in Moscow’s Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy, (VDNKh).[1]

VDNKh was started in 1935; a national exposition, where different regions were given individual pavilions, displaying each culture and highlighting unique contributions to the Soviet Union. It was built in the era of Joseph Stalin, and was relaunched and renovated in the late 1950s and early 1960s under Nikita Khrushchev, evolving, but continually displaying the socialist national diversity in different forms. The original idea was to allow visitors to tour the whole country, without leaving Moscow. Each pavilion was designed by architects from the respective regions, using indigenous materials and techniques.

Anatoly Zhukov, who became the chief architect in 1949, wrote, ‘It was a vivid evidence of the flourishing of the socialist economy and culture, a demonstration of the creative audacity and creative genius of the peoples of the Soviet Union.’[2]

The park has been a popular tourist attraction since its 1939 opening. However, VDNKh was not simply ‘Soviet Disneyland,’[3] but a cultural and touristic tool the Soviet state used to show off the strength of their socialist diversity and the long reach of communism, from the Baltic harbours, to the Caucasus mountains, to the Siberian tundra, and to the Central Asian steppe, stressing success and harmony.

In 2019, Vladimir Putin encapsulated VDNKh’s place in Soviet history for the 80th anniversary of the exhibition: ‘The fate of the legendary VDNKh is inseparable from the history of our country. The Exhibition was always in tune with the times, telling about labour achievements and scientific discoveries, about the development of space and achievements in the field of culture. The best creative forces were involved in its creation, and from the first days it impressed with the scale of the project, original architectural solutions, sculptural compositions, and a beautiful park area. It has become one of the most recognisable symbols of the capital.’[4]

Understanding VDNKh what the people of the Soviet Union and other tourists saw when they visited, comes from understanding the concurrent Soviet events and policies, because such governmental decrees directly impacted the architecture, design, exhibits, operations, and changes at VDNKh. In the Soviet Union nationality and diversity were complex, evolving issues and as government policy changed so did VDNKh’s displays.[5] To understand VDNKh’s history is to understand the history of the Soviet Union, for at VDNKh is found a snapshot of the whole state and the peoples it encompassed.

VDNKh has always been intricately intertwined with the State. The explicitness of this connection offers a new insight into the way that the State employed policy, architecture, urban space, and design to reflect, and in some cases shape public opinions on diversity, unity and industry. Ronald Grigor Suny astutely wrote: ‘Cultural production has rarely occurred without overt ideological intent. If monumentalist Stalinist Architecture, Moscow [State] University or the city’s metro, reflected current aspirations, so did King’s College Chapel in Cambridge; the structure is more a hymn to Henry VIII’s than to God’s power.’[6]

VDNKh, as an exhibition, still survives today as albeit in a much changed from how from the 1930s. It has been repurposed into a new exhibition park, with pavilions hosting museums and exhibits that have found very different ways of balancing their Soviet past to current audiences.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, VDNKh was sold to private owners and became an unofficial bazaar, with black-market stalls in the original pavilions. However, in 2014, VDNKh was purchased by the Moscow City government to preserve as a historical landmark and open as a new exhibition park. Since then, state efforts to return VDNKh to its former architectural and touristic glory have been successful. VDNKh is now one of the most popular domestic tourist spots in the Russian Federation. The pavilions now hosts museums and restaurants in the pavilions, and on the grounds, Russia’s largest ice rink.

When looking at the displays both of internal exhibits in pavilions, and the architecture and renovations of those structures, the changes of how the whole country was presented to the public in this exhibition shows the shifting priorities of the state and the interconnections of state policy and cultures and tourism in the Soviet Union. VDNKh is just a part of Russia’s ever-changing political landscape as successive regimes sought to use its vast public appeal to present their architectural ideals and state policies. VDNKh as an exhibition of the country was truly a microcosm of the Soviet state, and remains, historically preserved, the architectural facade for the multi-ethnic Soviet Union.

 References:

[1]Vystavka Dostizheniy Narodnogo Khozyaystva

[2] Anatolii Fedorovich ZHukov, ‘Arkhitektura Vsesoiuznoi selʹskokhoziaistvennoi vystavki’. ISCHI Gosudarstvennoe izdatelʹstvo literatury stroitelʹstvu i arkhitekture. Moskva. 1955 (Eto byl redkii svidetelʹ zarozhdeniia sotsalisticheskoi ekonomiki i kulʹtury, demonstratsiia tvorcheskoi smelosti i tvorcheskogo geniia narodov Sovetskogo Soiuza.)

[3] Jamey Gambrell, ‘The Wonder of the Soviet World: Moscow’s Exhibition of the Achievements of the People’s Economy.’ New York Review of Books 41, 21 (1994) p.30-35.

[4] F. Smirnov, S. Lebedev, i Yu. Zhestkov, VDNKh: Vremiia Vozrozhdeniia. Pod redaktsiei V Shogurov, V Emmanuilov, A Kim, i M Golovko. Мoskva, 2019. Dvor legendarnoi VDNХ neotdelim ot istorii nashei strany. Vystavka vsegda byla sozvuchna vremeni, rasskazyvaia o trudovykh dostizheniiakh i nauchnykh otkrytiiakh, o osvoenii kosmicheskogo prostranstva i dostizheniiakh v oblasti kulʹtury. K ego sozdaniiu byli privlecheny luchshie tvorcheskie sily, i s pervogo zhe dnia on byl porazhen masshtabom zamysla, originalʹnymi arkhitekturnymi resheniiami i skulʹpturnymi kompozitsiiami, prekrasnymi parkovymi zonami. Stal pravu iarkoi  odnim iz samykh uznavaemykh simvolov stolitsy.

[5] Simon Franklin, and Emma Widdis, eds. National Identity in Russian Culture: an Introduction (Cambridge, 2006), p. 2.

[6]Ronald Grigor Suny, The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States (1998) p.261.

Taken in part from the author’s University of Cambridge MPhil in Modern European History dissertation.

Image: Photo of the VDNKh site taken in February 2020, author’s own.

 

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