For a taste of all the Soviet Union once promised and an illustration of what it has come to, there’s nowhere better than the all-Russian Exhibition Centre, known by its acronym VDNKh. This enormous park in northeast Moscow is a glorious illustration of Soviet hubris, an exuberant cultural mix ’n’ match vision of a world where sixteen republics join hand in socialist hand to present a cornucopia of human achievement, ranging from agricultural tools and farm animals to atomic energy.
Opened in 1939 as the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition, the grounds were extended in the 1950s to include culture, science and technology, and continued to expand until 1989. Nevertheless, the overall atmosphere is of prewar optimism, when all progress was good and man was master of the world, living in a kind of mechanized agricultural paradise where even the streetlights were shaped like ears of corn.
Set around the gaudy gold fountain of the Friendship of Nations, pavilions for the former Soviet socialist republics and areas of economic achievement make a gesture towards national building styles while remaining unmistakably Stalinist. Particularly striking are the Ukraine Pavilion, a sparkling mosaic and majolica jewelbox; the Uzbekistan Pavilion, patterned with interlocking geometric designs; and the stylish, Art-Deco-influenced Grain Pavilion. Beyond, a copy of the rocket which took Yuri Gagarin into space points skywards in front of the Aerospace Pavilion. Built in 1966, the pavilion’s railway-station-like hangar and glass dome are still breathtaking in their vastness.
It’s a little disappointing to find the working models of hydroelectric power stations and the herds of prize cattle long gone, and even the famous Soviet worker and collective farm girl monument vanished recently amid rumours that it’s been melted down for scrap metal. But the casual traders and cheap beer stands that now fill VDNKh lend the place a certain raffish charm. Perhaps it’s fitting that the monumental worker and farm girl have been replaced by a succinct image of today’s Russia: rows of salesmen from the Caucasus selling everything from Belarusian bras to cheap Chinese trainers under the Aerospace Pavilion’s unlit light bulbs.