Soviet Era Theme Park

Eighty years ago Moscow saw the birth of the VDNKh project, the most grandiose exhibition park in the Soviet Union and a showcase of the country's economic achievements.

The former glory of the site — with its eclectic mix of monumental Stalinist architecture and full range of historical styles from Gothic to Art Nouveau — still wows visitors to this day.

RBTH delves into the history of the "project of the century" and invites you on a stroll around today's architectural ensemble.
Formidable and unprecedented in scale, the project of the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition (VSKhV), later renamed VDNKh, was established in 1935. The exhibition was originally supposed to open by the 20th anniversary of the Soviet regime in 1937, and was to last for only 100 days. However, the construction was not completed in time, and the work continued for two more years, while the pavilions were remade to stand for five years (and eventually rebuilt to become permanent).
Left to right, top to bottom: Monument to Joseph Stalin at the Machine-Building Pavilion;
Official opening of the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition (VSKhV), the precursor of VDNKh, 1939;
Volga Pavilion, 1939

Finally inaugurated in 1939, the exhibition mostly served to showcase the achievements of collective farms (kolkhozy) across the country. Each pavilion represented a certain geographical region, familiarizing visitors with the accomplishments of various republics of the Soviet Union, including Lithuania, Georgia, Kazakhstan and others.
Left to right, top to bottom: Lithuanian SSR, Georgian SSR and Kazakh SSR pavilions
Attracting visitors from all over the country, the exhibition quickly became one of Moscow's landmarks, remaining open until the German invasion in June 1941. After the war began, VSKhV was closed to the general public, and several of its pavilions were repurposed for military use: Throughout the conflict it housed a repair shop for military vehicles and a reconnaissance training center.
Battle of Moscow. At VDNKh. Naum Granovsky, 1941
As the war ended, a major renovation of VSKhV was launched, with work completed only in 1954. In four years, the Soviet Council of Ministers issued a decree ordering a unification of VSKhV with two other trade shows – the All-Union Industry Exhibition and its construction engineering counterpart – to form the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy, or VDNKh.
The unification was part of the arrangements made for the U.S. Industrial Goods Exhibition, the first American trade show to be held in the Soviet Union, scheduled for 1959 (the exhibition was to be held in Moscow's Sokolniki Park, but various installations displaying American wealth were erected all over the capital); a similar Soviet trade show was held the same year in New York.
VSKhV. Yakov Khalip, 1954
Left to right: VSKhV. Yakov Khalip, 1954;
Moscow Festival of Youth and Students. Ukrainian delegates at VDNKh. Arkady Shaikhet, 1957;
VSKhV. Yakov Khalip, 1954

1960е - 1970е
In 1963, VDNKh was reorganized by the Council of Ministers yet again: The exhibition became permanent and several new pavilions were added – including the USSR pavilion, a pavilion for the International Farming Machinery Exhibition (which later became the Chemical Industry pavilion) and the Consumer Goods pavilion.
Left to right, top to bottom: VSKhV. USSR People's Commissariat of Trade [Narcomtorg]Pavilion;
Refrigeration Industry [Prokhladprom] Pavilion;
Mechanization Pavilion. Mark Markov-Grinberg

Meat Industry Pavilion
1980е - 1990е
By the late 1980s, most of the VDNKh buildings were housing various small businesses or warehouses – because of government funding, the once proud exhibition was transformed into a huge derelict bazaar. In 1992, VDNKh became a state joint-stock company, receiving the name "All-Russia Exhibition," or VVTs. But it wasn't until 2014 that things began to change for the better.
Gray Lockhart, an expat from Great Britain shares his impressions of present-day VDNKh
VDNKh is one of the iconic monuments of Soviet architecture, combining some avant-garde elements with Stalinist Empire style and modernism.

"VDNKh can be considered an almanac of the Russian architecture of the 20th century," said architect Oleg Raspolov. "Its main unique feature is its eclecticism. Inspired by the famous pavilions of Venice, VDNKh became a single coherent entity thanks to the efforts of some of the best architects of the time, like Vladimir Gelfreich, Anatoly Zhukov, Leonid Polyakov and many others."
Central Pavilion, VDNKh
VSKhV's general layout was designed by architect Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky, who was arrested in the late 1930s. He also designed the exhibition's main entrance, featuring the avant-garde style typical of the 1920s and 1930s.

However, Oltarzhevsky's modernist vision did not fit the then-fashionable monumentalism (the entrance resembled a door in an actual fence rather than a magnificent castle gate), so the project was delegated to Leonid Polyakov, who created the huge triple-arched entrance which is now the Northern Entrance of VDNKh.

But even this design was eventually panned as insufficiently pompous, and by the next grand-reopening in 1954, a new five-archway triumphal arch designed by Innokenty Melchakov was erected over the main entrance, adorned with the monument "Tractor Driver and Kolkhoz Woman."
Main entrance to VSKhV, Leonid Polyakov, 1940s; Main entrance (North entrance) to VDNKh, 2015
Another monument which also became symbolic for VDNKh, had been installed here earlier, in 1939 – "Worker and Kolkhoz Woman" by Vera Mukhina and Boris Iofan, first shown at the 1937 World Fair in Paris and hailed there as one of the greatest sculptures of the 20th century. Its 33-meter-high pedestal at VDNKh currently houses an eponymous museum.
Worker and Collective Farm Girl sculpture, 1940s and 1954
The central pavilion, designed and built in 1954 by architects Georgy Shchuko and Yevgeny Stolyarov to replace its wooden predecessor, is the most famous and the most distinctive of all the VDNKh pavilions.

The 90-meter-high three-storey building is an example of Stalinist Empire style, complete with columns, monumental sculptures depicting workers and farmers, bronze banners and a golden spire topped with a star. The pavilion was dedicated to the history and achievements of the Soviet Union, so, unsurprisingly, its steps were decorated with statues of Lenin and Stalin (the first is still there, the latter was removed in the early 1960s).
Central (Main) Pavilion, 1950s and 2015
Another emblematic pavilion, "Armenia," (previously known as "Siberia", "Agriculture of the Russian Socialist Republic" and "Coal Industry") is rightly regarded as one of the most emblematic buildings of VDNKh.

Built in 1954 by architects Kliks and Taushkanov, it was supposed to represent the vast greatness of Siberia: Its massive columns are decorated with realistic sculptures of Siberian workers, while its lateral facades are dressed with animal- and plant-themed ornamentation, symbolizing the natural riches of the region.

The building is hexagon-shaped, with the central exhibition hall resembling a courtyard covered with a giant dome. After having passed through the hands of a string of owners and having been repeatedly renamed, the pavilion was leased to Armenia in 2003.
Armenia (formerly Siberia) Pavilion, 1950s and 2015
Most of the pavilions were rebuilt several times to be in line with the latest architectural trends. The most significant shifts in the architecture of VDNKh happened in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the pavilions were handed over to the relevant ministries and were being altered to suit the current economic needs.

It was at the time that the famous modernist buildings emerged in VDNKh, including the "Floriculture and Greenery," "Metallurgy" (formerly "Kazakh Soviet Republic") and "Space Exploration" (previously "Engineering") pavilions, as well as some others.
Vostok rocket and Cosmos Pavilion, 2015
Details of the Nuclear Energy, Culture (formerly Uzbek SSR) and Central pavilions, 2015
In most cases, the authorities tried to rectify what they perceived as "errors" of style. For instance, the "Ukraine" pavilion, designed by architect Alexei Tatsy, had been criticized heavily by the then-first secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party and future Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev back in the late 1940s – so its ceramic facades were eventually decorated with a floral relief and pilasters, and the building itself was adorned with statues of Stakhanovites (Soviet laborers held up as examples for exceeding their work norms), stained glass and a golden spire.
Ukraine Pavilion, 1940s and 2015
The "Volga Region" pavilion has been transformed four times. In 1954, it was rebuilt in the Stalinist style, but just five years later it had to be converted into modernist style: the facade of the pavilion – renamed "Electronics" by then – was covered with metallic panels. In 2014, the VDNKh management decided to restore the pavilion to its original appearance, but the initiative was met with criticism from architects and city activists.

"The "Electronics" pavilion was the first to be rebuilt after VSKhV became VDNKh," said architecture historian Anna Bronovitskaya. "So, since we are going to revert to the exhibition's historical name, it would be unreasonable to destroy such important landmarks as this. "Moreover, this is one of the first works of authorship in Moscow's architecture of the post-Stalinist period," she said, pointing out that aluminum covers on facades represented the first example of employing aircraft construction methods in architecture, which was typical for the era. "This alone is worthy of preservation," she added.
Detail of the restoration of the Radio Electronics Pavilion, 2015;
Radio Electronics (formerly Volga) Pavilion, 2000s and 1954
"Besides, the 'Volga Region' pavilion in 1954 was an ode to Stalin: Its facade contained images of two battles, a skirmish from the Russian Civil War in which Stalin took part and the Battle of Stalingrad. I believe that the redesign of the 'Volga Region' pavilion had something to do with the Soviet authorities' desire to remove the subject from public consciousness," said Bronovitskaya.
Gray Lockhart, an expat from Great Britain shares his impressions of present-day VDNKh
In the mid-1950s, VDNKh acquired yet another group of recognizable and symbolic structures – its famous fountains, including "The Friendship of Nations" (also known as "The Main Fountain"), "The Golden Wheat" and "The Stone Flower." All three were designed by architect Konstantin Topuridze.

After 1955, the abundance of reliefs, various decorative elements and over-the-top splendor, typical of most VDNKh structures, was denounced as "architectural excess" that went against the progress and the needs of the Soviet people. Thankfully, the architectural exuberance of the exhibition was not destroyed and has survived mostly intact to the present day.
Friendship of Peoples fountain
Golden Ear fountain
Stone Flower fountain
Myths and legends
VDNKh has many urban legends and myths surrounding it, accumulated over its 75-year history. Quite a number of these have been confirmed as at least partially true. One such legend which older Muscovites are quite fond of tells about the existence of "Stalin's personal bunker" – with a study and all – beneath the exhibition's Main Pavilion.

"There is, in fact, nothing unusual or mysterious about it," said Anna Bronovitskaya. "Just like many other public places, VDNKh does have a bomb shelter. But the rumors claiming it was built specifically for Stalin are, at the very least, unsubstantiated."

Another legend says that the 16 golden female sculptures adorning the "Friendship of Nations" fountain were originally supposed to be encrusted with precious stones. However, Soviet security chief Lavrenty Beria, who oversaw the construction, understood that the work would require too long to achieve and, wishing to simplify the process, ordered that the sculptures simply be covered with gold.
Central Pavilion and detail of the Friendship of Nations fountain, 2015
The future of VDNKh
VDNKh was a federal property until 2014, when it was handed over to the Moscow authorities. In less than 12 months, the new management has completed the renovation of a couple of dozen of pavilions, and rebuilt the main and southern entrances.

In the course of the renovation, workers discovered the high relief "Glory to the Soviet People, Standard-Bearers of Peace!" by sculptor Yevgeny Vuchetich, a work long considered lost: The monument was covered by a false wall for over half a century.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the exhibition, its old name was restored, and massive landscaping work began throughout the grounds, which were recently extended to include Moscow's Botanical Garden and Ostankino Park, with the total surface area now reaching 520 hectares.
Gray Lockhart, an expat from Great Britain shares his impressions of present-day VDNKh
The 163-billion-ruble VDNKh landscaping project is expected to take 10 years to achieve. The ambitious initiative involves creating six theme parks targeting different age groups.

The exhibition's central alley will become the main venue for various celebrations and festivals, while the area to the west of it will become a "Future Park" with interactive rides and a new Ferris wheel. Furthermore, an arts and crafts park for children and adults, an exhibition center, an oceanarium (already completed) and an orchard are also to be created at VDNKh.

Last year, Moscow's Polytechnic Museum was temporarily relocated to VDNKh, presenting its exhibition "Made in Russia" there. VDNKh will continue to become more and more important in Moscow museum life: in September, it will host the sixth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art.
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Texts by Olga Mamaeva
Edited by Oleg Krasnov and Alastair Gill
Photo credits: VDNKh photo archive, Lumiere Brother's gallery, Elena Kazachkova
Photo edited by Slava Petrakina
Videos by Anna Levicheva, Ruslan Faizullin, Gray Lockhart
Design and layout by Elena Potapova

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