The Exhibition of the Achievement of the People’s Economy, a six-hundred-acre park in the north of Moscow, just a half-hour by metro from Red Square, isn’t on many tourist itineraries nowadays. But once VDNX (the Russian acronym, pronounced vway day en ha) was one of the wonders of the Soviet world, no less consecrated a site of pilgrimage than Lenin’s Mausoleum. It was visited by over eight million people a year. Originally an agricultural exhibition when it opened in 1939, it combined the various characteristics of a theme park, a 4-H Club, a trade fair, and a World’s Fair in one of the more spectacular Potemkin Villages—and some of the kitschiest architecture—the Soviet regime ever built. Federico Fellini, who once visited VDNX, called it “the hallucination of a drunken pastry chef.” “It’s our totalitarian Disneyland,” Russians say.
A look back into the history of VDNX—found today almost entirely in archives—sheds light on the nature of Soviet ideology and the current nostalgia in Russia for the Soviet Union. For the Exhibition was one of the central icons of the Soviet state, the incarnation of the bright Communist future promised by Bolshevik slogans. Like stories learned by heart in childhood, that future, and the imperial identity on which it was based, continue to haunt the dreams of many Russians.
The All-Union Agricultural Exhibition or VSXV (vway say ha vway), as the Exhibition was originally called, was signed into being by Molotov and Stalin on February 17, 1935, at the “suggestion” of the Second All-Union Congress of Collective Farm Shock Workers. A committee of government officials was formed and the USSR’s foremost architects, including Alexei Shchusev (architect of Lenin’s mausoleum), were charged with drawing up plans for pavilions. Hundreds of artists and artisans in all the republics were engaged in designing interiors and displays.
The Exhibition was launched at the same time as the Stakhanovite movement and the reconstruction of Moscow. These and other grandiose projects (like the Metro and the White Sea and Volga Don canals), begun in the 1930s as Stalin prepared for the purges, were designed not only to increase production, but to consolidate the ever more centralized power of the state and Party. The Stakhanovite movement to raise industrial output was directed at the working class. The ambitious plan for reconstructing Moscow was intended to turn the eccentric old Russian city into a modern metropolis equipped for its new status as the “Heart of the Socialist Fatherland” and the “Capital of the New World.”
But someone had to feed the workers and the city. The Exhibition concentrated on the peasantry. Though millions of peasants had died in government-induced famines and collectivization, they still comprised the largest part of the Soviet population. By being in Moscow, the Exhibition emphasized that “in the socialist state, the contradiction between the city and the countryside has been destroyed.” It established the Soviet capital as the heart of the countryside, and underscored Russia …