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’s primacy in the new, “international” world the Soviets were building. “To Moscow, to Moscow” was as important a theme of the elaborate propaganda campaign surrounding the Exhibition as the call to double or triple the harvest.
The Party’s extensive network of regional and local committees mobilized collective farms throughout the country; in order to be eligible even to compete for the privilege of taking part in the Exhibition they first had to fulfill the government harvest quota. Above and beyond the pressure exerted by the mass campaign, thousands of substantial cash prizes for the biggest and best produce and largest yields were announced as further inducement to participate. The Exhibition would show “the whole world how the Soviet kolkhoz countryside, under the leadership of the Party of Lenin and Stalin, has achieved a prosperous, cultured, happy life!”
Construction began in spring 1936, and the Exhibition was scheduled to open in 1937, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Revolution and the end of the second five-year plan. But the opening was delayed by changing plans and the Terror. According to Vladimir Paperny, one of the first architectural historians to write about the Exhibition,* sloppy construction led to accusations of “wrecking,” or sabotage: so-called “enemies of the people” were uncovered and arrested. Several pavilions were torn down and replaced, such as the central Mechanization of Agriculture Pavilion designed by chief architect Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky. Unedited aerial shots of the Exhibition taken in 1938, which I discovered in the State Film Archives, show Oltarzhevsky’s elegant constructivist design—a tower rising from an X-shaped base—nearly finished.
One VDNX employee I spoke to, an elderly woman who has worked at the Exhibition since 1936, remembered the building and numerous arrests in her construction unit. At the time, she said, a rumor circulated that Oltarzhevsky’s pavilion resembled a swastika when viewed from the air. According to Paperny, the huge hammer and sickle that was to crown the pavilion was “incorrectly” conceived; the sharp side of the sickle faced the hammer, and this, it was said, would lead to conflict between the peasantry and the working class.
When Molotov inaugurated VDNX on August 1, 1939, in a celebration attended by 10,000 guests, the Exhibition was celebrated in the press as the “mirror of the Stalinist era.” In the spirit of Gorky’s definition of Socialist Realism as “revolutionary romanticism,” it showed life not as it was, but as it should be. What the public saw was an untroubled Eden, a masterpiece of central planning, in which pristine avenues led past dramatic fountains to stately pavilions bordered by luxuriant gardens. Fabulous sculptural tableaux and dramatic paintings inside the pavilions chronicled the Soviet people’s triumphant struggle to cast off the chains of the oppressive tsarist past, and showed them dancing and feasting with joy. “It was a real, live fairy tale,” as one employee put it.
The Exhibition was scaled to reflect Stalin’s expanding notion of the Soviet empire. Each of the republics and regions of the USSR had its own pavilion, which exhibited its products, whether sugar beets and beehives or rugs and furs. Every imaginable branch of animal husbandry was represented as well, including horse breeding, rabbit raising, fish farming, and hunting. There were over two hundred buildings in all.
VSXV articulated an ideology of statehood which flowed directly from Stalin’s doctrine of “Socialism in One Country.” It was a kind of laboratory model of the perfect socialist country within the one socialist country, and was quite literally meant to be “the motherland in miniature,” as one long-time employee described it to me. A kind of statist pathetic fallacy permeates all the newsreels and publications on the Exhibition I watched and read. As the contemporary Russian artist Andrei Monastyrsky has written, the Exhibition was a mandala of the Soviet state—one that merged human beings, topography, and ideology in a union that the regime invested with near supernatural properties. Whatever existed at the Exhibition was supposed to exist in the country, and vice-versa. When the USSR’s borders expanded, for example, so did those of the Exhibition, as the narrator of a 1941 newsreel announced enthusiastically when he introduced the new Moldavian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian pavilions after the annexation of those territories.
This cosmology required a new, Sovietized nature, so the Stalinist state conscripted the nineteenth-century dream of scientific progress: Nature too was to submit to the will of the Party. The biologist and plant-breeder Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin (1855–1935) was the guardian angel of the new nature, and a mini-cult of Michurin thrived at the Exhibition. His maxim, “We cannot wait for favors from Nature; Our task is to take them from her,” was inscribed on statues and memorial altars dedicated to him throughout the exhibition from 1939 through the Fifties. Films and newsreels on the Exhibition, inevitably featured “amazing Michurinist fruits,” that would hasten the advent of communism: trees that produced berries on one branch and pears on another, or cherries that grew in clusters like grapes; cotton that blossomed red, green, blue, and yellow, shortening the time from field to wardrobe. “Soviet agriculture is no longer dependent on the weather,” boasted a newsreel when an “artificial rain machine” was shown at the Exhibition. These “socialist miracles” were proof that the prosperous life the slogans spoke of was already a reality—at least at the Exhibition.
Central to the construction of a New World was the creation of the New Soviet Person. The New Village section of the Exhibition had a model kolkhoz settlement complete with governing soviets, nursery and primary schools, recreation facilities, clinics, and maternity wards. The Exhibition’s art and architecture elaborated an iconography in which the people could see themselves and their country reflected in aesthetically idealized images. Paintings recorded the contributions of all the major Soviet nationalities and portrayed the Politburo at work in brilliant colors. (Kaganovich, for example, was shown greeting peasants in V. A. Serov’s Reception for Beet Workers in the Kremlin.) Monumental plaster friezes, like those on the façade of the Moscow District Pavilion, depicted serene, stately workers, farmers, fishermen, athletes, aviators, engineers, and even the occasional intellectual, carrying out their timeless, noble tasks. Women, though celebrated by the regime in films and the press for assuming traditionally male roles (factory workers, tractor drivers, etc.), were most frequently represented as colossal fertility goddesses gathering the harvest, milking cows, and cradling infants with the calm, disinterested tenderness of classical madonnas. (Both divorce and abortion were outlawed under Stalin.)
As far as is known, Stalin never visited the Exhibition. Perhaps an actual appearance would have been anticlimactic: his image, like his name, was omnipresent, as film footage of the period testifies. His sayings on every subject from dialectical materialism to sheep raising were incised on the exterior and interior walls of pavilions. Tractors, combines, and kolkhozes bore his name. White plaster statues of his fatherly figure were placed at the center of altar-like constructions in every pavilion. In the Far East Pavilion he could be seen in Napoleonic pose against a painted backdrop of airplanes flying over the Kremlin. In Belorussia he walked with Lenin; in Uzbekistan they sat on a bench together; in Kazakhstan Kazakh farmers and shepherds knelt at his feet. Most imposing of all was the hundred-foot-high concrete statue of Stalin by the sculptor Merkurov that towered over the central “Plaza of the Mechanization of Agriculture,” dwarfing the tallest pavilions.
It wasn’t just aesthetic spectacle or Stalin’s omnipresence that gave the Exhibition such force in the Russian imagination, however. The park was part of a powerful narrative—a kind of Soviet Horatio Alger story—which engaged each and every citizen in the enterprise of the state. Simple peasants and workers were regularly elevated to the status of national heroes, and the Exhibition was a central element in many of the stories. Maria Demchenko, for instance, was a prize-winning sugar beet grower in the Thirties; her photograph adorned the Exhibition’s “honor board,” and she was widely celebrated in the popular press and in educational pamphlets on Party history. So was Mamlakat Nakhangova, an Uzbek collective farm girl who at about age twelve devised a way of tying her sack on her back and picking cotton with both hands, thereby increasing her kolkhoz’s yield.
Two immensely popular Stalinist film classics now frequently shown on Russian television were set at the Exhibition, and reinforced this socialist rags-to-riches narrative. In both The Shining Path, 1940 (the word svetlyi in the title means bright, shining, or lofty, as in the “lofty future” of the slogan), and The Pig Keeper and the Shepherd, 1941, the principal characters are simple women transfigured by their contact with Moscow, the center of the New World. As in fairy tales and myths, each must complete a series of rituals or labors—become a Stakhanovite, overcome bourgeois resistance in the workplace, etc.—in order to be admitted to paradise, the Exhibition.
The Shining Path openly treats communism as a fairy tale; its plot follows a line from a popular song that became a key Stalinist slogan: “We Were Born to Make Fairy Tales Reality.” Director Grigory Alexandrov’s film is a highly entertaining comic musical, a Hollywood-style Cinderella story with the Exhibition as its glorious climax. Tanya Morozova (played by Liubov Orlova, said to be Stalin’s favorite actress) is transformed by the intervention of a “good fairy” Party worker from a simple, illiterate peasant into a model weaver. Inspired by the Stakhanovite movement, Tanya vows to run 150 looms on her own. Bourgeois naysayers at the factory try to stop her, but she appeals directly to Molotov; he responds with a telegram of support and she prevails, successfully completing her heroic feat. She is called to Moscow; when Kalinin personally awards her a medal, she nearly faints.
Tanya then moves into a dimension unavailable to mere mortals and the film becomes surreal—a kind of socialist Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland combined. She sings a duet with the mirror reflection of her old, peasant self, and the Good Fairy, dressed this time in traditional Russian costume, invites her into the mirror on the Kremlin wall to see the Future. They fly over Moscow and the Caucasus mountains—i.e., the whole empire—in a car, singing an operatic duet about the marvels of the Soviet state. The Future turns out to be the Exhibition itself, the mirror of the Stalinist era. Tanya lands the car near the huge monument to Stalin. She has become an engineer and, having shed her peasant dialect along with her overalls, is now dressed in a professional woman’s business suit. Standing next to another statue of Stalin, she delivers a triumphant oratorio. The handsome factory engineer whom she has loved for years is there to congratulate her; now that she, too, is an engineer, the couple can be united. They stroll in romantic silence past the shooting streams of the Exhibition’s fountains, and embrace under Vera Mukhina’s gigantic steel sculpture of the Worker and the Collective Farm Woman, which still stands near the entrance to the Exhibition.
The Pig Keeper and The Shepherd is an operetta that tells the story of a Russian girl from the far north, who visits the Exhibition and falls in love with a tall, dark, handsome model shepherd from the Caucasus. They part, promising to marry in a year’s time. Inspired by his example, the pig keeper reorganizes production on her collective farm. Meanwhile, a local bumpkin tries to woo the girl and appears to triumph by deception, convincing her that the shepherd has forgotten her. But the dashing shepherd is not so easily deterred. When she doesn’t appear the next year, even though she has won an award for preventing the baby pigs from freezing during the winter, he jumps on his horse and gallops off to find her. He arrives just as she is about to be married, and exposes the deceiver. The happy couple is reunited: family, empire, and success are blissfully wed in a single narrative. (“It’s really about how Stalin, a Georgian, finally managed to screw Russia,” a Russian friend of mine remarked.)
In this film, the Exhibition presents the USSR as the ideal world of racial harmony, reassuringly devoid of ethnic strife. Much is made of each nationality’s identity, though that identity goes no deeper than the ethnic costumes all the non-Russian characters wear. Stalin’s dictum regarding Socialist Realist art also applied to people in the various republics: ethnic in form, but socialist in content. Their true “motherland” was the USSR, and they all spoke fluent, if quaintly accented, Russian. The perfect expression of Stalin’s precept was the Friendship of Peoples Fountain unveiled at the reconstructed Postwar exhibition in 1954. Greater than life-size gilded female figures in national costume, one for each of the Union’s republics, encircle a twenty-four-foot-high sheaf of golden grain. Plans for the Postwar exhibition published in 1951 show sketches for a hundred-foot-high bronze statue of Stalin (to replace the concrete one) opposite the fountain. The imperial allegory was complete: Stalin as the modern Midas, who turned the charmed circle of the empire to gold.
The Exhibition was shut down after the Germans invaded in June 1941; the pavilions were closed to the public and its gardens run as a state farm during the war. In 1947, the Central Committee decided to rebuild the Exhibition and greatly expand its territory; a new general plan was approved in early 1950. Many of the prewar buildings, made largely of wood and plaster, were in very bad repair. Old pavilions were torn down, significantly altered, or completely rebuilt (many by German POWs and Russian prisoners) from more durable materials. The new architectural projects that were drawn up in the late 1940s reflected the baroque aesthetic of the postwar “imperial period” of Stalinist architecture—which also gave Moscow its “wedding-cake” skyscrapers. After Stalin’s death, plans for the bronze monument were scratched, though other images of him were left in place.
Each of the new pavilions, many of which still stand today, was a lavishly ornamented architectural folly. The Meat Industry Pavilion, a vaguely neoclassical structure, has four entrance columns rising several stories to end in the sphinx-like faces of bulls; a sculptural ensemble perched on the roof features a muscular peasant who struggles to restrain a ferocious bull several times life-size; inside, the pavilion is decorated with painted ceramics of chickens, sheep, ducks, and cows. Other pavilions were encrusted with bright mosaics or covered in basreliefs.
Images of a bountiful future were even more important to the regime after the harsh war years. Everything from chandeliers and vases to benches, trash urns, street lamps, and the Exhibition’s three spectacular fountains—the Friendship of Peoples, the Stone Flower, and the Golden Grain Ear—was either adorned with or fashioned in the shape of cornucopias and sheaves and ears of grain. They even outnumbered five-pointed stars and hammers and sickles.
Veteran employees I talked to also remember rather wistfully that the fruit and vegetables on display were sold to the public at low prices before they spoiled. There were many restaurants, and the pavilions of the various republics held festivals of their national cuisines. Ice cream—a Russian passion—had its own pavilion: a Gaudilike fantasy resembling a mammoth portion of melting ice-cream topped with a giant seal balancing a dish on its nose (see page 34). (The weight of the solid cement seal eventually deformed the pavilion’s brick walls, and it was recently torn down.) Inside the pavilions produce was displayed with a reverence usually reserved for high art. Huge vases placed on pedestals in the center of the exhibition halls displayed neat stacks of cabbages, potatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, and squash or piles of apples, oranges, lemons, and melons. The wine-producing republics, Armenia and Georgia, exhibited pyramids of cognac, port, and white wine.
All the displays were produced by the Exhibition’s design department in accordance with manuals issued by the propaganda section (and overseen by the Party), which supplied quotations from Communist leaders and gave strict instructions on how to set up stands and choose images. Though the displays were changed each year, the basic story remained the same. Viewers were inundated with statistics, charts, graphs, and tables, all chronicling the amazing growth of socialist agriculture. Vivid three-dimensional dioramas and working model trains and tractors gave the pavilions the air of a toy store. In the Poultry Pavilion, for instance, a motor-driven procession of stuffed chicks and hens circled a pyramid of eggs above which a spinning placard touted the rise in Soviet egg consumption. It was ideology the smallest child could enjoy.
Though the paintings and sculpture at the Exhibition were executed in Socialist Realism’s generic academic style, the temporary displays before the war employed a more dynamic visual language derived from radical avant-garde aesthetics of the 1920s. (Rodchenko and Stepanova, for instance, designed a 1939 issue of USSR in Construction devoted entirely to the Exhibition’s inauguration, which exemplifies this aesthetic.) There was a certain intensity to these images not to be found in the more ossified aesthetics of the 1950s. Their sophisticated pictorial devices reinforced the dialectics of Stalinist materialism, according to which it was enough to say or portray something for it to be true. The stands displaying produce, for example, commonly featured heavily re-touched photomontages of vast cultivated fields extending outward to infinity. Farmers and tractor drivers holding cabbages, potatoes, or other crops, occupied the foreground; the distance between background and foreground would be collapsed, so that the human figures appeared startlingly close. The baskets and shelves of real fruit and vegetables hanging from the stands seemed to have been squeezed out of the two-dimensional landscape. Similarly, real waterfalls flowed out of the frescoes of hydroelectric dams decorating the facades of the Volga and Uzbek pavilions. It was as if the images themselves gave birth to the reality.
By the end of 1956, Stalin’s image had been almost entirely eliminated from the Exhibition—in archival photo albums I saw, someone had even scratched his face out of prewar photographs. His name disappeared from all the hundreds of guidebooks, pamphlets, and monographs the Exhibition published each year. In the late 1950s, a fundamental shift took place in the concept of the Exhibition: industrial themes were introduced, and in June 1959 the name was changed to the Exhibition of the Achievements of the People’s Economy. In 1963 the pavilions of the republics were abolished and government ministries—Atomic Energy, Geology, Oil, Transportation, Agriculture, etc.—were assigned pavilions in which they were required to organize and finance yearly exhibitions. Operating costs for the Exhibition’s huge permanent staff—maintenance workers, designers, photographers, gardeners, accountants—continued to be subsidized by the government. Today many of the old-time VDNX employees say the abolition of the republican pavilions was the beginning of the end of the USSR—as if a mystical symbiosis had indeed existed between the Exhibition and the Soviet empire.
VDNX was now referred to in the official literature as “the mirror of technological progress.” The space age had arrived, and with it came a brief moment of Soviet glory. The Mechanization of Agriculture Pavilion became the Space Pavilion in 1966. On the plaza in front of it, over the pond that marked the spot where Stalin’s stern figure once rose, there still stands a “Vostok” rocket of equal height.
But the technology now being featured often looked out of place in the agrarian paradise. The Thaw of the 1960s (and later détente) brought with it an influx of Western trade and art shows (some were at VDNX), whose influence could soon be felt at the Exhibition. The liberal generation of the 1960s, the shestidesiatniki, held the aesthetics of the Stalinist regime in total disdain. They were embarrassed by its kitschy extravagance and scorned the “architectural excess” of the Exhibition’s pavilions which was associated with the cult of personality and the “varnishing of reality” under Stalin.
In architecture, as in painting, “saccharine” was out: the “Severe Style” was the major art movement of the 1960s. The embarrassment of Soviet intellectuals and cultural bureaucrats coincided with the regime’s desire to maintain the international prestige of the space program by upholding the USSR’s image as a modern state. Some of the most ornamental structures were remodeled, including the Central Russian Regions Pavilion with its confectionery white façade and imitation Kremlin tower.
Unsightly “extravagances” such as towers were simply amputated, and the offending structure was wrapped in a “modern” façade. Thus, for example, were born the pavilions of Computer Technology, Metallurgy, and Radio Electronics—mediocre glass and stone boxes whose primary virtue, in the words of a contemporary guidebook, was that “their geometrically precise spatial forms and severity reflect the industrial pulse of the time, its ever-growing tempo.” While today they seem insipid and architecturally nonsensical, at the time their geometric cool seemed to promise political and cultural change. For many, these unprepossessing edifices spoke almost eloquently of a longing to end the country’s isolation and become a modern European nation.
During the Brezhnev years, the bankruptcy of Soviet ideology was perhaps nowhere better illustrated than at the Exhibition, both aesthetically and linguistically. Displays designed in the “modern Soviet style” popular at the time—biomorphically shaped panels made of fake teak or painted in dead acrylic reds and beiges—made the pomp of the Stalinist architecture look garish, revealing it for the theatrical prop that it was and thereby undermining the very mission of the Exhibition. And as consumer shortages and lines grew, talk of the great accomplishments of the socialist motherland sounded hollow, when not downright comic. The 350-foot titanium-covered monument of a rising rocket, installed at the Exhibition’s entrance in 1966, was popularly known as “the Impotent’s Dream,” and people told jokes about Michurin dying by falling off a strawberry.
Still, the Exhibition was a popular park. On a hot day you could rent a small boat on the lake for a pittance and row around the cornucopias that trail like voluptuous Gulliverian tassels from the spear of the Golden Wheat Ear fountain. You could sit on a bench to cool off in the iridescent mist drifting from the jagged petals of the Stone Flower fountain—a glittering construction of crimson, turquoise, viridian, sapphire, plum, and goldflecked mosaics.
The Exhibition’s almost six hundred acres had something for everyone in a city sorely lacking in public recreation and entertainment. Admission cost only a few kopecks and there was much to see and do among the vestiges of Stalinist splendor. The huge pigs, prize sheep, horses, and cows in the animal husbandry pavilions were particular favorites, as was the Space Pavilion, with its hanging sputniks. There were also inexpensive carnival rides—bumper cars and small-scale roller coasters which Russians call “American mountains.” A little zoo of indigenous wild animals was tucked in the wooded depths of the park. In the summer, the Exhibition was open as late as 10 or 11 PM. Its labyrinthine wooded areas, groves of white and purple lilac, and miles of secluded paths, liberally interspersed with benches and glades of grass, were a romantic haven for young people, providing a great deal more privacy than the overcrowded communal apartments in which most lived.
A kind of ironic cult of the Exhibition developed among unofficial artists and writers of the mid-1970s and early 1980s, and it persists today. Like the metro, VDNX was a textbook of Socialist Realism’s pictorial canon (most of the Socialist Realist masterpieces had been removed from museum walls) and provided a wealth of material for artists like Erik Bulatov, Komar and Melamid, and Ilya Kabakov, whose conceptual art works played off the ideological clichés of official Soviet culture. Film critic Alexander Timofeevsky recalls that “in the Seventies, when Soviet culture had disintegrated into a lot of rather lame, disparate fragments, VDNX produced a stunning effect—it was a very strange mix of mannerist refinement and barbaric zealotry.” A small circle of intellectuals and artists “would come to VDNX and search for signs of the cult of Demeter and Priapus with a certain self-conscious delight. We felt like witnesses standing on the ruins of a long-lost empire. We felt as though we were strolling inside the landscapes of a socialist Hubert Robert.”
By the 1970s and 1980s the Exhibition no longer presented an organic vision of Soviet society; it had become a display of unique objects and a setting for foreign trade shows like the Moscow Book Fair. I remember visiting the newly opened “Consumer Goods Pavilion” with a friend in the summer of 1989. Our footsteps reverberated through vacant corridors, syncopating the sound of Gorbachev’s voice, which droned from TVs and radios the staff had dragged in to follow the proceedings of the Congress of People’s Deputies. Its cavernous spaces were filled with hundreds of things neither of us had ever seen in the stores or anyone’s apartment—washing machines and vacuum cleaners of antediluvian design, great hulking television sets and VCRs.
However, there were important ways in which the Exhibition never ceased to exert an ideological influence. Statistics on the achievements of Soviet socialism continued to articulate a world view in which nothing was left to chance. In this tightly structured universe, no subject was too insignificant, no detail too trivial to warrant the parental concern of state and Party. The language in which this concern was expressed exemplified the uravnilovka, i.e., egalitarianism or leveling, that governed every other aspect of Soviet society. The bombastic language used to praise the Party and its leaders was applied indiscriminately to less exalted subjects as well: the work of the Ukrainian Bee-Keeping Academy, or “Norms of Free Distribution of Sanitary Clothing to Chicken Processing Plant Workers” (one padded cotton jacket per year, one new uniform, several pairs of socks and underwear every three or six months depending on the job), to give a couple of examples I saw at the Exhibition last summer. Every person and every event was connected to the fate of the collective and thus to the omnipresent, omnipotent state. When applied to, say, hog raising or the cotton crop, the results seem comic today. But a text on hog farming would be connected by the logic of its rhetorical tone to far more serious matters. For a person indoctrinated in this chain-reaction thinking, an accolade to the cotton crop can raise the specter of competition with America, and hence of Western plots to destablize the Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear war. To question the Ukrainian bee-keeping academy is thus to question the fate of the empire; if not for the eternal friendship of the Soviet people, chicken-processing workers might be left without clean underwear. This cast of mind is still very much evident in Russian social and political discourse today—as anyone who has listened to a session of the Russian Parliament or to Vladimir Zhirinovsky knows.
When perestroika came along, VDNX became an excessively expensive toy for Gorbachev’s government. In 1990 most federal subsidies ceased; the industrial ministries, affected by budget cuts, refused to underwrite the pavilions any longer. The Exhibition went into decline: it had no real economic function, only a huge bureaucracy. After layoffs, attrition, and a hiring freeze, it still employs almost 3,500 people, and, in the manner of large Soviet enterprises, supports staff housing, nursery schools, clinics, libraries, archives, and vacation resorts. Caught up in the sovereignty craze that swept the USSR in its last year, the individual pavilions demanded “autonomy”: each was given its own bank account and the directors were told to fend for themselves. In order to cover staff salaries, maintenance, and their obligatory share of general overhead, most began renting out their space to anyone who wanted it.
Then, in one of the more spectacular absurdities of the New Russia, the great white elephant of the state, a scaled-down model of the USSR’s unwieldy, inefficient economy, was “privatized.” In 1993 it was renamed the “All-Russian Exhibition Center” and organized into a joint stock company. According to the director, Vadim Sayushev (appointed by the Party in 1983), the Russian federal government retains 51 percent, some 25 percent of the stock will be distributed free to the “collective,” present employees and retirees included, and the remainder may eventually be offered to the public. What privatization might actually mean is far from clear, since the city of Moscow owns the land and most of the pavilions are protected as cultural and architectural monuments that by law cannot be altered or demolished. A year after the privatization, no stock had been issued, articles in the newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets accused the administration of corruption and shady financial dealings, and there was some talk in the press of the government deprivatizing the exhibition.
The director has big plans for the new company, however. He wants to see it become “part of the Russian infrastructure,” with a “Technopark” with a “micro-city” of Western-style living quarters for visiting foreign R & D specialists; an Austro-Russian dental clinic and hotel; a TV production studio hooked up with nearby Ostankino Television; an American-style supermarket.
So far, however, the sole visible effect of the second Russian revolution has been to reverse the housing practices of the first. The Exhibition’s pavilions, built as palaces for the people, have been transformed into communal apartments of commerce: VDNX is now a bizarre shopping mall. Many of the most opulent pavilions have become congested labyrinths of tiny stalls that sell a jumble of consumer goods. Smaller pavilions have been rented by new Russian companies. The crime and racketeering that afflict the rest of Russian society flourish here, and many pavilions are now protected by private guard services.
The words of the Stalinist national anthem are still inscribed on the ceiling of the main rotunda like a taunt: “An Indivisible Union of Republics Free, Great Russia Forged For Infinity.” But below them, children sit on folding chairs, mesmerized by an endless loop of Tom and Jerry cartoons playing on a large video screen. Outdoors, ads for Mercedes Benz, BMW, Ford, and Chrysler, Sony, and Panasonic float out over the airwaves of the Exhibition’s PA system, interspersed with the news, rock music, Tchaikovsky, and “Ave Maria.” The same voices that once broadcast decisions of the Party’s Central Committee now lull visitors with promises of “lower than market prices” and ask them to invest their privatization vouchers in mutual funds. A “Center for Magic and Occult Medicine,” which rents space at the Exhibition, caters to the strong mystical streak in post-perestroika Russia, offering “Spells for Success and to Prevent Bankruptcy,” and, in a nod to the Exhibition’s past, “Spells to Protect the Harvest and Raise Productivity in Agriculture.”
During most of last year a huge American flag hung on the façade of the Space Pavilion, now a salesroom for US cars. The Atomic Energy Pavilion, a large white building with a portico of classical columns and a mural of Soviet peasants and workers greeting Lenin, once housed models of Soviet nuclear power stations, nuclear submarines, and Tokamak. It is now occupied by a company that sells US army-navy surplus. Behind a glassedin display of mess kits, knives, freeze-dried meals, and other military sundries stands a male mannequin in camouflage fatigues, a US flag decal on his sleeve; he stares at a female mannequin, with dark glasses and bright red lips and fingernails, who poses coyly on an inflatable mattress under a cascade of mosquito netting.
A growing number of people—artists and intellectuals as well as VDNX employees—would like to see the Exhibition preserved, though often for very different reasons. Much of what has not been stolen or vandalized is falling apart. Several pavilions have mysteriously burned down. The few remaining frescoes and paintings are threatened by leaky roofs and the clutter of commerce.
The empire is gone, but many people are nostalgic for what they think of as its glory; the Exhibition’s image of the future was far more reassuring than anything offered by the unsightly present. In Russia today, unreconciled imperial dreams, decaying Soviet bureaucracies, and an unruly, nascent capitalism coexist uneasily. It is hard to predict what will emerge. But at the Exhibition, surrounded by the picturesque ruins of Stalin’s empire, the “transition to democracy and a market economy” often seems just another Russian fairy tale.
December 22, 1994