Is VDNH, Moscow just a memorial to a Soviet never-never land?

Russia is one of those countries which every foreigner has an opinion about.

Of course, what people think about it changes. A bit. When Mama first came to Moscow, it was all food lines, bears on the streets and year round snow. Ten years later it was more about the super rich owning football clubs, bears on the streets and year round snow. Twenty years earlier, it was the stone-faced communists and their threat to the world, bears on the streets and year round snow. We are back now to super villain status – bare-chested, riding on a bear, in year round snow – but through all of this what people have seen as a handy symbol of whatever they think of the country is Red Square and the Kremlin.

They are where gold leaf is frowned on in favour of severe granite blocks and lots of marble, and then plastered back again twofold and with added malachite in the government buildings and state apartments.

Where churches are demolished to make way for the tanks, and then rebuilt with a super large statue of St Vladimir the bringer of Christianity to ancient Rus round the corner for good measure.

Where conspicuous consumption conspicuously isn’t in the State Department Store GUM, and then returns at conspicuously high prices, supplemented by advertising that takes the form of a giant Luis Vuitton suitcase slap bang in front of St Basil’s.

Where military parades now jostle for their place with extravagant firework displays, exclusive rock concerts and public skating in the winter.

Where Lenin still hasn’t been moved out of his mausoleum, but is can be covered by a jaunty awning if his presence is inconvenient, such as when Easter coincides with the 1st May.

Sort of thing.

So of course, you need to visit both. But there are other places which represent the changing face and fortunes of Russia in the 20th Century.

One of those is VDNH.

The Soviet exhibtion complex VDNH VDNKh Moscow

Or VDNKh, because the last sound doesn’t transliterate very well into English. Try doing the ‘ch’ in the Scottish ‘loch’ and you are close. Mama prefers the second spelling, but the Russians themselves seem to have given up.

VDNH (VDNKh) stands for ‘the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy’ (they tried to rename it ‘the All-Russian Exhibition Centre’ for a while. It didn’t stick). It began as the Soviet equivalent of the Great Exhibition in 19th Century London or the World Trade Fair in the US in the 50s and it is remarkable for the amazing set of buildings, or pavilions, each representing some achievement unlocked by the hero supermen and women of the Soviet Union.

Mama used to be particularly delighted by the fact that if you come in the front entrance of VDNH, the buildings start out being to really grand things like electromagnetic engineering! Armenia! And space!

Armenian pavilion VDNH VDNKh Moscow

And then work their way to the back with the more modest structures where it’s all pigs! Meat! And honey!

meat production pavilion VDNH VDNKh Moscow

She found out later that the agriculture section is where it all started, so it’s not surprising that it is curiously well represented if less epic in scope than later offerings.

A tad tasteless, too, given that this part was begun not long after a large number of people had starved to death due to the famine brought about at least in part by Soviet agricultural policies.

Told you it’s representative.

Today there are over 500 permanent buildings, 49 of which have been designated as listed buildings.

Pavilion at VDNH Moscow

What that means is that it has a very very big territory. Mama is itching to suggest that out of all the World Exhibition Great Fairs, Moscow’s is probably the biggest in some way, but she has no evidence to back this up. Wikipedia does say that the area is larger than the whole of the principality of Monaco though, so that’s something, right?

Belarus pavilion vdnh vdnkh Moscow

Anyway. Up until the dying days of the Soviet Union, VDNH (VDNKh), as the name suggests it ought to, did indeed host actual exhibitions, conferences and scientific meetings and so on. As well as being a pleasant spot for your average Muscovite to come and stroll around and have popular music piped to them over the outdoor loud hailer system, while eating ice cream and boggling at the architectural masterpieces.

Architectural detail at VDNH VDNKh Moscow

Then came the 90s, and the buildings were leased out to a random collection of ramshackle hawkers. The whole place became like a large, well-appointed and peculiarly eclectic pound shop. You could buy anything in the way of random tat here from one of the huge number of higgaldy piggaldy stalls crammed into every available corner in every possible building. Mama’s favourite find was a two dollar double bass bow. No it wasn’t a music specialist shop at all. They also sold plastic cutlery, cheap alarm clocks, tea and clothes.

So, in fact, also very representative, this time of the 90s in Russia. Rampant but basically ill-conceived capitalism.

They still piped out the latest hits around the park though, and if you weren’t to be lured inside by the thought of browsing for a new fridge, a pot plant and a bottle of not-best Crimean champagne, it was still worth going for the vast number of outdoor side shows and fairground attractions, as well as the large number of barbecued meat stalls.

And then all that changed. Since 2014, the governance of the area has been taken firmly back by the Moscow city authorities, who have evicted the kiosk holders and started a major overhaul of what were increasingly crumbling pavilions.

Today it is home to permanent spectacles you may even want to visit, such as the Moskvarium aquarium, the Polytechnic Museum’s not very temporary anymore exhibition, the Museum of Illusions, the Russia, My History multimedia extravaganza*, and the City Farm.

VDNH (VDNKh) puts on more and more performances, art exhibitions and the like every year, and there’s also space now for really large events such as comic conventions, travel shows, education fairs and lift exhibitions.

And, of course, it has a giant skating rink in winter, sports an urban beach in summer and is the backdrop for some of Moscow’s better firework displays on major holidays.

ice skating vdnh moscow

There is even a thriving equestrian centre. You can go on a tour of the stables, ride a horse or just hang around and watch people putting their steeds through their paces!

horses at the equestrian centre vdnh moscow

The next phase of renovations has just kicked in, and, once again, mirrors the re-beautification of all of Moscow under the current Mayor. This phase will see, among other things, the particularly large and fabulous Space pavilion totally revamped and, if Mama understands correctly, the collection from the current Cosmonautics Museum may well be moving there when it’s finished.

The current museum is too small, apparently. Mama is biting her tongue in an effort not to giggle, but not succeeding very well.

This does mean that an awful lot of things are swathed in scaffolding right now or being dug up, so if you visit this summer, the place will not be looking at its most impressive. But in a year or so’s time, wheeeee!

Restoration at VDNH Moscow

It’s hard, and it’s particularly hard for Mama, who loves the place, to think of any down side to this, aside from the ever-present tension between public spending on the cosmetic upkeep of a city versus pumping extra cash into the welfare and social support system. At least VDNH (VDNKh) is a space that can be enjoyed by all.

Even with the debate about the appropriacy of keeping public memorials to historical regimes or figures which now represent ideals or behaviours we condemn, the thing about the sort of Soviet propaganda which VDNH (Veh. Deh. eN. Kh) is a particularly large example of, is that it celebrates human achievements which are largely positive.

This fountain, for example, which is portraying the gold-covered harmony in which all Soviet peoples lived may not be terribly accurate, but it’s not as if it isn’t something that should be true.

Friendship of Nations Fountain VDNH VDNKh Moscow

There are undoubtedly some difficult corners – Mama finds the statues to the children who denounced their parents for unSoviet behaviour disturbing round what used to be the pavilion celebrating children and childhood – but broadly speaking it is good to have a vision of humanity to aspire to sometimes, as well as reminders of when we have failed to live up to that.

And if you just simply and purely want to see a bit of Soviet kitsch, which isn’t really that much in evidence in the Kremlin and Red Square, then this is the place to come.

Soviet detailing VDNH Moscow

Mama does rather mourn the disappearance of her favourite by the glass wine bar (bar snacks included blue cheese on sticks and olives. Mama is so seventies, yeah?). But luckily they still play you cheesy pop songs over the loudspeakers, which Mama thinks has probably always been the best bit.

Nonsense, Mama. It’s the actual rocket, the real life space shuttle and the cosmos themed playground that’s the best bit.

Rocket space shuttle and playground at VDNH Moscow

All in all VDNH (or VDNKh. Do have a go at the rasp) is not something to miss out if you are ever in Moscow, and if you live here there is plenty to keep you coming back and back.

*Actually, don’t go to Russia My History. No, really, you have been warned.

More information

The park’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Millenium Dome, mediocrity on a colossal scale.

Address: VDNH Estate 119, Prospect Mira, Moscow, 129223.

Admission to the territory is free.

By public transport: The VDNKh (VDNH) station is on the orange line and you will go in through the rather splendid front gates. You can also come in the back by getting off at Botanichisky Sad (the orange line, and also the new Moscow Central Circle Line) and if you don’t want to walk, there’s a shuttle minibus that takes you from this station into the very heart of VDNH too. There are also numerous tram, trolleybus and bus routes going past the park.

By car: Car parks exist.

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VDNH in Moscow is a Soviet exhibtition space full of architectural masterpieces

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Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

The success of the recent(ish) Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts can probably be summed up by my reaction to the first installation we came across.

I stopped short and breathed WOW! in an awed voice.

 A huge squareish wooden War of the Worlds alien dominating what in the normal run of things is a very classically proportioned room

Well, you would wouldn’t you? A huge square wooden War of the Worlds alien, dominating what in the normal run of things is a very classically proportioned room, complete with gold angel trimmings? It was impressive stuff, especially when it turned out you could scramble up and down twisty steps in the legs or run up and down a series of shallow ramps to get into the box on top and squint though slits at the punters below or the ceiling mouldings above.

We did that a lot. I do like a good staircase. My Wonderful Big Brother liked the ramps. Mama liked the spy holes. Something for everyone.

We also approved of the room with the tunnel of straws. Of course, manual dexterity is not really my Wonderful Big Brother’s thing, so he didn’t really get involved in the suggested activity of adding our own creations made from long coloured plastic tubes. And I would have preferred removing the fruit of the other visitors’ labour. But it was nice to be able to touch something so visually attractive and tactile, and nice to see the many many adults’ little faces all lit up as they all threw themselves enthusiastically into the crafting opportunity.

Adults adding brightly coloured straws to a plastic honeycomb tunnel

Next up was dashing around a stick-walled maze, interspersed with lots of little wooden wendyhouse type rooms for us to explore. At its heart was a pebble room, which made truly satisfying crunchy noises as we stomped around it. We spent quite a bit of time in there building cairns. Just like being at the beach! Without all the inconvenience of being boiled by the relentless sun, covered in eye-stinging sunscreen, getting sticky from ice cream, or having to deal with all that salty wet stuff. Mama definitely approved, and wonders why more playgrounds don’t replace the unpleasantly gritty sandpit with a nice pebble box instead.

A pile of pebbles at the Royal Academy

Not everything was to our taste. There was an exhibit which mostly involved standing still and looking up rather than whizzing around and touching stuff which we were less impressed by although the big people seemed entranced. And while Mama LOVED the dark rooms with the mysteriously lit thin sticks we all thought looked like fire, I found it positively frightening  refusing to let her into the second part altogether, and my Wonderful Big Brother lost interest when he realised he wasn’t allowed to fling himself into the middle of the flames.

Thin bamboo sticks twisted into flames and lit up in the dark

 

But overall it was by far the most interesting high art experience Mama has dragged us off to, and it’s a shame she can’t recommend it because it has now closed, and the various exhibits sold off.

There is a wider point Mama wants to make here though.

The reason we went to this exhibition in the first place was because the RA had made an effort to market it at parents and their children, going so far as to host a get together of Brit Mums bloggers in their cafe (with the opportunity to go round Sensing Spaces for free afterwards). The reason why we went back with my Wonderful Big Brother in tow and paid actual money to get in was because Mama was impressed on this visit by the staffs’ genuine commitment and enthusiasm for getting the kids in and letting them have at it, and damn the noise and sticky fingers. Even the doorman was jolly.

Admittedly, this sort of attitude did encourage all the many many kids who were subsequently taken along to Sensing Spaces to think of the exhibition as a playground, and so the whole experience was a tad confusing as we were all were alternately encouraged to get stuck in and then sharply pulled up when we did, nearly bowling over an elderly art patron or shattering a large mirror in the process. As a result, the air did rather ring with desperate cries of ‘Not quite THAT fast/ loud/ energetically, honeypie!’ as the exhibition did rather too good a job of stimulating us. Mama also wondered if the non-children-encumbered patrons were enjoying the chaos as much. But the atmosphere seemed pretty good humoured, and our enthusiasm certainly got a lot of amused glances. She is forced to conclude that perhaps everybody was secretly delighted by the opportunity to wreak a bit of havoc in an art gallery.

Long colourful straws inserted into a plastic honeycomb tunnel

Anyway. Mama thinks the Royal Academy might be worth keeping an eye on. It’s a wrench, of course, to part with a full £14 in a city where there is so much free stuff to enjoy, but certainly the next time they say their latest offering is child-friendly, then we should probably believe them. And if they say it often enough, there are membership options to consider. Just leave the pushchairs at home. There isn’t room in the cloakroom.

More Information

The Royal Academy of Arts’ website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the world’s most beautiful buildings.

Address: Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD.

Opening: Sat to Thurs 10am -6pm, Fri 10am -10pm.

Price: This exhibition was £14 for adults, under 17s free.

By tube: Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly and Bakerloo lines) and Green Park (Jubilee, Piccadilly and Victoria lines). 

By bus: Lots of buses!

By car: Just don’t.

Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

I am forced to admit that the Soane Museum, based on the collection of architect Sir John Soane (1753 – 1837), is not for the fainthearted toddler mamas out there.

Soane Museum

Housed in a perfectly ordinary London townhouse and the two either side Sir John bought when his collection of architectural knickknacks started getting out of hand, it is both cramped and stuffed very full of really fragile objects. A bit like the British Museum, but on a less national scale. Or Papa’s loft, but with fewer amplifiers, turntables and many many cables and more bits of cornicing, gargoyles, stone urns, sarcophaguses and busts of random strangers. It is, in fact, very much the sort of place where people whose first instinct is to run around with outstretched sticky hands and whose second is to find anything breakable within reach are not particularly welcome. And it is not pushchair friendly, not pushchair friendly at all.

So Mama was quite smug that she had anticipated all of this and turned up without my Amazing Big Brother and with me in a sling, forethought that had the museum authorities direct a distinct look of approval at my immovable status. They still made Mama leave her big bag at the door, only permitting her to take her valuables round in a clear plastic bag held strictly in front of her to prevent, I suppose, accidental brushings up against precariously perched bits of statuary. Mama’s usual habit of feeding me rice cakes to keep me quiet was also vetoed – no food and drink of any kind inside the house. Or stilettos. I don’t know what they are, but they sound like fun. Mama says not though. Be warned. Plan accordingly.

As for the museum, Soane’s special interest being something my Mama knows nothing about, she really should have bought the guide book, particularly as this is a museum somewhat lacking in explanatory labelling or any apparent logical order to the items on display. The attendants are happy to chat about the rooms, however, and what Mama did glean is that while Sir John was pretty successful as an architect, most of the money used to buy the collection came from an unexpected but massive inheritance by his wife. Acquiring the collection dented this so little that Sir John left such a vast amount of money in his will that it was only relatively recently that the museum has really had to work hard to search out more funding.

Did the man not have anything better to do with his (wife’s) money, I hear you cry? Well, he quarrelled badly with his two sons, and seems to have set up the museum as a way of keeping them from getting any (more) money out of him. Mama remains rather worried about the sons, despite the evidence they were extremely unsatisfactory offspring. She is a sucker for put upon children stories these days. I blame hormones.

Of course, Mama is also prone to saying things like, shame the wife didn’t get to choose what to spend her own money on.

Still, Mama thoroughly enjoyed poking around all the rooms, a total lack of intellectual understanding of what she was seeing notwithstanding, because it is such a glorious monument to rampant eccentricity. She says. And they have lots of pictures by Hogarth, which Mama, the former historian with an early modern bent, finds absolutely thrilling, and who seems to have had a sharp sense of humour for the ages.

I’m not sure what this picture is all about, but it looks like fun. Mama says yes.

The Rake's Progress - orgy

Obviously in such a small space they don’t have room for frivolities like a coffee shop (although they do have a souvenir shop) so when the call of the cool tactile objects became to much we repaired to Lincoln’s Inn Fields opposite the museum. Surprisingly, it isn’t a field. It’s a large London public garden with plenty of space to run round and have something to eat. We’d bought a picnic, but there’s a café, which looked nice. Mama thought. She does like her coffee. I got to hang out with two dance students casually trading moves on the bandstand, much to Mama’s delight. She thinks my dancing is amusing. Mama enjoyed watching all the office workers doing bootcampesque exercise on their lunchbreak. Mama says it’s called schadenfreude really, but that word is a bit long for me for everyday use.

Anyway, I recommend the Soane Museum to all those toddlers still small enough to be firmly immobilized, to very well behaved children, and to their parents. Mama even took Papa there when they had some time to themselves when my Amazing Big Brother and I were staying at my Grandparents recently, although what they wanted that break for I do not know. Papa enjoyed it so much he donated actual money.

This is very high praise indeed.

More Information

The museum’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about the museum.

Address: 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, WC2A 3BP.

Opening: Tuesday to Saturday 10am-5pm.  Last entry 4:30pm. Closed every Sunday, Monday and bank holiday.

Price: Admission is free.

Tube: Holborn (Piccadilly and Central lines).

Bus: Nearest stop at Holborn tube station.

A Green and Rosie Life