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