<< 2008-02-03 13:42 >>

Monument to the Conquerors of Space,
by svonog. Some rights reserved

I've hinted a couple of times in previous blog entries about "surprises" in Moscow, and the biggest of these was without question VDNKh, which has to rank near the top of the list of the most bizarre things I've ever seen. Unfortunately, all of my photos of it were lost, and never recovered, so the photos on this page are shared photos from Flickr.

VDNKh, known in English as the All-Russia Exhibition Centre, is essentially a theme park established by the Soviet government to showcase the achievements of the socialist countries. It was originally built in the late 30s, then restored after the war and reopened in 1950. You could think of it as a celebration of the triumphs of communism, if you want. If this sounds a little odd let me tell you that it is nothing like as strange as to actually visit the place.

The first thing we saw on coming out of the metro looked like a rather big and shabby modern fun fair. We decided this couldn't be it, and walking around a little we spotted the monument "To The Conquerors of Space". This wasn't very hard, given that it's 107 meters high, and perched on top of a little mound. It's a giant titanium obelisk showing a rocket disappearing into space and its wake, with some bas reliefs on the base. The relief is interesting, in that it shows in fine socialist romantic style (progressing from front to back) the cosmonauts, the scientists, and clerks in the actual space program, and at the back the workers, on whose behalf they (in theory, anyway) were conquering space.

Looking around we spotted some kind of large structure in the distance, and wandered towards it. This turned out to be the huge entrance gate, which is vaguely reminiscent of the Brandenburg Gate, but again done out in socialist romantic style, with two workers carrying sheaves of grain in triumph. We figured this must be the entrance and walked through it to find a huge park on the other side, so clearly this was the entrance to VDNKh.

On the other side was something that looked superficially like a park, with some half-hearted attempts at amusements and kiosks dotted here and there, and in the distance a very odd structure. It looked a bit like a cathedral, but one covered in communist propaganda art. This was a recurring theme throughout the exhibition, that the communist regime had not really created a communist architecture, but instead had copied bourgeois and classical models, and cover them with a thin veneer of communist imagery.

Central pavillion with Mickey, Ninja Turtles,
and Shrek, by svonog. Some rights reserved

This turned out to be the central pavillion of the exhibition. Inside, however, the exhibition about the glories of communism was gone, replaced by shops selling bags, cameras, jewelry, and other consumer goods. This seemed somehow highly symbolic. Instead of tearing down the cathedrals of socialism, the Russians had instead desecrated them by turning them into temples of capitalism.

Further into the complex we found a fountain surrounded by 16 gilded statues of girls in national dresses, symbolising the friendship of nations. In Stalin's Soviet Union? It was surrounded by neo-classicial pavillions dedicated to various nationalities such as Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and so on. The pavillion for Karelia was a strange temple-like wooden structure in a style probably not seen anywhere else.

At the far end was an even more bizarre mix of neo-classical semi-Grecian temples (really exhibition pavillions), a power station, two space rockets, and an old Ilyushin passenger plane. It turned out you could pay to enter the plane, sit in the cockpit and look at an exhibition in Russian.

I found the whole experience strangely poignant. In the previous century the globe was swept by an ideology that promised to do away with poverty, inequality, and oppression, and bring a better future for the masses. At its high point, when regimes following this ideology ruled something like a quarter of the world, and when it looked like communism might actually win, they built this monument to celebrate its achievements. And then it all crumbled. Today this is pretty much all that's left of communism's achievements, a shell of an exhibition park, full of small capitalist enterprises selling consumer goods and snacks.

The friendship of nations by svonog. Some rights reserved

Communist symbols on central pavillion by svonog. Some rights reserved

Plane, rocket, and temples by svonog. Some rights reserved

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svonog - 2008-02-05 12:13:05

Hey, thanks for blogging about the VDNKh and for using the photos! Great story!

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