The VDNKh (The Exhibition of the Achievements of the People’s Economy) Park is one of the oddest parks I have visited. (The letters are pronounced something like “vedeenkha” and stand for vystavka dostizhenii narodnykh khozyastva.) We wandered into the park after the excitement of the Museum of Cosmonautics, looking for some fresh air, a cup of coffee, maybe. We found a strange mix of pavilions, some abandoned, a golden fountain that wasn’t working, and a monument to what seemed to be the electrification of the Soviet Union.
My children are growing up with no sense of the strange shadow that the Soviet Union cast over the twentieth century. A new country, magicked into being by a revolution, run by communists — for the people, by the people — the USSR intended to be a nation where equality was as natural as breathing. The economy was centrally planned, farms collectivised, and all the people would benefit. Just how wonderful life could be would be put on display here, in The Exhibition of the Achievements of the People’s Economy. Proof that Utopia had arrived.
On a monumental scale — as everything Soviet — the park is larger than Monaco. Opened in the Stalin era, in 1939, VDNKh celebrated and glorified the achievements of the 15 republics of the union, with a pavilion dedicated to each republic and the major forms of industry. The golden central fountain had a sculpted merry maiden from each of the republics dressed in national costume and soaked in the rain from the central giant bundle of wheat.
Brought to this park to marvel might be the most productive cotton pickers of Armenia, the highest-output miners of Kazakhstan, the most efficient car-builders from Latvia, or the hardest-working engineers from the Irkutsk Hydroelectric Power Station. Did they celebrate, those workers, here in the best of all possible worlds? Every year that went by, they were told, they produced more sugar, more steel, more coal, more wheat. Did they dare to mention the millions of Ukrainians who died during the famine of the early 1930s? The million or so executed during Stalin’s “Great Terror”? Probably not. The wastes of the Gulag are endless and, if you weren’t sent to Siberia, the secret police could put a bullet in the back of your head before morning.
When we visited, the VDNKh was falling into disrepair. The ornate pavilions were weather-beaten and tacky stalls selling ice-creams had sprung up between.
The House of the Soviet People behind the statue of Lenin was filled with stalls selling mobile phones. Gone were the monuments to Beekeeping and Electro-technology. Even the park’s most famous statue — Worker and Collective Farm Woman, by Vera Mukhina, a tractor driver and farm hand brandishing the hammer and sickle — had been taken away for repair.
My children have no recollection of the Soviet Union: its threat, its chaos, its brutality. But perhaps in front of the fountain of the friendship of nations, they can glimpse something of its ideals, its aspirations and its dreams.
The park is now slated for a makeover. I wonder what dreams they will salvage from the decay.