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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


The Soviet Propaganda Park: Myths and Reality of the All-Russian Exhibition Center (VVC)
Text and photos by Dr. Olga Zinovieva

Coming out from the VDNKh metro station, one can immediately see the statue of the Tractor Driver and Kolkhoz Woman (Sergey Orlov), a sculptural group, symbolizing the values of the Soviet planned economy. This imposing piece of art towers above the cluster of free market stands and kiosks, selling music, clothing, pancakes and hotdogs. The statue crowns the Triumphant Arch (Innokenty Melchakov, 1954), the Main Entrance to the All-Russian Exhibition Center, the virtual gate, elaborately decorated, which once connected the uneasy realities of Soviet life with the Communist Paradise spread over 136 hectares. It was designed as a constellation of palladium constructions decorated with columns, porticoes, sculptures, murals, mosaics and majolica, which housed pavilions of all fifteen Soviet republics and separate industries, handsomely ornamented with commodities, which never existed in real life. They were produced to impress and show how the Soviet people would soon live.

The Friendship of Peoples Fountain; architects: K.Topuridze, G.Konstantinovsky; sculptors: Z.Bazhenova, L.Bazhenova, A.Teneta, Z.Rileeva, I.Chaikov; 1954

The exhibition had model farms with lovely cottages, dairies, barns, veterinary services, offices, schools, stables, and sheep sheds surrounded by orchards, vineyards and lakes brimming with fish. All full of life with farmers tending to cows, pigs, horses and chickens. In the time of shortages, restaurants and kiosks offered delicious food and refreshments. Flowers, fountains of fresh water made a short Russian summer look brighter and better. A well-known Russian fairy tale gave the name of the Stone-Flower to one of the fountains; fifteen golden naiads, wearing the costumes of the Soviet republics stretch their hands towards the sheets of water around the Fountain of People’s Friendship.

The tradition of designing propaganda parks had not been new to Russia. In 1775 architect Vasily Bazhenov, contracted by Catherine II, arranged a park (near what is now Aeroport metro station) with wooden pavilions, which presented the narration of the victory over Turkey through mythological symbols. Trade fairs had been very popular in Moscow and Russia in general. The Great London Exposition of 1862, followed by the International Exhibition of 1889 in Paris marked the advent of the era of industrialization. Russia and the Soviet Union took part in most of them. However, Stalin wanted to have the exhibition to promote the benefits of the Soviet regime, rather than individual commodities or services.

The opening took place 70 years ago on August 1, 1939. The media coverage could still serve as a brilliant success story of the national propaganda campaign. Competitions among collective farms and individual farmers had been organized and the winners were awarded with trips to the All-Union Exhibition of Agriculture (VSKHV) as it was called at that time.

Visitors from remote villages were stunned by what they saw as it was so different from their own lives. They returned back to their homes to advocate for the Communist future, convinced by what they had seen, as well as by the rich gifts from the organizers. Novels, songs and movies were produced about this miracle, portraying it as the place to make friends, present the results of hard labor, exchange experiences and relax, eating the best icecream in the world. The most esteemed scholars presented success stories of national agriculture, at the same time as villages were suffering as the result of collectivization and mismanagement.

This venue changed its name ambitiously from the All-Union Exhibition of Agriculture to the All-Union Exhibition of Economic Achievements (VDNKH) in 1959, replaced by the current one after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Changes in political and artistic tastes have impacted the design of the buildings, adding spires, cupolas as well as contemporary glass constructions. Sometimes it is hard to say what the original plan was and who the architect or artists were. Very eclectic and difficult to maintain, it still serves as a permanent trade show, attracting business people, tourists and admirers of Stalinist architecture but mostly those, who come to do some less expensive shopping in Moscow.

The Main Entrance to VVC; architect: I. Melchakov; sculptor: S. Orlov; 1954

Sculpture on the Meat Pavilion V. Lisitsyn, C. Chernobay; 1954

Its first Master Plan of 1936 was designed by Viacheslav Oltarzhevsky, who had spent more than 10 years in New York, studying high-rise construction and dreamt of skyscrapers in Moscow. However, on his return to Russia he got a totally different assignment to lay out a wonderland, full of miracles. Oltarzhevsky composed a sort of temporary entertainment park with the pavilions constructed from wood. It was a very complex and creative project, ready for the first show season of July, 1937. Three weeks before the deadline Stalin personally postponed the exhibition for one year, as the place looked too modest for the Red Tsar. Some pavilions and the entrance gates by Oltarzhevsky were torn down to be replaced with structures more appropriate for the tastes of the fastidious client. In 1938, a state commission examined the construction and decided that it did not suit the ideological direction of the moment. Oltarzhevsky was arrested and spent several years in Vorkuta.

His successor Sergei Chernishev, who had received his education before the revolution of 1917 and had hands-on experience with classical principles, respected the work of his predecessor and followed his initial plan but made the place look more spectacular. The artistic image of the complex was conceptualized by a number of famous artists, who kept being replaced as the result of political reshuffles: El Lisitsky, known through his projects for Russian and international trade shows was replaced by V.A. Shestakov, famous as a creative theatric designer. His talent proved to be very appropriate for the melodramatic expression of Stalinist ideology.

The park of 1939 got its most memorable statue of the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, featuring the gigantic figures of a man and woman holding together the famous hammer and sickle. The sculpture, which reached 25 meters towards the sky, was created by Vera Mukhina. It was originally placed on top of the 35- meter-tall Soviet Pavilion (Boris Iofan) at the International Exposition in Paris in 1937. The statue became the logo of Russia’s largest movie studio: Mosfilm. Once produced at an aircraft plant, it became rusted with time and was sent for renovation. It is expected to be mounted on its new foundations in late 2009.

After WWII several attempts were made to open the exhibition again. The new wave of very expensive projects, which reflected the glorious style of the post-war Soviet Union with its heroic statues, laurel garlands and palm trees, delayed the opening. Finally the concept of industry was added to agriculture, and the idea to unite workers and peasants, hammers and sickles, in brick and stucco was manifested. Even the plan of the park reflected this symbol – you reach the Square of Agriculture first, going along the Main Alley and then into the Square of Mechanization, where the statue of Joseph Stalin (Sergey Merkurov, 1939) once stood. One can find a small granite copy of this giant statue in the Sculpture Park near the New Tretiakov Picture Gallery.

The Culture Pavilion, former Uzbek Republic Pavillion; S. Polupanov; 1939

The main pavilion of the current VVC used to be the focal point of the Soviet ideology. It presented the Soviet constitution, the victory of Socialism as well as a successful march of collectivization and industrialization. The building changed its artistic image and symbolic configuration more than once, reflecting political fluctuations in the country. Built by Vladimir Shuko and Vladimir Gelfreikh in monumentally austere forms of 1939 it was upgraded with brass banners, sculptures and a tall spire surmounted with the golden star by Yury Shyko and E. Stoliarov in 1954.

Perestroika has changed the name and the profile of VDNKh: it has become very difficult to maintain and run Stalinist pavilions with lots of stucco details and cement sculpture. In order to survive the VVC management has to market space to retailers and also competes with other exhibitors. These are new times and Joseph Stalin could hardly have imagined the new economic conditions in which VVC exists now.

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