Exploring the bizarre world of VDNKh

On the outskirts of Moscow is VDNKh – originally built by an exhibition centre to show off the achievements of the Soviet Union, by the time I visited in 2013 it was a bizarre mix of fairground meets flea market, set amongst a collection of Soviet architecture.

Entrance archway to the All-Russia Exhibition Centre

Established in 1935 as the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition (VSKhV) (Russian: Всесоюзная Сельско-Хозяйственная Выставка; Vsesoyuznaya Selsko-Khozyaystvennaya Vystavka), each pavilion showcased the achievements of a geographical region of the Soviet Union.

The park was further expanded in 1948 when the Soviet Council of Ministers issued a decree ordering a unification of VSKhV with the All-Union Industry Exhibition, which formed today’s Выставка достижений народного хозяйства (ВДНХ) (Vystavka Dostizheniy Narodnogo Khozyaystva (VDNKh)) – literally the “Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy”.

By 1989 the exhibition had expanded to an exhibition area of 700,000 square metres across 82 pavilions, many dedicated to a particular industry or field, but following the collapse of the Soviet Union the exhibitions were closed, replaced by a variety of tenants.

Exploring the pavilions

The centre has a diversity of architecture.

Heading past the Central Pavilion

The original pavilions are of Stalinist style.

Pavilions 58 and 59 - 'Ukraine' and 'Moscow, Tula and Ryazan region'

Some small and understated.

Pavilion 5: 'Latvian SSR'

While others were far grander.

Pavilion of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic

Some imitated buildings found elsewhere, like those of the resort city of Sochi.

Pavilion 2 'North Caucasus' now taken over by a shark aquarium

And of the Moldavian SSR.

Pavilion 10: 'Moldavian SSR'

But others are modern.

Pavilion 12: 'Trade Unions'

Over the years some pavilions had been renovated.

Pavilion 13: 'Health'

Receiving modernist facades.

Pavilion 15: 'Electronics and Communication'

That hide the original design behind.

Pavilion 14: 'Computer Science'

But today restoration is the order of the day.

Pavilion 18 under restoration: 'Republic of Belarus'

Into the fairground

I visited VDNKh at Christmas time.

Christmas tree outside the main entrance

An ice skating rink occupied the main square.

Ice skating at the All-Russia Exhibition Centre

With pony rides on offer.

Pony rides on offer

And sideshow games.

Pavilion 4: 'Kyrgyzstan' hides in the background

Food stalls.

Sideshows line the main avenue

Kids rides.

Not 'Red Bull' but 'Black Bull'

And a miniature train.

Miniature on-road train to carry shoppers to the far-flung pavilions

Beneath a ferris wheel.

'Moscow-850' Ferris wheel at the All-Russia Exhibition Centre

Then into the pavilions

If you look up on entering the pavilions, the ornate ceilings catch your eye.

Soviet realist paintings inside the pavilion

But look down and it’s a dive.

Retail stores retrofitted into the Central Pavilion

With a rabbit warren of shops occupying what were once grand spaces.

Rabbit warren of stalls down on the ground floor

Need a new remote control?

Need a new remote control?

A cheap watch?

Plenty of watches for sale

Camera equipment?

Selection of camera equipment on sale

A computer mouse?

Computer mice and other peripherals

A spare part for your sewing machine?

Hundreds of spare parts for sewing machines

Binoculars or a magnifying glass?

This stall specialises in binoculars and magnifying glasses

Pet supplies?

Pet supplies for sale in this stall

Or ladies fashion?

Women's fashion stalls inside this pavilion

It’s all here!

And the seedy underbelly

Fishing reels alongside replica pistols that shoot BBs.

Fishing reels alongside replica pistols that shoot BBs

Hunting knifes.

Need a hunting knife?

Tactical torches, stun guns and imitation pistols.

Tactical torches, stun guns and imitation pistols that shoot BBs

And the office for a stun gun manufacturer.

Shop for a stun gun manufacturer

Have you ever seen an odder collection of retailers?

So capitalism won?

Just take a look at the forest of foreign cars beneath the front gate.

Soviet realist architecture - amid a forest of foreign cars

Further reading

Russia Beyond have a piece titled Soviet Era Theme Park that dives deeper into the history of VDNKh.

Since my visit in 2013 the restoration of the park has accelerated, which is covered by The Calvert Journal in Empire state of mind: how do you update a vast Stalinist exhibition space for the present day?

The administration of the park and the Moscow City Government have so far displayed a marked tendency to restore the Exhibition to its condition in 1954, favouring Stalinism over Modernism. In 2014, the facades of two modernist facades were hastily taken down, in defiance of the law.

Russian-language Wikipedia has a list of pavilions and structures at VDNKh, with the history of each pavilion detailed on this interactive park map.

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