VDNKh: Stalin’s Theme Park


The All-Union Agricultural Exhibition was intended to showcase the success of the collective farms.

There was an immediate problem in that the collective farms were a disaster: output collapsed, there was a terrible famine and millions died. But they were Stalin’s idea and Stalin – Orwell’s model for Comrade Napoleon – was always right and his policies never failed, they were just sabotaged by “kulaks,” “Trotsky-fascists,” “imperialist lackeys” or whatever label he decided to pin on the scapegoats.


Construction of the All-Union Exhibition went ahead, originally on 330 acres of wasteland in the northern suburbs of Moscow. It opened in August 1939, a few months after the New York World’s Fair with which it was sometimes compared.

There were pavilions to represent each of the Soviet Republics, territories and regions, all built to impress on a scale to match the General Secretary’s ego. Statues, stained-glass, mosaics and bas-reliefs spoke of plentiful harvests, well-fattened animals and happy peasants, interleaved with the corporate logos of Soviet communism, the hammers and sickles, the stars and the CCCP’s. Inside were exhibits of agricultural techniques and machinery.


While the New York World’s Fair was quickly dismantled and slowly forgotten, the All-Union Exhibition expanded in scope and area to become the Exhibition of National Economic Achievements, abbreviated in Russian to VDNKh. It gained more pavilions, magnificent fountains and a stop of its own on the Metro.

Cosmonauts Alley leads up from the station. It is more allée than alley: a broad, straight avenue cut through parkland, lined with trees.


There are statues along its margins of iconic figures from the Soviet space programme: the likes of Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Terashkova (first man and first woman in space), Alexey Leonov (first spacewalk), and less happily Vladimir Komarov (first man to die on a space mission).

At intervals up the centre line, there are granite plinths cut into the shape of the Soviet star, planed to an angle and topped with bronze plates, also star-shaped, detailing events from the earlier years of the Space Race (before NASA caught up and went into the lead). They are interspersed with vibrant flower beds.


An oversize statue of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky – the original rocket scientist – stands at the end of the avenue and, beyond it, the grandly-named Monument to the Conquerors of Space, a 400-foot-high swoosh of titanium representing a rocket aloft with its exhaust plume beneath it.

The park and exhibition centre at the other side of the monument now sprawl over 2.3 sq km, roughly equivalent to Monaco and the Vatican City combined.


In the Yeltsin years, VDNKh was parcelled up and leased out to private companies, which gutted the pavilions, threw away the exhibits and turned the empty spaces into warehouses and retail outlets.

The historic pavilions, soon half-hidden behind illegal extensions and advertising hoardings, fell into disrepair. Hundreds of jerry-built temporary structures were thrown up between them. The complex seemed unlikely to survive. There were proposals to demolish the lot to make room for a shopping centre.


When I went in the summer of 2015, I expected to find the decaying remains of what had once been described as “the Soviet Versailles”. But, unknown to me, the authorities had recently demolished a few hundred illegal buildings and extensions, torn down the ugly hoardings, cleared out 10,000 tons of garbage, remade the roads and paths, added benches and bins, replanted the flowerbeds and restored the eighty-year-old pavilions.

It was surreal to walk among buildings evocative of the international expos that captured so many imaginations between the Thirties and the Sixties and which are still studded with Soviet iconography. They have been cleaned up and repainted, but the stonework, the stained-glass, the mosaics are original, so there is none of the sense that there often is after major restorations that you are effectively looking at a modern replica.


The parkland around them is pleasant to walk in and full of surprises with gushing fountains and monumental gardens, a boating lake, a photo exhibition in a rose garden, a tiny Orthodox church, a Vostok rocket and Buran spacecraft, a theatre, an aquarium, an SU-27 fighter jet and YAK-42 airliner.

The BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, called it “Russia’s answer to Disney World, but without the rides,” but the comparison is unfair, both to VDNKh and to Disney World.

© Richard Senior 2016

The Dictator who Came in from the Cold


Stalin lookalikes work Red Square, puffing on pipes and pretending to talk into mobile phones. There are Lenins, as well, and a much less convincing Putin; but it is Stalin the tourists want to be photographed with, as if with a favourite uncle.

There was nothing avuncular about Stalin, although sycophants gave him cuddly names like “Father of the Peoples” and “Best Friend of All Children”.  Even a Marxist historian described him as “an autocrat of exceptional, some might say unique, ferocity, ruthlessness and lack of scruple*”.

Death solves all problems,” reckoned Stalin, “No man, no problem”. It took little to get yourself shot under his regime, much less to get 25 years in a labour camp. An incautious word, a malicious rumour, a family connection, a suspect nationality, a friendship with an unperson, a target not met (obviously sabotage), surviving a Nazi camp (obviously a spy), or just because someone with power took against you.


The number killed in the purges, starved in the famines and worked to death in the labour camps has been estimated at anything between 4 and 60 million, most often between 10 and 20. But at such orders of magnitude the exact figure hardly matters. Stalin knew that well enough. “One death is a tragedy,” he said, “a million deaths is a statistic”.

In his lifetime, he was lauded as “the Greatest Genius of All Times and Peoples,” but Khrushchev denounced him in 1956 and he remained an unperson – Khrushchev became one as well – until the end of the communist era. But there was always a current of affection for the old dictator. The idea of being ruled by a silnaya ruka – iron hand – is deeply embedded in Russian history; and the industrialisation, under Stalin, of what had been a hopelessly backward agrarian economy was truly impressive, although achieved at appalling human cost.

Stalin’s legacy is everywhere in Moscow, from the ruby glass Soviet stars on the Kremlin’s towers, through the famously extravagant Metro stations, the yet more extravagant All-Russia Exhibition Centre in the suburbs, to the skyscrapers known as the Seven Sisters, blending Modernism, Baroque and Gothic in the Stalin Empire Style, and the Four Seasons Hotel with its asymmetrical front, because the Greatest Genius of All Times and Peoples approved both of the designs he was asked to choose from and the architect dared not tell him he had goofed.


The vanity projects siphoned funds away from public housing, and as the ‘Palaces for the People’ were going up, the people themselves were crammed into communal flats.

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; and already it is was impossible to say which was which.” **

Stalin’s reputation, paradoxically, began to improve when the Soviet Union collapsed. Less than half of Russians surveyed in 2001 had a negative impression of him. By 2006, it was only 29%; some 47% had a positive impression, and 35% said they would vote for Stalin if he were alive and standing for election today. In 2008, he came third in a poll to find the Greatest Russian in History.

This all might seem incredible, looking from the outside, but patriotic nostalgia, anywhere in the world, often does.

Statues and billboards of Stalin have begun to reappear in the past decade, for the first time since the Khrushchev years. Government-approved schoolbooks put a positive spin on his actions. President Putin has responded to questions about him with classic whataboutery. Yes the Great Terror was bad, he acknowledged, but not as bad as Hiroshima or Vietnam. “What’s the real difference between Cromwell and Stalin?” he asked rhetorically, and answered himself, “None whatsoever”. 

It might seem  counter-intuitive for a leader from the authoritarian-nationalist right to defend one of the revolutionary left. But Stalin, in turn, admired Tsar Ivan the Terrible. A silnaya ruka transcends ideology.

© Richard Senior 2015

*Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes

**George Orwell, 1984