Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum
Some four years in the making and two years behind schedule, the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition opened on August 1, 1939 in the northern part of Moscow, not far from the village of Ostankino. This was the second such exhibition, a far more modest affair having been held in Moscow in 1923. Eventually including over 200 buildings set on 600 acres of park land, the 1939 Exhibition celebrated both the triumphs of Soviet agriculture and the unbreakable brotherhood of the peoples of the USSR. It was a kind of giant Potemkin village, an Eden of Communism, graced with a huge statue of Stalin and the emblematic statue of the male worker and the female collective farmer that Vera Mukhina designed for the 1937 Paris Exposition. Two of the most popular films of the pre-war era, The Radiant Path (1940) and The Swineherd and the Shepherd (1941), contained scenes of simple women transfigured as in a fairy tale by their visits to the Exhibition.
Each branch of agriculture as well as each union republic and major region within the RSFSR was represented by its own pavilion. Many of them were decorated with bas reliefs of scenes of bountiful harvests, fattened animals, and collective and state farmers in ethnic garb. The republics’ pavilions were designed in vernacular, “folk” styles to illustrate the Stalinist formula of “national in form, socialist in content.” Inside were displays of working machinery and techniques of agricultural production, surrounded by vast tableaux depicting landscapes transformed by scientific farming. Throughout the Soviet Union competitions were organized among state and collective farmers, the winners of which were rewarded with cash prizes and trips to the Exhibition.
During the Great Patriotic War, the pavilions were closed and the gardens were run as a working state farm. By the time the Exhibition opened again in 1954, it contained a new “Friendship of Nations” fountain consisting of sixteen (one per republic) larger-than-life maidens in national costumes of gilded bronze. There also were new pavilions in the neo-Muscovite and Russian neoclassical styles that featured prominently in late Stalinist architecture. In 1959 the Exhibition’s name was changed to the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy (VDNKh) to mirror the USSR’s technological prowess. Four years later, the republics’ pavilions were transferred to various ministries. The Space Pavilion and a 350-foot titanium-covered monument of a rising rocket were installed in 1966. These and later severely modernist additions to the Exhibition gave the earlier Stalin-era structures an aura of kitschy extravagance. The end of the Soviet era found the Exhibition in a state of disrepair. In 1993, it was organized into a joint stock company, renamed the “All-Russian Exhibition Center,” and transformed into a shopping mall. Throughout its eclectic existence, the Exhibition has been a popular site for both Muscovites and tourists to rendezvous and escape momentarily from their quotidian concerns.