Oct 8, 2014

ВДНХ (On post-socialism, or Moscow in the Summer)

I’m sorry.

I was wrong to stray from my blog in search of a larger audience; I’ve realized my mistake and I’m asking for your forgiveness.  My (excellent) article didn’t get published, and in fact, after writing it at Jacobin’s explicit request, that same editor who requested it never acknowledged receipt of my draft or my follow-up email.  In my view, I was due a "yes" or a polite "no," but perhaps I'm just clinging to my bourgeois mores like a life raft while the revolution washes me away. 

IT'S FINE - I’m actually not bitter.  Failure has more to teach us than success.  Although the editor could have been more courteous,  I’m not so thin-skinned as to take it personally.  I'm content to let him do his thing, and I’ll do mine.  And mine is here at Time Flying, sharing little words with my beloved friends and family, not in some overproduced, undersubscribed pinko rag, exhuming dead slogans from the nineteenth century and sending them to every café in Brooklyn for consumption by old classmates from the Subaltern Studies department at Wesleyan.    

Whoa, sorry… not sure where that came from.  What I meant was, I want to move past my ill-fated experiment in journalism, and refocus attention on my first and enduring love, Russia.  Forthcoming post-topics include food, my home life, and a three-part photo-tour of Moscow, in autumn, winter and spring.  

Today’s post is something of a preview – summer, perhaps, which I saw only briefly, but during which I visited Moscow’s most peculiar site.  

Welcome to the Exhibition of Achievements of the People's Economy, or VDNKh (pronounced as it’s spelled).  The name doesn't lend itself to easy translation; a less accurate but clearer variant might be the Exhibition of Achievements of the Planned Economy, or simply the Exhibition of Soviet Economic Achievements.  VDNKh was once a Soviet Disney World, a socialist theme park composed of over 80 separate, architecturally unique pavilions, each dedicated either to one of the various national-ethnic groups of the USSR, or to some obscure corner of the planned economy.  It covers an enormous area - to walk from the North Caucasus Region Pavilion to the Rabbit-Husbandry Pavilion could take all day, even if you can somehow resist stopping at the Sugar Beet Cultivation pavilion and the pavilion of Belorussian Furniture (all real).  The grounds lie north of the city center, and the exhibition itself is a fully functioning city-within-a-city, complete with grocery stores, parks and a population of construction and retail workers.  In addition to the 80+ pavilions, there are fountains, gardens, ponds and forest preserves.  

One needn't read a thing to know the history of VDNKh, which is good, because I didn't read a thing. The history is visible everywhere.  What makes the place so fascinating is that it has fundamentally changed at least four times since Stalin ordered it built in the 1930s.  At first, it was meant to be a microcosm of the rapidly-forming Soviet utopia, complete with Stalinist neoclassical architecture, ornate fountains and art, and monuments to the heroes of socialist labor.  When that utopia didn't pan out, they moderated VDNKh to match the real existing late-Socialist utopia - the authorities covered all the ornament in cheap plaster, painted it white, called it Modern, and hoped the plaster would hold until they retired.  When that utopia didn't pan out, and the plaster fell off the entire USSR, VDNKh came to reflect yet another utopia: the unregulated libertarian free-for-all.  The grounds and the buildings fell into disrepair, while hordes of speculators, mobsters and showmen claimed land and built whatever would sell, including torture and sex museums and a massive shark tank in the center of the former House of the Peoples Pavilion.  Order was maintained by motorcycle gangs.  In one sense, this iteration of VDNKh was an Exhibition of Capitalist Economic Achievements, but if you think about it, the former name was still more apt - the horror show was one final achievement of the socialist economy.  

Oh!  That reminds me.  This blog has a panel of buttons at the bottom, with which you can share posts on Facebook, Gmail, Blogger, Twitter, and Pinterest (whatever that is).  I myself just started using Twitter, and it's super fun and easy - just click the lower-case "t" at the bottom of the post, include the word "@jacobinmag" in the message, and write whatever you'd like!  Don't forget to attach a picture:

The inscription reads "The Com..unist Party ...ormed and strengt... natio......... nbreakabl.... riendshi... eople."  With that, you still have 48 characters left to tweet, if you were wondering.

Where was I.  Oh right, VDNKh!  In the last year or two, the government has taken VDNKh under its protection and is attempting to make something of it, though it's still unclear what.  They've chased out the riff-raff and are gradually restoring the grounds and uncovering the ancient ruins, as seen in the pictures above.  Time will tell how many more lives it has ahead of it.

There are various ways to see VDNKh.  To some, viewing it from the Soviet past, it's a sombre memorial to a more hopeful time, when the Soviet future seemed limitless.  From the post-Soviet present, it might be a museum of capitalism's transformative power, or more likely, a carnival of its repulsive excesses.  But to me, the real meaning of VDNKh lies somewhere in between, and may even contain a faint glimmer of hope.  Gazing into the refurbished Fountain of the Friendship of the Peoples, VDNKh recalls that momentous year 1991 when, at the threshold between the stable oppression of socialism and the dynamic horrors of hypercapitalism, all eoples of the nbreakabl Union joined hands, briefly, to dance on the rubble of Jacobin Magazine’s dreams.


Joanna said...

What's your Twiiter handle (don't pretend you don't know what that is)?!

Elena said...

Ося, thank you for an engaging post! Have you seen Иван Пырьев's 1941 "kolkhoz musical" Свинарка и пастух? In it, a Russian female Stakhanovite swine breeder meets a Caucasian shepherd at the VDNKh that is featured quite prominently in the film. You can guess what comes out of this "chance" encounter or you can watch and enjoy this "kolkhoz" counterpart to Grigorii Aleksandrov's "urban" musicals.

Joseph said...

I haven't seen that one... It sounds like a truly timeless and universal theme for a movie, I'm surprised there hasn't been a remake!