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VDNH: a celebration of Soviet Russia

Located in the Ostankinsky District of Moscow, to the north of the city centre, VDNH lies less than a kilometre from Ostankino Tower, the tallest free-standing structure in Europe. Originally opened in August of 1939, and with a major impetus to revive the area since 2014, this ‘Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy’ is one of most popular spaces in the capital, attracting in the region of 25 million visitors each year. When combined with Ostankino Park, VDNH covers an area of over 300 hectares and can be reached via the VDNH subway station or the Moscow Monorail. At the time of our visit, a large-scale reconstruction of the development was underway which will see the area become the main educational, entertainment, cultural, museum and recreational complex, increasing the visitor numbers to an estimated 40 million people each year. We began our visit with a new pavilion used for exhibitions, topped by the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, a famous sculpture that was originally designed for the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exposition. The figures are arranged so that their tools form the classic hammer-and-sickle symbol of the Communist Soviet government – symbolism once prominent across the country, representing the labourers and farm workers of the USSR. Indeed, a moving reproduction of the statue was featured in the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, as a symbol of post-World War II Soviet society. Inside were a number of different exhibitions, including one section devoted to the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, a prominent figure of the Russian Futurist movement and a man who Stalin posthumously declared to be “the best and the most talented poet” of the Soviet era. One of the upper floors was devoted to the Ural mountains, divided into different topics. The Urals were the biggest industrial region in Russia and there was artwork depicting this. The exhibition focused on the transformation of nature by man, reflected in the works of masters such as Samuil Adlivankin, Yuri Pimenov, Aleksander Labas and Amshey Nurenberg. The artwork of the modern Russian artist Leonid Tishkov – who spent his childhood in the Urals – caught my eye. He has created his own mythology and constructed an artistic universe around it. The picture below, titled ‘Learning to Walk’, is part of his exciting world of fantastic creatures called The Dabloids which he conceived towards the end of the 1980s. Visitors could also immerse themselves in the atmosphere of the Sverdlovsk art community of the 1970s and 1980s, which included such original and vivid painters, graphic artists and sculptors as Misha Brusilovsky, Herman Metelev and Andrei Antonov. After visiting this building, we called at the renewed model of Moscow presented in Pavilion No. 75 on Sirenevaya Alley. Here 9,000 miniature buildings, streets and squares of the capital can be seen on a scale of 1 to 400. This incredible model is also equipped with LED lamps creating the effect of a night city. Work on the the Model of Moscow began in 1976 and took almost a decade to complete. The miniature buildings are made of different types of wood: maple, birch, red and lemon trees, as well as of rosewood. In 1986, the model was first introduced to the general public. Work on the renewed model began in 2012 and was finished recently. Make sure you visit and admire one of the shows they display. Here’s one to whet your appetite.
YouTube video
The model includes over 20,000 buildings, re-created with astonishing accuracy and covering 368 square metres. The attention to detail is quite incredible – even the clock on Spasskaya Tower strikes on the hour. Back outside we walked around a number of historical pavilions which were undergoing significant restoration. This comprehensive renovation began in 2014 and covers the restoration of a considerable number of buildings. Some were covered in scaffolding so not easy to photograph but a few others were more visible. Here’s a selection, starting with the pavilions for Ukraine and Belarus. Perhaps someone can help remind me what the other buildings pictured are! As well as pavilions for different Soviet states, there are also also pavilions to celebrate different industries, such as this one for the meat industry, where the columns are decorated with the heads of bulls, and the building is topped with a sculpture of a man in rubber boots stands fighting to control a bull. Much of our time was spent in the cosmonaut pavilion. Note there is also a separate space museum which offers an interesting opportunity to see the Soviet side of the space race. As you enter pavilion, you are reminded of the history of the country’s space exploration with two large display boards with pictures of over one hundred Russian cosmonauts. Inside the main foyer, there is a fantastic globe beneath a magnificent glass cupola. I love maps and globes so this alone was a highlight for me! The picture doesn’t really do it justice – it must have been around 15 metres in diameter. Although many of the exhibits are in Russian, there is a lot to look at here… and, if your Russian is up to it, an interactive robot. Ask the robot whether it thinks robots can take over the world, and it replies with “Robots can conquer the world, but in a good way!”. Among the exhibits are the changing space suits over the years. The orange one seen on the right here is a replica of the one used by Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into outer space. You could easil y spend the day at VDNH and I did come away feeling that we hadn’t really managed to do it justice. Back in the 1990s, this was just an area with some shops and tenants. Now it has been completely renovated in order to celebrate the best of Russia. All overhead cables have been removed, and the site is very popular in the winter months since it is then home to the biggest artificial ice skating rink in Europe. And watch this space for further developments as plans are afoot to construct one of the biggest ferries wheels in the world – with cafeterias, souvenir shops and a branch of Madame Tussauds planned for the same vicinity. Disclosure: My trip was sponsored by Moscow Seasons – a series of festivals held throughout the year in Moscow, with the support of the Government of Moscow.

Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is Editor of A Luxury Travel Blog and has worked in the travel industry for more than 30 years. He is Winner of the Innovations in Travel ‘Best Travel Influencer’ Award from WIRED magazine. In addition to other awards, the blog has also been voted “one of the world’s best travel blogs” and “best for luxury” by The Daily Telegraph.

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  1. I love visiting places that are rich with history and stories to tell and this seems like the perfect place. The light display was amazing and very impressive that must have took a lot of hard work and skill to put together. I had never heard of this celebration before but you have captured it well. I will need to check this out and add Russia to my must places to see. I have heard Russian food is delicious too!

  2. We could learn a lot from the Russians. They are not afraid to celebrate hard work. For them “work” isn’t a dirty word. I think that they are right to celebrate industry and production, we are too obsessed with celebrity and fame. It is time that we got back to basics and celebrated the hard graft that puts food on our tables and clothes on our back.

    1. When admiring Soviet Russia, you need to separate the long-suffering people from the Soviet Regime…which killed millions upon millions of their own citizenry.

  3. Oh that cosmonaut pavilion is interesting. Does it have any entrance fees? What are the best times to visit? I’m planning a trip to Moscow but really just visiting a lot of the known tourist places. I’ve never come across this yet. It’s a good thing though I stumbled upon your post.

    1. Yes, I believe you do pay to go in, but I don’t know the fees, sorry… we were guests of Moscow Tourism. As for the best times to visit, the place is vast so I don’t imagine it ever gets too busy.

  4. In the Soviet years, when I was a child, all who came to Moscow necessarily visited VDNH. It was a city in a city, a holiday city. For children, it was a real fairy tale: the most beautiful houses in Moscow, the most interesting entertainment, the most delicious ice cream!

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