Sunday, May 22, 2011

VDNKh - the Stalinist Disneyland

Happiest place on Earth?


Entrance to VDNKh

VDNKh (an acronym for Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy - whew, what a mouthful!) opened in 1939 as a general purpose trade show, designed to showcase the economic prowess of the Soviet Union and its republics. By 1989, the waning twilight of Communism in Eastern Europe, there were 82 pavilions covering an area of 700,000 square metres. Each pavilion was dedicated to a specific republic (for example, Armenia or Belarus) or a specific industry/trade (the Engineering Pavilion, the People's Education Pavilion, the Space Pavilion, etc). And of course, there was the architecture - breathtaking, ornate Stalinist buildings designed to send a strong message to the world and to the USSR's own citizens: look at us! Look at how successful and mighty we are!

Nowadays, it has been renamed the VVTs (All-Russia Exhibition Centre) and the only remnants of its former Soviet glory are found in crumbling pavilions and statues of proud proletariat workers with chipped paint and missing mosaic tiles. There would be a certain ghostly gloom to the place, a fairy-tale gone awry, if it wasn't for the massive crowds of people who swarm the parks and pathways of VDNKh every day (although the name change was brought about 1992, Muscovites still refer to it by its former name - pronounced va-din-ha - and the nearby metro station also bears this name).

It has now expanded to encompass 2, 375,000 square metres - larger than the principality of Monaco! There are amusement rides, bumper cars, fountains, a giant ferris wheel, games, and food stands - truly something for EVERYONE. People of all ages whiz past on rollerblades and bikes, and you better watch out for the train - loaded with children but still chortling along at a very fast pace! - that comes barreling down on you with no warning! It is like Disney World...on steroids. In an alternate universe. Truly, only in Russia!

I went there with my parents two weeks ago, and we were all captivated by its mix of the ornate, the gaudy, the free-wheeling fun, and the sense of historical atrophy. Today, I returned with my friend Katya (from yesterday's Dior adventure) on a day that dawned warm and sunny. As we bounced along on the bus into Moscow, the radio DJ urged the listeners to "grab some friends, grab some beers, grab some sticks (for grilling shashlik) and let's head into the forest!" Indeed, on the bus ride there and back home later this evening, I saw people going into and emerging from the forest loaded down with shashlik supplies!

However, shashlik wasn't the only thing on the Muscovite agenda today. We got to VDNKh around 1pm, and it. was. PACKED. First thing we did was head to the giant, 73 metre-high ferris wheel that would normally dominate the skyscape if it wasn't for the Ostankino television tower (reminiscent of Toronto's CN tower, it even has a glass floor too!) and the enormous, mighty Worker and Kolkhoz Woman statue that famously opens up the beginning of every Mosfilm studio movie made in the Soviet era.

The ferris wheel cost 250 roubles for closed car and 300 roubles for open car. Katya and I opted for the open car option, as it was such a beautiful day out, and I'm certainly glad we did. The view was outstanding! (Unfortunately though I did something to my neck the other day, so my view was restricted to just what was in front of me!) If you want an unparalleled view of Moscow, I definitely recommend it. I was taken aback just by how GREEN the city is. You imagine Moscow to be a city of gray, bleak blocks of apartments but this is just not true. Check it out for yourself:




After the ferris wheel, we rented rollerblades - 300 roubles for 2 hours which was more than enough time for exploring the area (including the beautiful wooded Botanical Gardens that is attached to VDNKh) and for stopping to sit by the fountain and enjoying a cold cup of kvass and some cotton candy!



Cooling off in the fountain

Naturally, my inherant grace and athleticism were on full display to the envy of all:



You can't see it here, but I am clutching that
railing with a death grip to keep from falling
into the lake.

All in all, it was a great day and if you're in Moscow - and want a break from the forest and shashlik, although why would you? - head over to VDNKh, rent some rollerblades, ride the ferris wheel, soak up the slowly decaying Soviet architecture, and watch out for that train!

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