Rollerblading to the Future

The All-Union Exhibit of the Achievements of the National Economy or VDNKh (Vay-day-en-khah), that's what Soviet officials decided that the people needed in 1939. Never mind that a washing machine, if you were lucky enough to find one, worked poorly. Or that children's clothing stores had "Dry Clean Only" baby clothes. Don't worry about what's in the stores, but give the people an exhibit so that they will have confidence in the future. Communist Party Head Khrushchev boosted the VDNkh, building new fancy heroic monuments and pavilions in 1959.

"The Party has designed a new slogan, Communism is on the Horizon!," goes the old Soviet joke. "What's a horizon? Well, it's an imaginary line where the sky and earth seem to meet, but when you travel in its direction, it continues to recede into the background." The consumer society seemed increasingly far out on the horizon for most Soviet citizens.

I first visited the VDNKh in 1968. It was a huge expanse that quickly tired your legs. Ornate gingerbread pavilions recounted the newest industrial achievements of each Soviet Republic and of important economic branches. The Uzbek exhibit was chock full of new Uzbek products and statistics on how many tons of cotton the Uzbekis had produced that year and estimates of how many more the shock workers of labor would produce over the next five years. New cotton shirts were on the horizon! The Science exhibit showed new Soviet inventions poised to revolutionize the economy propel it ahead of the capitalist West. When I revisited in 1982, it had become shabby and tired, worn out by broken promises.

By 1982 Soviets generally avoided the exhibits. School kids were dragged there on class trips, but the exhibits had taken on a half-hearted appearance. University students still went there because it was one of the only places in Moscow selling good Czech beer. So what's it like since the collapse of the Soviet Union?

The VDNKh now has a new name, VVTs (All-Russian Exhibit Center). Many street signs and the subway still display VDNKh, though. Renaming doesn't change history and I think most Muscovites will always call it VDNKh. As time passes, fewer of them will remember what it once was.

The pavilions of the former Soviet republics remain with their names displayed at the top, even though these republics are now foreign countries. Just what relation the pavilions have to these countries isn't clear. The Georgian pavilion housed a boutique selling Georgian wine, but it also had small booths selling Western household appliances, perfumes, snacks, mobile phones and a hodgepodge of other goodies. Today, the VDNKh is one huge shopping mall filled with small retailers selling just about everything. I bought an electric toothbrush at the Kirghiz pavilion.

The VDNkh is also more than that. With its wide asphalt stretches, roller bladders, both neophytes and pros, skate with abandon. Amusement park rides for the kids now fill many of it wide spaces. Camel and elephant rides are available. The park has nothing to prove to the world. It's relaxed and carefree. Consumer society and fun are no longer on the horizon.

22 April 2006