A vast, mostly Soviet-era complex in Moscow
that is a cross between a Stalinist theme park, an amusement park and an exhibition space. It is of interest in terms of dark tourism for some unique and elaborate Soviet
architectural relics as well as some large open-air displays of planes and even a whole Vostok Rocket.
More background info:
The origins of this place go back to the mid-1930s when the still relatively young Soviet Union
decided to create an exhibition whose purpose it was to demonstrate the successes of collectivization of farming and agricultural production in general ... at a time when such success was far from obvious – so it was mainly a propaganda exercise.
A plot of land at Ostankino, a district at the time only recently incorporated into Moscow
and then at its northern fringes, was chosen as the venue and work began. The initial plans, however, were not well implemented, and at the same time the ideas of what it was supposed to be got bigger and bigger, so early plans and structures were scrapped and the opening of the exhibition was postponed, while a new concept was drawn up. Even Stalin
himself was involved in this. Eventually, in August 1939 the exhibition was first opened, then still called the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition
It was only a seasonal exhibition back then, i.e. open only part of the year (closed in winter). It saw two more seasons, then history got in the way of things: After the invasion by Nazi Germany
in 1941 the exhibition closed. But it was reopened in 1945 after the end of WWII
. Yet in 1948 it was decided to redo the exhibition complex. Again work dragged on and reopenings were postponed but eventually the all-new exhibition opened its door in 1954. Only a few years later it was decided to expand the complex further and also add more themes, in particular with an emphasis on industrial and scientific advances in the USSR
To cover this thematic expansion the park was renamed “Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy” – in Russian: Выставка Достижений Народного Хозяйства, transliterated: 'Vystavka Dostizheniy Narodnogo Khozyaystva'. Hence the abbreviation ВДНХ, transliterated as VDNKh (and pronounced [vɛ dɛ ɛn xa]).
In addition to national pavilions, for each of the Soviet republics as well as for some regional nationalities, such as e.g. Karelia and Abkhazia, themed pavilions were added for e.g. Engineering, Space Exploration, Atomic Energy, Transport, Optics, Chemistry, and so on. In 1963 the exhibition also stopped being seasonal and started to remain open year-round. In addition to the permanent parts, various special exhibitions were held regularly. Occasionally even foreign exhibitions were shown here (a rarity in the USSR
The late 1980s and early 1990s brought big changes. First the VDNKh lost its state funding in 1988 and from then on had to go it alone. New sources of income were required. The situation worsened after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the subsequent economic crises. In their desperation, the park's administration started leasing out pavilions for other uses – often much less glamorous uses than the original celebratory ones, such as for warehousing or as consumer goods markets.
In 1992 the park was transformed into a joint-stock company and renamed All-Russia Exhibition Centre, or VVC (sometimes also given as “VVT”).
I'd seen photos my parents had taken at the old VDNKh back in the mid-1970s, especially at the Cosmos Pavilion, so when I first visited the place myself back in 1999, in what was then still Yeltsin's Russia
, I was so disappointed and horrified to see how much the park had fallen not only into decline but also disdain. It seemed that no one wanted to remember the Soviet Union
or had any respect for its glamorous relics. Instead much of the park was a ramshackle bustling flea market with mainly clothes, household goods and all manner of cheap plastic wares on sale. The contrast to what it had been before was disgraceful.
But things changed again. In the Putin era
, the memory of the Soviet Union gradually lost some of its negativity and a certain amount of nostalgia for the USSR
's greatness crept back into the public consciousness (and Putin himself seemed to endorse and foster this to a degree). And so the old exhibition park received more recognition again. Some restoration was begun too – in particular the grand sculpture of a Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (see below
) just outside the park was refurbished and put on a new and taller plinth.
New elements were added during the 2000s too, such as a Luna Park (amusement park with rides), and in 2004 a large Ferris wheel was erected to mark the 850th anniversary of the founding of Moscow
. Trade fair exhibitions resumed as well.
In 2014, the park was even renamed VDNKh again. Apparently Putin had his hands in the plans for a restructuring of the exhibition park and its financial set-up as well, though the renaming it is claimed was the result of a public poll. At the same time uncontrolled trading was outlawed and illegal buildings and advertising removed. The days of a wild shopping-centre-cum-flea-market were definitely over.
Also in 2014 the Buran space shuttle that had formerly been on display in Gorky Park was moved to the VDNKh too, on the decree of the Moscow
mayor, and was placed under the aegis of the nearby Cosmonautics Museum
. In 2015 a large aquarium was opened after a two-year construction period. And a patriotic exhibition centre called “Russia – My History” was set up in the modernized Pavilion 57.
New facilities for trade fair exhibitions were established too, adjacent to the old grounds, that way largely relieving the historical buildings of that function. Yet many of the historic pavilions had become dilapidated due to years of neglect. But since 2015 a massive restoration project has been under way. When I was there in August 2017, lots of the historic pavilions were scaffolded and cranes and workers were frantically busy with restoration work. Yet other pavilions still looked abandoned and badly in need of some TLC.
I read somewhere that the entire VDNKh was to be fully refurbished in time for the Football World Cup 2018 … but going by what I've read online since it looks more like the master plan foresees 2020 as the completion year for the refurbishing projects.
[UPDATE: a friend who visited this place in May 2018 reported back that while the Cosmos Pavilion's refurbishment has meanwhile been completed, other parts are still total building sites, including the main avenue. He reckoned that it looked like there's still many years of work ahead before it's all finished.]
What there is to see:
Primarily lots of Stalinist/Soviet
-era grand architecture, but there's more to it.
NOTE: as extensive refurbishing work continues in the park, not all of the individual sites described below may be accessible at all times. Be prepared to be forced to skip some (and dodge construction workers, diggers and trucks) until all the work is completed ... whenever that may be.
Starting with the great portal at the south-eastern side, where the main entrance is (there are a few side entrances too, but I've never used any of those) … except that when I was there last, in August 2017, it was completely covered in scaffolding so I couldn't actually see it. The same was true for the large Central Pavilion – the most Stalinist in architectural style of the whole complex. All I could see of it was the tall golden spire with a Soviet star at the top. But by the time you read this, the restoration work may well have been completed and all scaffolding removed.
The first section, about a quarter of the whole length of the main avenue, is basically just an overture with a few statues and landscaped gardens. The real glory of the VDNKh starts in the middle section. Here you have as the centrepiece the grand Friendship of Nations Fountain with its golden statues. On the right (after passing the Central Pavilion) is the former Nuclear Energy Pavilion (not accessible at the time of my visit) and to the right of that the Armenia Pavilion.
The latter's restoration was already finished, and when I was there it was open and up and running, namely as a kind of Armenia
-promotion hall with shops and a wine and brandy bar in the centre and an Armenian restaurant in the back. (Armenia, of course, is a “good” ally of contemporary Russia
, unlike, say, Georgia
, so it's not too surprising to find that this was one of the first of the historic pavilions to have its refurbishment completed.)
The Karelia Pavilion
next door, with its quaint wooden front, looked closed, though, while the grand Uzbekistan Pavilion
next to it looked fully refurbished but was still fenced off. On the other side of the avenue, some of the pavilions looked in far worse shape still, some were even supported by steel frames to stop them from collapsing. Large parts of the façades and statuary were cracked, broken and had partly fallen off.
A bit further on, however, the Belarus Pavilion
was also freshly refurbished and, like its Armenian counterpart, had a promotional exhibition and shops with Belarusian products for sale inside.
In addition to pavilions dedicated to particular former Soviet
republics, there are also plenty devoted to specific branches of the economy or sciences, such as radio technology, physics, etc., though it's not always apparent from the architectural style – whereas some of the Central Asian pavilions bore typical and recognizable decorative elements of that part of the world (some mosque-like in shape, but not necessarily abstract … as actual Islamic principles would stipulate).
The third section
that you reach next is definitely the most interesting one. The octagonal square is dominated A) by the Vostok Rocket its centre (see below) and b) by the large Cosmos Pavilion
at the far end. The latter is the largest of the themed pavilions and has a grand glass dome – but this building too was undergoing substantial restoration work at the time of my visit, so I couldn't go inside. But I've read that the old Sputnik replica, which I remember from my parents' photos from the 1970s (see above
), is supposed to be brought back and be suspended from the ceiling again.
The large modern-looking building to the right (north) houses the “Russia – my History” multimedia historical exposition centre (open daily except Mondays from 10 a.m. to 8:45 p.m., admission 500 RUB). I didn't go in, though. I'd read about this place ahead of time and gleaned from this that everything in the exhibition(s) is apparently in Russian only, and the whole thing seems also primarily aimed at Russians only (as the title already suggests), so I decided it wouldn't really be for me. I later read, though, that amongst its exhibitions was one about the Battle of Moscow 1941 including a 3D Panorama. That may actually have been worth seeing. Well, never mind, maybe next time.
What I did go in was Pavilion 26
, the former Transport Pavilion, which at the time of my visit housed the Polytechnic Museum
's exhibition “RDS
”, a temporary stand-in exhibition set up for the duration of the restoration of the main museum building in the centre of Moscow
(when I last checked, in spring 2018, this was still the case).
For me the highlight of going to the VDNKh always was and still is the Vostok Rocket in the centre of the square. It's suspended from a hydraulic support frame above a platform that you can walk to so that you can stand right underneath the rocket's engines (not a good place to be were it to lift off), provided it is in an upright position (I've seen older photos of it being in a horizontal position). This is the type of rocket on which Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, was launched in 1961. So it's heavy with history too, not just looking cool.
There's yet more hardware dotted around the square. To the north-east of the rocket now stands a modern military fighter plane, a Sukhoi Su-27, one of the mainstay types of the Russian air force to this day. On the other side of the rocket fountain stands a Mil Mi-8 helicopter and in front of it a Yakovlev-42 small passenger jet. There used to be a much larger Tupolev Tu-154 here, but this was removed at some point in the 2000s.
There are two more buildings on this square too, the former Electrification Pavilion (now housing an “Illusions Museum”) to the north – with some outdoor displays of electric pylons to celebrate this topic that was so important to the USSR
in the 1950s and 60s. To the south, next to the Polytechnic stands a large glass façade exhibition hall, Pavilion 20, the former Chemical Industry Pavilion. It looked quite abandoned to me when I was there, though I later read that the space inside is still used for temporary exhibitions. When I was there, though, it was completely empty.
Just to the south of Pavilion 20 is another large open-air exhibit of a relic of the Soviet Space Age, namely the Buran space shuttle
(this one used to be in Gorky Park until 2014). The airframe of this particular specimen was actually only used for aerodynamic tests, but never was a proper shuttle equipped for space flight. Today it forms part of a Buran-themed “interactive museum complex” (open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily except Mondays, admission 500 RUB). I had seen photos online of what the commodification
of this object looked like inside and they didn't make me especially keen (too cheesy, too “kiddie-oriented”), and by the time I got there it was already getting late, so I gave it a miss. (I'd seen another Buran before anyway, namely at the Speyer Technology Museum in Germany
There's more to the VDNKh, beyond the main avenue and even behind the large Cosmos Pavilion, where there's a lake and on the opposite shore is a Cinema Museum, plus there's a city farm, the aquarium (called “Moskvarium”, open daily except Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., admission 1000 RUB at weekends, 800 RUB on weekday evenings and 600 RUB until 4 p.m.). But I did not explore beyond what's described above.
Yet more will come to the VDNKh in the future, some of it sooner rather than later. In particular it will be worth monitoring what happens to the great Cosmos Pavilion, which was undergoing a complete overhaul when I was there but when that's finished it may again host a cosmonautics-themed exhibition …
UPDATE, June 2018: the Cosmos Pavilion has meanwhile been re-opened (admission 500 RUB), and it does indeed have exhibits fitting for its name. Apparently this includes a few objects that had formerly been on display in the nearby Cosmonautics Museum
, such as Gararin's Vostok capsule and the Lunokhod Moon rover, so I've been told.
All in all
, the VDNKh is an odd kaleidoscope of different things, some quite mainstream, some also of interest to the dark tourist. This is especially true for all those fantastic architectural relics from the Soviet
days, as well as for the Soviet space and aviation exhibits on open-air display. If any of that remotely appeals, then a visit to the VDNKh is a must. Otherwise it may be a bit too kitschy for some.
in the north of Moscow
, in the Ostankino district, some 5.5 miles (9 km) from Red Square
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: far from the centre, but quite easy to get to by metro, but still requiring lots of walking at the site; main access is free, but various exhibitions charge admission fees.
To get to the VDNKh from central Moscow
take the metro line 6 (orange) north. The VDNKh has its own dedicated station! So it's pretty impossible to miss. When you get there use the northern exit. Turn left, away from the busy Prospekt Mira boulevard, and head in a north-westerly direction, past the Monorail station and you'll already see the grand portal.
Time required: it's a vast area, so you'll need a good amount of time just for walking around. If you also want to go inside some of the specific buildings and see some exhibitions, then you can easily end up spending between half a day and a full day here.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
museum with a few dark elements was temporarily located inside the VDNKh when I was there in the summer of 2017: the Polytechnic Museum
had a special exhibition at Pavilion 26, right next to the Cosmos Pavilion and just across the square from the Vostok Rocket. But this was only set up as a stand-in during the time of the restoration of the main museum and so it may have moved out of this temporary home again by the time you read this. (When I last checked in March 2018, however, it was still there.)
Right outside the VDNKh, en rout to the metro station, is the Cosmonautics Museum
with the fantastic Monument to the Conquerors of Space
on top of it.
One of the grandest Soviet monuments of them all stands a bit to the north of the Cosmonautics Museum also not far from the main entrance to the VDNKh: the “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman
”, a gigantic sculpture, almost 80 feet (24 metres) tall and standing on a huge pedestal. It was originally created for the Paris World Exhibition in 1937. The raised arms holding up a hammer and a sickle (what else) were pointing towards the Nazi German
pavilion with its swastika that stood right opposite the Soviet pavilion! Afterwards this sculpture duo was moved to Moscow
. In 2003 the sculpture was dismantled for refurbishment and when it was reassembled in 2009 it was put atop a new and much bigger constructivist-style pedestal, a full 115 feet (35 metres) high! Anyway, it's a marvel of socialist-realist
monumentalism! It is probably the most classic sculpture of Soviet times. And as a bonus, the new pedestal is adorned with yet more socialist-realist art in the form of roughly life-size bas-reliefs representing the different republics/cultures of the former Soviet Union
Behind the monument (in the direction the worker and kolkhoz woman seem to be running away from) looms the enormous glass façade of the “Moscow” Pavilion
(formerly the VDNKh's Pavilion 70). It's part of the trade fair section of the complex, but worth a look from the outside, especially for its fantastically bent and sweeping concrete roof. A masterpiece of 1960s Soviet modernism! Originally this had been built for the 1967 Expo in Montreal, Canada
, (hence it is sometimes still referred to as the “Montreal Pavilion” too) but later reconstructed here in Moscow (and with the overhanging roof made even bigger).
Finally, from the station “ Vystavochny tsentr”, located between the Cosmonautics Museum and the main entrance to the VDNKh, you can get the Monorail to the very tallest of all Soviet structures ever erected: the Ostankino TV Tower
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Much of the VDNKh itself isn't particularly dark to begin with, and some of the amusement park elements or the aquarium certainly aren't. But for proper touristy attractions you'd have to head back to the centre of Moscow
- VDNKh 01 - view from Hotel Cosmos
- VDNKh 02 - map
- VDNKh 03 - main gate undergoing refurbishment
- VDNKh 04 - Friendship of Peoples Fountain
- VDNKh 05 - Cosmonautics space needle in the background
- VDNKh 06 - Soviet star
- VDNKh 07 - Soviet symbolism
- VDNKh 08 - Lenin
- VDNKh 09 - Soviet ceiling
- VDNKh 10 - Armenia pavilion
- VDNKh 11 - Belarus pavilion
- VDNKh 12 - awaiting reopening
- VDNKh 13 - awaiting refurbishment
- VDNKh 14 - badly in need of repair
- VDNKh 15 - Central Asian theme
- VDNKh 16 - electrification glorified
- VDNKh 17 - modern fighter jet
- VDNKh 18 - classic Vostok rocket
- VDNKh 19 - hanging high
- VDNKh 20 - under the engines
- VDNKh 21 - helicopter and passenger jet
- VDNKh 22 - Buran mock-up
- VDNKh 22b - inside the Cosmos Pavilion May 2018 - photo coutresy of Lucas Klamert
- VDNKh 23 - new plinth
- VDNKh 24 - worker and kolkhoz woman
- VDNKh 25 - still rushing forward towards communism
- VDNKh 26 - Soviet glorification
- VDNKh 27 - ethnic diversity and animals
- VDNKh 28 - at dusk