Soviet Disneyland: Exploring VDNKh

Soviet Disneyland: Exploring VDNKh
We're not sure if VDNKh's main boulevard is grandiose enough. More golden statues might add to the atmosphere. Government of Moscow Press centre, Wikimedia Commons

We've been stuck stateside for a while now, what with the global coronavirus pandemic and all. When we do get out, though, we're looking forward to heading to Moscow and stopping by one of our favorite gems in the city for an afternoon walk: VDNKh.

Nestled in a northern neighborhood of the city, the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy (In Russian, Выставка достижений народного хозяйства, hence the uncomfortable acronym VDNKh, pronounced Vey-Dey-En-Kha) is a strange Soviet relic that isn't usually on the tour map. But it's a popular hangout for locals and well worth the stop.

A view from the park's ferris wheel
A view from VDNKh's Ferris wheel, because of course it has one. | Victorgrigas, Wikimedia Commons

Built in the late 1930s to show off the agricultural and industrial products from the various Soviet republics, VDNKh's opening was delayed due to the Second World War. It finally opened in 1954, and became a major tourist attraction, sticking around through the end of the USSR.

Visiting VDNKh today is easy. It has a bespoke stop on the Moscow Metro, served by the Orange Line. Unfortunately, if you were looking to take Russia's only monorail to the site (which served as the terminal station), you're late, as it closed in 2017.

At the entrance to the park, you'll see a massive archway topped with a golden statue. Nice and subtle.

The entracce arch for VDNKh
If you look up "Stalinist Architecture" in the dictionary, this is the picture next to it. | Griffin Edwards

Before you enter, though, you should stop by two nearby sites: the Monument to the Conquerors of Space and the original Worker and Kolkhoz Woman statue, the latter made famous as the Mosfilm logo. Having pilgrimaged to these sights, you're free to enter, literally: there's no charge.

A word of caution, though: VDNKh covers a massive area: nearly 2.5 million square meters. There are sovereign countries smaller than this park. Bring comfy shoes.

Inside is where the wonders start. Lining the entrance boulevard are carnival rides and games (including a roller coaster and Ferris wheel), and behind the main pavilion (which houses a massive statue of Lenin) is VDNKh's centerpiece.

The "Friendship of Nations" fountain encapsulates what VDNKh is all about: Russia and its attendant Soviet Republics. Each figure represents one of the 15 republics in traditional garb, all reveling in communist glory. In the winter, the area around the statue and into the boulevard is converted into the world's largest synthetic-ice skating rink.

We challenge you to decide which figure represents which republic. |

This theme is carried through the rest of the park: as was the original intention, each of the republics has its own pavilion, where, originally, it could showcase its wares. Often, these reflect the architectural styles of the region, fused with late-20th-century modernism. It's one of the only places on Earth you'll see Uzbek geometric tiles next to Karelian log architecture.

The Karelia pavilion
More is more. | Griffin Edwards

Unfortunately, the each-republic-has-its-own-pavilion scheme has broken down these days; after all, Ukraine, Belarus, and all the other Central Eurasian countries are no longer under Moscow's umbrella. But many of the pavilions are still open and house exhibits that visitors can pay to check out.

At the end of another long boulevard, flanked with eclectic architecture and sprawling pavilions, is the capstone of the park: a rocket and Tupolev jet in front of a glass pavilion housing artifacts from the Space Race.

The end of VDNKh's long boulevard of pavilions
Gotta appreciate the symmetry. | Alex Zelenko, Wikimedia Commons

That's it for the Soviet part of the park, but there's much more if you keep going. With acres of ponds, botanical gardens, walking paths, greenhouses, and a brand-new aquarium, there's plenty to do at VDNKh (Want to swim with dolphins in Moscow? Now you can). There's even an indoor history museum, funded in conjunction with Gazprom and the Russian state, which is, of course, absolutely impartial.

Many parts of VDNKh seem a little worn-out. Some of the republics' pavilions have begun to fall apart due to lack of maintenance and use, and, as you can see in the picture of the rocket, some things are starting to get a little dated, even as new additions bring some life to the park.

However, VDNKh should still make your list of must-see Moscow destinations. It's perfect for a long walk, no matter the weather, and is usually pretty quiet. As a park, recreation area, and historical site, it's well worth exploring.

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