Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Moscow Diary: The All-Russia Exhibition Centre

One of the trips I made during my early weekends in Moscow was to the All-Russia Exhibition Centre. It was built during Stalin's time to showcase the technical achievements of the Sovient Union, with pavilions representing each region of Russia and each Soviet Socialist Republic.

Obviously, in the new Russia, such things had no place. Going there now, Stalin would turn in his grave. Many of the pavilions are closed, others are visibly dilapidated, others have fallen down (or burnt down) entirely. The only one that looked in good order was the Armenian one, which the Armenian government maintains and uses to market Armenian Brandy (I tried it, and didn't like it, which helped me get over my disappointment at not making it to the distillery in Yerevan earlier this year). The others have mostly been colonised by small traders - whether they're allowed to be there or not, or something in between - selling anything from bulbs and seedlings to leather gloves to fur coats to meat kebabs to fancy jewellary.

Yet despite all this, the fallen grandeur shines through. There is a gold-plated statue, with women representing each Soviet Socialist Republic (allegedly the Ukranian is the prettiest and has the largest breasts). Some of the pavillions are truly beautiful - built in the same period as the Moscow metro, and with the same architectural impulses and same desire to take the best - or most grandiose - of different styles. There's some cool stuff there, like a space shuttle. And it's in a nice park. All in all, this is the closest I can ever get to visiting the Soviet Union (unless I ever make it to North Korea...), and it was bizarre and fun and something you couldn't find anywhere else.

So it was with mixed feelings that I read in today's Moscow Times about a plan to renovate the park, and turn the buildings to various uses - museums on the Soviet Union, a 'Quality of Life Centre', leisure centres, shopping centres (real ones, not tiny stalls!), and hotels. I can see that it would be good for the area - the stallholders will lose their income, but others will get jobs, and the area is horribly under-utilised. A museum on the Soviet Union would also be a welcome addition to Moscow's cultural scene, and this does seem like a good place to have one. And shopping centres, leisure centres, and hotels are the obvious things to do with big old fancy buildings. Russia is booming, and having prime real estate and glorious buildings slowly decay doesn't make sense.

But, at the same time, it makes me sad. The buildings seemed evocative of the collapse of the Soviet Union - the buildings constructed to showcase its proudest achievements, now decaying to nothing. At the time, and when I think about it now, it evokes the poem Ozymandias, the symbol of fallen empires everywhere. Capitalism - the stalls that flourish in those buildings that are open - is grafted onto this, sitting uncomfortably in Soviet casing and looking more than a little shabby in comparison, in the same way that informal markets colonising Roman fora must have looked odd when that empire receded. And in all of this, ordinary people were visiting and having fun - playing on inflatable dragons, drinking brandy, or just wandering and shopping. It is this juxtaposition - Soviet grandeur, informal capitalism, and modern zest - that give the place its charm.

Russia has every right to move forward, but I can't help being sad about it, and very glad that I was here to enjoy it.

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