Russia Wasn’t Built in a Day

Russia Wasn’t Built in a Day

The name may sound a bit stilted today, but when ground broke on Moscow’s Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy, it was meant to be a gleaming, sprawling brochure advertising the Soviet Union’s glories and technological prowess. It encompassed numerous fountains, parks, plazas, an obelisk, and other testaments to communist greatness. There were pavilions of rockets, of atomic energy, of hunting, and of game management. Millions of Russians visited every year. At more than 7.5 million square feet, the Vystavka Dostizheniy Narodnovo Khozyaystva, or VDNKh, was considerably bigger than the Vatican. Launched in 1939, shuttered during World War II, and reopened in 1959, VDNKh was an emblem of its time: the apex of then Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s thaw and the quixotic quest to finish the revolution that had been started four decades earlier. In 1961, Khrushchev famously declared that communism would be built in 20 years.

In the late Soviet period, VDNKh (pronounced Veh-Deh-Enn-Kha) expanded — at the time of the communist collapse in 1991, it had more than 80 pavilions — and then devolved into a giant, run-down bazaar offering all species of kitsch: communist paraphernalia, cheap oil paintings, knockoff fur coats, and an illimitable supply of pirated DVDs.

Recently, city authorities announced they would be "redeveloping," i.e., bulldozing, VDNKh (renamed the All-Russian Exhibition Center in 1992) and turning it into a $2 billion "business complex" with office parks, hotels, underground parking lots, and an amusement park called a "leisure zone." It is an odd site for that sort of thing. VDNKh sits near several dilapidated apartment buildings north of Moscow’s center and several miles from the Kremlin, the locus around which business and money revolve in Russia. Like Moscow City, the half-empty office park that was supposed to be the Wall Street of Europe, and the boondoggle that is the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, the new VDNKh will be nothing more than another Potemkin village. It is meant, like all of the country’s top-down, supersized projects, to convince the world that Russia is serious, optimistic, and forward-looking.

Russia has been trying to catapult itself out of its medievalism — "to cut a window to the West," as Alexander Pushkin put it — ever since Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg in 1703. The Soviet period was not a break with the past, but a ratcheting up of it. The 20th century is pockmarked with gargantuan, ridiculous, catapult-like plans, projects, complexes, and centers that were intended to break with the past and leapfrog Russia into a new world of its own making. All of them failed. The five-year plans did not turn Russia into Germany; collectivization led to mass starvation; the White Sea Canal, linking the far north with the Baltic Sea, was too shallow to be a major shipping corridor. Even the big achievements of the 1950s and 1960s — Sputnik, brand-new public housing complexes, the detonation of the biggest atomic bomb ever — could not fend off the stagnation and decline of the 1970s and 1980s.

One might have expected the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union to have prompted a nationwide reassessment of Russia’s obsession with building itself out of its backwardness. The Soviet Union was meant to be the greatest, biggest, brashest experiment in humankind, and it imploded. This should not have been a great surprise: Top-down projects that are meant to shape the future never succeed. They are doomed because they cannot anticipate the world they seek to reconfigure.

But the rise of Vladimir Putin in 2000 signaled that there had not been any reassessment. Indeed, there is probably no head of state on the planet who better exemplifies the Potemkin presidency. Putin’s Russia practices soft-core authoritarianism. The key ingredients of a democracy are lacking — an independent judiciary and media, political competition, transparency, rule of law — but Putin, unlike his predecessors, must now contend with a global marketplace and rapidly spreading technology that make it impossible to rule absolutely. Putin seems to intuit as much. He portrays himself as a man on the cusp of a new era — one defined by "managed democracy" or "sovereign democracy" or whatever slogan the Kremlin ideologists or writers of popular political science have recently concocted — but he is not. He is a statist in a world with diminishing respect for states. He can play tsar, but he cannot reroute the next half-century. This is what makes the new VDNKh so absurd: It reflects the sadly antiquated Russian idea of building the future by destroying the past.

Remaking VDNKh lacks the ambition of, say, blowing up atomic bombs in Siberia to reverse the direction of a fast-moving river. (This was once seriously discussed.) But it is born of the same conceit and intended to accomplish the same end: to create the impression that Russia is modern. It’s not just that the new VDNKh will include an "innovation campus" or that the development’s promotional video shows Muscovites hustling around greenspaces or within the curved, hypermodern, spaceship-like hallways of proposed buildings. It’s that the new VDNKh will not make much room for the old one. It will symbolize its modernism by obstructing that which came before. Truly modern countries — those that have achieved a highly developed democratic capitalism — do not magically become modern. They evolve. Skyscrapers and nuclear weapons are not causes of progress, but consequences of it. They emerge organically. There is little about Russia today that is organic, which is to say market-driven, natural, of the people. Almost everything is top-down.

It is not just the newness of the renovated VDNKh that will be jarring, but how it tries to negate its old identity. In Moscow, an architectural period does not give rise to a successor; it gets crushed by it. Stalin’s monumentalist monstrosities pushed aside the lovely, constructivist buildings of the 1920s. The much smaller khrushchyovka apartment complexes, the musty concrete pillboxes named after the Soviet premier, did not evolve out of their predecessors so much as refute them, just as the much bigger housing blocs of the Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras in the 1970s and 1980s refuted the perceived wobbliness of authoritarianism during the Khrushchev era. Former Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, whose wife is a billionaire developer, oversaw the rise of garish post-Soviet Moscow; his successor, Sergei Sobyanin, who took over in October 2010, seems but an extension of Luzhkov. In January, he signed off on the destruction of two early 19th-century neoclassical buildings to make room for the city of Moscow’s Duma.

VDNKh is meant to announce that Moscow is now an international commercial hub. It is unclear how the global financial community w
ill receive that announcement. Analysts do not expect Moscow to become a major financial center à la New York, London, or Singapore, making it more in league to compete for capital and IPOs with cities like Warsaw and Kiev. This can’t please Putin.

But market share and profitability are not the point — which belies the absurdity of a development that is supposed to broadcast to the world that Russia is a commercial powerhouse. The real point is to erase this vestige of Sovietism and pretend that the future is finally going to start now. In the northern reaches of Moscow. For the umpteenth time. This is not how modern countries behave. But that has never been the way Russia does things.