VDNKh’s history: Start of the main national exhibition

VDNKh’s history: Start of the main national exhibition
The All-Union Agricultural Exhibition (VSKHV), Collective Farms Square, the Siberia Pavilion, designed by architect Yershov and sculptor Nadolsky. Photo: Boris Ignatovich, 1939. Courtesy of the Moscow Main Archive Directorate
This August, the main national exhibition is marking its 81st anniversary. Today, VDNKh ranks among the 50 largest exhibition complexes in the world. Last year, there were 33 million visitors. 49 VDNKh facilities have the status of cultural-heritage landmarks. This story contributed by the Moscow Main Archive Directorate narrates VDNKh’s first years.

1934-1939: Exhibition concept and construction

In 1934, Soviet leaders decided to establish an exhibition that would have marked the 20th anniversary of Soviet power and highlighted the successes of the collectivisation drive. People’s Commissar of Agriculture Mikhail Chernov said this at the 2nd All-Union Congress of Advanced Collective Farmers.

Construction was launched in the second half of 1935. The wooden buildings took a long time to erect. The pavilions of Belarus, Ukraine, the joint pavilion of the South Caucasus republics and that of Turkmenistan were ready by July 1937. The builders failed to complete the project by 7 November 1937, and it was decided to delay the opening ceremony by 12 months. Temporary wooden pavilions with a service life of 100 days were overhauled to make them last five years. The exhibition did not open in November 1938, and a new deadline was set for 1 August 1939.

Some of the pavilions, built by that time, were reconstructed and improved. They began to reflect the most characteristic features of each Union republic’s national style and that of every Russian region.

Architects Vladimir Shchuko, Vladimir Gelfreikh and Leonid Polyakov, sculptors Sergei Konyonkov, Sergei Merkurov and Georgy Motovilov, as well as artists Alexander Deineka, Alexander Bubnov, Yevgeny Lancere, the Kukryniksy team (Mikhail Kupriyanov, Porfiry Krylov and Nikolai Sokolov), Pavel Sokolov-Skalya and plenty of other people worked on the interior design as well as decorative features.

The sculptural group Tractor Driver and Collective Farm Woman that depicts enormous sculptures holding a sheaf of wheat overhead was erected in 1939 and became the exhibition’s emblem.

The main entrance of the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition (VSKHV). Photo: Preobrazhensky, July 1955. Courtesy of the Moscow Main Archive Directorate

1939: VDNKh opens

The exhibition opened in an impressive setting on 1 August 1939. Over 10,000 people attended the opening ceremony. Vyacheslav Molotov, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, cut the ribbon. He mounted a rostrum and addressed those present, declaring VSKHV, later renamed as VDNKh, open. Composer Isaak Dunayevsky conducted a choir whose members performed the song Glory to Our Affluent Motherland.

There were 87 facilities people could visit, including the Mechanisation, Silkworm-Breeding and Horticulture departmental pavilions, as well as those of Union and autonomous republics, including the Armenian SSR, the Bashkir ASSR, the Byelorussian SSR. Visitors also went to other pavilions of some of the regions, including the Soviet Far East, Leningrad and the Northeastern RSFSR, and the Soviet Arctic.

The Mechanisation pavilion became the largest VSKHV facility. This was an enormous structure resembling an airship hangar. Caterpillar tractors and other equipment seemed like mere toys under its high glass roof. All the machines were located on two levels. The upper level featured ring-shaped transporters with farming machinery. The lower level, located beneath the transporters, consisted of four large halls. One of them dealt with the tractor industry, and three others were dedicated to the farming machinery industry, the automotive sector and the use of chemistry and aviation in agriculture.

In the 60 days of its work, the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition received 3.5 million visitors. Friendship agreements were signed at numerous meetings involving representatives of republics, territories and regions. They also signed socialist emulation agreements. 

Eighty-one years have passed since then. VDNKh survived the war, changed, became transformed and was rebuilt. Until today, it remained one of the most significant places in Moscow. VDNKh is a venue for cultural and sports events; its pavilions are being reconstructed and continue to receive millions of visitors.