VDNKh Shows How Things Have Changed

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The Moscow metro station at the All-Russia Exhibit Center is still officially called VDNKh, the old Soviet name for the Exhibition of the National Economic Achievements. The Soviet version of consumerism was shaped by the needs of a state-controlled economy based on heavy industry and military production. It paternalistically attempted to guide and uplift the consumer desires of the increasingly frustrated population. The massive, neoclassical pavilions of VDNKh communicated this vision on a daily basis to its many Soviet visitors.

The Soviet Union is no more, of course, and Russia's new flamboyant, high-end consumerism emerged as an explicit reaction against the long years of denial and state-imposed asceticism. But his new world of luxury remains as inaccessible and uninviting as the old world of the Soviet elite and their special stores, schools, apartments and hospitals.

More important and promising is the emergence of a middle class, which is also evident at the exhibit site. In good weather, the expansive grounds are packed with thousands of enthusiastic visitors who ride bumper cars, rent bicycles, eat in modest cafes and stroll the grounds. Contemporary exhibits address the more personal needs of the home and everyday life and display children's toys, home furniture, binoculars and exotic cat breeds. The new identity and branding is more responsive to everyday consumer desires and needs and distant from the old paternalistic work of the Soviet state and the Communist Party. Domestic life and leisure are the underlying topics of the exhibit center. The American dream -- which always hovered in the background, even in the Soviet era -- is also on display, although always with a distinctive Russian accent. A current exhibit displays new suburban-style homes.

Not all leftovers from the Soviet era are negative, of course. The Soviet Union's increasingly urban and educated intelligentsia, originally a product of Stalin's effort to compel the population to serve the needs of the state in its competitive relationship with the outside world, grew to cultivate a private world of consumer culture from the 1950s to the 1980s. Hopefully, Russia's leaders will continue their efforts to diversify the economy and support the emergence of the middle class.

A sunny afternoon at the old Soviet exhibit site is the perfect location to observe this interesting blend of Russia's Soviet past and its promising future.

Austin Jersild is associate professor of history and international studies at Old Dominion University in Virginia.