“Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union.”
Before knowing anything about these photographs you realize there is something dystopian about them. They don’t quite belong in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis but the world they represent is not far removed from that. The year is 1954, a day midway between Stalin’s death on the 5th of March the year before and the speech Nikita Khrushchev will deliver to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, on February the 25th 1956. ‘On the Personality Cult and its Consequences’, is a partial but devastating list of the former dictator’s crimes. They aren’t exactly a secret, Western governments have had some idea about what was going on but for their own purposes preferred to remain quiet. Still, no one expected Khrushchev would reveal the list and so deliberately to ensure that although it would be called the ‘secret speech’, the West received full notice. But for now that is in the future. In 1954 the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition reopens after a 13 year hiatus. It covers 237 hectares and it celebrates the vast expanse of the Soviet empire, from the borders with Finland, Poland and Turkey to the west and Japan in the east. Stalin has been dead for a year but his presence still hangs vivid over the USSR. This is as much a monument to him as it is to the idea of the USSR.
Stalin is one of the few non-architects (British royalty aside) to have an architectural style named after him. An entire style actually, incorporating Stalinist Gothic, Stalinist Empire and High Stalinism. It used to be derided as proof of his extreme narcissism and if you wanted to know what drove a man to have millions of his people murdered you only had to look at the Moscow skyline. The trouble with this reasoning is that across the waters in New York and Chicago architects and engineers were being driven to design and build ever more extravagant and grandiose skyscrapers, in styles not dissimilar to Stalinism. If Moscow State University was a monument to egotistical madness, what was the Chrysler Building? A tentative reassessment of Stalinist architecture is taking place, led by people who have no memory of the Cold War or no ideological reason to sustain one. For them there are times or conditions when the Seven Sisters have the same awe inspiring majesty as any of the USA’s great towers.
The All-Union Agricultural Exhibition was the best example of Stalinist Gothic, gothic being defined as ornamentation with nostalgia for vanished ideals that never really existed. Architecturally, the halls dedicated to the various Soviet cultures bore no relationship to any native style but were supposed to evoke classical, medieval and renaissance eras, as though the key text for the architects was some overblown Victorian piece of historical fiction. There’s an apparent paradox in all this. If the modern state is such a spectacular success, why draw inspiration from a past that has supposedly been made redundant? But this isn’t a particularly Russian problem. Chicago’s White City built for the 1893 World’s Fair and supposed to represent modern America also relied on a mishmash of historical styles. Actually, it appears there was an unwritten code that the architecture for all expos and worlds’ fairs had to be simultaneously nostalgic, tacky and magnificent.
There are a few details to pay attention to in these photos. The badly cut suit coat of one of the Russian women for example, evidence in itself why eastern bloc citizens craved Levis. You might wonder about the medals the dignitaries from Central Asia are wearing too. One looks like you earned it but half a dozen is a parody. If the fountain designed as a gold sheaf of wheat, the Golden Spike Fountain, was supposed to be a monument to Soviet agriculture, it could also be one to Trofim Lysenko and his experiments on genetics and wheat that have been blamed for creating one of the worst famines in the Stalinist era. Then again the relationship between architecture and power has always relied on sustaining delusions to the degree they become a manifestation of paranoia. In that regard, Stalin was no different to any other ruler who devoted too much of his rule to constructing temples to his legacy. The All-Union Agricultural Exhibition wasn’t however a complete white elephant. It still survives; more or less intact as the day it was reopened in 1954, still an expo and convention centre with an outdoor market place for small time capitalists.
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