To see how thoroughly buildings can mislead, you can visit the gilded pavilions of the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition, which covers an area larger than the principality of Monaco, in the Moscow suburb of Ostankino. It is one of the more outstanding examples of deceitful construction in the country that gave the concept of the Potemkin Village to the world. The exhibition was conceived in 1935 as a celebration of the abundance of Soviet agriculture, two years after the greatest of a series of famines induced by communist policies had killed between six and eight million people. It also celebrated the fraternity of the sixteen republics of the Soviet Union at a time when regional identity was being murderously suppressed.
The original idea was that the project would open in 1937, for the twentieth anniversary of the revolution, but slow progress delayed it until 1939. Then there was disappointment – the temporary wooden structures were considered underwhelming. For this crime, together with an unlucky choice of political patron, the exhibition’s architect, Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky, served four years’ exile in the Gulag city of Vorkuta.
The exhibition was reinvigorated after the Second World War, untroubled by a further famine in 1947, which killed one to oneand-a-half million. It was finally completed in 1954, a campus dotted with declamatory structures in the manner of World’s Fairs and Great Exhibitions. Each republic had a pavilion, as did important branches of agriculture – grain, meat, rabbit-breeding – and the buildings mattered more than their contents. In the Pavilion of the Mechanization and Electrification of Agriculture a huddle of combine harvesters was out-dazzled by a glass dome mounted on filigree gilded steelwork. The machines were dwarfed by a statue of giant sturdy labourers, flanked by trumpeting children, ascending towards a golden banner and radiant five-pointed star.
Unlike World’s Fairs and Great Exhibitions, the architecture of the Agricultural Exhibition made little attempt to look to the future. London in 1851 gave the world the Crystal Palace, Paris 1889 the Eiffel Tower, and Brussels in 1958 a building in the shape of an atom. The Moscow show was the fulfilment of Stalin’s twenty-year search for a truly Soviet architecture, which turned out to be a form of Greek and Roman classicism, made fantastical with Asiatic details, and made mighty with the scale of American skyscrapers. This style had diminishing interest in the future, or the modern, but drew its motifs from architecture of the past.
Party statements said that the aim was ‘mastery of heritage’, also ‘clarity and precision . . . which must be easily comprehensible by and accessible to the masses’, also ‘art as stunningly simple as the heroism we find today in the Soviet Union’. As time passed the desire to impress the masses trumped the duty to simplicity. As in Moscow’s famous metro stations, mosaics, marble, chandeliers, and rococo scrolls, the decadent stuff of aristocratic ballrooms, came to decorate the collective and functional spaces of the city. Like Stalin’s public persona, this architecture combined force with charm, the twinkling eyes with the mailed fist.
Moscow metro station
At the Agricultural Exhibition the pavilions were only minimally constrained by their function of sheltering exhibits, and their style tended towards the delirious. Architects, perhaps mindful of the penalty Oltarzhevsky paid for dullness, let rip. Greece and Rome are evoked, and Babylon and Assyria. Buildings typically establish close-packed rhythms, through crowded ranks of columns, banners, statues, carvings of crops or Soviet stars. This is the part that speaks of force, with military repetition and arrogant redundancy. The columns are bigger, denser, and more numerous than needed to support whatever they are supposed to carry (often, not much). They tell you they were built by a power that could spend what it wanted.
Then there is the charm, delivered with fanciful skylines of pinnacles and cupolas, parapets frilled with ornament, and carving explicit as a child’s picture book. White and gold dominate. Embrasures are fecund with plump carved produce, maize, sunflowers, pears, grapes, pumpkins, almost unbearable in their superabundance. Statues are noble and handsome, and wholesomely clothed. Carved into the pediment of the Karelian-Finnish pavilion, lumberjacks hew trees with chainsaws, to get the stuff – timber – of which the pavilion is made.
Literalism reigns, but with lacunae. Bulls surmount the capitals of the Pavilion of the Ministry of Meat Production. A farmer, hunter, shepherdess, and miner help carry the entablature of the Siberia Pavilion, with no hint of the inmates of forced labour camps, who then formed the majority of the republic’s population. A frieze on the Pavilion of Rabbit-Breeding shows bas-relief lagomorphs at frolic, presumably pre- or post-coital, although the sculptor was too coy to show the eponymous breeding in progress.
A central avenue is staked out with great fountains. One, the Stone Flower, heaps up basket-loads of fruit and vegetables, jugs, and water-spewing geese. In another, the Friendship of Nations, sixteen gold women embody the republics of the Soviet Union. Their colour is electrically bright and sweet as syrup, and their arms spread in gestures of peace. In the centre a gilded sheaf of wheat rises, crowned with spumes of water that echo the nodding ears of corn.
The exhibition ground was later renamed the Exhibition of National Economic Achievements, and themes such as space exploration were added. It continues to this day as an underpopulated ground for trade shows, where the silt of commerce gathers: cubicles selling woollens, phone parts, and souvenirs lap at the bases of giant columns; suburban show homes appear next to the white-pillared pavilions; hawkers sell the opportunity to be photographed with SpongeBob SquarePants and characters from Shrek, with an old bronze Lenin ignored and impotent behind. The place is too grand to be demolished, but too big to be useful.
The obvious lies of the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition, told by its buildings with such energy and persuasion, were that Soviet agriculture was productive, efficient, and abundant, and that the republics of the Union were happy and fraternal. There was a further one: the exhibition is a statement of Stalinist authority, expressed in an extreme form of the styles developed under him for Moscow’s skyscrapers and metro. It is a bubble in time, indifferent to the modern styles of architecture to be found then in almost every other country in the world. Looking at these confident structures you would have no sense that Stalin died the year before they were completed, and that his cult was on the verge of decline. As is often the case in architecture, it celebrates the almost gone.
At the same time there is, if you know how to look, a truth. The most glittering of the pavilions, centrally located by the Stone Flower fountain, is the Ukrainian, decorated with rapidly repeating verticals to recall a field of wheat, and a crown-like superstructure. Its grandeur reflects the wishes of the First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party, who declared a previous pavilion inadequate. If you detected political ambition in a man who wanted to outshine his comrades’ structures, you would be right. This First Secretary was Nikita Khrushchev, who would become leader of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death, and lead the campaign of de-Stalinization. As a document of the power politics of its time, the exhibition is, to this extent at least, perfectly honest.
In writing a book like this, there are far too many buildings to choose from, but many more than made it into the final draft deserve mention. Exclusive to picador.com, here are a few that didn't quite make the cut.