From Soviet pride to Western cars Fate of exhibit indicates pain Russians feel

MOSCOW — MOSCOW -- Any foreigner trying to comprehend the intense emotional suffering and psychological pain inflicted on the Russian people over the last few years need only visit the Exhibition of Economic Achievements of the U.S.S.R.

Here, the triumphs of Soviet man were celebrated as nowhere else in dazzling exhibits encased in 80 grandiose World's Fair-style pavilions.


Now political events have rewritten that singular vision of the Communist past -- with cold-hearted vengeance. The proudest of the pavilions, once filled with the sputniks and space paraphernalia that sent the United States scrambling in panic to catch up more than three decades ago, has been cleaned out.

The rocket ships and spacesuits have been thrown out to make room for an enormous Western car showroom.


Outside, the monumental stone facade, with its heroic figures of the valiant working man carved in bas relief, has been plastered with a giant U.S. flag.

Next door, in the Land Cultivation building, combines as big as houses and rows of gleaming tractors once basked in the glow of sunlight streaming through stained- and etched-glass windows.

Now the display cases are filled with rows of Italian balsam shampoo and toilet bowl cleaner, fetchingly lined up and lighted to tempt prospective retailers.

Here, for over 30 years, simple working folks who endured the daily humiliations of dreary apartments and terrible food could revel in their greatness. Now they're forced to confront their disappointments.

The other day, a 67-year-old pensioner named Nina walked slowly past the Friendship of Peoples fountain, a stunning piece of work as tall as an eight-story building.

Gilt statues of 15 maidens circle the fountain, representing the 15 republics of the Soviet Union. They surround a colossal centerpiece choked with sheaves of golden wheat, sunflowers and other bounty -- all in brilliant gold and all bathed in a spray of one ton of water a minute, when the fountain works.

"I heard rumors they were going to tear down the fountain because we no longer have 15 republics," Nina said. "My heart nearly broke."

She apologized profusely for not wanting to mention her last name. "Anything might happen," she said. "I'm from the generation that's still afraid."


No fit with the future

And she's from the generation that still feels keenly the loss of the powerful country she once knew, the generation left unable to fit into the future.

She spent her working life maintaining toilets in a metro station, and now she lives on a pension of 17,000 rubles a month -- about $17. She has one room in a communal apartment, shared with several other families. She wears her hair in a tidy bun and her clothes, while old, are clearly respectable.

"Some grandmothers trade in cigarettes," she said. "But I can't do that. It's shameful. So I come here and I collect bottles. And then I sell them.

"I used to feel great delight here," she said. "I felt proud. And now when I'm here I have bitter feelings. We lived together once. We lived well. And now it is very difficult. Not because we are hungry, but because of the sorrow that is killing us."

The 578-acre park has 80 pavilions, built in such grand style that a Soviet citizen could not help but feel enormous pride. One guidebook of the 1960s politely called the architecture strange. Visitors first come upon an 80-foot-high stainless steel sculpture of a working man and farm woman raising a hammer and sickle as they step forward into the great new future.


They enter the park, which is in northern Moscow, through an 80-foot-high archway on top of which soar two more collective farm workers holding up shafts of wheat. The stone columns are carved with a profuse jumble of wheat, sunflowers, cabbages and grapes.

Larger than life

Everything was larger than life. In a grand stone affair, more temple than hall, the world's fattest pigs once strutted. They kept company with the world's most productive cattle. Nearby were specimens of the most bountiful harvest.

The pedestrian, tiny next to all the grandeur, could only feel the might of all the power and authority above him. Until it all just blew away into the past.

It was all a lie. The country is bankrupt.

But for many middle-aged adults, shining childhood memories remain of a special day at VDNKh -- Vey-Dey-En-Kha as it's known by its Russian initials. There was a holiday air, with balloons and shashlik stands, and ice cream when you couldn't find it anywhere else.


The once huge crowds are gone. Now, a few young lovers sit on the park benches and kiss. Families stroll, looking at the flowers.

And, this day, two forlorn men in suits sat looking around them in despair. As the strains of an Italian opera blared out around them, they explained that they had come to Moscow from Tajikistan in hopes of finding U.S. farmers who might offer technical advice.

There were no U.S. farmers in Moscow that day, so they found their way to VDNKh. "We feel sad," said Rustam Khakimov, director of an agricultural machinery factory. "The first impression is that it's very empty here."

While their elders mourn the past, the young can only look ahead. Oleg Korsakov, 20, manages the office displaying Italian soaps.

Different economics

"Of course there was a joyful atmosphere," he said. "But now there are different times, and we have to adapt to them. Our country needs to stimulate business, and that's what we're doing here. Of course it's a different kind of economic exhibit now, but what's wrong with that?"


Valery Frantsev, 47, wasn't so sure. He had brought his 4-year-old son, Slava, to VDNKh especially to see the space exhibit that had made him gasp with excitement in his own childhood.

To his shock, Mr. Frantsev found the giant photograph of the space hero Yuri Gagarin beaming out upon rows of Cadillacs, Dodge Caravans and Jeep Grand Cherokees.

"We had many achievements," Mr. Frantsev said. "Where are they?"

But his son was completely transfixed. He took a quick look at the remaining sputnik, then carefully absorbed every detail of every car. "Mercedes Benz," he said softly at one point.

"This is what makes his eyes light up," Mr. Frantsev said, gesturing toward a cherry-red, $45,000 Cadillac de Ville.