The exhibition center as it looks today.

Last spring, the sound of hammers started up, reverberating along the wide pedestrian avenues of the All-Russia Exhibition Center in Moscow (known to Muscovites as VDNKh).

After decades of neglect, the city of Moscow has begun the process of renovating the most iconic pavilions of its 13,000-acre, Stalin-era exhibition center. The cheap cafes and makeshift booths selling seeds or electronics that had occupied the ornate spaces built to showcase Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and others have been dismantled. A couple of slick new food courts and the city’s chicest McDonald’s have gone in.

But, say organizers, this is just the beginning: Early this year, the city will reveal its new concept for VDNKh. While details are still under wraps, the idea is to turn these sprawling urban grounds—which also include apple orchards, woods, ornamental ponds, and a botanical garden—into a “city of museums,” says Irina Gordina, a spokeswoman for VDNKh.

“In the USSR time, there were 19 million visitors a year,” says Gordina. “We’d like to have 30 million.” As part of the update, exhibits on everything from the Arctic to the Cyrillic alphabet are already planned. Long dormant fountains are working again; sports facilities are going up; and a brand-new aquarium will have its very own resident whale.

Originally conceived after the Soviet Union held its first exhibition of agricultural goods in what is now Moscow’s Gorky Park, VNDKh has been buffeted by politics ever since its inception. Joseph Stalin’s original plans to create a permanent agricultural exhibit in the early 1930s were postponed by the severe famines that resulted from his disastrous five-year plans. In 1935, Stalin decided to go ahead with building. The Soviet architect Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky, who had been sent to New York to learn about skyscrapers for a decade, beginning in the 1920s, was put in charge. As work on the project progressed, however, it became clear that it would not be possible to open as planned in 1937. In one of the era’s many purges, Oltarzhevsky was sent to the gulag. 

Nonetheless, Sergey Chernyshev, the new architect, kept many of Oltarzhevsky’s designs—including a small-scale predecessor of Moscow’s iconic “Seven Sisters” high rises, which visitors can still see today. In 1939, VNDKh opened for the first time, with magnificent displays: the country’s best pigs, its best calves, and palm trees in wintertime. There were waterfalls, grapes, and apples from the whole of the Soviet Union. The pavilions themselves served to introduced ethnic Russians to the USSR’s other republics, says Gordina. “It was a place to get acquainted, to become a real nation.”

It was also a propaganda tool, to show off the riches of the Soviet Union. During World War II, the site served as a wartime factory, growing vegetables and fruits, as well as building motorcycles for the war effort. According to rumor, a school for secret agents was also established here. Only in the beginning of the 1950s did the Soviet government start to think about recovering the exhibition space, and a phase of rebuilding began (today’s monumental vaulted main entrance, for example, is from this era).

With the death of Stalin, the exhibition space changed again. Enormous statues of the former leader disappeared (according to legend, one of these is now buried under the apple orchard); politically undesirable figures on plaster reliefs were beheaded. Wanting to show that the USSR was a modern, progressive country, and wishing to de-emphasize the differences between the republics, Nikita Krushchev also changed the pavilions’ themes. Thus the Azerbaijan pavilion, built in 1939 and featuring an intricate façade with large bunches of hanging grapes, was covered in austere aluminum panels and devoted to computing technologies. Other pavilions were dedicated to industries from radioelectronics to engineering, atomic energy, space, and meat.

After the fall of communism, state funding to maintain the site dried up completely. The pavilions were turned into bazaars, and the elegant restaurant Golden Wheat was used to store wood. “The main problem in the last 25 years was, nobody was taking care of it,” says Gordina. Now, though, the projected budget for the renovation is 60 billion rubles (from various sources); so far, some three billion have been used for the first phase.

In a city in which attractive public spaces are at a premium, there has already been plenty of interest: To celebrate the park’s 75th anniversary, some three million people came to look at the planned changes over three days. “It is absolutely an ideological instrument,” says Gordina. “We want to feel proud of our country and want to have this place as it was in prewar years.”

“It’s not just a return to the roots,” she added. “It’s really new.”