Russian Communist park restored amid wave of nostalgia

AFP
Youngsters splash water on a hot summer's day while standing in the pool of famous 'Druzhba narodov' ('Friendship of nations') fountain at the VDNKh, a public park and exhibition space in Moscow, on July 30, 2014
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Moscow (AFP) - Sliding into shabbiness after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a giant Moscow complex extolling the days of the old planned economy has been restored amid a wave of nostalgia for Russia's past.

The Exhibition of Achievements of the People's Economy, or VDNKh, opened in 1939 to trumpet Soviet successes while the capitalist world was stuck in a deep depression.

A massive park stretching across 237 hectares (585 acres) with fountains, monuments and exhibitions on communist achievements, it became a key element in the popular conception of Soviet power after World War II.

But the facility shared a common fate when the Soviet Union ended in 1991: falling into disrepair as funds for renovations dried up. Shops in makeshift metal shacks mushroomed in the park and across the capital in the first years of free-wheeling Russian capitalism.

VDNKh's restoration has come amid a public mood of nostalgia for a vanished Soviet empire as modern Russia seeks to glorify the past under President Vladimir Putin.

Today, newly repaved footpaths take visitors through the grand columned entrance and by the massive statue of a male worker and a woman collective farmer together holding the Soviet hammer and sickle, which became the emblem of the facility.

Inside, as workers still labour to complete renovations, visitors can see pavillions with exhibits of Soviet cars and one of the Soviet space programme with a huge Soyuz rocket.

"These renovations are indispensable," says Svetlana, 50, at the foot of the Buran, the Soviet version of the US Space Shuttle that made one unmanned flight into space before the fall of the Soviet Union.

"I have come here before, but everything was dilapidated. There were kiosks and stores, which did not suit the place at all," she says.

"VDNKh is a place that is known throughout Russia and it's great to see that it has been restored to the grandeur of its reputation," says Anna, a 20-year-old from Siberia.

The revival of this space and others across the city comes at a time when Moscow could apparently use all the help it can get to attract tourism -- tensions over the Ukraine crisis have led to a drop of up to 20 percent in the number of foreign tourists visiting Russia, according to unofficial data of Russia's national tourism authority.

- Tumbledown to trendy -

Moscow took back control of the park from private investors in November 2013 and immediately launched a massive renovation project.

The city has so far ploughed in more than 60 million euros ($80 million) and intends to spend nearly 1.5 billion euros overall to restore the facility to its former glory despite the sanctions-hit Russian economy threatening to stall to zero growth.

The plan to turn the park from tumbledown to trendy appears to have succeeded.

More than three million Russians visited the park over the long August 1-3 weekend when VDNKh celebrated its 75th anniversary.

The renovation of VDNKh fits in with a programme the city authorities launched in 2011 to renovate Moscow's public spaces.

"These works are a priority for the city of Moscow," says Sergei Kapkov, who heads the initiative as chief of the city's cultural affairs department.

"Moscow residents need to feel at home, that the city is really theirs, and that is why we are concentrating on renovating parks and boulevards, and creating pedestrian zones," he tells AFP.

There are new such zones in the city centre where Muscovites now stroll on paving stones between swish cafes and shops on summer evenings near the Bolshoi Theatre -- instead of jostling on narrow sidewalks as SUVs and luxury sedans hog the city streets.

Six kilometres (four miles) of pedestrian zones are due to be installed this year alone, according to city officials.

- Design, recreation -

"This new infrastructure also allows us to attract tourists," says Kapkov.

The huge red brick factory of Russia's beloved Red October chocolate factory, located just a bit upstream from the Kremlin, has been converted into an art centre that has become a key part of the city's artistic scene.

Kapov also oversaw the renovation of Moscow's famous Gorky Park, getting rid of rundown amusement rides and making it a place to practise outdoor activities or just stroll about while having free WiFi access.

"Each park is different, with its own concept," says Kapkov. "For some we concentrate on the architecture and design while for others the accent is on recreation."

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