Since London's Great Exhibition of 1851, world's fairs have given the nations of the world a chance to show off what they do best in industry and the arts. The world's fairs were the primary arena of peaceful international competition until supplanted by the Olympic Games and the World Cup in recent decades. With the appearance after 1917 of the Soviet Union, a new kind of state based on socialist ideology, national competition increasingly took on an ideological colouring. Soviet participation in the world's fairs of the twentieth century focused not on simply raising national prestige, but on advertising the achievements of socialism.
The Soviet Union was a major presence at most of the twentieth century's great world's fairs, from the 1925 'art deco' exposition in Paris to Osaka's Expo '70. In Paris in 1925 the new socialist country made a big splash with its constructivist pavilion, designed by Konstantin Melnikov and filled with displays that showcased the Soviet avant-garde's revolutionary experiments in design. By the 1930s, with Stalin firmly established in power, the emphasis on revolutionary experimentation had given way to a more prosaic focus on the economic and social achievements of the construction of socialism under the Five-Year Plans, displayed at the Paris 1937 and New York 1939 world's fairs. The onset of the Cold War brought the Soviet Union into open rivalry with the United States, and beginning with the 1958 Brussels world's fair the competition between the socialist and capitalist systems became a pronounced feature of every world's fair in which the Soviet Union participated.
The world's fairs of the 1930s were held during a period in which the Soviet Union, worried about Hitler's rise to power in Germany, sought to downplay international revolution in an effort to forge anti-fascist alliances with its erstwhile capitalist foes in the interests of collective security. The Soviet exhibits at the 1937 and 1939 world's fairs tried to present Soviet socialism as a modernising force that had transformed the backward tsarist empire into a strong, progressive nation that would make a worthy ally against German aggression. In both Paris and New York, the Soviets erected monumental pavilions that projected an aura of power and modernity.
In Paris in 1937, the enormous marble-clad Soviet pavilion was crowned with Vera Mukhina's iconic sculpture of a worker and peasant holding a hammer and a sickle. It faced the equally monumental pavilion of Nazi Germany, designed by Hitler's architect Albert Speer, in a symbolic confrontation that echoed the struggle between socialism and fascism then being played out in the Spanish Civil War. Inside the Soviet pavilion visitors were introduced to socialism's achievements in a series of halls containing tractors, automobiles, models of dams, industrial complexes and the new Moscow metro, statistics on economic growth and social welfare provision, and lots of socialist realist art. Exhibits on the 1936 'Stalin Constitution' highlighted the Soviet Union's purported democratic credentials, while a huge jewelled map of the Soviet Union wowed the public with its lavish use of rubies and diamonds. In contrast to other national pavilions, however, there were very few consumer goods on display, and those that were failed to make much of an impression on the French. The Soviet pavilion attracted enormous attention at the fair and drew around 20 million visitors, as did Germany's pavilion.
The 1937 Paris world's fair took place in a heated political atmosphere in France. Leon Blum's left-wing Popular Front government, which included the French Communist Party, had been in power since 1936 and tried to use the world's fair to publicise its controversial social and political agenda. The fair was celebrated by the left and pilloried by the right, and the divided response to the Soviet exhibits reflected the charged political atmosphere. Workers flocked to it to demonstrate their support for socialism, while more skeptical observers called attention to the similarities in Soviet and Nazi monumental architecture. The purges and the show trials and executions that accompanied them were at their height in 1937, which cast a shadow over Soviet attempts to present itself as a respectable, modern nation. The Soviet Union's participation in the Paris 1937 world's fair did little to change French public opinion about the country or the benefits of a collective security agreement, but rather served to confirm their existing views of Soviet socialism.
Strange as it may seem today, in light of the nearly half-century of confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States that followed World War II, the Soviets found a more receptive audience at the New York world's fair of 1939. They mounted essentially the same show, emphasising as in Paris the modernising achievements of socialism with similar displays of heavy industry, while virtually no consumer goods were to be found in the pavilion. The Soviet pavilion in New York was also clad in marble and equally monumental, this time featuring a 180-foot pylon supporting a 79-foot statue of a worker holding a red star. One eye-catching addition to the Soviet display in New York, one which made a big impression on New York subway veterans, was a life-size model of a palatial Moscow metro station in which mirrors were used to simulate the appearance of the station platform.
Americans were more receptive to the Soviet exhibition in 1939 than the French had been in 1937 for three reasons. First, the United States, despite the ongoing Depression and conflicts over the implementation of Roosevelt's New Deal politics, was not as politically polarised as France and there was much less political support for socialism. The purges had subsided by 1939, and many Americans believed that the Soviet Union was a determined opponent of German aggression and moving in the direction of democracy. Second, the Soviet exhibition spoke a language of modernisation that was not unlike that of the American exhibits at the fair, which also celebrated material and technological progress. Finally, the Soviets' gigantic pylon and statue were not at all out of place at the New York fair, which had as its centerpiece the 610-foot Trylon and where towering pylons embellished many of the corporate pavilions. The monumental architecture of the Soviet pavilion was not so different from the monumental architecture of 1930s America, which saw the construction of the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, and a series of neo-classical government buildings along the Mall in Washington. In its design, the Soviet pavilion bore a resemblance to the American government's nearby federal pavilion. Moreover, in 1939 there was no Nazi pavilion to invite negative comparisons, for Germany did not participate in the New York world's fair.
The overwhelming response of Americans, both in the press and in the visitors' comments books inside the Soviet pavilion, was positive. Even publications that were quite hostile towards communism, such as Henry Luce's Time magazine and many small-town papers, rated the Soviet pavilion one of the fair's star attractions. It received more visitors than any other installation at the fair, including General Motors immensely popular celebration of the automotive lifestyle to come, the Futurama. To be sure, ordinary Americans were not converted to socialism, but they were curious to learn about the Soviet Union, viewed favorably the pavilion's monumental architecture, and sympathized with its theme of material progress. The positive impact made at the New York world's fair did not last long, however. Before the 1939 fair season ended, the Soviet Union had made a pact with Germany and occupied eastern Poland, and shortly after the fair closed it invaded Finland. By the time the fair reopened for its second season in 1940, American public opinion had swung sharply against the Soviet Union, which elected not to return to New York and took its pavilion back to Moscow.
Cold War competition between the Soviet Union and the United States dominated the next world's fair, held in Brussels in 1958, and the Soviets (like the Americans) made the most of the propaganda opportunity. Stalin had died in 1953, and the Soviet pavilion reflected the abandonment of the monumental socialist realist style that had determined the architecture of the 1937 and 1939 pavilions. This time there were no enormous statues on the outside of the pavilion, a modern-looking rectangular box of glass and steel that some critics likened to a large refrigerator. Still, the interior was again dominated by technical and industrial exhibits, with a paucity of consumer goods on display. This time, however, the Soviets had some truly sensational and entirely futuristic technology to display - models of their Sputnik satellites, which had recently orbited the earth and signaled that the Soviet Union might soon overtake the United States in science. The pavilion also contained numerous displays calling attention to the Soviet Union's purportedly peaceful use of atomic power, which was contrasted to the American arsenal of nuclear weapons. The Soviet display in Brussels was such a successful public relations feat that it caused much anxiety and soul-searching in the United States, already fearful of lagging behind in scientific education and the 'space race'.
The Soviet Union, like a number of other European nations, did not come to the New York world's fair of 1964-65, but had a massive display at Expo '67 in Montreal. This time the space race was in full swing, with the outcome still in doubt. The Soviet pavilion, fronted by a giant sculpture of a hammer and sickle, was of a contemporary style with glass and aluminum curtain walls topped by a roof that resembled a ski-jump. It faced off with the geodesic dome of the United States pavilion, mirroring the nations' competition in space. The Soviets made a strenuous effort to demonstrate that their technological achievements were equal to those of the Americans. As a Soviet official remarked, 'Everyone knows what the Americans can do; we have to show what we can do.' In addition to the industrial and technical exhibits that crammed the interior, consumer goods were on prominent display. The Soviet pavilion also featured a spherical theatre in which visitors could experience a simulated lift-off and journey to Mars. Both the Soviet and American pavilions were first on the list of 'must-see' attractions for most visitors to the fair.
By the time the next world's fair was held in Osaka in 1970, the United States had won the space race. The Soviet pavilion, a sweeping red and white building that was the tallest at the fair, contained the usual industrial and technical displays, a piano that once belonged to the composer Tchaikovsky, and an enormous screen that showed ten films simultaneously, but had nothing to equal the moon rock the Americans were showing in their pavilion. After 1970, it was becoming clear that the Soviet Union could not match either the United States either in technological achievement or the production of consumer goods. By the time of the next major world's fair in Seville in 1992, the Soviet Union had disappeared from the map. Although a Soviet pavilion was planned for the fair, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991 meant that the planned Soviet pavilion turned into a Russian pavilion and the former Soviet republics exhibited separately. At Expo 2000 in Hanover Russia did not even have its own pavilion, only a stand in a large hall shared with many countries that elected not to build separate national pavilions. Booths displayed models of nuclear power plants and space technology, together with a model of St. Petersburg and lots of photos of tourist destinations. At the most recent world's fair, Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan, which closed recently, the Russians had their own pavilion, sponsored by the state-owned oil giant Gazprom and other Russian companies. Like the other national pavilions at Aichi, it was a low-key affair, housed in a prefabricated structure provided by the fair organizers. The spectacular pavilions belonged to the corporate exhibitors, which included Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Hitachi. In keeping with the environmental theme of the Aichi world's fair, Russia exhibited displays of environmental studies and mineral resources, as well as cartoon films, ethnographic objects, space technology, nanotechnology, and the skeleton of a mammoth unearthed in Siberia. Russia also contributed a frozen mammoth to the expo's theme pavilion, Global House. The Russian exhibits at Aichi, especially the mammoth skeleton, were very popular with visitors.
For much of the twentieth century the Soviet Union used world's fairs to propagandize the economic and technological achievements of its socialist ideology. In the 1930s the emphasis was on showing the modernisation achieved under Stalin, while after World War II the Soviet Union entered into a direct ideological competition with the United States. The Cold War contest ensured that each nation used the world's fairs to advertise the virtues of its respective ideology. With the Cold War and the Soviet Union both consigned to history, the era of ideological competition appears to be over. Competition amongst nations is still a part of the world's fairs, but in recent years the emphasis has been on demonstrating that nation states are good citizens, capable of grappling with the environmental problems that are the legacy of the technologies that have transformed the world in the past two centuries. Whether they succeed is an open question, for Russia and other nations alike.