The picturesque Volga Region: Restoring historical murals at an iconic VDNKh pavilion

August 9

Experts are gradually exposing the gorgeous paintings on the ceilings of Pavilion 15 Radio Electronics and Communications (previously called Volga Region). This complicated and delicate restoration project is based on archive photographs and original materials. More than 60 murals covering over 100 sq m of the ceilings were concealed by plaster and painted over in the past, and now it is time to reveal this magnificent décor. The plafonds framed with moulding can be seen in the halls representing the Kuibyshev, Saratov and Ulyanovsk regions as well as the hall dedicated to the Chuvash Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. The paintings were created by an unknown artist or a group of artists to mark the unveiling of the Volga Region pavilion in 1954. Notably, the artist used casein and oil tempera on linen canvas that was then attached to plaster. The murals feature colourful pastoral scenes such as garden harvesting and animal farming.

Five years after the opening, the pavilion was re-purposed and took up the radio electronics and communications theme. Some of the paintings were simply covered with water-based paint while others were plastered and whitewashed. Rectangular lamps were mounted on the plafonds, for which the beautiful canvas had to be pierced.

“Archive photographs indicate that the plafonds in these halls were previously decorated with paintings. Therefore, before starting the renovation, restoration artists took a shot at clearing the layers on the ceilings and discovered fragments of these murals,” commented the press service of Moscow’s Department for Major Housing Repairs.

Now restoration artists are working in the halls of the Saratov and Kuibyshev regions. They will get to uncover the décor in the other halls once the building foundation has been reinforced with piles because this technology-intensive process must not be interrupted.

“The paintings in the Saratov Region and Kuibyshev Region halls were unevenly painted over with water-based paint. You can notice traces of polymer paint applied later. There was also a thin uneven layer of filler paste and a layer of emulsion glue in the Saratov Region hall. Since the surfaces differ in type, we are using different techniques to clear up the murals. This work will be performed in several stages; at each stage, we draw up detailed maps of the exposed sections and describe their condition,” a representative of the Department for Major Housing Repairs added.

As of now, approximately 35 percent of the paintings in the Kuibyshev Region hall have been revealed. Restoration artists have to proceed very carefully in order to avoid damaging the paintings. The layer of paint used to hide them more than 60 years ago is patchy and contains pigment, resulting in several hues of grey co-existing on the same ceiling. The sections covered in lighter hues are easier to clear off than the darker parts. Each hue requires its own dissolvent.

The animal farming-themed painting in the Kuibyshev Region hall wraps around the plafond contour. Calves, stablemen with horses and a pig tender with piglets are already visible on the rich and dense painting. The artist apparently made some corrections in the process. Unfortunately, some of the original layers were lost, presumably due to attempts to remove the paint.

Seventy-five percent of the murals in the Saratov Region hall are now exposed. The restoration artists applied a paper compress soaked in special cleaning fluids to the plafond in order to make the top layer of the water-based paint more responsive. Then they used scalpels and cotton pads to carefully remove the softened paint and filler paste. The last layer of the filler was removed with a soap solution.

The department commented that removing the emulsion glue proved to be the most difficult part of the job because the glue literally grew into the original painting – apparently, because the mural was not old enough.

The restoration artists made up to 30 cleaning attempts, trying various removal fluids on the glue until they found a suitable solution that does not affect the paintings. Now you can already see an apple orchard, a combine driver and people in a car. Clearly, this is a harvesting-themed story.

The restoration and repair is scheduled for completion in the first quarter of 2021.

The first building of the Volga Region pavilion was designed by architect Sergey Znamensky and finished by 1939. It was envisioned as a symbolic steel bridge across a roaring cascade of Volga River waters. During the Great Patriotic War, the structure was severely damaged and fell into despair. In 1949, a resolution was issued to build a new pavilion to a design by architects Yakovlev and Shoshensky. The layout and façade would remain the same, while the décor and technical equipment would be reviewed. Decorated in the Stalinist style, the façade of the grand building featured sculptures, portals as well as bas-reliefs dedicated to defending Volgograd in different years (Tsaritsyn during the Civil War and Stalingrad during the Great Patriotic War), developing the Volga River basin and peaceful labour of the victorious nation.

The roof was topped with sculptures of the country’s defenders, a sailor and a soldier, while the Worker and Collective Farm Woman sculpture and the coat of arms of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic adorned the main entrance. Upon entering the pavilion, visitors could see a stained glass map of the Volga Region featuring the Volga-Don Canal and the Saratov-Moscow gas pipeline. In the side wings of the pavilion, fountain water was streaming down the stained glass images of the Stalingradskaya and Kuibyshevskaya hydropower plants, creating an illusion of a river flow at the HPPs. The building consisted of eight exhibition halls: an introduction hall, halls representing Mordovia and Chuvashia, the Stalingrad, Saratov, Kuibyshev, Ulyanovsk and Astrakhan regions, as well as a staircase and three small utility rooms.

The structure of the pavilion was completed in 1952 while decoration works continued until its very opening in 1954. In 1959, the building underwent renovation based on a project by architect V. Goldshtein, engineer I. Shoshensky and designer V. Shtabskaya. The pavilion was then renamed Radio Electronics and Communications. It was a time of fighting against extravagance, so the ‘excessive’ décor was partially removed and partially covered with new cladding (aluminum panels, in the spirit of Soviet modernist architecture). The portals and square columns were completely dismantled, the bas-reliefs were partly knocked off and the roof was restructured. The pavilion resembled a radio, especially with a 57-metre pole for a colour television antenna.

In 2014, the cladding that had concealed the historical façade of the building from VDNKh visitors was removed. Now the pavilion is getting back its 1950s look.


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