Russia’s Trash Flashpoint

Landfills Become a Problem for the Kremlin
Environmental Protests Move from Local to Federal Level
Yelena Mukhametshina and Yekaterina Bryzgalova
Vedomosti
April 1, 2018

guseva“Volokolamsk right now. Protest rally against the Yadrovo Landfill.” Screenshot of Olya Guseva’s Twitter page. Courtesy of Meduza

According to various estimates, 6,500 to 7,000 people attended this past Sunday’s protest rally in Volokololamsk against the Yadrovo Landfill. This was more than the number of people who attended the rallies on March 3 (approx. 5,000) and March 29 (6,000). (Volokolamsk’s official population is less than 21,000.)

Among the demands made at Sunday’s rally were the closure of the Yadrovo Landfill, the declaration of an emergency, the resignations of Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov and Andrei Vikharev, acting head of Volokolamsk District, and the release of activist Artyom Lyubimov, who was detained by police a day before the rally.

Protesters at the rally held up placards addressed to President Putin, including ones  bearing the message, “Putin, Help!”

On March 21, a strong release of landfill gas took place in Volokolamsk, causing schoolchildren to say they felt sick. Fifty-seven children were hospitalized in the Volokolamsk Central Hospital. Subsequently, Governor Vorobyov fired the head of Volokolamsk District.

Volokolamsk has not been the only town in Moscow Region protesting landfills. During the past year, people have taken to the streets in such towns as Balashikha (after the local Kupchino Landfill was closed there on direct orders from the president, the garbage that used to be transported to the landfill was redirected to Yadrovo), Kolomna, Klin, Sergiev Posad, Tuchkov, and Serpukhov.

A former federal official explained why garbage has recently become a hot-button issue.

“New laws were passed obliging the regions to adopt local waste handling schemes and select regional contractors. A market is emerging. There are different disposal strategies: incineration versus separate collection of recyclables. Different strategies require building different processing facilities, and the stakeholders backing the different strategies are also different, from the federal to the municipal level,” he said.

The stakeholders are in conflict with each other and with the regions. This is especially true of Moscow and Russia’s other major cities, he claimed.

Last week, it transpired that Tver Region Governor Igor Rudenya had warned all heads of municipalities in his region that if the regional authorities found garbage from other regions in local landfills, the municipal heads responsible for this would have problems with law enforcement and Governor Rudenya’s administration.

“You will not import garbage from other Russian regions for any amount of money at all,” said Governor Rudenya, as quoted by Tverigrad.ru.

The president’s retinue is to blame for the flare-up in Volokolamsk. When they were getting ready for his annual Direct Line program, they insisted on underscoring the subject of landfills by way of speeding up the construction of processing facilities. It was then the president ordered the closure of the landfill in Balashikha, argues a source close to the Kremlin.

“The landfill was closed. The garbage from there was shipped to nearby landfills, and the flow of garbage to these landfills increased manifold. First it was necessary to put the infrastructure in place, and then close the landfills,” he said.

Environmental protests by people concerned with specific issues are a considerable risk to the system’s stability, and the regime is very concerned about them, saif another source close to the Kremlin.

“The president pays great attention to the environment. Last year, he personally telephoned activists in Chelyabinsk to show he supported them. This is quite important, especially in circumstances when environmental measures are given short shrift to save money.”

Last year was officially the Year of the Environment in Russia. During the presidential campaign, Putin held meetings in Krasnoyarsk on improving the ecological situation and  reducing the emission of pollutants into the atmosphere.

Political scientist Andrei Kolyadin argues the issue of landfills cannot be solved quickly. Several years would be needed to do that.

“This abscess has long been ripening, and now it threatens people’s lives. As the risks to people’s live increase, the risks to the regime increase as well.”

A final decision on the future of Governor Vorobyov, who faces elections in the autumn, has not yet been made, said Kolyadin.

“If the protests balloon, he could be made their scapegoat. He has been doing his best to wiggle his way out of the subject politically, but he has not been able to do this economically. If the elections are handled by the authorities, he will not have complications, but if they are run more or less honestly, the districts in which anti-landfill protests have been taking place will not turn out to vote for him.”

Political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov argues such protests ordinarily wane quickly. In this case, however, the boiling point has not yet been reached. Various grievances, such as Governor Vorobyov’s less-than-happy appointment of a new head of Volokolamsk District, have been building up.

“I get the feeling there will be a new wave [of protests] that will help solve the problems that have accumulated. People feel they are in the right, and it gives them a strong impetus to protest,” he said.

Given current conditions, in which protests have been de facto banned, any socio-economic protest takes on political overtones, Vinogradov concludes.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Eliminating Local Government in Russia

An elderly woman pulling a metal container with water past a snow-covered wooden house with carved window frames in the village of Kondratyevo, Omsk Region, February 17, 2017. Photo courtesy of Dmitry Feoktistov/TASS Россия. Омская область. 19 февраля 2017. Жительница села Кондратьево в Муромцевском районе Омской области. Дмитрий Феоктистов/ТАСС
An elderly woman pulling a container with water in the village of Kondratyevo, Omsk Region, February 19, 2017. Photo courtesy of Dmitry Feoktistov/TASS

Duma to Legalize Elimination of Settlements by the Regions
Maria Makutina
RBC
February 22, 2017

The Duma has tabled an amendment that would legalize converting municipal districts into urban districts. RBC’s sources have informed us the move to eliminate local government in settlements would be supported by the relevant committee. In Moscow Region, such mergers have sparked grassroots protests.

An “Elegant Way” of Eliminating Local Self-Government
Mikhail Terentiev, an United Russia MP from Moscow Region, has submitted amendments to the law on general principles of local self-government to the Duma Committee on Local Self-Government. (RBC has the document in its possession.) The MP has proposed amending the law to make it possible to merge all settlements, including rural settlements, that constitute a municipal district with an urban district. Under such a merger, the settlements and the municipal district would forfeit their status as municipal entities. Decisions about such mergers would be taken by regional authorities “with the consent” of local representative bodies.

Terentiev has also proposed changing the definition of an “urban district,” as stipulated by the law. Currently, it is defined as a urban settlement that is not part of a municipal district. The new draft law defines it as “one or more contiguous populated areas that are not municipal entities.”

Moscow Region authorities have found an “elegant and simple  way” to legalize the single-tier system of local government that, in recent years has, been established in a number of Russia’s regions, including Moscow Region, Andrei Maximov, an analyst with the Committee of Civic Initiatives, explained to RBC.

Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov. Photo courtesy of Sergei Fadeichev/TASS
Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov. Photo courtesy of Sergei Fadeichev/TASS

Protests
In November of last year, Andrei Vorobyov, governor of Moscow Region, announced plans to convert around twenty municipal districts into urban districts in 2016–2017. According to Vorobyov, the reform would save money by reducing the number of officials.

The proposed move sparked popular protests. Moscow Region municipal district council members, unhappy with the dissolution of local executive and representative bodies, held protest rallies. Public hearings on reforming local systems devolved into clashes with the Russian National Guard.

A Local Self-Government Congress was held in Moscow in February. Local council members from Moscow Region requested that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and law enforcement agencies investigate “numerous incidents in which local government bodies, including municipal districts, rural settlements, and urban settlements, have been forcibly dissolved.”

“The law does not provide for dissolving a municipal district or converting it into a urban district, so Moscow Region authorities conceived a way of getting round the law. First, they merge rural settlements with an urban settlement, and then they turn it into an urban district.  But the municipal districts are left in a limbo,” said Maximov.

The Presidential Human Right Council has argued that the reforms in Moscow Region violate the public’s right to local self-government. HRC deputy chair Yevgeny Bobrov said as much to Vladimir Putin at the council’s December 8, 2016, meeting. The president promised to “work” on the issue.

Nevertheless, in 2015, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the merger of two rural settlements and the Ozyory urban settlement into an urban district was legal.

Simplifying Governance
MP Terentiev explained to RBC that his amendments were motivated by the need to optimize the budget in Moscow Region.

“The governor and I realized that money could be saved on officials,” he said.

Thanks to the reforms, “there will be an overall approach to wage policies and the opportunity to reduce administrative barriers to business,” Terentiev argued.

The current law stipulates that Russia is divided into settlements, which are organized into municipal districts, and particularly large settlements, which are organized into urban districts, Maximov explained. According to Terentiev’s draft amendments, any territorial entity in Russia can be turned into an urban district, meaning it can be moved from the two-tier system to the one-tier system.

The authorities have been attempting to confer the status of urban districts on municipal districts in order to dissolve settlements and simplify governance. Rural authorities can interfere with the plans of regional authorities to implement urban planning projects and create obstacles to resolving land use issues, which currently require the consent of the settlements affected, political scientist Alexander Kynyev explained to RBC.

The Total Deterioration of Settlements
Experience has shown that populated areas lacking elements of self-governance deteriorate and disappear, RBC’s source on the Local Self-Government Committee told us. According to the source, the draft amendments would lead to the total deterioration of the settlement-tier of governance throughout the entire country.

“It is nonsense to eliminate settlements in densely populated Moscow Region. It doesn’t fit into any paradigm. It is just the governor’s whim. It will be easier for him to manage his affairs this way, and so the law has been mangled for this sake. He has to demolish everything so it will be easier to build it up again,” RBC’s source said.

The reform has been opposed by people of different views and parties. Local self-government as such has been threatened. As the 2018 presidential election approaches, the federal authorities want to avoid such controversies, argues Kynyev.

Through the Back Gate
Terentiev tabled his draft amendments as part of the second reading of a draft law bill that would abolish direct popular votes on whether to change the status of urban and rural settlements. The government tabled the draft law back in the spring of 2015. It was passed in its first reading the same year, after which the Duma has not returned to it.

Radical change in the territorial basis of local self-government has been brought in “through the back gate,” noted our source in the Duma, although the 2014 local self-government reforms were “seriously discussed” in society, he recalled.

Alexei Didenko (LDPR), chair of the Duma’s Local Self-Government Committee, agreed the draft bill could “eliminate the machinery of popular self-government,” and ordinary people would find it harder to defend their interests. According to Didenko, the draft amendments were at odds with what the president said during his 2013 state of the nation address: “Local governance should be organized in such a way  anyone can reach out and touch it.”

Didenko told RBC  the decision whether to support Terentiev’s draft amendments or not would be made by his committee, most of whom are United Russia members, in March. Two sources in the Duma told RBC the committee would approve the draft amendments.

How Local Authorities Have Been Stripped of Their Powers
In his December 2013 address to the Federal Assembly, President Putin asked that the organizational principles of local self-government be clarified. According to Putin, the quantity of responsibilities and resources of municipal officials were out of balance, “hence the frequent confusion over powers.”

In May 2014, a law reforming local self-government was passed, endowing the regions with the right to assume a considerable number of the powers previously exercised by local authorities in taking economic decisions.

The original draft of the bill called for the abolition of direct elections of big-city mayors and city council members. The final draft stipulated the heads of municipal entities could be either elected directly or appointed from among council members.  In the first case, the head of the municipal entity could lead the administration himself. (If the municipal entity in question is a city, he would become city manager.) In the second case, the head of the municipal entity would chair its representative body.

Regional legislative assemblies were accorded the right to divide cities and towns into intra-urban municipal entities. Two new types of municipal entities were introduced for this purpose: urban districts with intra-city divisions, and intra-urban districts.

First-tier council members (that is, council members of urban and rural settlements) are elected directly by voters. Second-tier council members (of municipal districts and urban districts with intra-city divisions) are either elected or delegated from among the heads of settlements and first-tier council members, in the case of municipal districts, or only from among first-tier council members, in the case of urban districts with intra-city divisions. The method of electing council members was also to have been defined by regional law.

In February 2015, two other methods for electing heads of municipal entities were introduced. The first method allows the head of a municipality, chosen by the municipality’s council from among its members, to lead the local administration. However, he surrenders his mandate as a council member. The second method allows a bureaucrat, chosen by council members from a slate of candidates suggested by a hiring committee, to lead the local administration. This had made it possible for city managers to become autocratic mayors.

Translated by the Russian Reader. See my December 15, 2016, post on the same topic, “In Tomilino.”

Uneven and Combined Development

On this bright Saturday evening, when the sun has finally come out in the former capital of All the Russias after a week of nonstop rain, I want to offer you two tales of two completely different modern Russias, situated unhappily side by side, but God only knows for how long and at what cost.

Both stories have their fictional and literary precedents, as is often the case in this overly verbalized country.

The hero of the first tale, Valery Slesarev, will remind you of the characters and real-life heroes and victims in nineteenth-century writer and human rights activist Vladimir Korolenko’s fictional sketches and muckracking newspaper articles, while the nearly unbelievable promises and high-powered wheeler dealers in the second tale will conjure up Ilf and Petrov’s world of con men and grifters during the NEP period. TRR

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Smack Them Upside the Head
Tired of waiting for a promised natural gas tie-in pipeline from local authorities, the Yegorevsk Urban District in the Moscow Region asked Obama for gas
Ekaterina Fomina
Novaya Gazeta
June 5, 2016


Valery Slesarev. Photo by Ekaterina Fomina

After collecting 531 signatures in support of his effort, pensioner Valery Slesarev called the US Embassy and asked a specific question.

“How can I get a hold of Barack Obama?”

The embassy promised him to call him back and make an appointment.

Lots of people in Yegorevsk know Valery Slesarev. First, he has tuned and fixed TV sets his whole life, and that is deemed a vital service. Second, he has an artificial skull.

As a child, Slesarev was involved in Pavel Popovich’s Young Cosmonauts Club. One of the activities at the club was parachute jumping from towers. During one such jump, the carabiner from a pull rope slammed Slesarev hard in the head. A year later, a tumor was discovered in his brain, and it was decided to operate. Popovich himself got involved by asking for help from America, where an artificial bone was grown personally for the sixteen-year-old boy. The doctors told his mother he would not survive, but the bone up and took hold.

As the years passed, it transpired that, along with the bone, the doctors had implanted something Soviet people were not supposed to have: a faith in justice and the strength to fight for it.

Initially, the life of the young cosmonaut with the artificial skull rolled down different tracks than it might have, like in a small town in West Virginia: steady, nothing out of the ordinary.

“Maybe the Lord in fact saved me then. Eighty percent of my group at the Young Cosmonauts Club died in Afghanistan. We were all combat ready, you see, and those boys were sent straight to the front,” he says today.

Slesarev studied to be a radio technician, but went to work as a TV repairman. The celestial expanses no longer appealed to him, and he had enough to do down on earth as it was. He drove from village to village fixing TV sets and occasionally chopping firewood for old women.

In the nineties, the business where Slesarev worked fell apart, and he started a small business of his own, a tire repair shop. He called it Autocupola, and indeed the blue, two-storey building housing his shop is crowned by conical metal cupolas. The cupolas, he explains, are in honor of his artificial skull. He is proud of the black swans, carved from tires, out in front of the shop and a gingerbread boy with a painted mug.

Slesarev lives in amazing house, also topped with cupolas, only they are in the shape of little bulbs. The local council has even hung a sign on the house designating it a cultural landmark.

For a time, then, Slesarev was an amusing local landmark. In 2005, however, the Moscow Region began installing natural gas mains in the villages of Yegorevsk. The mains were quickly installed in all public buildings, but ordinary people, those selfsame old women for whose sake the whole program was undertaken, were left without gas. Slesarev says he simply could not look at old women swinging wood mauls anymore. Thus began his fight.

Vladychino
Only twenty-eight people are officially registered in Vladychino, a village in the Yegorevsk Urban District, but around a hundred people live there permanently, most of them people the natives have contemptuously dubbed “summerfolk.” Slesarev is one of the summerfolk too. He has land there, inherited from forebear, and his grandmother’s house, which he has managed to restore and preserve. The entire village stopped by to admire it.

As in the neighboring villages, people in Vladychino buy natural gas in cylinders. A fifty-liter cylinder, which costs a thousand rubles to refill, lasts a month. Arranging privately to have a gas line connected to your house costs at least 500,000 rubles [approx. 7,000 euros].

A spontaneous assembly of local residents has been taking place on the bench in front of Slesarev’s house. You might say he mobilized them.

Grandma Valentina, Grandpa Nikolai, Kolya, who has no front teeth and wears a leather jacket, Nikolai Alexandrovich, and Tatyana have formed a semi-circle. They occasionally get sidetracked and swat a mosquito. It is the height of the season.

“Please forgive my appearance. I came from the garden,” says Tatyana, apologizing as it were for her apron.

“TV Rain came to film, and we all dressed like peasants,” says Valentina, dangling her rubber-slippered feet by way of proof.

“Why are we appealing to Obama? We hope that, if not Obama, some other president will respond,” says Valentina.

“I’ll tell you why,” says Nikolai Alexandrovich, who steps forward, dressed in builder’s overalls. “He is a winner of the Nobel Peace Price, and he is on his way out of office in any case. Let him do one good deed at the end of his term by getting gas installed for us.”

The locals gossip. The village of Rakhmanovo got gas when an MP from the Moscow Regional Duma and a member of the Yegorevsk Board of Deputies moved there. Actually, according to the paperwork, gas lines have been laid to Vladychino and all the other villages too: 300 million rubles [approx. 4 million euros at current exchange rates] from the regional budget was spent on the program. A presidential commission even came looking for the gas, but they did not find it.  To be hooked up to gas lines under the regional program, a village must have no less than one hundred residents, so Vladychino was lumped together with neighboring Parykino. Now, according to the schedule for gasification, Vladychino and Parykino should get gas lines no later than 2018. But no one believes it will happen, because dates for gasification of the villages have been postponed annually since 2005. Last year, the residents of Vladychino wrote a letter to Putin, but half has many people signed it as did the letter to the US president.

“He’s not going to help. His term is never going to end. He’s president for life,” says Nikolai Alexandrovich.

“God willing he will be president for life!” responds Valentina. “He lifted the country up! As for gas, well, we need it. Maybe he just has not been told about us. Our board of deputies should be the ones helping us, but they don’t do anything for us. This year, they didn’t even spray the bushes for ticks.”

“This writing to Obama thing is all a joke, a way of getting us riled up and forcing us to think,” explained Nikolai Alexandrovich. “But what do you think? Is America Russia’s enemy? I knew you’d say that! I’m not going to try and educate you or persuade you. Who is threatened by Russia? The Americans, however, are already in Estonia. Those are facts, Katya, facts!”

By local standards, Nikolai Alexandrovich is also one of the summerfolk, although he has lived in Vladychino for four years, since retiring. He worked for twenty-six years in security at the Kremlin. Nowadays, he is an elder at Nativity of Christ Church.

“They’ll never unleash a war on us, but they are trying to squeeze us economically on the sly,” concluded Kolya, who worked as a plumber at Slavyanka, Ltd., during the heyday of Yevgenia Vasilyeva, but has now retired.

“That is war,” continues Nikolai Alexandrovich. “Was it necessary to drop the bombs on Japan? This is a continuation, just as today’s Russia is a continuation of Soviet life in many ways. Your colleagues from TV Rain were spooked. They were worried lest we go to jail for what we said. We won’t go to jail: we speak the truth!”

“The mosquitoes have already devoured us,” a bored Valentina chips in.

“It’s time for me to milk the cows,” says Kolya.

“Why was she caterwauling yesterday from lunchtime on? She was probably thirsty?”

“She has been yelling because of the bull. I haven’t been putting the pull in with her. He’s been laid low. I called the vet, and he told me over the phone to give the bull vodka. I gave him vodka. Then he told me to give it sunflower oil. I did it: same damn nonsense! Now he tells me to go and buy lactic acid.”


Slesarev outside his Autocupola tire repair shop. Photo by Ekaterina Fomina

“Sufferings, Trials, and Humiliations”
Since 2005, when Valery Slesarev began his fight to have the villages gasified, he has kept a list entitled “My Sufferings, Trials, and Humiliations.” It includes such entries as “Arrest, searches of homes and shops. Bombing of Autocupola. Arson at Autocupola.”

In 2010, unknown men in masks armed with crowbars broke into his tire shop. They methodically and cold-bloodedly beat up Slesarev and his daughter. A criminal case was opened, of course, but to no avail. The police wrote off the incident as a “workplace fight.”

Slesarev wrote to Vladimir Zhirinovsky that he was being prevented from doing business. Zhirinovsky promised to look into the case. Apparently, he is still looking.

Moscow Region Governor Boris Gromov once visited Yegorevsk. Slesarev was going to the meeting when he was pulled over by traffic cops, allegedly, for driving with dirty license plates. He spent the whole day in the detention center and was released without having to pay any fines.

Governors have come and gone, but the story has not changed. Slesarev had to fight his way into a meeting with current Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov at the House of Culture. In the auditorium, he was surrounded by police officers in plain clothes.

“When I stood up to ask a question, they made me sit down. They actually grabbed me by the pants and pulled me down, and everyone was laughing,” Slesarev recalls.

Governor Vorobyov noticed the strange man and asked to speak with him personally after the meeting. As Slesarev tells it now, the governor was so outraged that he promised to dismiss the head of the district the very next day. And he did, in fact, dismiss him. Only, at the next elections, Mikhail Lavrov, ex-head of the district, was elected chair of the Yegorevsk Board of Deputies, a position he occupies to this day.

“Vorobyov left, and the bathhouse we guys in the village had built for the gals burnt down. There was a criminal investigation, of course. But they didn’t catch anyone.”

“The Gas Has Come”
This time, it was the head of the Yegorevsk District and his deputies who were meeting with constituents. Slesarev did not know about the meeting, and so we arrive in the village of Yurtsovo a bit late: the event has ended. But we do find Nina Morsh, head of Yurtsovo Area, surrounded by female assistants, next to the Soviet war memorial. Slesarev knows everyone by sight, all the more so because Morsh was previously head of the Yurtsovo Rural Settlement. But late last year, all the municipalities were abolished when when the Yegorevsky District was redesignated as an urban district. The now-abolished Yurtsovo Rural Settlement included thirty-eight villages. Last year, only four of them had gas mains.

Morsh’s assistants immediately cut us off.

“You’re a little late. The head of the district was at the meeting, and he answered everyone’s questions. Residents who wanted to ask questions got definitive answers. You can ask them yourselves.”

Dressed in a suit with a rose on the chest, Morsh drags me along with her.

“Since 2005, a lot of work has been done on gasification,” she tells me, as if she were reading a report. “First, the central village of Yurtsovo and the main municipal institutions, then, in 2010, the entire residential sector.”

She speaks of natural gas affectionately.

“The gas has come,” she says.

The gas has come to Pochinki, Barsuki, Leonovo, and Polbino. And so it will arrive in Vladychino and Parykino, too, Morsh reassures me. The design plans and specifications are already being drafted.

“You cannot jump higher than the budget lets you,” says Morsh by way of explaining why gasification has taken so long. “This has been explained repeatedly to that man, who doesn’t even live in our area. Whatever emotions he may or may not be experiencing, the program has been well implemented. Just look at our governor.”

It is clear as day the village needs gas, but people have been living without it, getting by with cylinders. Some people even stoke wood stoves. Ninety-year-old Grandma Panya, another resident of Vladychino, signed the petition to Obama, but she is afraid of gas.

“That one woman of ours in Moscow, the one who left to be with her lover, was home alone once, but forget to turn off the gas. She died from carbon monoxide poisoning!”

If it had not been for Slesarev, no one would have the heard the voice of the people of Yegorevsk. But that is how his brain operates under his American skull. If the law says people are supposed to have gas piped into their homes, then that is the way it should be, even it means his having to fight hopelessly for it on his lonesome. Slesarev has lived his whole life this way.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Will Russia Be First to Build Elon Musk’s Hyperloop?
Peter Hobson
The Moscow Times
July 6, 2016

In mid June, Shervin Pishevar, co-founder of Hyperloop One, sat under the high, decorated ceiling of a palace in St. Petersburg.

Men in suits lined the large, rectangular table.

“Eighteen heads of sovereign [wealth] funds and President [Vladimir] Putin. $10 trillion in the room,” Pishevar wrote alongside a photo posted on Facebook. “Then Putin called on me.”

So Pishevar, a burly, bearded Silicon Valley entrepreneur, began to speak. He talked about the Hyperloop trains his company plans to build: Transportation pods levitated by magnets inside an airless tube that could travel at speeds 300 kilometers per hour faster than a passenger aircraft, thanks to the low air resistance. Pods that could whisk goods through Russia from China to Europe in the space of hours, or turn St. Petersburg into a suburb of Moscow.

Putin listened attentively. Then, according to Pishevar, he said, “Hyperloop will fundamentally change the global economy.”

By the time Pishevar left Russia, Hyperloop One had signed its first deal with a foreign government, a partnership with Moscow’s City Hall. It had also been asked by Russia’s transport minister to design a 70-kilometer Hyperloop track in the Russian Far East.

With that kind of support, perhaps the first Hyperloop won’t be built in California, but in Russia.

Dreaming of Innovation

At first sight, all that seems strange. Russia, after all, is suffering its deepest economic crisis for nearly two decades. Much of its infrastructure is hopelessly backward. It is a country in which passengers in slippers shuffle between bunk beds in overnight trains that travel at average speeds of just over 50 kilometers an hour. Freight trains, meanwhile, move at a little over 10 kilometers per hour.

But there are a few things working in Hyperloop’s favor.

First, innovation has once again become a buzzword in government. Officials are, at least in theory, keen to diversify away from the oil and gas industry on which the country currently relies. And they are paranoid that Russia could fall so far behind the technological innovation happening elsewhere that it will never catch up.

That fear has sprouted strategic plans for major infrastructure investment and research into the technology of the future. These plans think big: On the agenda are things like quantum computing, neural interfaces and teleportation. Hyperloop, with its science-fiction-movie tube trains, fits perfectly into that vision.

From Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1.5 Hours

Source: Hyperloop One. View in higher resolution here.

Second, Hyperloop has a powerful Russian investor lobbying its interests, a Dagestani tycoon called Ziyavudin Magomedov.

Tall, handsome and worth $900 million, Magomedov is a true techie. According to Forbes, for his 47th birthday party last year, he hosted a robot-themed ball and gifted each guest a book about Elon Musk, the billionaire inventor who in 2013 launched the Hyperloop concept.

Like Putin, he is emphatically excited about the idea.

“It will kill truck and air transportation at a minimum,” he told Forbes.

Magomedov is also supremely well connected. His investment company, Summa Group, spans businesses from real estate to logistics and has handled orders from state companies worth billions of dollars. He has advised the president and allegedly paid for Putin’s press secretary to honeymoon last year on a super yacht in the Mediterranean. One of Russia’s deputy prime minsters, Arkady Dvorkovich, is an old university friend and, conveniently, oversees the country’s policy on transport, innovation and industry policy, though the two deny any favoritism.

Magomedov invested in Hyperloop One through his $300 million venture capital fund, Caspian VC Partners, and set about bringing it to Russia. Bill Shor, the Russian-speaking American who runs Caspian for him, describes him as “very hands on.”

Magomedov has played the role of Hyperloop One’s deal broker. His Summa Group was a co-signatory on the agreement between Hyperloop One and the Moscow Government, which will create a working group aimed at fitting Hyperloop technology into Moscow’s transport system.

He likely also played a major role in pushing for a Hyperloop to span the 70 kilometers between the Chinese industrial center of Jilin and Zarubino, south of Russia’s Vladivostok, where Summa is investing in port facilities.

Both projects have been billed as revolutionary. In heavily congested Moscow, which is currently ploughing huge sums into expanding its transport infrastructure, Hyperloop One says its technology could potentially “give capital region commuters weeks of their lives back.”

The link with Jilin, meanwhile, would carry 10 million tons of cargo a year, zipping containers to port in minutes, says Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov. He wants Hyperloop One to present a design for the track at an investment forum in Vladivostok in September.

Tapping Into China

The third thing playing in Hyperloop’s favor in Russia is that it could unlock vast amounts of Chinese investment.

The Jilin-Zarubino spur is just the beginning. In the longer term, Hyperloop could create “the heart of the transport infrastructure for the Eurasian landmass,” says Shor. The technology will likely be used for freight before it begins to transport passengers. And the route between China and Europe is one of the world’s busiest trade arteries.

The distance between China’s eastern edge and Central Europe is some 7,000 kilometers. Freight currently navigates that distance by train in around three weeks and by sea in roughly two months. In theory, a Hyperloop could span it in six hours.

Beijing has committed tens of billions of dollars to its “One Belt-One Road” plan to create new infrastructure between it and Europe. Russian authorities have their eyes on some of that money.

“It’s like a tube with an air-hockey table. It’s just a low-pressure tube, with a pod in it that runs on air bearings […] I swear it’s not that hard,” said Elon Musk in 2015. Photo: Patricj T. Fallon / Reuters

Sokolov says he will discuss the Jilin Hyperloop with China’s transport minister at a meeting in August and hopes “we’ll take the next step [in this project] together with our Chinese partners.”

Also, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), a $10 billion state-backed investment vehicle, invested in Hyperloop One earlier this year. The amount was “very modest,” according to its chief, Kirill Dmitriev. But the RDIF also happens to run a joint investment fund with China worth $2 billion.

China is already helping to pay for a planned trans-Siberian high-speed rail line that could cost more than $200 billion. Hyperloop’s advocates say their technology be cheaper. According to Sokolov, the Jilin-Zarubino line will cost around 30 billion rubles ($450 million)—almost one-third less than a high-speed rail equivalent.

“We must be serious about this idea,” he insists.

Where’s the Money?

But for all the enthusiasm, few in Russia are prepared to put down real investment just yet.

Hyperloop One is working “very closely” with the Transport Ministry, as well as local governments and “some of the largest Russian corporates,” says Shor. These reportedly include Russian Railways and Gazprom, two giant state corporations. But these partners are contributing expertise and access, not money. All the cash is coming from Hyperloop One and Magomedov’s Summa, which Shor says has “invested quite a bit of resources, financial and otherwise.”

Even Putin, who in St. Petersburg promised support to Hyperloop One, wasn’t talking about financial support, his spokesman later clarified.

The problem is that while the Hyperloop concept is compelling, no one has yet worked out how to build one. Russia seems content to wait for the technology to prove itself with other people’s money.

The Local Contender

It might come as a surprise to discover that one of those working on the technology is Russian. Indeed, it turns out that Russian scientists were on to Hyperloop long before Elon Musk.

A century ago, before it was derailed by World War I, scientists in Siberia began working on a similar scheme, says Sokolov. Now, at St. Petersburg’s University of Transport and Communications, the project has been reborn.

Anatoly Zaitsev is an engineer who was briefly transport minister in the 1990s. At his lab on the Baltic coast, his team of around 20 people have equipment that can levitate transport containers. He says he could “absolutely” build a levitation track to Moscow, 650 kilometers away, if you give him $12-13 billion—significantly less than the cost of high-speed rail.

The only part of Musk’s plan Zaitsev says he hasn’t figured out is how to put his levitating pods in a tube. But that’s the simple part, he insists, “like dressing [the train] in a dinner jacket.”

Zaitsev thinks his technology is more developed than that of his rivals, whose plans remain mostly on paper. Both Shor and Sokolov praise his work. But despite that, Zaitsev is largely ignored by the ministers and local governments now courting Hyperloop One.

The reason why ultimately comes down to money. Hyperloop One has raised more than $100 million to fund research, pilot projects and investor outreach.

Another California company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, is also rubbing shoulders with big investors. One of its executives has said it is talking with a Russian private investor and is looking at Hyperloop projects in Russia. Its chief, Dirk Ahlborn, also met Putin in St. Petersburg in June.

Elon Musk proposed the Hyperloop concept in 2013 as a mode of transportation between Los Angeles and San Francisco, California.

These companies can fund relentless global expansion, and they benefit from Silicon Valley’s sheen of success. Russian officials can engage with them at no cost to themselves. No wonder, Zaitsev laughs, that “when a foreigner shows up in Russia at the invitation of a resident billionaire, the music and dances start.”

“The Americans are better at getting money,” he says. “I tip my hat to Musk and his followers who so boldly and aggressively offer the world unfinished technology.” By contrast, Zaitsev has enough money to keep his lab operational, and not much more. If Hyperloop is eventually built, it is unlikely to be Russian-made.

Revolution?

But if Hyperloop really is the future of transport, and Putin jumps on board early, it could be a visionary move.

“Russia has a very good chance [of being the first place to develop Hyperloop],” says Shor. If the government acts quickly on regulation, he says it could happen in the next few years. That could put the country at the forefront of a transport revolution.

On the other hand, the whole thing could be a pipe dream. No one knows if the technology can be made cheaply enough to implement.

Russia, meanwhile, still lacks both money and many basics of a modern transport system, says Mikhail Blinkin, head of the transport institute at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and an advisor to the Transport Ministry.

Fifteen years discussing high-speed rail has led to a single line between Moscow and St. Petersburg that travels less than 200 kilometers per hour. The country has only 5,000 kilometers of modern expressways, says Blinkin—less than tiny South Korea and not even enough to span Russia from east to west.

The government should focus more on practical improvements to the transport infrastructure and less on visions of Hyperloop tubes criss-crossing the country, says Blinkin. Otherwise, he adds, the officials cheerleading Hyperloop are just the latest versions of Marie Antoinette, the aristocrat who saw French peasants without bread, and supposedly said, “Let them eat cake.”

Barbarians at the Gates: The Demise of Stroyburo House

The Demise of Stroyburo House
Nadia Plungian
March 8, 2015
Facebook

Tonight, an illegal criminal operation has completely destroyed Alexander Langman and Leonid Cherikover‘s Stroyburo (“Construction Bureau”) House, a monument to the Bolshevo Commune. A fresco, The Working Class, by artist and communard Vasily Maslov, will remain forever buried under its ruins. The fresco had been slated for restoration and measures had been taken prevent its further deterioration. A few days ago, the building had been listed in the Russian Federal Unified State Cultural Heritage Registry.

Along with its fresco, Stroyburo House was a landmark of international significance. During 2013–2014, the ruination of the building was halted through the efforts of architectural heritage activists and experts, including myself, and the facade and the room containing the fresco were left intact. The authorities promised to restore the building and turn it into a museum, and the scandal led to dismissal of Korolyov’s mayor. The media wrote extensively about Maslov, there were programs about him on national TV, and a large show of his graphic work opened at the Avant-Garde Center in Moscow. Quite recently, there had been another exhibition of his works in Bolshevo from the collections of the Korolyov Museum.

Then there was a pause, the restoration was delayed, and the building was given official landmark status. Last night, a group of unidentified criminal raiders, operating practically under the supervision and direction of Korolyov city police officers, brought in wrecking equipment and commenced finishing off the building’s supporting structures. At present, they have destroyed the facade and all the remaining walls. Alexandra Selivanova went there in the morning, and there can be no illusions. According to dozens of observers from Archnadzor and the Korolyov branch of VOOPIK (All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Monuments of History and Culture), the Maslov room no longer exists.

You can talk about impotence and rage, but in fact that would mean saying nothing. The destruction of architectural landmarks is today implemented with methods resembling a real civil war. This war is waged not only against people but against also our right to historical memory. The terrible ruins of Stroyburo House, the ruins of the illusory independence and self-governance of the 1930s communes, reveal to us the reality of the historical stage where we find ourselves. I will say one thing. Criminal lawlessness and official relativism are based on fear of losing power, and in a state of increasing fear it is impossible to act rationally. If the regime strikes out indiscriminately against its own culture, if it forgets the rulings it made yesterday and does not know what to do today, then it has completely lost control of the situation.

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“The Islamic State is already outside Moscow”: Korolyov landmark demolished to cries of “Allah Akbar!”
March 8, 2015
Regnum.ru

Today, March 8, Stroyburo House, a cultural landmark in the suburban Moscow town of Korolyov, was demolished to the accompaniment of extremist and neo-Nazi slogans, VOOPIK activists have informed Regnum.

“The Islamic State is already here. The gangsters who were guarding tonight’s demolition of an architectural landmark containing a world-class fresco cried ‘Allah Akbar!’ and ‘Red-assed commies!’ The local police looked on in silence. The Moscow Region police, the Russian Interior Ministry, the Governor of Moscow Region, and the Moscow Region Prosecutor’s Office have remained aloof. At the moment, the demolition is being completed in daylight. The authorities continue to do nothing,” said VOOPIK Moscow Region branch chairman Yevgeny Sosedov.

Sosedov had spent the last twenty-four hours trying to contact Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov through official channels, but to no avail.

“One of the men surrounding the building was drunk and screaming ‘Douse him with gasoline and set him on fire!’ in reference to a local city councilman’s aide. As soon as the police left, he shouted, ‘I’m going to start shooting!’ There were neo-Nazi slogans and swearing,” recounted VOOPIK activist Yevgeny Rybak.

Police who were called to the scene left without taking any action. Attempts to summon the police again through the Moscow Region police’s main directorate and the Interior Ministry’s central office were fruitless.

3-17-bigStroyburo House in November 2014

The illegally demolished, regionally listed cultural landmark was the first brick building at the Bolshevo Commune, which operated in the 1920s and 1930s. Until now, the building contained the world’s only examples [sic] of Soviet avant-garde monumental painting. Activists had managed to save only one fresco by artist Vasily Maslov.

[…]

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Building on Bones
Fresco from 1930s Discovered in Constructivist Landmark Threatened by Illegal Destruction
Nadia Plungian and Alexandra Selivanova
November 11, 2013
Colta.ru

Detailed_pictureStroyburo House, November 2013. Photo by Nadia Plungian

In the town of Korolyov, a building that could be a museum is being destroyed. Nadia Plungian, senior researcher at the Institute of Art Studies, and Alexandra Selivanova, a senior researcher at the Research Institute of Theory and History of Architecture and Urban Planning and director of the Avant-Garde Center at the Jewish Museum, visited Korolyov and tried to get to the bottom of the situation.

On the morning of November 8, another arson took place in the suburban Moscow town of Korolyov, and later that night, the first phase in the illegal demolition of the building at Ordzhonikidze Street, 34/2, commenced. One of the first communal houses in the world, the building, known to historians as Stroyburo House (Alexander Langman and Leonid Cherikover, architects), is part of the impressive constructivist campus of the Bolshevo Commune (1928—1935), which has been almost completely preserved to the present day.

In the mid 1930s, the commune’s campus was an interesting complex, which today gives us a complete picture of the early Soviet social and educational experiment in organizing collective living. It included a factory kitchen, a hospital complex, a shopping center (the so-called ship house), dormitories, a kindergarten, a workers club, a building for assemblies of communards (the so-called airplane house), and the residential building, discussed in this article. Among other reasons, it went down in the art history annals thanks to Nikolai Ekk’s famous 1931 movie Road to Life, the first Soviet feature sound film, which deals with the re-education of a teenaged communard.

According to the draft master plan for the town of Korolyov, the entire campus of the commune, except for the shopping center, has been slated for demolition, and apartment buildings will be constructed on the vacated lots. Activists of the Korolyov branch of VOOPIK are currently making every effort to preserve the complex as a whole and Stroyburo House as part of it.

The question of demolishing the house was raised about six months ago. According to Maria Mironova, chair of VOOPIK in Korolyov, a letter writing campaign to various authorities managed to get the entire complex placed on the waiting list for eventual cultural heritage status. After the house was vacated of residents, however, it was not put under protection, and for reasons unknown, municipal documents limit the period prohibiting all work on the premises to the present day, November 11, 2013. During this time, the empty house has been the target of seven arson attempts.

Stroyburo House, Bolshevo Commune. 1930s

Now, while the house is under attack from backhoes and fire, a poll on whether or not to demolish the house is underway on the website of the Moscow Region Culture Ministry. Many local residents support demolition. According to them, the developer, Development 21, Ltd., told them its terms: if the historic building were not demolished, the residents would be evicted from their new municipal apartments. The practice of “building on bones” is not new in Korolyov. A neighboring high-rise has been built on land once occupied by a cemetery used during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which Development 21 ripped up, discarding and destroying the gravestones. The developer’s manipulative rhetoric is seemingly so well established that the senseless demand to chose between the town’s history and its improvement has long been taken for granted by the residents, who obediently support the destruction of their own memory.

It was in these catastrophic circumstances that a week ago, on November 2, architectural heritage activists discovered wall paintings from the early 1930s in two rooms in the house during an inspection.

“[Yevgeny] Rybak phoned me on the second,” recounts local historian and history buff Vladimir Kultin, head of the Podlipki-Kaliningrad-Korolyov Club. “He was at the house with his young son. You know the layout yourselves. Down the hallway to the right, there are two rooms, then a kitchen. If you noticed, there is not a single unbroken window in the house right now, and the terrible draft has caused the wallpaper to peel from the walls. That is how [Rybak] discovered the painting. Our jaws dropped, of course. People have been searching and searching, and there the Amber Room drops into your lap. I even dubbed [Rybak] Schliemann. His son was in the second room. He says, Dad, there are some men here. We take a look, and it is true: it’s a Maslov, a portrait of three workers. There is no doubt it is him: the part of the fresco featuring the bridge is repeated in other works by the artist. We explored further and found geometric shapes, a bright crimson triangle, and a circle, which we later recognized as a locomotive.

“By tapping the wall between the rooms, we realized it had been installed latter. The molding at the top is different, and the doors give the impression of a latter do-it-yourself job. (You can see that laths have been plastered above the opening.) All these partitions are already in the Technical Inventory Bureau plan for 1947. But if we mentally removed the wall and the doors, we would see a large room with identical windows, which was painted with a fresco all round the perimeter.”

fileFresco in Stroyburo House, former appearance. Image © Vladimir Kultin

Fresco in Stroyburo House, former appearance. Image © Vladimir Kultin
Fresco in Stroyburo House, current appearance. Photo © Vladimir Kultin

The discovery in Stroyburo is completely sensational, not only because very few pre-war frescoes have survived, and not only because the work’s provenance is obvious: the daughter of one of the communards, artist Vasily Maslov (born 1905—executed 1938) had kept pre-war photographs of the fresco. It is also sensational because the fresco was known from archival materials and was previously considered lost, since inaccurate information had led historians to believe that the fresco had been painted in another building at the complex, the Spark (Iskra) communard club, which burnt down in 1943.

Vasily Maslov’s personal background is interesting as well. A Yekaterinburg artist who left home as a teenager and earned his living as a painter, Maslov later studied in the mid 1920s at art colleges in Gorky and Baku before arriving in Moscow, where on the recommendation of Commissar of Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky he was given a room in a dormitory and enrolled in a remedial arts college for workers [rabfak]. In 1928, Maslov met Bolshevo Commune organizer Matvei Pogrebinsky through Maxim Gorky and thus became a Bolshevo communard. Even now, Maslov’s frescoes can be put on a par with the works of many of his famous contemporaries such as Vladimir Malagis, Israel Lizak, and Vasily Kuptsov.

Vasily Maslov in the art studio at the Bolshevo Commune

It was decided that information about the frescoes should be temporarily kept on the back burner to prevent deliberate vandalism until experts arrived: activists had already started receiving threats from supporters of the developer. However, on November 8, fire broke out at the house for the eighth time. According to architectural heritage activist Olga Melnikova, everything pointed to the work of a professional arsonist. The roof was destroyed, and the building was burned from top to bottom on several sides. Firefighters privately confirmed that the building had been doused with a flammable liquid, but refused to comment on the record.

Pyotr Shubin, chair of the Korolyov Council of Deputies, who managed to stop Stroyburo House from being vandalized on Friday night, says that the town’s master plan, according to which the buildings are slated for demolition, has still not been agreed with either the Ministry of Culture or the Ministry of Natural Resources. However, the grounds of the former commune continue to be redeveloped.

Almost immediately after the fire was extinguished, Stroyburo House was again subjected to another attempt at rapid demolition. On the night of November 8, a front loader arrived to begin demolishing the left wing. On November 9, a second, much larger loader arrived. In the presence of the police and fire department, the building continued to smolder. We got the impression that constant, repeated attempts at arson were taking place, now under the strict control of the authorities. In between these stages of the demolition, we were able to get inside the house and partially photograph the already heavily soaked fresco in both rooms, as well as disseminating information about it on social networks. It is quite likely that similar frescoes could be discovered under layers of wallpaper in other rooms in the house, but this can be ascertained only when all work has been halted on the premises. Access to the rooms is now forbidden. This has to do with the desire to prevent art historians and architectural experts from carrying out inspections before the building is totally ruined.

To divert the attention of activists from Stroyburo House, another criminal offense was committed: an arson attack on the first floor of the so-called 38th Store—a neighboring constructivist landmark, which had served as the Bolshevo Commune’s shopping center and had been known as the “ship house.” Even the master plan did not call for demolishing this building, but the tacit support of the police and the Emergency Situations Ministry appeared to encourage further unlawful acts.

file-1
“The store is closed”

Over the weekend, the vandalism reached its absurd climax. Yevgeny Sosedov, council chair of VOOPIK’s Moscow Region branch, held negotiations with Moscow Region police, city police, the local fire chief, and a spokesman for Development 21, Ltd. On his Facebook page, Sosedov writes that it was obvious the local authorities, firefighters, police, the ESM, and the developer were in cahoots.

“Under the guise of fighting the fire (which has been out for nearly a day already) it has been decided to inflict maximum, irreversible damage to Stroyburo House. Allegedly in order to extinguish smoldering floor slabs (although there was not even any smoke), it is necessary to smash yet another wall (this is done with a crane) and breach the walls of the house between the first- and second-floor windows in six to eight spots (this is done with a backhoe). No one takes any responsibility for this decision. Everyone refers to a certain committee decision made during a morning meeting at town hall.

“And yet, last night and this afternoon, the firefighters did not deem it necessary to extinguish the smoldering floor slabs, but this evening it was for some reason necessary to smash half the walls in the building to accomplish this same purpose. They tried to begin making the breach earlier today, but the big backhoe broke down and a new one had to be found.  The building is almost completely waterlogged: what else is there to put out? (And why can’t it be put out through the windows?) And what is this new method of putting out fires in historic buildings by breaching half-meter brick walls? Residents say they can see chopped trees and branches through the windows of some first-floor apartments, which apparently have been placed there so that the burning continues and smoke keeps appearing. The work on breaching the walls is done by the developer, who has a stake in destroying the house. The developer is allegedly doing the work on behalf of the local Emergency Situations Commission. And yet spokesmen for the developer and the police unanimously assure us that they will not allow the building to be demolished, because ‘the governor forbade’ them to do it.”


Stroyburo House on November 10, 2013. From the Facebook page of the Korolyov branch of VOOPIK

The building now being destroyed is not only the first building at the commune, the historically most significant part of its campus, and a good example of residential constructivist architecture. It is the semantic heart of the complex, uniting the daily lives of former homeless children and the artistic experiments of the communards with the memory of their tragic lives, arrests, and purges. The personal belongings, photographs, archives, memoirs, and artworks still preserved today would make it possible to turn Stroyburo House into a magnificent, innovative museum that would provide visitors with a clear idea of the social and architectural experiments conducted during the avant-garde period and show them Korolyov’s tremendous importance as the flagship of early Soviet communal culture.

The history being destroyed in Korolyov as we speak is no abstraction. At issue is the material evidence of the lives of the 1920s and 1930s generation, the people who built this town and created its manufacturing base, especially considering that the commune did not run on state subsidies but on the money it earned. Among the communards and the teachers were well-known academics, musicians, athletes, and artists. The building’s facade could be strewn with memorial plaques. The wave of purges in 1937—1938, which killed most of the communards, has prevented this memory from being preserved. Development 21, Ltd., also wants to prevent it.

However, the entire complex of Bolshevo Commune buildings would be a surefire draw for tourists, as completely different types of constructivist buildings have survived there. Strung on a central axis, Communards Avenue (now Ordzhonikidze Street), each of them could accommodate a minimum amount of museum items and tourist infrastructure. The kitchen factory, kindergarten, hospital, department store, education building, and residential houses could accommodate, respectively, a cafe, a children’s center, a pharmacy, commercial zones, open lecture halls, educational spaces, and hostels, which would gradually reveal not only the history of the Bolshevo Commune but more generally the aesthetic and concept of the new organization of daily life in the 1920s. Stroyburo House, which encloses the complex from the right side, could accommodate a hotel on its upper floors, galleries and art studies on the middle floors, and a Bolshevo Commune Museum on the first floor, thus becoming a new cultural center for that entire district of Korolyov. Needless to say, there is no such complex in Russia, just as there is still no Museum of the Soviet Union.

Bolshevo communards. Junior competitions: “Best boy.” Kostino, 1937

Given the rapid growth of “red” tourism around the world and efforts in this direction even within Russia itself (e.g., the Ulyanovsk Region), the suburban Moscow town of Korolyov had every chance to occupy a dominant position in the field. In the 1930s, thousands of foreign tourists flocked to see this “plant for re-education,” and they could easily have returned in even greater numbers in the present day.  The commercial attractiveness and social relevance of this cluster are obvious. A thoughtful and high-quality approach to the complex could have brought economic self-sufficiency and new vectors of development to Korolyov. It could have rejected its lot as just another faceless appendage to the capital, filled with new housing estates.


Track and field athletes from Bolshevo Commune No. 1, women’s team. Metal Worker Stadium, 1934

“I don’t know whether we will save Stroyburo House or not,” writes Yevgeny Sosedov. “But I know for sure that this ‘rout’ will go down in the history of the town and Moscow Region, and the names of those involved will be on a par with those who purged the communards in the 1930s. Those men killed people, while these men are destroying the last memory of them, but the methods are the same.”

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The Bolshevo Commune fresco: discovery of the year or loss of the decade?
Mural from time of the Bolshevo Commune discovered in suburban Moscow town of Korolyov during demolition of 1920s building
Maria Semendyayeva
November 26, 2013
vozduh.afisha.ru

Demolition of the Bolshevo Commune began in November. In the early 1930s, thirteen constructivist buildings, designed by architects Alexander Langman and Leonid Cherikover, were built for the commune in what is now the town of Korolyov but was then the village of Kostino, near the station of Bolshevo. Eleven of the buildings have survived. The Korolyov master plan calls for demolition of all the buildings. The Bolshevo Commune was seemingly doomed—until November 2, when a mural was accidentally discovered in Stroyburo House.

The fresco was identified through photographs as the work of artist Vasily Maslov. It had been considered lost, since, according to historians, it was located in the commune’s House of Culture, which has not survived to the present day. The fresco was produced in 1930–1931: painted in oils, it featured images of industrialization, typical of the 1930s. Stroyburo House was the first brick building at the commune, and it housed managerial staff and communards, explains Alexandra Selivanova, architectural historian and director of the Avant-Garde Center at the Jewish Museum. The early 1930s were a brief heyday at the Bolshevo Commune. Founded in 1924 on the initiative of Dzerzhinsky as an experiment by the OGPU in reforging juvenile offenders, in 1938 nearly all the senior management and teaching staff were executed or imprisoned. 655 people lived in the commune in 1933, but by the late 1930s that number had grown to around four thousand. The communards were former street kids: all of them received an education and worked in the commune’s manufacturing facilities, the income from which allowed the commune to operate autonomously. Bolshevo produced sports equipment that was sold throughout the Soviet Union and brought in a steady income. Until a club was built, the first floor of Stroyburo House was the center of the commune’s cultural life. It was there that Vasily Maslov produced his fresco, which was meant to inspire the communards to work and self-improvement. Then the commune’s population increased, and the room on the first floor was partitioned; the fresco ended up in two different rooms and was later wallpapered over.

98ff540b004345298e4d2138df483366Vasily Maslov’s wife Muza in front of his later fresco at the Bolshevo Commune House of Culture. Photograph courtesy of the Korolyov branch of VOOPIK

Maslov was a fairly well known artist in the thirties, but his name has been absent from the official art histories until recent: in 1938, he was shot along with many other communards. Maslov was born in Yekaterinburg province. After his mother died, he became homeless and earned money drawing portraits on the street. After brief stints at art colleges in Baku and Nizhny Novgorod, he came to Moscow, were Lunacharsky and Gorky intervened in his life. On the recommendation of the latter, he went to the Bolshevo Commune. He almost left to study in the workers faculty [rabfak] of the Vkhutein, but quickly returned.

“Apparently, the regular instruction at the Vkhutein was too academic for him,” says Alexandra Selivanova, “but he was actively engaged in self-education, mainly at the Museum of New Western Art. In addition to cubism and expressionism, ‘revolutionary artists of the west’ were exhibited there. Maslov’s graphic work can be compared with that of Frans Masereel, and his paintings with those of the red artist Heinrich Vogeler. I personally see parallels with the artist Vasily Kuptsov from Pavel Filonov’s school: the same disintegrated space, fragments, and local color. Maslov is a very emotional artist. All his watercolors and oil paintings are quite vivid. Even the faded mural under the half-torn wallpaper makes it plain that it was a painting rich in contrasts.”

Vasily Maslov, Industrial Landscape, 1930s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum
Vasily Maslov, Prostitutes, 1920s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum

Vasily Maslov, On the Quay, 1930s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum
maslov-socialist building sitesVasily Maslov, Building Sites of Socialism, 1930s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum

Vasily Maslov, Men’s Faces, 1930s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum

In 1933, an artistic commission visited Bolshevo. It concluded that the “decorative panels and murals are ill conceived. They suffer from compositional chaos and unsuccessful attempts to introduce decorative elements in the form of garishly colored crystal shapes, as well as the complete absence of an overall tone.”

The opinion of today’s experts is radically different. Selivanova is certain that the mural found in Korolyov is a genuine museum masterpiece. She even draws an analogy with the fresco produced by Diego Rivera at Rockefeller Center. It also depicted Lenin, which is why it was plastered over a year after it was produced.

It is possible that the only surviving wall painting from those years has been found in Korolyov.

“These murals can still be found, under layers of oil paint, in constructivist buildings in Minsk, Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Samara. But no one has done it yet. Maslov did a number of murals in Korolyov. He painted murals in the club house and the factory kitchen. The factory kitchen has survived, but there are offices there now, and we don’t know what is under the plaster,” says Selivanova.

The fact that the wall at Stroyburo House containing the mural has stood fast until now can be considered a miracle. Since the beginning of the demolition, the building has caught on fire eight times, and on several sides simultaneously. The fires were also extinguished in an unusual way—with excavators, which were used to break the floor and ceiling slabs in several places. According to restorers, there are also paintings from the 1930s in one of the rooms that has been caved in, but the developer, Development 21, Ltd., has been scrambling to halt even the examination of the painting that has been uncovered. According to the building’s defenders, staff from the development company are on duty near the ruins every day and even call the regional culture ministry to inform them when the restorers do not come to work on time.

Текущее состояние росписи в Доме Стройбюро в КоролевеCurrent condition of the mural at Stroyburo House in Korolyov (November 2013). Photograph by Konstantin Maslov 

The discovery of the Vasily Maslov mural, argues Selivanova, could help preserve the entire Bolshevo Commune complex. After a long meeting at city hall, a temporary moratorium on construction work has been announced. Restorers are working on the mural, and an official expert analysis to get the building on the protected list is being prepared. Generally, Selivanova is convinced that the constructivist landmarks could draw foreign tourists and help Korolyov find a new identity. The situation is unique in that the Bolshevo Commune campus has almost entirely been preserved: tours have been conducted on similar constructivist streets in Yekaterinburg, for example, for many years. At one time, all foreign travelers who came to the Land of the Soviets visited Bolshevo; George Bernard Shaw, for example, wrote about the commune. If an effort is made to develop the infrastructure and a minimal amount of money is invested, Bolshevo could be made into one of the key tourist spots in suburban Moscow. Korolyov is half an hour’s drive from Moscow, closer than Gorki Leninskiye, which still draws visitors. Korolyov city hall does not even need to make a special effort to build a constructivist museum in the town. It merely needs to preserve what is left, and let engaged professionals do their job.

But the situation could develop in a different way. The mural will be hurriedly transferred from the wall to a canvas and sent for restoration, because six days at most remain until the end of the moratorium on demolition. The expert analysis of Stroyburo House is still underway. Meanwhile, the building, of which only the foundation and facade remain, could be demolished within a week by the developer, Development 21, Ltd., with the complete consent of the local administration. A cookie-cutter residential complex will arise on the site of the constructivist landmark, and people who cannot afford a flat in a high-rise within the Ring Road will eagerly snap up the apartments there. Theoretically, there is the prospect of making more money on a living architectural landmark, transformed into an international museum, than on sales of apartments. In the Luzhkov days, before the emergence of urban planning councils, Archnadzor, and progressive municipal departments of culture, this alternative would never have even occurred: the building would have been demolished long ago, no questions asked. And if Korolyov city hall goes for the easiest option now, it will not just mean the loss of yet another constructivist landmark. It will also be a sign that the reconstruction of old Soviet houses of culture or Ivan Melnikov’s buildings is only a temporary measure, which will last until another company like Development 21, Ltd., comes along and begins digging a foundation pit.

All translations by The Russian Reader

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1484716_799130750140923_8512887158632087521_nStroyburo House. Image courtesy of Korolyov Branch, VOOPIK