“22 versts to Tsarskoye Selo. 673 versts to Moscow.” An 18th-century milepost in Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader
Moscow Trumps Russia: How Urban Renewal Has Thrown Society Backwards
Combating Russia’s “Maidan” Has Shaped the Moscow Style of Governance
November 29, 2018
The events of 2011–2014—protests against rigged elections in Russia, revolutions and civil wars in the Arab world, and the EuroMaidan in Kyiv—have had a profound effect on the discussion of what constitutes desirable social change, politicizing the debate. Society and state in Russia have each reached their own conclusions.
The attitude to the steps needed to change state and society for the better has taken different shapes in the grassroots and within the elite. The grassroots have been disillusioned and disenchanted, while the elite has identified a threat. The liberal community’s heightened interest in institutional reforms in Georgia in the noughties and the prospects for similar reforms in post-revolutionary Ukraine in the aftermath of 2014 has turned the Kremlin’s attitude towards them from mistrust to outright rejection.
Talk about how make the state work for society rather than for the elite, about what a state that would be focused on ordinary citizens might be like, quietly came to naught, yielding to talk of Russian political spinning techniques, China’s big data state, urbanism, and comfortable urban environments. In other words, the talk turned to the tools the state had at its disposal rather than to the meaningful questions asked by the general public.
Russia is still a place where the rules for elections change from one election to the next, laws are written as if they were political lampoons, the conditions of doing business are as unpredictable as the weather, and no one can quickly tell you what the right of private property means. You cannot say the right does not exist, but nor can you say it does exist. In 2018, the Kremlin is even personally involved in permitting and banning pop music concerts.
It is hard to say how the Kremlin measures stability in Russia, but apparently it believes the level of stability is still high. Nearly all the regional elections went as planned. Putin’s approval rating is still above fifty percent. The oligarchs are obedient. Everything is cool. But stability of the rule of law, and the rules of the game generally, are much more important in the long run than approval ratings and managed elections. As it has pursued official so-called stability, the Kremlin has in recent years continued its demolition of institutions and the rules of the game, the things that make long-term relations in society possible, meaning that the Kremlin has tried to score short-term victories by sacrificing a stable, certain future.
Stable institutions, such as protection of property rights, enforceability of contracts, and the rules of the game, would seemingly benefit the Russian elite itself. The Kremlin publicly calls for the repatriation of Russian capital, but it is hard to believe in its sincerty. How can money be repatriated when the rulers themselves (who also often double as capitalist moguls) are always busy redrafting the laws and regulations? It is simply impossible to make plans under this regime, and this applies to the people running the regime.
Fortifying the regime in the face of a possible homegrown “Maidan” has, in fact, sidelined and archaized institutions. This is not entirely accurate, however. Simply holding identical “elections” and tightening the screws would be too negative a program. Moscow also has a positive program. It does not involve internal structural transformations, but the top-down imposition of a new “civilizational” lifestyle. In reality, this new lifestyle is rife with restrictions on movement, freedom of speech, and even freedom of music. The city of Moscow is a successful example of the new approach, which is simultaneously an old approach because it is a traditional Muscovite approach.
The Politics of Municipal Improvement
In Moscow, municipal improvement is a rejoinder in the debate about institutional change. By repairing roads, constructing a new transit system, and achieving significant improvements in municipal beautification projects and the provision of amenities, which are often regarded positively by their users, the inhabitants of Moscow, the city has ultimately been tackling several problems at the same time. On the one hand, it tackled economic problems by employing Moscow’s huge construction sector at a time when the market was saturated and property values (a considerable source of the Russian elite’s wealth) threatened to collapse. It tackled political problems: the regime had to be strengthened. Recalling its experiment with the 2013 mayoral election, Moscow rejected even competition for show when the 2018 mayoral election rolled around. Candidates who could compete with Mayor Sergei Sobyanin in terms of media interest, if not in political terms, were kept off the ballot.
The city also tackled civic problems. Moscow has built new public spaces, whose architecture and landscaping encourages people to spend more time outside and in each other’s company. Meanwhile, the federal government has passed laws and regulations that have restricted the ways these beautiful spaces can be used by the public. It was once enough to notify the authorities of a protest rally, but now they must issue permits for such events. The powers of law enforcement agencies have been beefed up. Consequently, using these public spaces for their intended purpose, as venues for spontaneous discussions of politics and life, has been rendered nearly impossible. Whether this was the plan or not, the upshot has been that one arm of the state has emancipated and complicated public space while another arm of the state has restricted people’s ability to move freely around in public space, thus institutionally archaizing public life.
Zaryadye Park in Moscow, opened in 2017. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Most people get their information about Moscow from the municipal government. One has to look long and hard for independent perspectives. Moscow city hall has the Active Citizen social network and numerous local news media outlets in its pocket, which mirror each other, generating a constant atmosphere of approval. The Moscow press operates like the laugh track on TV sitcoms. Viewers realize it is a sound effect, but they laugh and applaud anyway. While urban renewal proceeds apace, the news media are impoverished.
Muscovites enjoy high-quality municipal services. Sometimes, the services are of such a high quality that they anticipate people’s needs, demonstrating city hall’s technocratic sophistication. Muscovites, who used to be dissatisfied subjects, have been transformed into happy clients while bypassing the stage of citizenship and grassroots civic involvement. The effect is the same. Urban renewal simplifies and archaizes civic behavior.
Moscow’s urban renewal program was meant not only to improve municipal services and show foreign tourists the beauty of the Russian capital but also to supply an alternative to grassroots activism aimed at the changing the rules of the game. The idea was to prove everything could also be done from the top down, and everyone would be happy. New public spaces could be fashioned, but so too could new laws that would make certain uses of them illegal, and everyone would be happy. While pursuing a program of urban renewal, you could also produce a rigidly authoritarian political regime, and everyone would be happy.
The conversation about social transformation in Russia has been conducted not only with word but also with physical actions as incarnated in bricks, stones, and tiles. Moscow’s parks, streets, and squares have been used as venues for modernizing urban space while strengthening the authoritarian civic order.
Two Poles: Moscow and the Maritime Territory
Providing friendly, efficient services and amenities for the people of Moscow is a considerable, genuine achievement, but it establishes a clear decision-making hierarchy in which ordinary people occupy the bottom rungs. Now the city has been giving them gifts that would be stupid and practically impossible to refuse, but later people will have to swallow something less desirable than wide sidewalks and convenient bus service.
Moscow has made a point of the putting social rights of its residents above their individual rights. The beautification of the city and the housing renovation program (i.e., the wholesale demolition of five-storey Soviet blocks of flats and the construction of new residential buildings) have proven that individual property rights are insignificant. The vast majority (around ninety percent) of the residents of the old five-storey houses predictably and understandably decided to exercise their right to more modern living space rather than their right to private property. The proprietors of the kiosks and shopping pavilions, demolished by the Sobyanin administration, tried to defend their rights in different ways. They challenged the city’s demolition order in the courts. They agreed to demolish their pavilions themselves in exchange for minimal compensation. They filed complaints with the European Court of Human Rights. Moscow, however, fully implemented its plan to rid its streets of the ugly, “uncivilized” shops on schedule.
Sobyanin’s Moscow is the Kremlin’s most successful political project, and it would be odd not to try and transfer this know-how to the whole of Russia. The Comfortable Urban Environment program is already underway. Federal authorities have allocated 85 billion rubles [approx. $1.3 billion] over three years (less than was spent on Moscow alone), and the regions have to match these funds.
But these efforts will be mere window dressing if each of the regional capitals fails to turn itself into “Moscow” in the civic sense, into a city of satisfied consumers who never think hard about where their “comfortable environment” comes from, a place where the trains run on time, but the lives and property of its people are administered by officials guided by constantly changing rules, rules only they know.
From the Kremlin’s perspective, it would be ideal to turn every major Russian city into a “Moscow.” But how do you reproduce Moscow? Moscow attracts over half the total flow of migration within Russia. Moscow is a region that grows due to an overabundance of people, resources, and tax revenues. Obviously, officials are betting on the fact that the capital of each economic macro-region will become a miniature Moscow, i.e., it will transform the dissatisfied residents of the outlands into satisfied users of what the new, improved capitals will have to offer. This, by the way, wholly jibes with Alexei Kudrin’s idea that Russia should focus on developing twenty urban agglomerations, and with the notion that there are millions of “superfluous” people scattered around the country.
This plan for concentrating Russia’s population in particular metropolitan areas, implemented naturally and spurred by the authorities, could be described as the desire to replace Russia with Moscow, meaning with a certain number of cities that reprise Moscow’s civic functions and could superficially come to resemble Moscow as well. The city halls of the selected major cities renovate their public spaces while the federal authorities draft laws on how to use these spaces in a civilized way.
The question of the plan’s effectiveness boils down to the independence and individual “modernization” of Russians. Everyone has their own individual, professional, and social benchmarks, just as they have their own means of communication. Moscow can continue seeing itself as the sole source of enlightenment and progress, but Russia is home to many economically and civically dynamic people capable of thinking for themselves.
A recent reminder of this has been the unwillingness of people in the Maritime Territory, Khabarovsk Territory, and other regions to behave at the polls according to the schemes imposed by Moscow. The Maritime Territory, where the rigged elections model will be tested again, symbolizes a different political realm, a place that is not Moscow, an independent region with a propensity for grassroots economic activity. On one pole is Moscow with its civilizational approach to the rest of the country; on the other is the country itself, with its own spontaneous rules. Top-down Moscow-style modernization still has competitors nowadays.
Maxim Trudolyubov is a columnist for Vedomosti and The New York Times International Edition and an editor at InLiberty. Translated by the Russian Reader