Moscow’s urban form: a battleground for Russia’s elites

The ‘progressive’ urban transformation of Moscow masks a conservative project that aims to protect the political and economic status quo

b-zepan-100Moscow has changed profoundly in the last couple of years: instead of being dominated by chaotically parked cars and scattered trash, squares and parks now invite Muscovites to stroll under newly planted trees and to enjoy themselves on gigantic swings and outdoor installations. Wifi is freely accessible in public spaces and a bicycle hire scheme, modelled on London’s Boris bikes, encourages Muscovites and tourists to leave the car at home. In short, it appears that Moscow has transformed from a grey post-socialist mega-city, into a modern metropolis that champions a transparent, participatory and sustainable urbanism but there is another side to the story of Moscow’s fast-changing urban environment.

In our recent study we problematize this positive perspective of Moscow’s transformation. To shed light on the causes and meaning of Moscow’s urban evolution from 1992 to today we conducted in-depth, interviews with academics, urban planners, policymakers and critics; analysed published and unpublished planning documents and reports from both government and industry, and gathered information at the Moscow Architectural Biennale and the Moscow Urban Forum. We found that the changes described above were driven by several multi-scalar processes in the late 2000s — the global financial crisis, the rise of a protest movement in Moscow and rivalry between the federal and the Muscovite elite — that confronted Moscow’s previous model of authoritarian neoliberalism.

To respond to these challenges, in 2010 the (new) city administration adopted a new urban strategy, which is based on the re-regulation of the urban economy, the promotion of an image of Moscow as comfortable city and a shift in planning and design practice towards transparency and accountability. Taken together these steps represent a case of neoliberal urban restructuring as they facilitate the continuing commercialisation of urban space, international competitiveness and the de-politicisation of authority. To understand this process of restructuring it is important to set out the nature of Moscow’s urban development model between 1992 and 2010, trace the processes that caused its failure in the mid-2000s, and how the new city administration sought to address the shortfalls of the old model. We argue that rather than dealing with its underlying contradictions Moscow’s new strategy is based on accommodating political dissent through insubstantial urban initiatives, whilst simultaneously ensuring the continuous commodification of urban space and life and the consolidation of Moscow’s position as a global city.

Between 1990 and 2008 Moscow pursued a construction-driven and patronage-based urban development model that was devised and headed by its Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. When Russia implemented its market reforms after the collapse of the Soviet Union, also known as ‘shock therapy’, Luzhkov prevented the privatization of Moscow’s land. This allowed him to set up a network of construction and development companies that furthered his personal gain, initiated a long period of construction-based growth, and gave Moscow certain autonomy from Russia’s federal powers, first around Boris Yeltsin and later Vladimir Putin.  Luzhkov’s explicit aim was to make Moscow a global city and economic hub.  At the same time he pursued populist social policies, including generous – for the standard of post-socialist cities – welfare transfers and subsidies. This ‘Luzhkov compromise’ meant that Muscovites were to be silent about blatant corruption but would be rewarded with relative economic stability and wellbeing.

This urban development model came to face its own contradictions in the late 2000s. Years of un-checked real estate development had created an image of a chaotic city with seemingly endless traffic jams and high air pollution which reduced Moscow’s attractiveness for expats and international investors. What is more, having benefitted from the Luzhkov compromise and years of unprecedented economic growth Moscow witnessed the rise of an internationally minded and politically conscious middle class that was increasingly uncomfortable with the way business was done in Moscow, often at the direct expense of historical and environmental protection.  This middle class finally became politically ‘activated’ from the late-2000s when the global financial crisis in 2007/08 threatened economic stability and when particularly outrageous cases of electoral fraud in the parliamentary elections of 2011 revealed the disastrous state of democracy in Russia. At the same time these events upset the equilibrium of power between the Muscovite elite, headed by Luzhkov, and the circle around Putin that had long resented Moscow’s autonomy.  When the global financial crisis hit Russia, almost all of the real estate companies linked to Luzhkov went bust, effectively destroying his power base and creating an opportunity for the Kremlin to put one of their man in charge of Moscow. Together these processes constituted a crisis point for Moscow’s urban development and challenged the city’s position in Russia’s national political economy.

The appointment of Sergey Sobyanin, a Putin-loyal technocrat, to the Moscow mayoral office in 2010 and his consequent project of transforming Moscow’s urban governance, public discourse and spatial policy, signalled the temporary solution of this crisis. An image campaign with the slogan ‘Moscow – a city convenient for life’ was launched, together with the aggressive promotion of high-quality public spaces, the introduction of the ‘European City model’ and participatory planning and policy making.  These seemingly progressive urban interventions the hallmarks of what the protesting middle classes associated with the ‘good cities abroad’ are, however, part of a less sanguine story.  Triumfalnaya Ploshchad, for instance, where an installation of giant swings now creates a playful atmosphere was the main meeting point for Moscow’s anti-Putin protestors in 2011. The façade of progressive urbanism thus, helped diffuse public discontent, whilst simultaneously bringing Moscow firmly under federal control.  In addition, providing a high-quality urban environment has become a key factor in cities’ global competition for investment. Moscow’s recent facelift therefore also represents an attempt to make the city more internationally competitive.

Putin and his circle have successfully created an investor-friendly urban form, crushed the country’s last independent elite group and appeased Moscow’s protesting middle by offering insignificant, but highly visible improvements to the city. Yet, this ‘spatial fix’ bears its own contradictions. Even though Moscow’s revamped parks and public spaces continue to be popular amongst Muscovites and tourists alike, they cannot hide the threat of austerity, linked to a high budget deficit, and an increasingly repressive socio-cultural policy. Global capital will not flow into the city’s newly refurbished structures as long as the Russian state continues to take a confrontational approach to international affairs. Hence, rather than representing a move towards a more progressive city, Moscow’s recent transformation is part of a conservative project to protect the political and economic status quo in Russia.