The plan was to create a new type of city that answered the needs of Moscow’s creative middle class. But did the exit of Sergei Kapkov, the culture minister who ushered in these changes, also signal the end of the city’s urban revival?Is Moscow changing for better or worse? Muscovites speak – video
Five years ago, to take a walk along the embankment of the Moscow river, south-west of the Kremlin, would have been a miserable affair – through the depressing, weed-strewn expanse of Gorky Park, navigating pot-holed roads and dodging stray dogs.
Now, it is a very different experience. The waterfront has been redeveloped and the park totally remodelled – it is now packed with families strolling in the summer sunshine or skating on its frozen paths, depending on the time of year. Along the way, all manner of eateries and coffee shops cater to newly acquired tastes; people on bikes speed past in the cycle lanes.
Unlike the jarring, ruthless, civilisational changes of the 1990s, the changes to Moscow over the past five years were almost imperceptible on a month-to-month basis. But taken cumulatively, they have resulted in the emergence of a very different city; one that is eminently more liveable.
“What we have seen in the past few years is a change of tone, of the substance of the city,” said Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, who founded the Moscow lifestyle magazine Afisha in 1999 and then the Strelka institute in central Moscow, which was set up in 2010 to be the vanguard of urban thinking in the Russian capital. “Suddenly Moscow is a city where taking a nice walk on a Sunday afternoon is a normal thing to do and something pleasurable.”
These changes were most associated with city official Sergei Kapkov. A member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party and a long-term associate of oligarch Roman Abramovich, he became the unlikely champion of a new type of city that would answer the needs of the middle class that had sprung up in recent years. He oversaw the redevelopment of Gorky Park and then ran the city’s Culture Department, until he resigned earlier this year.
Kapkov’s departure, apparently from frustration at having his initiatives blocked, comes in parallel with a changed political climate in the country, as western sanctions and falling oiling prices combined to strike a serious blow to the economy last December, and Russian counter-sanctions banned imports of cheeses, fruits and other products from the west.
Fewer Muscovites could afford to travel abroad, and fewer tourists arrived from the west, evidenced by a number of airlines cutting flights to the city in recent months. Many here are now wondering whether Kapkov’s “Moscow experiment” is over, and how durable the changes he introduced will be.
“Kapkov’s reforms provided a whole generation of young creative types with a sense – perhaps somewhat illusory – that they could do things on a small scale; that there was a real fabric of life in a public city,” said Tsentsiper.
Under Yury Luzhkov, who was mayor of the city from 1992 to 2010, there was little time to think of quality of life or urban development, as Muscovites focused on getting rich, or simply surviving. Luzhkov’s legendary bad taste manifested itself in the overbearing statues by his buddy Zurab Tsereteli. During his tenure cheap, gaudy architecture was often built on sites previously occupied by historic buildings that had succumbed to fire with suspiciously convenient timing, thus avoiding hefty renovation costs.
Luzhkov was fired in 2010 and replaced with Sergei Sobyanin, a transition that coincided with some in Moscow beginning to think seriously about how to make the city not just richer, but more liveable. In summer 2010, Tsentsiper’s Strelka institute opened with the aim of developing architecture and urban planning in the city. There was a lot of catching up to do.
“During the Soviet period, all the finances for the city came from the state; there were no other ways of financing urban development,” said Evgeny Asse, a leading Moscow architect who worked in the city planning bureau in the 1980s and who took part in many projects during the Kapkov years, including work on parts of the Moscow river embankment. “Now you have the dilemma of how to combine three factors: the state, developers and society. All over the world there’s an issue of finding a compromise between these three players, but [elsewhere] they have decades of experience.”
Asse said the situation improved under Kapkov, but there is still a top-down management system in Moscow city politics – based on the old Soviet idea that the city offers “gifts” to its residents, rather than engaging in a symbiotic process with the population to find the ideal urban solutions.
“Take pedestrianisation: they said they would make 19 kilometres of streets pedestrian and that’s what happened,” Asse said. “But I never saw any research explaining why 19 kilometres, why the particular streets they chose, how to make these pedestrian streets the basis of life for real people. The rents get even more expensive when the streets are pedestrianised, meaning you end up with expensive boutiques that are of no use to ordinary people. The small cafes and retailers that should be the fabric of urban life can’t afford to be there.”
Sometimes it feels like expert consultation is there “merely to provide legitimisation for bad decisions”, according to Asse. He cited the example of a new hotel planned for Leningradsky Prospekt, one of the main city thoroughfares, for which one design plan envisages a mock-up of one of Stalin’s “Seven Sisters”, the neo-gothic skyscrapers that dot Moscow.
“A group of us said there is nothing wrong with that style, but it would be good to find a different architectural language, to avoid talking in stereotypes. But they told us the mayor had already made his decision. So then what was the point of having us in the role of experts?”
As well as the top-down transformations, there have been more organic changes to the city as huge numbers of Muscovites began travelling regularly and bringing back ideas from their trips. Levels of customer service are still probably the worst of any European capital, but truly egregious rudeness and aggression are now the exception rather than the norm, as a whole generation of Muscovites who have travelled the world no longer find surly, Soviet-style service acceptable at home.
The brash, flash-the-cash hedonism of the early post-Soviet years has given way to a new, more mature eating-and-drinking scene. A plethora of cafes, bars and restaurants have been opened by people who are enthusiastic about food and drink, rather than just keen to make a quick profit. Tours to Brooklyn in New York were organised for Moscow restaurant owners to give them menu and design ideas, and some chefs have begun experimenting with updated versions of traditional Russian ingredients and recipes. Indeed, the gradual discovery of a collective Moscow foodie gene resembles the gastronomic changes in Britain of two decades ago.
Many link the increased “official” interest in urban thinking with an attempt to channel the energy of this new middle class: the Muscovites who have done well from the oil-boom years, travel frequently, and wanted to introduce some change at home. After the protest movement that swept the capital in 2011-12, extra thought was paid to the idea of what to do with the movement and its most charismatic leader, Alexei Navalny, a Muscovite who said he wanted to stand for mayor.
The Russian authorities have see-sawed over Navalny, with some elements keen to lock him up, and others believing he should be allowed to operate, then defeated politically. While he has faced frequent court cases and his brother has been jailed, he was also allowed to stand in mayoral elections in 2013 – the idea being that, with all the attention now lavished on the new urban middle class, they would not require opposition politics. Despite Sobyanin’s use of the “administrative resource” and skewed media coverage, however, Navalny got animpressive 27% of the vote – not enough to force a second round, but enough to vindicate those in the Kremlin who felt he should never have been allowed to stand in the first place.
“The scheme of bringing hipsters to Sobyanin by giving them all this nice stuff didn’t work,” said Asse. “It became more and more clear that Kapkov’s policies were somehow in contradiction to the general trend in the country. He was never in opposition, but his heroes were not the heroes of the Kremlin.”
“Of course you can’t deny the improvements, they are there,” said Navalny himself, when asked about the city’s recent changes. “But basically, what has happened is there was a huge gap in quality of life between Moscow and most normal western cities, and we’ve closed that gap slightly. I don’t think there’s any correlation between bicycle lanes and political activity. If you think falsifying elections is bad, no amount of bicycles are going to help you.”
Navalny lives in a small apartment in the outlying region of Marino, a grey suburb where he says little has changed in the past few years. Given the amount of money Moscow authorities have at their disposal, he added, what is amazing is that much more has not been done.
“When I stood for mayor in 2013, we did the sums and only Shanghai and New York had bigger municipal budgets. It was the third biggest municipal budget in the world; if things were done more efficiently, you should be able to improve more than a couple of parks with this money.”
Kapkov’s idea that the energy of creative, possibly opposition-minded Muscovites should be channelled into improving the fabric of the city had failed. He declined to be interviewed for this article, but in a Facebook post announcing his resignation, he wrote: “For those who come after me, I would ask you to remember that our bosses are the city’s residents, not its rulers. Muscovites are self-sufficient, they don’t need choices made for them and they don’t need to be taught. We need to respect them and their choices. The city is made up of people: diverse, difficult, different people. Listen to them, and you’ll be amazed how easy it is to make the right decisions.”
The big question, and the one to which nobody knows the answer, is what comes next for Moscow. The war in Ukraine, a more aggressive nationalism, and the atmosphere that led to the murder of Boris Nemtsov, have all pointed to the city becoming more introverted and withdrawn.
“When I see my young friends opening another food market or something similar, they seem to be strangely out of touch with this new zeitgeist,” said Tsentsiper. His consultancy company is now working on the revamping of VDNKh, a huge Soviet-era exhibition centre. It is also developing a startup which aims to provide an affordable, off-the-shelf renovation service for the 83% of Muscovites who live in standardised Soviet-era housing.
For all that Kapkov lost his battles, however, there remains a certain legacy, both for Moscow and Russia as a whole. Regional administrations across the country have suddenly become interested in the renovation of parks and the rejuvenation of public space. In Moscow, many of the positive changes to the fabric of the city are hard to undo, whatever happens. Many people worry there are changes in the air, but hope is far from lost – with some suggesting that if the Europeanisation of Moscow is over, the end of this copycat urban development may not be such a bad thing anyway.
“The history of Russian culture has always been a pendulum swinging between love with the west and a more introverted search for its true self,” Tsentsiper said. “In the last 10 years, there has been a lot of looking to the west and copying from it. There has been a lack of a narrative about who we are, what we are, and why we are here. Perhaps it won’t be the worst thing in the world if the pendulum now swings back to an interest in Russia and Russianness.”