Protesters gathering at Bolotnaya Square, just south of the Kremlin. Source: Ilya Varlamov
The more we collaborate, the more difficult we are to subdue. Urbanization may have empowered movements against monarchy and imperialism, as centralized populations are able to collaborate more easily than their dispersed counterparts. Recent protests against autocracy and neoliberalism are empowered through digitization, as it is now easier than ever to collaborate for those with access to the Internet. At the same time, physical space is still essential. This was clear in events leading up to the Dec. 10 demonstration in Moscow's Bolotnaya Square.
Presentations at the Moscow Urban Forum. Source: Peter Sigrist
Plan for expanding Moscow's borders from 107 to 251 hectares to the southwest, where an estimated 250 thousand people currently live. Sources: газета.ru (info-graphic) and PolitRUS (birdie graphic)
The Moscow Urban Forum took place at the Swissôtel from Dec. 7 to 9, directly between the initial protests over the Russian parliamentary elections and the gathering at Bolotnaya Square. Mayor Sergey Sobyanin summoned a cadre of local and global "experts" for advice on an ambitious masterplan that includes expanding Moscow's borders to more than double their current size. He spared no expense — including white Audis emblazoned with the forum logo — in presenting three days of dinners, tours, keynote addresses and panel discussions. Admission was free, but there was an opaque selection process and tiered system of event access. Presenters hailed primarily from the worlds of business, government, media, higher education, technology, cultural institutions and design.
Conference graphic featuring an elaborate highway system to address traffic congestion. Source: Moscow Urban Forum
Sessions were grouped under the headings of Finance and Management, Planning and Construction, Infrastructure and Technology, Identity and Marketing, and Sustainable Development. The general assumption was that Moscow must improve living conditions and market itself more effectively to become a "global city." An Urban Land Institute (ULI) Advisory Services team presented recommendations after less than a week of touring Moscow and meeting with local experts. Despite the business rhetoric, I found most of their advice on livability, density, redevelopment, mixed-use communities, public space and transport infrastructure very appealing. The most urgent point — to preserve the city's population density by reusing abandoned industrial sites instead of proceeding with the expansion — was apparently rejected by Sobyanin, despite his progressive opening speech.
Mayor Sobyanin's opening speech. Source: Moscow Urban Forum
This could mark the apex of Moscow's enchantment with global capitalism, inspired by looking abroad in response to the stifling political situation at home. It appears to have offered a temporary focus for many people's desire for change. Their deliverer is Sergey Kapkov, a glamorous public official with strong business and government ties, who discussed his work on the redevelopment of Gorky Park. As impressive as this work has been, it seems part of a calculated move by the poll-obsessed federal government to curry favor with Moscow's restless upwardly mobile set.
New ice-skating facilities at Gorky Park. Source: The Village
As evident at the urban forum, global business, culture and design flair hasn't lost its appeal. But it doesn't take the place of a just society. Now sophisticated commercial media outlets — including Сноб (Snob), Большой Город (Big City), Афиша (Ad), Слон (Elephant), OpenSpace.ru and The Village — are openly supporting the protests. Perhaps this will bring a new movement in Moscow to lead instead of follow global trends; a commitment to put more resources into drinkable tap water, for example, instead of luxurious urban forums; and an end to decision-making limited to party officials and globe-trotting experts.
Bolotnaya Square. Source: Google Maps
Bolotnaya Square is located on a human-made island across the river from the Kremlin. Through several hundred years of landscaping, it has changed from a floodplain (and site of public executions) to a popular site for wedding photography. It is now something more. The demonstration on Dec. 10 has been deemed the largest in Russia since the early 1990s. It was peaceful and full of hope, excitement and resolve. The crowd overflowed to more than double the space allotted, expanding into the park, over two bridges and along the opposite bank of the canal. Aggressive flags of nationalists mingled with those of Solidarnost, opposition parties, gay-rights advocates and local universities.
The crowd along the embankment, possibly captured by the remote camera below. Sources: Новости в фотографиях (above) and OpenSpace.ru (below)
Support for the protest movement galvanized rapidly. Leading up to the elections, an almost surreal marketing campaign by United Russia occupied the best ad space on television and throughout the city. Seeing giant billboards of Putin and Medvedev — along with graphics identical to those of United Russia used to publicize the elections (see comparison below) — turned a tragicomic sense of disbelief into anger; obviously, no other party or presidential candidate had a chance on such an unfair playing field, so why waste so much money on marketing? And whose money was being wasted?
United Russia campaign billboard (above) with the same graphic background as the announcement printed on subway cards (below) to publicize the elections. Sources: Молодая гвардия (above) and Peter Sigrist (below)
"Together We Will Win!" United Russia advertisement at the corner of Зумляной Вал and Покровка. Source: Peter Sigrist
Following the election results (which were widely contested using video phones, YouTube and other contemporary means), protests broke out in Moscow's center. Hundreds were arrested, including the popular anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny. Media outlets such as Телеканал ДОЖДЬ (TV Rain), Эхо Москвы (Echo of Moscow), Новая газета (New Gazette), The Moscow Times and Ведомости (The Record) strongly criticized the elections, and Facebook erupted with related links, debates, plans and notifications of the gathering at Bolotnaya Square.
Video from the demonstration, including a wedding held on the scene. Source: RT
Despite boldly expressed frustration with the parliamentary elections and crackdown on initial protests, the majority of the crowd at Bolotnaya Square was against the idea of revolution. Speakers who mentioned it were booed thoroughly. Most people seemed intent on preserving stability and capitalist development. Protesters were simply calling for an end to the corruption that has allowed a small group of officials to siphon off a large portion of the nation's wealth underhandedly. The protests were not about replacing the entire system; they were about true democracy.
Participants facing the speakers' podium at bottom right. Source: Новая газета
Opposition leaders addressing the crowd. Source: Peter Sigrist
Opposition leaders and celebrities (including Noize MC) addressed the crowd. However, they were less important than the shared sentiment in their words. People came together based on common interest in a just society rather than the appeals of a charismatic leader. Despite Navalny's popularity, no one has captured the imagination of an overwhelming majority as a legitimate presidential candidate. Some see this as an impediment to unseating Putin, and that may be true; but it is also increasingly characteristic of pro-democracy movements today.
Scene from an interactive panoramic photo of the crowd. Source: Moscow Panorama Service
Many have raised doubts about the prospects of this movement, seeing it as basically limited to yuppies, hipsters and opposition parties without a significant base. Protesters face the threat of reprisal if Putin wins the elections in March, and there's no indication that he will decide not to run. Activists have faced severe repercussions in the past for opposing his regime.
A sense of hope within the crowd. Source: Peter Sigrist
Can change take place in digital space and transfer to the physical world? Can this prevent the abuse of power more effectively than movements of the past? Yes. More and more people are moving to metropolitan areas. More and more people are connecting to the Internet. Fewer and fewer people can be taken advantage of by authoritarian leaders. Bolotnaya Square is one of many examples. The fundamental claim is modest: fair elections. The protesters are wary of revolution but want to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.