polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Transitional Landscapes

by Peter Sigrist

Walking along the Arbat in Moscow, from Study in Hard Photography by Sergei Leontiev, 1990-1991 (source).

Sixth in a series on public parks in Moscow, this post focuses on the period of economic and political transition between 1985 and 2005. It is a brief visual overview, bringing together a variety of processes that shape urban landscapes.

Title unknown, painted by Sergej Basilev, 1983 (source).

Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev (source).

After coming to power in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev initiated a period of restructuring (perestroika) in hopes of promoting incentive and growth through decentralization. This was accompanied by a new openness (glasnost) in governance, media, and the arts. Public criticism of the state was suddenly allowed, and artists who had been working underground became a kind of vanguard in this era of tentative freedom. Unlike the Constructivists, they didn't show much faith in Utopia. They tended toward harsh realities and iconoclastic parody of Soviet rule.

Shchi (Cabbage Soup) by Sergey Bugaev, aka Afrika, 1991 (source).

Lenin Mausoleum Project by Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, 1993 (source).

With few creative outlets during the mass housing drives of the Khrushchev-Brezhnev years, Russian architects developed a unique "paper architecture" that blossomed in the 1980s. Their whimsical, erudite, often ironic drawings and narratives proved remarkably successful in international design competitions. This allowed them a degree of independence from state-sponsored commissions.

Villa Nautilus: Bulwark of Resistance by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin, circa 1987 (source).

As the government released some control over building design and development during perestroika, new opportunities emerged for architects. Gorbachev encouraged people to move out of large cities, and increasing automobile ownership fueled speculative development in Moscow's green belts (French, 1995: 200, 104). Within the city, new plans emerged for Kitai Gorod, Lenin Library, Moscow State University, and the Arbat. After thirty years of stark modernist buildings, there was a renewed interest in detail and historical style. Many of the designs reflect the influence of paper architecture.

Restoration and development of the historic Kitai Gorod neighborhood in central Moscow, 1987-1990 (source).

Plans for an addition to the Lenin Library, 1987-1990 (source).

Competition entry for a new complex at Moscow State University, 1988-1989 (source). In comparison with the overall plan (below), here is what the area looks like today (the view is rotated almost 180 degrees clockwise).

Plans to close the Old Arbat to traffic, 1985 (source).

This was a popular meeting place in the Old Arbat for artists during perestoika. It is now called Tsoi Wall (source).

Viktor Tsoi's performance at the end of the 1987 film Assa (source). Another clip from the film shows the use of semi-abandoned space for unsanctioned activities.

Tearing down this wall, 1989 (source).

Perestroika and glasnost shook the already tenuous foundations of Soviet rule. As the Berlin Wall fell and Eastern European states began to assert their independence, conservative party members saw a need to regain control. They attempted a coup while Gorbachev was vacationing in August of 1991. Boris Yeltsin (former Moscow party secretary and recently elected president of the Russian Republic) remained at the parliament building, and popular support on the premises helped prevent the coup leaders from taking decisive action. Following the coup, Yeltsin pushed for more political and economic restructuring. Gorbachev resigned as head of the Communist Party, and the Soviet Union came to an end on New Year's Eve.

Boris Yeltsin in front of the parliament building in 1991 (source).

Yeltsin adopted intense market reforms, which exacerbated the post-Soviet economic crisis. People gained property rights to their homes, but many state assets were turned over to corrupt oligarchs. Yeltsin appointed Yury Luzhkov as mayor of Moscow in 1992, marking a new era of aggressive business promotion and urban renewal. The Russian parliament attempted to check Yeltsin's power by encouraging a violent takeover in October of 1993. After some equivocation, the military sided with Yeltsin, firing on the parliament building with tanks and reestablishing control.

Parliament building after the constitutional crisis of 1993 (source).

Yeltsin's administration became increasingly associated with corrupt, uneven, and short-sighted business practices amidst the economic crisis. Many people grew their own produce on Soviet-era cooperative garden plots to supplement their diets (French, 1995: 90). Public green space came under increasing threat of development. Between 1991 and 2001, nearly 22% of the green belt within 30 km of Moscow was used for new construction — most often in the form of private housing in gated communities (Blinnikov et al, 2006). As Yeltsin's health declined, he chose former KGB officer Vladimir Putin as his successor.

Yeltsin and Putin greet the public on New Year's Eve, 1999 (source).

Putin took over on the last day of 1999, and was elected president the following May. He is credited with reestablishing economic stability and reining in the oligarchs of the Yeltsin period, while developing a reputation for brutal authoritarian rule.

Genplan 2025 map of highway construction (source).

Under Mayor Luzhkov, a new master plan for Moscow was ratified in 1999 and updated in 2005. Deemed Genplan 2025, it was designed to organize the city's growth for the next twenty years. It is ostensibly less prescriptive than the plans of 1935 and 1971, focusing on the support and regulation of private initiatives. However, plans to update decayed housing stock appear highly proactive. According to a public site dedicated to monitoring the plan, 1 in 5 Moscow residents will be displaced from their homes and a 4th highway ring will surround the city. These plans face opposition from historic preservationists and residents of neighborhoods slated for redevelopment.

Protests against Genplan 2025. From left to right (rough translation of the signs that are fully or mostly legible): "Genplan 2025 — Death Sentence in Moscow!", "For the Preservation of the City's Historical Character", "Let's Preserve Moscow for Our Children", "[Illegible] and Not for the Construction Mafia", "Don't Allow Moscow to be Covered with Asphalt". Perhaps strangely, this picture is from the website of Right Cause, a center-right political party reputedly in favor of business, democracy, and human rights, with close ties to the Kremlin (source).

While Genplan 2025 is posted online, the format doesn't allow for machine translation, so it will take me some time to go through the entire document. The plan focuses on rebuilding within the city instead of on greenfield sites in the suburbs. This is to occur primarily in Moscow’s industrial “middle zone,” eliminating 16 of the 66 industrial sites currently inside the city, and reducing the area of an additional 20 (Journal of Real Estate and Investments). Reclaimed land is slated for housing, business, and parks. Like previous plans, Genplan 2025 calls for an integrated system of green space linked to forests around the perimeter, increasing urban parkland from 30.3 to 35.1 thousand hectares (ibid).

A meadow in Moscow's Krylatsky Hills. Photo by A. Klochkova (source).

Much of Genplan 2025 is reminiscent of previous plans, with obvious ideological differences. While the 1971 Genplan was explicitly dedicated to building a model communist city, the new plan focuses on guiding Moscow's transition to a market economy. The private sector has a relatively high degree of autonomy, and public-private partnerships appear to be the favored development model. Based on past experience with privatization and corruption, it is uncertain whether plans to reuse former industrial sites will be realized, or whether current green space will be protected.

A drive through the nearly abandoned ZIL automobile factory in Moscow (source).

Despite the expansion of suburbs into the green belt, there is reason to believe that most public parkland will survive the transition to a market economy. In 1986, "Gardener's Day" became a public holiday, and green space seems to be closely tied to national identity. This is particularly evident in Moscow, where the old Apothecaries' Garden near the heart of the city is being restored with sensitivity to cultural heritage (Hayden, 2006), the biology museum offers urban ecological tours, and the government boasts of a national park inhabited by elk within the city limits. Thus it is not likely that the state or city would cede valued parks to private development. However, the threat of gradual encroachment is ever present.

Buildings overlooking the Apothecaries' Garden (source: one of my own photos, I wish the quality was better, please feel free to use it if you'd like).

Greenhouse at the State Museum of Biology, which offers tours of "the forests, meadows, and marshes of Moscow" (source: also one of my photos, no restrictions).

Elk Island National Park, nearly a third of which is within Moscow's borders. Photo by V. Zabugina (source).

Reviewing Moscow’s public park system today, the longstanding influence of Garden City ideas is clear (especially shared courtyards, links to railways, buffer zones, and green belts). It also reflects the consequences of virtually limitless state control over the urban landscape. Some I find positive (kvartal * housing, efficient public transportation, accessible green space) and others not at all (giant roads, overbearing buildings, industrial pollution, loss of cultural heritage). With hope, Genplan 2025 will provide equal rights for all citizens to participate in decisions that lead to healthy and attractive living conditions.

Balkan Baroque by Andrei Filippov, 2005 (source). Although this title refers to the former Yugoslavia, Filippov was an important part of the Russian conceptual art movement in the 1980s-1990s, and the double-headed eagle is the Russian coat of arms.

While this brings my historical exploration just about to the present, I'm planning one more post to reflect on the series in light of current events. After that I'll begin fieldwork in Moscow. This will involve archival research, analysis of demographic data, interpretation of geographic images, interviews, and direct site assessment. I hope it will result in a comprehensive, historically informed study that integrates political, economic, social, cultural, and ecological processes. My overall goal is to contribute to policy decisions that improve the quality of life in cities.

* The Stalinist Urbanism post includes a brief description of kvartal housing. I imagine it looking something like this.