Vladimir Putin’s Walkable Streets

A bid to make Moscow a livable city is also making it a less democratic one.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JULY 24, 2016: Asphalt laying works are carried out on a section of Tverskaya Street from Mokhovaya Street to Boulevard Ring. Mikhail Japaridze/TASS (Photo by Mikhail JaparidzeTASS via Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JULY 24, 2016: Asphalt laying works are carried out on a section of Tverskaya Street from Mokhovaya Street to Boulevard Ring. Mikhail Japaridze/TASS (Photo by Mikhail JaparidzeTASS via Getty Images)

MOSCOW — The iconic statue of futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky in Triumfalnaya Square has a storied past.

Mayakovsky was a complicated figure who had embraced the Russian Revolution only to be later scorned by the Soviet state and driven to suicide in 1930. But his statue, erected in 1958, became a symbol for a new generation of poets, including controversial ones, who gathered there to read their works aloud during a short-lived political thaw in the 1960s. The same spirit was revived in 2009-2010, when anti-Kremlin demonstrators used the space to gather on every 31st day of the month to demonstrate support for Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees peaceful assembly.

Triumfalnaya Square today is a pleasant space — more pleasant, perhaps, than in its dissident heyday. On a recent afternoon, people strolled and relaxed on a set of massive swings next to Mayakovsky. The square had been closed on and off since 2010 for a protracted renovation, finally re-opening for good last year as part of a massive face-lift of central Moscow that began in 2013 and is still ongoing. Except for the presence of the Bolshevik poet, however, the square contains no reminders that it was once a place of protest — and, with swings, raised flower beds and large glass information kiosks now dominating the space, there are few signs it might ever be one again. Since its reopening, there have been no assemblies.

Almost all of central Moscow has spent the summer enveloped in green construction gauze as workers in orange jackets labor around the clock, digging trenches along historic avenues and sawing granite chunks, sending up clouds of dust. Pedestrians are left to scramble around mountains of sand and figure out their commute, because much of the public transit system has been rerouted or canceled altogether. The nearly $2 billion overhaul, driven by Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, is part of an effort to transform a 12 million-person post-Soviet megacity into a sleek environment to rival European capitals.

But critics say in his zest for urban renewal, Sobyanin is pursuing a vision that embraces the aesthetics of Western-style “new urbanism,” like walkable streets and inviting public spaces, while rejecting the democratic principles that usually accompany it. Sobyanin’s partners on the project don’t necessarily disagree. “In terms of urban renewal, our project is European, but its realization is more Asian,” said Alexei Muratov, a partner in the Strelka construction bureau that is a consultant on a project to invest 126 billion rubles (about $1.98 billion) to redevelop 200 central streets over three years. “In Paris or New York it takes two years to redevelop one street: they talk to the residents, they do a test segment, and finally do the actual work,” Muratov said. In Sobyanin’s Moscow, changes are sudden and often unpredictable, with residents treated like minor inconveniences in a process that is moving through the city like wildfire.

Critics say the contradiction means that Sobyanin’s vision for Moscow is fundamentally flawed. People like Muratov, however, say they don’t see a contradiction at all. Muratov says Sobyanin is trying to create social spaces — places where people can enjoy themselves in a pleasant and relaxed environment. These are different from public spaces, where citizens can engage in activities that might make authorities uncomfortable.

“A space can be physically comfortable even in any dictatorship,” Muratov said. “Streets are nice in Singapore.”

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Sobyanin, whose political career included stints as Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff and as a governor in his native Siberia, was tapped in 2010 by then-President Dmitry Medvedev to run Russia’s capital city — or, rather, to keep it from running aground.

His predecessor as mayor, Yury Luzhkov, had been in office for 18 years, presiding over a massive expansion in the 2000s of the city’s economy, fueled by a real estate boom and a swelling population. But the round-cheeked Luzhkov, a populist known for his fondness for bee-keeping and Austrian chalets, proved incapable of managing the city’s infrastructure to keep pace. Car ownership boomed, with vehicles choking Moscow’s streets and turning nearly every available surface, including sidewalks, into parking spaces. The city ranked at the top of lists for the most soul-sapping traffic jams. Moscow’s elite often fueled resentment by escaping these inconveniences by misusing emergency sirens.

As the city’s creative class rocked the capital during the 2011-2012 anti-Kremlin rallies, Sobyanin made overtures to disgruntled young urbanites. In 2011, the mayor promoted Sergei Kapkov – who, as director of Gorky Park, had introduced yoga classes, the city’s first bike lanes, and free Wi-Fi to the chaotic fairground — to head Moscow’s culture department, overseeing parks, theaters, and museums. Dubbed “the hipster minister” by his fans, Kapkov made cameo appearances at protest demonstrations, while consulting with advisors ranging from urban planning professors to journalists to the head of New York’s Central Park.

Sobyanin also asked Jan Gehl, the bicycle-loving architect whose “city for people” and “livability” approaches to design have left a mark on his native Copenhagen and have been exported to such places as Melbourne, Australia, and New York, to recommend how to make Moscow a more enjoyable place to live. By the time mayoral polls came up, Sobyanin had banned trucks in the city center, removed some ubiquitous street advertising, and launched pilot plans to pedestrianize popular central streets by encasing them in paving stones, a trademark that has been widely mocked.

Sobyanin’s commitment to making Moscow a more comfortable place to live became more prominent during the 2013 election campaign, when Muscovites were given the chance to elect their mayor by popular vote for the first time in a decade. Sobyanin faced off against opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and both candidates pledged to raise the quality of life in Moscow. Sobyanin, armed with some of Gehl’s suggestions, unveiled his plans for a “comfortable city.” Those plans included expanding Moscow’s famous subway system by 50 percent in the next 10 years, livening up nearly 25,000 acres of decrepit industrial zones with new housing, incorporating the more than 50-mile-long urban stretch of the Moscow River into the city by reconstructing its embankments and adding 24 bridges, and opening a 33-mile urban rail network that will link outlying neighborhoods.

Since Sobyanin’s reelection with just over 51 percent of the vote, Moscow has handed projects to some of the world’s hottest architects: Renzo Piano stepped in to convert a power station into an art gallery; Zaha Hadid designed an office building; and Rem Koolhaas remade a Brezhnev-era ruin into a museum. Meanwhile, the city’s newly beautified streets — or the completed ones, anyway — have been filled with seasonal flower decorations and city-organized entertainment: back-to-back fairs and concerts that have activities for children and booths selling artisan foods and crafts.

At a July meeting of the Moscow Urban Forum, an annual event attended by European city officials, designers, and futurologists, Sobyanin waxed lyrical about his pet project, even implying that he saw democracy at work in his rejuvenated streets and plazas — though what he meant by democracy wasn’t quite clear.

“This so-called new urbanism that is so fashionable today suggests creating a new democratic public space,” he said. “If you go to a Moscow ice cream festival today you will see all sorts of people in the streets, young and old, wealthy people and ordinary Muscovites. That’s the new democratic space, a space that is comfortable for everyone.”

During Sobyanin’s time in office, however, Moscow’s experiment in “democratic” urbanism has been conducted under ever-stricter constraints. The mayor’s office began pressuring independent events and canceling several annual music festivals at the last minute, ostensibly over security worries. Meanwhile, many fairs organized by City Hall have started to become exercises in patriotism, with a focus on Russian history and homegrown economic production in the face of Western sanctions over Ukraine.

Sitting with his back to a construction site, street musician Sergei Sadov said he and other performers have not seen much of Sobyanin’s vaunted democracy in action. In fact, under Sobyanin, authorities have cracked down on music in the streets, charging them with organizing unauthorized gatherings and confiscating their instruments. “It’s always the same process — the more colorful the performer, the more spectators come to see him and the more problems he eventually faces,” said Sadov, who played his guitar freely in the streets of Moscow for 40 years before he was detained last summer by seven policemen and fined 2,500 rubles ($39).

Since that incident, dozens of musicians have faced similar problems. Most recently, police fined two music students 10,000 rubles ($157) and seized their Russian folk instruments for playing in Red Square.

Even on Arbat, the central pedestrian street that has been a mecca for portraitists since the 1980s, authorities have moved against the artist scene. Known in guidebooks for its row of artists who produce anything from obscene caricatures to tasteful charcoal sketches of passers-by, the street stood empty for several months this year. Artists have begun to filter back after a deal struck early in the summer allowed 15 portraitists to remain as long as they adhered to the city’s street fair activities; what this entails and how long this compromise will last aren’t clear.

“There have been attempts to remove artists before, but now they’ve come up with legal grounds for it,” said artist Pavel Sobyanin (no relation to the mayor), whose work on display included a painting of Mulder and Scully from the television show “The X-Files.” Portraitists can be charged with unauthorized commercial activity and fined.

“Now they want artists to wear identical berets and carry badges,” artist Vladimir Dotsoyev chimed in, only half-joking about the city’s overbearing control. “It’s tragic that the spirit of Arbat is getting lost.”

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Criticism that urban renewal erases a city’s character is not unique to Moscow, of course, but the city’s face-lift has been overwhelming and swift and has coincided with the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent. When Kapkov, the hipster minister, quit in 2015, it marked the end of the era when Moscow’s government attempted to cater to its liberal opposition — or to curry favor with its liberal population. Some of Kapkov’s innovations — such as inviting street artists from around the world to paint murals — were even overturned in a physical sense: Pro-Kremlin youth groups have painted over many murals with jingoistic graffiti.

As a result, residents unhappy with the redevelopment — be it the surprise destruction of hundreds of kiosks that sell anything from vegetables to socks or the removal of electric-run trolleybuses that have been a hallmark of the city center since the 1930s — have no way to vent their frustrations. City Hall declined some 200 requests to hold pickets against the trolleybus removal this spring, for example.

Moscow dwellers have mostly embraced the pedestrian center, with only marginal opposition to paid street parking introduced in 2012, but the ubiquitous construction for the second consecutive year has irked even the most patient. “I like that some streets are pedestrian, but I don’t like that the entire summer is ruined for Moscow residents, and construction workers are not thinking about pedestrians at all,” said Anna Nemova, who lives and works in the city center. She called the citywide decorations “mostly awful” and is not a fan of “Moscow Jam” and the other government-conceived-and-led festivals that have swamped the capital with oversize preserve jars, gigantic topiaries, and Bedouins with live ponies, among other novelties.

Moscow architect Eugene Asse said the project to make the city walkable has been well-intentioned but poorly executed. “The city must be freed of cars in its historic center and create more democratic spaces for pedestrians,” he said. At the same time, the street revamp is a “rather monstrous operation with no anesthesia,” he added. “These projects were not discussed with anyone.”

The idea that you can create democratic-looking spaces without actual democracy in them is worrisome, he said. “The city government is creating a space for citizens with one hand, and with the other they ban a protest which is legal and does not present any danger to the state. It demonstrates the policy of double standards — yes, we are democratic and we are creating a democratic space, but we won’t give citizens the right to realize their democratic rights in this space.”

Critical pundit Oleg Kashin, on the Russian news site Slon, wrote, “Nothing good can come of authoritarian modernization when its goal is only to create a façade.”

Solvejg Reigstad, an associate at Gehl’s Copenhagen firm who had been the point person on its Moscow work, said in an email that the firm had “seen and heard that many great things have happened and are happy to experience that change towards a great city for people is happening quickly in Moscow.” However, she declined to comment on anything that had happened after the firm’s involvement, which ended in 2013, or to address the criticisms voiced by Asse and others.

Meanwhile, Navalny, who took on the mayor in the polls in 2013, has mostly retreated to his role as an opposition blogger. This summer, he attempted to hold a rally in central Moscow against draconian new anti-terrorism laws. On July 11, his allies formally requested to protest with City Hall. The city approved the protest three days later, but asked that the rally be moved to a different central square. (By law, the city cannot ban a peaceful gathering, only move it.)

Just two days before the scheduled July 26 protest, Moscow withdrew its approval, saying animal rights activists had already booked the square. (Upon closer inspection, the request by animal rights activists appeared to be fake, and the rally consisted of three women sitting quietly on a bench with a tiny sign.)

Navalny’s protest was finally allowed to happen two weeks later, on Aug. 9. City Hall exiled it to a fenced-in “protest area” in an outlying forest park with capacity for only 1,500 people, far from Moscow’s beautiful new streets.

Image credit: Mikhail Japaridze\TASS via Getty Images

Maria Antonova is a Moscow-based reporter for Agence France-Presse.