Kiril Ass writes in topos 105 about the (in)visible transformation of Russia’s capital under Sergei Sobyanin and how the beauty of its urban space could come at the expense of democracy.
Under the administration of Sergei Sobyanin, the third Mayor of Moscow since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian capital has gone through a drastic transformation of its urbanism. In recent years, the inner city was rebuilt and turned into to what seems to be a contemporary city at its best – a city for people. But the appearances are deceiving. The Muscovites are paying a high price for a more liveable urban environment: As the city’s public space has lost its political relevance, the citizens have further forfeited their political rights and influence.
One of Sobyanin’s first moves in office was the destruction of the city’s informal shopping infrastructure – the remnants of the 1990s micro-economy, i.e. the hundreds of small shops and pavilions scattered across the city and concentrated near metro stations that provided the Muscovites with everything they needed on their way to work or home. These establishments
were torn down overnight by excavators, regardless of their legal status, ruining the businesses and lives of their owners and employees and overturning the daily lives of millions of Muscovites in an action swiftly dubbed “Night of the Long Shovels”.
Protests against the ruthless demolitions were in vain, regardless of whether they were voiced in the Architectural Council, reported about in the press or shouted out in the streets. The protests culminated after the Russian parliamentary elections in 2011. Thousands of people demonstrated against alleged electoral fraud.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets – yet to be gentrified – to reclaim their stolen votes. They were tolerated for a week, as these were the largest protests in a decade, only to be beaten down later. The protests continued during the winter, ending up in a massive march on the day before Putin’s third inauguration, famous for the images of his motorcade rolling through empty, heavily guarded Moscow avenues. The march was violently suppressed by the police.
In 2012, new laws were passed, severely curtailing the rights of public protest – and of oppositional political action in general. To summarize, almost any kind of political demonstration now requires advance approval by the city government – needless to say that under the new laws no approval would ever be granted for a central area of the city. In the eyes of the newly confirmed mayor, the beautiful, newly made streets of Moscow need no political activity.
Watch the video of Putin’s motorcade rolling through empty Moscow avenues: