It’s a Short Hop from Rub­ble to Riot, and Moscow Au­thor­i­ties Know It

The Moscow Times - - LOOKING BACK -

The most im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal is­sue in Moscow this spring is the au­thor­i­ties’ plan to de­mol­ish thou­sands of 50-year-old, five-story build­ings. On one hand, the Khrushchevka apart­ments — built at the be­hest of Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev — are in­creas­ingly di­lap­i­dated and de­press­ing. Who wouldn’t want to move from a crum­bling apart­ment and into a mod­ern re­place­ment on the city’s dime? Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin was cer­tain Mus­covites would em­brace his pro­posal.

With the polls in his favour and Putin on­board the plan was sprung into mo­tion just one year be­fore both the pres­i­den­tial and Moscow may­oral elec­tions. But to the au­thor­i­ties’ shock, their plan is en­coun­ter­ing stiff re­sis­tance. Each build­ing is full of peo­ple with feel­ings, mem­o­ries, and a sense of own­er­ship. This is what the au­thor­i­ties over­looked.

Moscow au­thor­i­ties have long ig­nored feed­back. This is why op­po­si­tion to de­mol­ish­ing the city’s his­toric sites and parks, and the con­struc­tion of new build­ings in the mid­dle of neigh­bor­hood com­mons has re­cently grown fierce.

These con­flicts have al­ready led huge num­bers of Mus­covites to or­ga­nize at the lo­cal level and to a lesser ex­tent, to their politi­ciza­tion.

Then came the project to de­mol­ish old apart­ment build­ings—a mea­sure af­fect­ing one in ev­ery 10 Mus­covites and one that has nearly erupted into a po­lit­i­cal cri­sis.

That is why Putin de­manded that Moscow au­thor­i­ties re­spect cit­i­zens’ rights dur­ing the de­mo­li­tion, and why — af­ter protests — Moscow au­thor­i­ties now prom­ise con­ces­sions.

Au­thor­i­ties have not both­ered to ask why it is that so many peo­ple pre­fer to stay in their ag­ing, cramped apart­ments. His­tor­i­cally, the de­ci­sion to evict peo­ple from their apart­ments is a story about pri­vate prop­erty rights in a coun­try that has al­ways had vague un­der­stand­ing of the con­cept.

The Soviet au­thor­i­ties not only of­fered no pro­tec­tion of own­er­ship rights—the very idea of pri­vate own­er­ship was con­sid­ered shame­ful and in­con­sis­tent with com­mu­nist val­ues.

Krushchev clearly broke with that tra­di­tion: by mov­ing peo­ple out of Stalin-era com­mu­nal apart­ments that they had been forced to share with nu­mer­ous neigh­bors, he gave them per­sonal space and pri­vate ter­ri­tory. Now, an erst­while builder of com­mu­nism would come home, slam the door be­hind him, and thus trans­form into a pri­vate in­di­vid­ual free to do as he pleased within the con­fines of his al­lot­ted space.

This sense of own­er­ship was passed on from one gen­er­a­tion to the next. It was here, in these cookie-cut­ter apart­ment blocks, that the Soviet mid­dle class was born (and from which the Rus­sian bour­geoisie emerged).

In the more pros­per­ous 1970s, when oil prices were high, the mantra of “apart­ment — car — dacha” oc­cu­pied a far more cen­tral place than any Marx­ist-Lenin­ist slo­gan in the av­er­age Soviet mind. The Khrushchevka apart­ment, ef­fected a true, Soviet-style bour­geois revo­lu­tion.

In the “state cap­i­tal­ism” pre­vail­ing in mod­ern Rus­sia, the con­cept of prop­erty rights is blurred. Many be­lieve that land

and re­sources be­long to ev­ery­one—and that in­flu­en­tial busi­ness­peo­ple have prob­a­bly stolen both — though the “apart­ment — car — dacha” mantra re­mains as com­pelling as ever.

By push­ing their pro­gram of mass de­mo­li­tions so abruptly and rudely, Moscow au­thor­i­ties have en­croached on cit­i­zens’ per­sonal space. These few square me­ters with tiny ad­join­ing rooms, mi­cro­scopic bath­rooms, kitchens too small to turn around in, and a view of a few trees from the win­dow—are the only things that peo­ple could call their own. Now, a hos­tile out­side force is about to in­vade that space and take it away.

An­other fac­tor here is a wide­spread dis­trust of the state and rul­ing au­thor­i­ties—and in this case, of Moscow of­fi­cial­dom. Mus­covites have no doubt that they will be dealt with treach­er­ously, that their new apart­ments will not be as good or bet­ter, but worse than be­fore, and that they will in­evitably come out the losers in any deal ini­ti­ated by the au­thor­i­ties.

The peo­ple are will­ing to sup­port rulers at the level of sym­bols — Crimea, the “great­ness of the Rus­sian state,” and the mem­ory of the WWII. But they are un­will­ing to gam­ble their vested interests against the prom­ises of the au­thor­i­ties.

Moscow, with its 13 mil­lion res­i­dents, is Rus­sia’s most pro­gres­sive city. But its cit­i­zens are the least ho­moge­nous and co­he­sive. But af­ter the au­thor­i­ties be­gan in­trud­ing on their pri­vate space, Mus­covites started to unite. They are no longer a re­source sup­port­ing the po­lit­i­cal regime. The move­ment to de­fend pri­vate prop­erty rights just might give birth to a sense of civic pride.

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