How to Preserve the Moscow We Know and Love

Today’s Moscow has lots of job and education opportunities to offer, but it’s no longer a place you really want to live in. The capital has become a mere collection of functions, lacking in humanity. With its many rings of defence, it looks like a town bracing to repel an enemy attack.

I loved the Moscow of my childhood and youth. To be sure, today’s Moscow has lots of job and education opportunities to offer, but it’s no longer a place you really want to live in. I’m not sure I want to stay here when I retire, and I imagine most of my fellow Muscovites feel the same. Our capital has become a mere collection of functions, lacking in humanity.

Atmosphere varies from city to city, of course. But however large they grow, population centers should remain livable. With millions of social functions to perform and billions of problems to solve, they should let their residents and visitors experience the rhythm of the urban organism.

Paris and New York offer a vibrant and eventful city life in a friendly environment. Berlin is ideal for the laid-back life of the retiree. And some British out-of-the-way town will perhaps be the best choice for an urban dweller in search of tranquil contemplation. Moscow would be the last destination you’d choose in this case, unfortunately.

What does today’s Moscow look like? With its many rings of defence, it looks like a town bracing to repel an enemy attack. The Kremlin walls mark the first such ring. A city-within-a-city, Moscow’s Kremlin reminds me of a snarling beast (no political connotations intended) attempting the outside world at bay.

Today’s Moscow looks like a fortress surrounded by an encampment of shopping malls.

The recent annexation of suburban territories, as if recovered after beating back an enemy siege, fits well with this militant imagery. And so, too, does the map of modern-day Moscow, resembling a wartime city’s plan.

Moscow’s southward sprawl defies logic. But we should try and make sense of that nonsense. One way of making the new system work is to create a model for turning this economic and bureaucratic strategy into a cultural and historical one. This is no easy task.

We should start from the city center, not from the annexed suburbs, and work our way out. First of all, the Kremlin should open up its gates, letting the logic of peace prevail over the logic of war.

All major public organizations should be headquartered downtown, I think. Government agencies, by contrast, should move to the outskirts. But are there any civil servants out there who would agree to do so of their own free will? This seems highly unlikely. Will the Federal Security Service ever agree to this relocation plan? The question is rhetorical. Only agencies on which the new elites tend to look down – such as the ministries of culture, education and healthcare – may agree to trade their central HQ for offices uptown.

We should begin by “rebranding” Moscow as an open city, a city for people, not agencies. If this image catches on, all the other problems will become much easier to solve. We should not reason in purely technical terms. Technique is subordinate to sense and cannot take its place. If we come up with technical solutions without describing the image we’re trying to create, our efforts will be futile.

Why has the Gorky Park renovation project proved such a success? The lavish investments are only part of the reason. Do you remember how rundown the park was not so long ago? Then, at some point, managers and people in the arts came together to discuss possible improvements. They wandered around the park like philosophers in Ancient Greece, throwing out ideas and words. And they proceeded to develop managerial solutions to match those ideas and words. The logic was right, and it produced spectacular results.

In my view, that expertise should be spread to the rest of the city. If it’s not too late, of course. If we were to save Moscow as a city rather than a collection of bureaucratic functions, we should begin by arranging a get-together between “philosophers” and “engineers.” The “philosophers” will create images while the “engineers” will develop technical solutions to translate those images into reality.

Also, we should realize that, while an old historical city, Moscow emerged in its present contours only a short while ago, and it won’t adapt to them overnight. It’s a matter of decades, rather. Brasilia has been adapting to its role of capital city for a century-and-a-half now, and it still has some way to go. As for technical solutions, there is no quick fix. We’ll have to work long and hard to achieve our goal, and that work will be both tedious and exciting. Experts should be the driving force here. Experts in a wide range of fields – not just architects, but also literary critics, urban development scholars, and so on.

Many of Moscow’s recent small-scale projects have proved quite successful already. Gorky Park and the arts center Krasny Oktyabr, converted from an old confectionery, are just two examples. There is also a project to revive city libraries. At the moment, most Moscow libraries look like bunkers, with their iron doors, barred windows, low ceilings, and their many pigeonholes. We should transform them into open spaces – a place not just to store books but to host lively discussions.

Russia, with its imperial legacy, boasts a well-established public transit system between the center and the provinces. Interregional transportation options are few and far between, though. So, to get from one Siberian city to another by air, you probably have to take a transit flight through the capital.

Moscow’s metro also suffers from this imbalance. In any European city, the underground network is neighborhood-oriented. In Paris, for instance, no quartier is located farther than ten minutes away from the subway. As for Moscow, the boundaries between its neighborhoods are blurred, and the flawed metro layout is part of the reason. We badly need new ring and dovetail metro lines, as well as new buses and trams between neighborhoods.

People living in the residential areas of uptown Moscow have to routinely travel downtown due to the narrow range of entertainment choices closer to home.

This problem could be resolved by opening up more neighborhood clubs, community centers, cafes, and so on. Travelling city festivals could be of much help here, as well. Unlike neighborhood-specific events, travelling festivals would draw wider audiences across town. But to get such projects up and running, the necessary infrastructure will have to be developed, financed, and encouraged in every way.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.