‘We own the field of ideas,’ Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper says, ‘and at the end of the day it is ideas that create revolutions.’ Oskolkov-Tsentsiper is the head of Moscow’s hippest design and architecture school, Strelka. For the last few years they have been exploring concepts such as ‘civic space’ and the influence of protests on a city; now they plan to investigate ‘agents of change’. All mildly momentous stuff for Russia. Strelka is one of a few new institutions, publications and generally progressive places that have been spreading a new language, a new style and a new way thinking in Moscow. In and around the protest camp at Occupy Abaj, clusters of young people talk about the ‘self-identity of the city’ and ‘disrupting the society of the spectacle’.
But perhaps the most curious aspect of places like Strelka is that they are funded by some of the Kremlin’s most loyal oligarchs. Alexander Mamut, the owner of Waterstones and much else besides, is behind Strelka. Many of the projects grew under Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, between 2008 and 2012. Medvedev may have been politically powerless – his nickname was ‘Putin’s iPhone’ – but he spoke the language of modernisation. He set the tone for a liberal style, though without the policies. Medvedev said that Moscow needed somewhere like Hyde Park. Roman Abramovich obliged, paying for the regeneration of Gorky Park in the London style. But can you have Hyde Park without Speakers’ Corner?
There’s an echo of Russia under Catherine the Great, when the elites loved reading Enlightenment thinkers, Catherine bought up some of Europe’s best art to create the Hermitage, corresponded with Voltaire, and had Diderot stay at court. But when Enlightenment ideas started to be expressed in real politics, Catherine cracked down.