The View from Poklonnaya Gora

John Lloyd

  • Moscow: Governing the Socialist Metropolis by Timothy Colton
    Harvard, 958 pp, £25.95, January 1996, ISBN 0 674 58741 3

One way of thinking of the city – any city – according to Charles Jencks, is as ‘an uncanny organism, a slime mould’ that has always refused the marshalling of planners. ‘Inevitably,’ he writes, ‘mechanistic models did not work according to plan: their separation of functions was too coarse and their geometry too crude to aid the fine-grained growth and decline of urban tissue. The pulsations of a living city could not be captured by the machine model.’ Of all the great and ancient cities of the world, Moscow was the one which the 20th-century machine model tried hardest to capture. It did not succeed: Timothy Colton’s book is, among other things, a narrative of its insubordinations. But the efforts of successive Soviet general secretaries and Moscow first secretaries left a great blight. The city is in trouble today, a crisis masked by a building boom and a splurge of new shopfronts, sparkling granite office and hotel developments, and sumptuously renovated 19th-century mansions transformed from dingy Party or ministry offices into the headquarters of conspicuously consuming banks. Moscow is terribly polluted, environmentally degraded, increasingly choked with cars and trucks, has a treacherous sub-soil beneath parts of its centre, is hugely overcrowded, lacks adequate health and social services and is led by a corrupt, if dynamic, administration.

Of the three great Russian cities, St Petersburg was said to be the head, Nizhny Novgorod (Gorky, in Soviet times) the wallet and Moscow the heart. Compared to Petersburg, which displaced it as the capital in 1712, it was the uglier sister: chaotic, with teeming slums and shanty towns hugger-mugger with palaces. Pushkin, in a poem of the 1820s, imagined Moscow as the dowager queen in mourning curtseying before the new ruler. The 18th century, when Petersburg was built, was a disaster for Moscow – fires, riots and a plague swept the city, and its numbers sank by a quarter, recovering to its earlier population of 200,000 a century later. Invasion, looting and firing by Napoleon’s army followed: but though Bonaparte posted bills proclaiming that ‘Moscow, one of the most beautiful and wealthiest cities in the world, is no more,’ the city bounced back with a rough and commercial vigour and had more than a million inhabitants by the 1890s, its numbers swollen by liberated serfs sucked into the new factories, especially the textile plants.

All accounts of Moscow emphasise its ‘variety, irregularity and contrast’, in the words of a 19th-century observer. It had hundreds of churches, ten convents, 15 monasteries and nine cathedrals: travellers entering the city from the west were enjoined to bow to the ‘Third Rome’ with its glittering, gold-glazed domes. The hill from which Bonaparte watched the city burn is still called Poklonnaya Gora (Bow Hill) as a reminder of the practice, though it was largely levelled to make way for a memorial to the Great Patriotic War, built during the last years of the Soviet and the first years of the Russian state: a fantastic piece of kitsch, uncannily representative of the mingling of Communist and nationalist currents in contemporary Russian politics.

Moscow was a rich, Orthodox, money-grubbing city when it suffered the twin cataclysms of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution. It had some fine hotels, good theatres (including the Bolshoi), modern shops, dozens of small film studios and an airfield. The bourgeoisie had ousted the gentry as the city’s rulers and as its (considerable) philanthropists: the Tretyakov Gallery is the outstanding example. ‘There was,’ wrote the émigré Russian historian P.A. Buryshkin, ‘a kind of dictatorship of the sales counter.’ Another kind of dictatorship changed it utterly. Under the Bolsheviks Moscow once more became the Russian, then the Soviet capital: a symbolic rejection of the Western-facing city on the Neva with its multitude of palaces and its fledgling assembly in favour of the Eurasian metropolis with the Kremlin fortress at its own, and the country’s, heart. It was subjected from the beginning of the Revolution to the two great engines of Soviet Communism: levelling and transformation. Even in Stalin’s time, however, there was a thin thread of resistance.

The pressures of war and civil war dictated rationing: the Bolsheviks’ detestation of private property ensured that this applied to space as well as to supplies. The homes of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie were appropriated and divided, with whole families taking individual rooms. Private shops were closed at a rapid rate: 200,000 in pre-Revolutionary times had been whittled down to 1200 by February 1919. The first secret police organisation, the Cheka, raided and closed the markets, including Sukharevski, the city’s biggest – workers’ protests were ascribed to ‘agitation by speculators’. Canteens – stolovayas – served rudimentary meals and employers provided food and other necessities. Naturally, what had been swept from the thoroughfares sidled back in the alleyways: the black market thrived in conditions of relatively light policing. The fleeced aristos and their former servants sold off the family silver in doorways; fantastically as it now seems, there was a brisk trade in property deeds, giving the purchaser the right to possess the house or land once private property was restored.

The Bolsheviks’ determination to feed the population in times of great privation was part of an eagerness for urban organisation and provision which almost certainly kept the poorer and weaker from absolute destitution. At the same time, habits of centralised allocation became steadily more extreme. Expropriation was for the benefit of the working class, a device to turn the class structure of Russia upside down. Colton provides a vivid example of the cast of mind, quoting from a memoir by Yakov Bazanov, head of the Basmannyi District Communist Party Committee. Bazanov is describing a resettlement in his district which used the attempted assassination of Lenin in August 1918 as a pretext for the eviction of the bourgeoisie:

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