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:

The moment we got word of the wounding of Comrade Lenin by the Whites the Commission declared Red Terror against the bourgeoisie and set about evicting them. We took over the big houses on Novaya and Staraya Basmannaya streets, ulitsa Bakunina and others. We posted Red Guard sentries, some with machine-guns, and gave the denizens three days to clear out. They were allowed to take with them necessary furniture, the rest remaining in the houses. We were successful in the evictions and freed several buildings in the designated period. Workers at first moved into the large houses slowly because of the fuel shortage. After our commission sent a detachment of Communists into 31 Bolshaya Basmannaya, several thousand workers came over and occupied all the houses. The number of houses taken over by the workers reached 100. This is how we resolved the housing question.

The would-be assassin was identified – possibly wrongly, according to Lenin’s Soviet biographer, Dmitri Volkogonov – as Dora Kaplan, a Social Revolutionary and former Tsarist political prisoner, who testified that she shot him because he was a traitor to the socialist cause: by no stretch of the imagination could she be said to be a White agent.

The squalor of Moscow has remained a constant, both in spite and because of the huge building programmes which expanded the city from its relatively small dimensions before the Fifties to its present sprawl. The programmes of the Moscow first secretaries, of whom Lazar Kaganovich and Nikita Khrushchev were the most prominent, were modest. In keeping with Stalin’s wishes, the apartment blocks were nonetheless monumental, for show as much as accommodation, decorated with Classical and Gothic extravagances and with Soviet symbols. They were also solid, compared to the later hastily erected blocks. I lived in an example of the late Stalin period for five years, and have never been less troubled by the noise from my neighbours (the thought occurred to me that there could have been quite sinister reasons for this.)

From the start, the Bolsheviks wanted to transform, which also meant to destroy. Streets began to be renamed after revolutionaries or approved radicals such as Herzen, an honourable name which has now disappeared. Many of the plans drawn up from the Twenties were utopian to a fault, tearing apart the old city and recreating it as a model proletarian settlement. In November 1925 Nikolai Popov, head of the Moscow Property Directorate, wrote in Izvestia that ‘multistorey buildings of steel and reflecting glass’ were the future for Moscow and that the city was ‘not a museum of antiquity, not a city of tourists, not a Venice or Pompei... not the graveyard of a past civilisation but the cradle of a new, growing, proletarian culture based on labour and knowledge’. Through the cultural revolution of the late Twenties and early Thirties, the visions tumbled off the drawing-boards. Le Corbusier, canvassed for a plan, sent a sketch reshaping Moscow into three rectangular areas: a new centre, a housing zone and an industrial zone. He wrote from Paris to the city authorities: ‘It is impossible to dream about combining the city of the past with the present or the future. In the USSR more than anywhere, the question is one of two back-to-back epochs, with no factors in common.’

Yet Moscow was never wholly reshaped, for all the enthusiasm of the progressive intelligentsia. Religious buildings were always fair game. The first major church was destroyed in 1929 and in the Thirties the destruction of churches, monasteries and cathedrals reached a frenzy. Lazar Kaganovich, a Jew, predicted a wave of anti-semitism: it was suppressed then, but encouraged after the war, though Kaganovich was spared and died at a great age in Khrushchev’s time. More recently, those conservationist groups which had merged into or grown out of the Far-Right and Fascist organisations seized on the Jewishness of Kaganovich and other prominent Bolsheviks and secret policemen as the only explanation for the desecrations in Moscow.

The most famous of these was the dynamiting of the monumental Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which took half a century to build – it was finished in the 1880s – and the latter half of 1931 to destroy. Colton quotes a contemporary observer on the reaction of some of the people watching the first two unsuccessful detonations of the dome: ‘Believers in the crowd let out that the Lord had heard their prayers and would not let the church be destroyed.’ ‘A third and final explosion dashed their hopes,’ Colton remarks.) (Those looking for a more charged, though necessarily imaginative account should read Ryszard Kapuściński’s marvellous Imperium.) Colton’s narrative stretches into contemporary times, with the Cathedral being rebuilt, taking precedence, like the original, over many more useful and necessary projects, with many fewer believers to service, but even more clearly designed for the ideological underpinnings of the city and state governments which had paid for it.

At the time of its destruction, Christ the Saviour was to have been replaced by a Palace of the Soviets, for which a design by the Stalinist architect Boris Iofan was approved after a competition. It was to be 416 metres high, making it the tallest building in the world, taller than the Empire State Building, with a 90-metre statue of Lenin atop a terraced and colonnaded turret rising from a huge plinth in front of the Kremlin. Had it ever been built, it would also have been one of the greatest follies in the world. Fortunately, the ground proved too marshy to sustain it and it became an open-air swimming pool before being returned to the fold. But many wonders were built: the Metro was begun in 1932, and was conceived as much as a series of underground palaces of proletarian art as a rapid transit system (it is one of the few systems in Russia which works well, though it is now showing its age and lack of investment); the Volga Canal was begun the year before, linking the capital with the Volga at Dubna nearly 150 kilometres away; the ‘Tall Buildings’, the seven huge Classical-Gothic-Modernist ensembles dotted about the centre of Moscow to satisfy Stalin’s need for a city as impressive as New York, were finished in the early Fifties. Colton records a conversation between Khrushchev and Stalin soon after the war, in which the latter says: ‘We’ve won the war ... we must be prepared for an influx of foreign visitors. What will happen if they walk around Moscow and find no skyscrapers? They will make unfavourable comparisons with the capitalist countries,’. All these constructions involved the use of slave labour: something one can hardly forget when admiring the sheer kitsch fecundity of the Metro and the Tall Buildings. Some 200,000 mainly political prisoners dug and died for the Volga Canal; their official designation – zakluchennyye kanalstroya, or prisoners of the canal construction administration – was shortened to zek, which became the most feared of Soviet designations. With the nominally free workers, most of them drawn from Central Asia, they were praised as ‘enthusiasts’ – the Avenue of the Enthusiasts still exists – and their bones lie beneath their creations.

Why did old Moscow survive the enthusiasts? More because there was a lack of resources than a lack of intention or desire to destroy. The Communists stripped all assemblies of any vestige of democratic decision-making powers: the Moscow regional, city and district councils were either façades, or transmission belts for decisions taken by the Party committees, or the Politburo itself. Yet, even as the black Volga saloons swished to and from the Lubyanka headquarters of the NKVD (as it was called during the great purges), collecting their cargoes of commissars and senior officials from their élite apartments to what was usually immediate or lingering death, protest flickered on. When the destruction of St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square was mooted in 1933, the veteran preservationist Petr Baranovsky objected: he was despatched to the gulag but the cathedral was spared. A number of priests attempted to save the icons from Christ the Saviour: they were shot.

After 1945, there was a ‘selective reconciliation with the old culture’: the destruction of churches ceased, a little money was given to rebuild monuments destroyed during the war. Khrushchev, the only general secretary of the Party also to have been a Moscow secretary, was just as keen to intervene in the rebuilding of the capital as his predecessor – but in one respect, at least, benignly. He put an end to Stalinist monumentalism. ‘People are not in love with silhouettes,’ he once observed, ‘they need somewhere to live.’ Under Khrushchev, vast quantities of brick-built blocks were erected throughout the Soviet Union, to be replaced when the technology became available in the early Sixties with panel-constructed blocks. Housing completions doubled by 1957 and quadrupled by 1961. For the first time, families received two or three-room flats in which they could live by themselves. Though the buildings were jerry-built or near enough (and are still everywhere in varying states of decay), they did ‘make the prospect of dignified living conditions no longer a phantasmagoric one’. Environmental issues began to be voiced, cautious complaints were aired, at first timidly then with decreasing fear.

Moscow’s dominance over the rest of the Soviet Union was strengthened during the Khrushchev period, as the number of research institutes, high-tech plants, especially in defence production, and places of learning expanded. More than in most countries, the administrative and intellectual élite was concentrated in the capital, which meant that, in the early Nineties, the new states of the post-Soviet era had little indigenous talent on which to draw, a fact which cripples them still. The town also expanded enormously in terms of numbers; the population rose to over nine million by the end of the Eighties in spite of an internal passport system, the propiska, which was designed to keep people in their own areas. Although Khrushchev’s building programme was driven by demographics, it is a comment on the ‘success’ of Communist economics that per capita housing space in Moscow did not reach 1912 levels until 1964.

Thereafter, housing continued to be treated as a priority, at least in Moscow. In the Brezhnev era, apartments were slammed up, typically in vast districts of panel-built high-rises, and became almost as distinctive a feature of the city as the Tall Buildings; they were copied, more modestly, all over the Soviet Union. One finds architecture of this kind throughout the industrialised world and even parts of the Third World, but in Moscow the sheer concentration of it, and the all but complete lack of commensurate amenities, give it a particularly alienating character. A Soviet film of the Seventies showed a man on the eve of his wedding entering a flat identical to his own and being greeted by the wrong fiancée, with whom he spends the night, spoiling his own nuptials but establishing the point of radical interchangeability. Colton tells us: ‘Hyperstandardisation made impersonality rampant within districts as well as between them.’ A study of one Moscow development found that 60 per cent of the residents ‘still had no contacts at all with their neighbours five years after moving in’. By the Seventies, the planners had given up on any utopian impulse, beyond the necessary obsequies at Party gatherings. The last attempt at fostering collective, Communist living was Osterman’s House of the New Way of Life at Novy Cheremushki, completed in the late Sixties, where meals were taken in communal dining halls and leisure and childcare were also intended to be collective. The experiment foundered in controversy and the building was turned over to Moscow University, who made it into a dormitory for African and Asian students.

In the same period, the city burst through the confines of the outer ring-road, and unlovely suburban towns were created or added to. House-building went on at a steady rate, though even by the Eighties one person in five still lived in a communal flat, mainly in the centre, in the old ‘nests of the gentry’, many of them, dilapidated inside and out, unchanged since the heady days of 1918 when Jakov Bazanov thought the housing question had been solved. Housing was allocated on a strict ratio of space per person, with scholars and researchers receiving a small extra allowance for a study to facilitate work at home. The 150,000-200,000 members of the upper nomenclature did better, of course, with extra space granted by a mixture of agencies, all under the eye of the KGB. It was in the Seventies, too, that Moscow took on its contemporary look, with the last great Communist-era clearances, notably of the Old Arbat, to make way for the offices and shops of Kalinin Prospect, which took the traffic straight down from the Kremlin out through Kutuzovsky Prospect to the dachas of the élite. It was and largely remains an uncomfortable city, more or less ‘devoid of the small sitting and walking pleasures’, as Colton puts it.

Boris Yeltsin, promoted to first secretary of Moscow in 1986 (and hence into the Politburo) gets a coolish appraisal from Colton. Moscow, he writes, experienced ‘two Yeltsins’: ‘one was the party boss, the neo-Bolshevik used to power and homage’; the other was the proto-democrat, ‘beginning to reject the rules of the game woven into the system’. He was hyperactive and hyperpopulist, riding on workers’ buses in the early morning to monitor transport services, plunging into the back stores of shops to expose the practice of keeping back the best produce to sell at a premium to favoured customers, and encouraging a critical Moscow press. He was not, at that stage, an economic radical but he ‘pressed the familiar switches’ of command and coercion to ensure supplies. However, it was under his rule that the first ‘informal’ meetings and demonstrations began in Pushkin Square. While he was erratic and egotistical – although less so than later – he still exposed as no other member of the leadership was prepared to the contradictions in the perestroika/glasnost projects, as well as the internal resistance to both. ‘Yeltsin provided a milestone on the highway to a new kind of politics altogether. The episode etched Gorbachev’s core conundrum, of being at one and the same time architect-in-chief of reform and steward of the house under construction.’

That new kind of politics came into the ascendant after Yeltsin was pushed out of the Politburo to a deputy ministerial job intended as a means to the end of his career, but which he used as a springboard to his ultimately successful campaign for the presidency of Russia. Lev Zaikov, Yeltsin’s successor as first party secretary in Moscow, was a centrist unable either to regenerate the city’s economy or to moderate the demands of the ‘informals’ – the associations and clubs outside the tutelage of the Party which already numbered 500 in October 1987 and 1500 a year later. Many of these were genuinely interested in, say, philately and bodybuilding, although they wished to pursue their interests on their own rather than having them approved and sanitised by the Komsomol or the KGB. Some were drawn directly into politics: the most influential were the Memorial Assocation built round the returned exile Andrei Sakharov, dedicated to exhuming the memory of the millions of zeks; the Moscow Tribune, the creation of Tatyana Zaslavskaya and Sakharov again, which stood for radical democratic and economic change; and the Perestroika Club, organised in the ever-subversive Central Mathematical Institute, whose young scholars included Yegor Gaidar. Seeing the Soviet authorities loosen their grip on the city, hardy spirits in other capitals, especially in the Baltic states and the Caucasus, began to dig up their own political and national projects from under the floorboards, and these were in turn approved and boosted by the Moscow radicals. The centralisation of the state, the fact that all roads led to the Kremlin, was exposed as a weakness in a time of flux. Up and down these roads ran the ideas and plans for action in an empire in ferment.

Once some kind of representative voting began in 1988, Moscow provided the formal vanguard of the radical wave. Muscovites formed the core of the Interregional Group of Supreme Soviet Deputies, whose radicals took over the City Council in 1990, when voting was opened up. In the face of all this, Moscow’s Communist Party withered. Gavril Popov, the first democrat-mayor of the city, confirmed the dominant role of Moscow in the country when he wrote that ‘according to Russian custom, the country would most likely accept what was decided in Moscow.’ Democratic Russia, the radicals’ party organisation, was ‘above all representative of Moscow’s humanistic and technical intelligentsia’, that vast stratum, concentrated in the city’s institutes and colleges, which had for decades nursed a bitter-sweet opposition to the system in kitchens and workplace canteens. They were full of good intentions; but very few had the measure of the task they were taking on. The Moscow Council meetings were forums of rant and denunciation, with few substantive decisions and lots of symbolic politics. Popov, inevitably, turned his back on many of his radical comrades by trying to separate the executive from the council and give the former real powers. Yuri Luzhkov, his former deputy and now his successor, completed the concentration of power in the office of the mayor and received 90 per cent of the vote in the mayoral elections earlier this year.

Popov, his own best critic, wrote after his resignation that he had been fit for office only under Communism, ‘standing up for Muscovites’ interests in a regime that did not need me in order to function’. Popov was a scholar and editor. Luzhkov, on the other hand, was a long-time administrator, both a builder of the new regime and, latterly, of the new Moscow – commercial, corrupt and booming once again. His office (whose say-so is required for anything more than a paint job) is a licence to make money. Under Luzhkov, Moscow has been refurbished as the showcase-capital of the new Russia and at the same time kept apart from the new regime in the country, undertaking its own form of privatisation and dealing directly with the foreign businesses which have set up offices and plants in and about the city. In the first years of post-Soviet Moscow, the city and state authorities appeared to be reaching a saner accommodation with the past than the early Bolsheviks had. There was some restoration: of the Kazan as well as the Christ the Saviour Cathedrals (the former in Red Square); of the Voskresenskiye Gates in the Kitaigorod Walls; of the damage to the Grand Kremlin Palace inflicted by Stalin’s alterations. But Lenin’s great statue still towers over October Square above the inner ring-road, and his mummified body lies still in the mausoleum before the Kremlin; all talk of burying him in St Petersburg is itself buried. The Tall Buildings still bear their embossed hammers and sickles (the most prominent is on the Russian Foreign Ministry); the Brezhnev-era tower blocks still march out into the countryside.

The centre is being gentrified – violently, with the dispossessed winkled out or bribed with a few hundred dollars and given a bleak apartment beyond the outer ring-road. A ‘dictatorship of the shop counter’, or bank counter, is in the making. There has been a general withdrawal from the intense engagement in civic life of the late Eighties and early Nineties in favour of a rather servile dependence on the energy and assumed benignity of Mayor Luzhkov. Colton writes: ‘Governments with self-control and orderly procedures will be worth influencing: today’s jerry-built and corruptible structures often are not.’ Colton’s is a model narrative. A city emerges from it, at once vital and deeply damaged, more at the mercy of ideologues and fanatics than any other comparable settlement in this century (more, for example, than Rome or Berlin), yet resistant to them because its people could not in the end be marshalled into the plans.