Since the period after the Second World War, Moscow had hardly changed at all, with its overflowing carts, lines of trams ringing their bells and thousands of people busily scurrying between Lubyanka Square and the Manege Square, as depicted in Vasily Aksyonov’s Moscow-set literary saga, Generations of Winter.
However, in the last 20 years, due to the circumstances surrounding the world economic crisis of 2008, it has developed stronger and stronger features that are typical of a bustling Eurasian capital. Cut through by the majestic Moskva River—austere, solemn and clean—Moscow was a pleasant surprise for the millions of tourists who came to visit a year and a half ago for the soccer World Cup.
Moscow is one of the cities facing the highest risk of terrorism in the world. The role played by Russia in the war in Syria, the presence in the city of many workers who are migrants from the Central Asian republics and the danger of ISIS “returning foreign fighters” have transformed this metropolis into one of the places with the most surveillance on the planet. All the entrances to its 306 subway stations are equipped with metal detectors and a facial recognition system operating via thousands of cameras installed in every corner of the city (second only to Shanghai’s transit system).
According to critics, this is a system of Orwellian social discipline; for supporters, however, it’s a way to guarantee that even children are able to travel without fear, in a metropolis where the lights never really go out.
There hasn’t been a census of Moscow’s population for 14 years, but the calculations give figures in the range of 12.5 million inhabitants, to which one must add an equal number of residents of what until recently used to be Podmoskvoj, the Moscow exurban region, which has by now been engulfed in the great belly of the megalopolis.
“I came here from Saratov in 2008. There is no more work in the provinces,” says Larisa, a girl in her thirties who is a cosmetologist in a beauty center. She starts work at 9 a.m., gets off 12 hours later and it takes her an hour and a half to get home. “It’s impossible to live in the area inside the ring road with my salary of 45,000 rubles per month,” about €600, Larisa tells us.
The capital is the only city in the Russian Federation where you won’t have any problems finding work (the official unemployment stands at only 1.5%), but where the wages, even though they are higher than in the rest of the country, can’t keep up with the rise in the cost of living.
Some time ago, the boundaries of the city used to be marked by the spal’nye rajony, the “sleeping districts” made up of 14-to-16-story buildings from the Brezhnev era. Nowadays, the novye rajony (“new districts”), which extend even further from the center, are modern residential complexes with apartments equipped with satellite dishes, but built with very few services and poor infrastructure, focused around the central point of a multifunctional shopping center.
It’s hard to imagine today, but Moscow was largely destroyed during World War II, and many families were forced to live together (komunalny), or even in improvised shacks. Responding to the housing crisis, the state authorities implemented a major national plan in the 1950s involving the construction of low-cost, prefabricated panel houses, the so-called “khrushchyovkas.” The khrushchyovkas were five-story buildings without an elevator, consisting of one-room or two-room apartments: modest housing, but they represented the “Russian dream” for millions of families in the 1960s.
Since the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, an often-chaotic real estate boom added new problems to the old defects of the zoning plan. During the long period of Jurij Lužkov’s administration (he held the office of mayor between 1992 and 2010), the privatization of the land favored the vertical development of the city, expressed in visual terms by the new skyline of the capital, hosting the offices of Moscow’s own “City.”
These dynamics are now being compounded, in the “era of stabilization” led by the current mayor Sergej Semënovic Sobjanin, with the Renovacija (“Renovation”) project that involves the demolition of 7,900 khrushchyovkas and the resettlement of 1.6 million inhabitants in new homes which will be 20% larger, but located in more remote areas of the city. It’s a project in which some have seen the telltale signs of the involvement of speculators.
A part of the residents oppose the relocation, seeing it as nothing short of a deportation and gentrification of the historical spaces and neighborhoods of the city, and they have proposed a reallocation of the spaces that would allow that the social dimension of post-war Moscow be kept intact. This struggle has led since 2017 to the development of a large anti-Renovacija movement.
The heart of Moscow remains, as always, strongly marked by the Soviet period, and in particular by the Stalinist neoclassical architecture woven into what is left from the imperial period. It is a character that has been captured by the phantasmagorical and dreamlike atmosphere of the works of Mikhail Bulgakov, whose house on Bol’shaya Sadovaya street has been transformed into a museum with a small theatre where his most famous plays are performed 365 days a year.
Although Moscow had to surrender the spotlight to St. Petersburg during the time of the three Russian Revolutions, since it became the capital (as Valentina Parisi expertly highlighted in her “Guida alla Mosca ribelle” – Guide to Rebellious Moscow) it has managed to monopolize the world’s collective imagination, with the red star atop the Kremlin and Lenin’s mausoleum. If you pass through the Red Square, right at the back of the mausoleum, be sure not to miss the tombstone under the walls of the Kremlin where a rebel par excellence is buried: John Reed, the American journalist and author of Ten Days that Shook the World.
Moscow has never lost its character as a city of contradictions—testified to, for instance, by the austere spires of the “Seven Sisters,” the splendid Soviet skyscrapers scattered around the center that remind us of both the imperial vocation and the bureaucratic tension coursing through its veins.
On the Arbat, the pedestrian promenade that has now become the top spot for taking walks and doing some tourist shopping, among the murals and the distorted sounds of the garage bands that perform there in public in the evenings, it’s as if you can still hear the echo of “the System,” the Russian hippy microcosm of the early ‘70s, a naive replica of the Western protest movements, marked, however, by the great tradition developed among the Russian municipalities between the two World Wars.
After all, even if the diverse democratic movement that broke out into public view last summer prefers to meet in Pushkin Square, the unauthorized demonstrations nowadays still end up flowing back toward this part of the city—perhaps seeking the same inspiration that 50 years ago was already driving Russian young people to march for the freedom of Vietnam and Czechoslovakia.