City Paper is not for tourists
I remember the exact moment I found out about the water. My friend Nastya was showing me around Moscow for the first time, and she mentioned that I could expect a full month without hot water during the summer. I was in no position to doubt Nastya, a lifelong Muscovite, but this was too much: 11 million residents of a world capital accepting as normal a full month of freezing showers? This, from the Evil Empire? I remember chuckling heartily.
Weeks later, I found myself bathing in a pot ordinarily used to boil pasta. It was a lengthy process, which is no doubt why most of the people in my apartment block opted not to bathe, a point brought home to me quite forcefully every morning on the metro. The water shutoff—ostensibly a chance for the city to wash the pipes—remained mysterious to me. For the two years I lived in Moscow, the question lingered: What were they washing the pipes with? Water?
By all rights, Moscow should be the best-run city in the world. Freed of the complications of private property and political pluralism, the Communists had an unprecedented freedom to shape a model city. From London and Paris, the high priests of urban planning looked to Moscow as the testing ground for their newborn science. No city administration ever had so much control.
But 80 years after the Bolsheviks planted their flag, Moscow still seems like a place where a long-term residence comes with the cost of a lowered life expectancy. On the streets, peasant women sell moonshine and dried fish from under their coats, and scatter like pigeons before the militia. Housing remains so tight that marriage, divorce, and career choice often boil down to matters of real estate. Perhaps most importantly, the bloated city government has never grown responsive to the demands of its constituents. Muscovites act more like subjects than citizens.
In Moscow: Governing the Socialist Metropolis, Timothy J. Colton examines a century of promises that collapsed under the weight of bureaucracy. The author, a professor of Russian studies at Harvard, invested a decade in Moscow, and treats the city with the painstaking attention usually accorded states. By interweaving physical development and political turmoil, Colton gives a uniquely comprehensive slice of Soviet history. His book is not just the story of a city government but an exploration of how the Communist Party as a whole ignored the needs of its people and blocked the development of a civil society. The premise is clear: Until Russians develop a streamlined, participatory local government, they have no hope of democracy on a larger scale.
Moscow’s master builder was, of course, Josef Stalin. Stalin epitomized the unchecked control of Moscow’s leaders—he declared war on the winding alleyways and onion domes of pre-revolutionary Moscow, leveling hundreds of churches at night, quietly, to muffle popular opposition. Legend has it that a chief planner was sacked after rudely grabbing Stalin’s elbow, horrified that the leader had picked up a model of St. Basil’s to see how Red Square would look without it. To widen Ulitsa Gor’kovo, Stalin actually lifted major structures, set them on rollers, and slid them backward. More often, though, his instincts were purely destructive. His rule saw architects shot for defending what remained of ancient Moscow and culminated in the explosion one afternoon of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
Stalin chiseled the profile of modern Moscow: the broad avenues, the Gothic skyscrapers, the metro. What present-day travelers will not see are the grandiose proj-ects that never materialized, like the Pantheon, the Parthenon, and the Palace of Soviets. This last was to be 400 meters tall and topped by a hundred-meter effigy of Lenin whose outstretched fist “stabbed the clouds for 80 days a year.” The palace sucked up city funds for 30 years before planners finally admitted that the project was ridiculous.
And no contemporary visitor will ever see the brutal conditions that most Muscovites lived in throughout Stalin’s rule, while the glorious metro surged forward underground. The average family shared one room, bathed once a week at the public baths and stored food in string bags hanging out a window. People moved into the cavities under flights of stairs.
Ultimately, Moscow suffered from its status as a model city, and its residents found themselves treated as city-planning guinea pigs rather than citizens. Even in the revolutionary fervor of 1917, factory workers had no great desire to move into the aristocratic palaces—it made their commutes too long—and the utopian initiative ended
disastrously by depopulating Moscow’s center. Communal apartments never really took off, as one Party official noted with annoyance, since too many Muscovites retained “petty bourgeois habits” within socialist living arrangements: “Everyone cooks in his own pot, hides in his own room, procures food…for his own family.”
Socialist city-builders were forever reinventing their mission, but they never lost sight of Moscow’s international significance. For the sake of Communist glory, monuments have eclipsed amenities since the Revolution. Colton suggests that Moscow might be in better shape if it had been approached not as a socialist paradigm, but as a city like any other—if planners had applied themselves to improving air quality, for instance, rather than remapping the city into the shape of a kolkhoz tractor.
Colton tells this story with authority and surprising liveliness. He does not make an outright case for the global significance of prefects and subprefects, but his book gives a fine picture of how even a monolith can become hopelessly disjointed. Along the way, Colton is unequipped to resist even the most peripheral item of urban trivia, and peppers his narrative with wonderful details. (In 17th-century Moscow, the preferred method of firefighting was “to quickly tear down the houses nearest the fire, so that it will lose its force and go out,” he digresses.) If Moscow is not a bellwether, it is at least a noteworthy case study.
Colton fails, however, to present a substantial view of the unofficial city, and Moscow too often reads like a textbook. Although the author supplies plentiful statistics on the housing supply—writing that in 1984, 56 percent of married couples under 30 shared an apartment with a parent—he does not follow these statistics to their human conclusions. Russians get married early to leave cramped, unhappy homes, and sometimes get divorced to get their hands on a second apartment. Artists and technicians take jobs as dvorniks, or street-sweepers, because the jobs come with central flats.
The inclusion of some ground-level sourcing would make Moscow a far more readable work. Colton is shooting for epic scope, but readers interested in political science will stumble over the city planning and readers interested in city planning will stumble over the political science. He weaves strands of obscure political analysis—the midcentury tumult in the Chief Directorate for the Distribution of Fruit and Vegetables, for instance—with the far more accessible physical history of the city. His dissection of the interplay of regional councils, prefectorates, and the mayoralty is what sets his book apart, but for anyone unfamiliar with Moscow’s bureauc-racy, these passages are about as compelling as the ingredients list on a box of cereal.
Particularly in his account of post-socialist Moscow, Colton’s decision not to investigate unofficial sources is misleading. Colton paints the current mayor, Yury Luzhkov, as a competent, if autocratic, overseer of privatization-era Moscow. Using his personal clout with Boris Yeltsin, Luzhkov won the right to rewrite Russia’s sell-off policies for Moscow, and it’s true that he is raking in money.
But Luzhkov is hardly the long-awaited good shepherd. The funds he wrests from investors go to pet projects no less grandiose than Stalin’s skyscrapers, as well as into the mayor’s own pockets and the pockets of the monopolistic agencies that cluster around him. The cronyism of Luzhkov’s administration is no improvement over the days of party nomenklatura. Even the Western press has critically weighed in on this subject, and Colton accepts the Luzhkov line too willingly.
Nevertheless, the volume of Colton’s documentation sets an impressive standard. I worked as a reporter in Moscow City Hall, and extracting information from such agencies as Mossanepidnadzora, Mosdachtrest, Moskomimushestvo, and Moskomarkitektura drove me to gibbering hysteria on a daily basis. Colton’s sourcing, the work of a decade, is phenomenal; although the workings of the bureaucracy are still not treated as a public concern, he calls needed attention to city government reform (albeit from the safety of Cambridge). Moscow: Governing the Socialist Metropolis has no precedent in the West, and it goes leagues beyond any analysis coming out of Stalin’s megalopolis.CP