Our foreign readers are lucky to read about this recent event in Moscow which is still discussed and argued about. However, it will be interesting to know what the capital speaks about not only for foreigners but also to Russians which do not live in Moscow. It is likely that something similar can happen in other Russian cities anytime soon.
The demolition of stalls and various shopping malls on the night of February 9 is the cause of disputes. It may sound like there is nothing to worry about but it undoubtedly a significant event for many reasons. Let’s see why and start with the background.
In December 2015, so it is a little less than two and a half months ago, the Moscow government has published a list of “illegal constructions” (whatever that means), which will soon be demolished. There was nothing special about this except for two things.
The first is the size of the list. It had more than one hundred different structures across Moscow. And the second thing was the structures themselves. Besides really small stalls this list also included very large buildings near the metro stations in the heart of the city that were very expensive and profitable spots.
There were owner’s appeals to the court and it seemed that this undertaking will be closed and forgotten, but quite suddenly on the night of February 9 the city authorities began to demolish everything.
This action once again divided the society and there are indeed strong reasons for this. However, I would like to discuss this situation more objectively and highlight both positive and negative aspects of this event which is not expected to be the end of the story.
Some are extremely happy with the demolition, while some have already proclaimed it as the “February pogroms”. In general, each such opinion stands for a certain position and there are several of them. Let’s start from the aesthetic or the architectural.
In terms of beauty, aesthetics or architectural integrity — call it whatever you want, Moscow benefited (of course) from these demolitions. Most of these “buildings” were built in the nineties or in the early two thousands and there was zero beauty in them.
Moslenta prepared a gallery which contains the photos of all the demolished buildings. The ugliness of these structures can hardly be overestimated: unappealing colors of cheap materials, absurd forms, aggressive windows reflection, fake columns, pyramids, “bath tile” — a beloved material in the former Soviet Union, and other “architectural techniques” which were adored by the “architects” of the “Luzhkov Moscow”. If we add on top of this: ugly and impudent signs, air conditioners, worn out facades, and we will see that Moscow definitely did not lose any masterpieces of architects like Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas or Frank Gehry.
One should not forget that some of the buildings were erected next to the cultural monuments and were destroying the overall impression of historical places, as famous buildings were simply lost in the background of large and tasteless neighbors. As a result, in terms of the Moscow’s aesthetics, this event is certainly a plus.
The second position is a concern for Muscovites and tourists. In a sense, this part continues the previous, but it is directed specifically towards residents and tourists. Both of these groups should be happy as this mess was cleaned from many historical sites.
Finally the residents will be able to see the city the way it was before and the younger generation, born in Russia, not the Soviet Union (to whom also belongs the author) will for the first time be able to see their hometown the way it was designed by many famous Soviet architects. As for tourists, for them Moscow has become closer to the beautiful “pictures” which the guests see on the Internet prior their visit to our city. Of course a more beautiful city will be appreciated by them.
The urban space improvement point also goes here. As a resident of the Aeroport district I will share a troubled place which was resolved thanks to the demolition. There was a fairly large store near the metro station which was selling suitcases and was always empty. It occupied most of the sidewalk and every time I walked by, I, and I think many others did also, cursed this terribly designed place. And last summer during the repair it was completely impossible to walk as the pavement was too narrow for such a busy place.
This was addressed to those that say “the demolition did not create any comfort”. Not true. All residents of the Aeroport district got a normal sidewalk. You can now walk like a human being in your hometown. I am sure there are similar places in other parts of Moscow.
As we see, in terms of aesthetics, history, function and tourism it is undoubtedly better. Now let’s talk about the more controversial side of this event. Let’s start with the trade part.
Most of the demolished buildings were filled with: flower shops, telecommunication shops, food stalls, grocery shops, small cafés or restaurants, bookmakers, pharmacies, hairdressers, sex shops and other types of trade. Will this demolition affect the trade in the city? Definitely yes: people who are accustomed to these places will have to find new shops, and owners will have to open their stores in other places and it is a waste of time and money to relocate. The media presents this as a tragedy like every Muscovite does shop only in these stalls. However, let’s be objective — it is far from everyone.
Also, it is not clear why you need so many phone shops, flower shops, bookmakers, sex shots and other types of commerce which have long been moved to e-commerce. Is it necessary to pay for the phone? Send a message to your bank and the card will fill up the balance. Looking for flowers? Order them and you will get the order today at the time and place you ask for. Let’s start living in the 2016 using Internet and mobile phones. Maybe we should all take a receipt and stand in a queue at the bank in order to pay for the utilities? A lot of people actually still do this in Russia.
Continuing the trade issue there is a lot of talk about the fact that people have lost their jobs and shops. One the one hand it is true, but let’s look at the situation in a more detail. There were a lot of large and familiar to Russians companies in these buildings: MTS, Euroset, Svyaznoy, Shokoladnica and others. Such large companies will easily rent a new shop and relocate their employees there. As for the small stalls, the work there was at the “seller” or “cashier” level and it is not clear why after a loss of a job with no education required it will be difficult to find another “no education required” job. This is not a job loss of a financier, engineer, biologist or other professional with a narrow specialization, which makes it hard to look for a similar position of the same level and position and indeed requires some time.
Having discussed the employees, let’s move on to the tenants and owners of the buildings. As already mentioned, it will not be difficult for large companies to relocate. To be honest, the same thing might be said about the rest. For some reason most of the media presents the tenants as poor people who used their last cent to open up a business and are barely surviving now. Perhaps some part certainly has a similar situation but it is hard to believe that all tenants are like this. The reason is simple — the rent price. All of these stalls and shopping malls were close to the metro and therefore these areas were always full of potential clients. As a result, the rent in these buildings was incredibly expensive and it is difficult to believe that a poor John from the countryside lost all his income in one day.
The same applies to the owners of these structures, only in an even larger scale. As it is known, these shopping malls were built in the early nineties or the two thousands. It is difficult to image that an average guy had the money and the opportunity to completely legally build a huge retail space in the center of Moscow close to the cultural and architectural monuments. Well, certainly not an “average” guy and the “legality” of such procedure is very doubtful. That is why it is not very sorry for the owners which are being worried about in the “free” press.
It is worth noting that this is only an assumption. Surely, there might be honest people among the owners who bought the building from the original owner, who did build it.
The last point I would like to discuss is the position of the Moscow authorities. Just two and a half months ago it was decided that more than one hundred objects should be demolished. That is, these objects surprisingly became “dangerous” because of the “utilities” which are underneath these structures. For about twenty years everything was fine.
What’s more, the demolition started in spite of the court’s decision that the demolition of some objects is illegal — this is another example of law violations by the authorities. The demolition itself took place during the night, in the middle of the work week, in the winter, without any warning and even when people were in the building.
Some began to say that one should not be surprised when the authorities one day will decide to demolish apartment houses and further distort the situation by similar talks. Many “free” websites wrote some panic articles like they were living in Switzerland and now suddenly they recalled that they are in Russia.
Living in Russia means that here, as always, will be a mess with the documents. Unfortunately, there is no law in the country. Of course in an adequate state this issue would have been discussed for a year or two in the City Hall and then with the population. After the decision was made there definitely could be a couple of adequate and humane ways of resolving the issue.
As an example, it could be possible to build small shopping centers, modern, aesthetical, that fit the environment and allow all the tenants to move there. After the relocation, buy the buildings from the legal owners and somewhere in the summer start the demolition, not hurrying up and trying to do everything in one day, demolishing one building at a time, taking away the waste immediately and creating the sidewalk right after the demolition.
Of course one can be “resent” and be “surprised” by such events, like it is the first violation of the law and inappropriate behavior of the “legitimately elected” authorities. Or it can be taken as an example of incompetence, mismanagement, and another illustration that the authorities live in a different dimension. Honestly, who would start the demolition of large structures close to residential buildings in the winter, during the night, in the middle of the working week? What is more: do the demolition so poorly that an underground pedestrian crossing will partially collapse. And all this happens during an economic crisis in which this same government did put the country into.
Therefore, I see no reason to be surprised. On the contrary, I am glad that the ugly stalls are demolished and not another architectural masterpiece or just part of our history. If the authorities will switch, at least for a while, on these strange structures instead of “upgrading” and “reconstructing” historical buildings, then we might get the opportunity to preserve at least something.
Judging by what a stir this action has created online, it can be assumed that the main purpose was not to “return Moscow to Muscovites” but to divide an already divided society.
Summing up I would like to say that during the current authorities even the good initiatives will be executed stupidly and childishly. At the time no one prohibits to approach such issues thoroughly, humanly, with respect to the economy, trade, owners, customers and residents.
Yet there is a positive side in this event — Moscow and the whole post-Soviet space can be cleared from obvious mistakes of the past. All you need is a smart approach, logic in the actions, adequacy and an understanding of your citizens.