The Economist August 11th 2018


Charlemagne | Street politics

What a campaign to revive Russia's urban spaces might mean for civil society



SOVIET SQUARE in Voronezh no longer looks especially Soviet. Children dart through a dancing fountain, bmx bikers barrel across new tiles. Grassy groves play home to picnicking teens. "It's practically Spain," gushes a pensioner.


The newly reconstructed square is one piece of a sprawling campaign of blagoustroistvo, or urban improvement, spreading across Russia's cities and towns. The trend began in Moscow, where city authorities have rebuilt hundreds of streets and public spaces since 2011, transforming the centre into an unrecognisable pedestrian paradise paved with plitka, the project's distinctive tiles. Other World Cup host cities received more modest facelifts ahead of this summer's tournament. The results have pleased the Kremlin. Last month President Vladimir Putin made his first appearance at the Moscow Urban Forum, extolling the importance of "a comfortable, friendly city atmosphere". A broader national effort, launched in 2016-17, is gaining steam. Earlier this year Mr Putin directed the government to double spending on "comfortable city environment" projects. This state-mandated urbanism represents the "authoritarian modernisation" Mr Putin seeks. Yet it may also carry the seed of a more open future.


For the government, the attraction is evident. Visible results help demonstrate effectiveness and foster loyalty. Many in Moscow see blagoustroisrvo as a thinly-veiled ploy to placate the urban middle class who protested against fraudulent elections in 2011-12. Bureaucrats also see it as a means to stimulate a stagnant economy. Some 75% of Russians live in cities, many designed for an industrial Soviet-era economy. Improving public spaces attracts tourists and creates room for small business.


While the projects' financing remains modest-some 1% of regional spending outside Moscow, reckons Natalia Zubarevich, an expert on Russia's regions, its scope is vast. Leading the charge is kb Strelka, a consultancy backed by Alexander Mamut, an oligarch, and founded as an outgrowth of the liberal-minded Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design. After developing much of the Moscow blagoustroisrvo, Strelka has turned to the regions, where it is aiding 40 cities, accounting for roughly a fifth of Russia's population, as they carry out revivals of streets, parks, squares, embankments and other public spaces. It is also advising several hundred monogorods, or one-factory towns, on revitalisation plans, and writing new urban-design standards for the Construction Ministry.


The efforts have provoked critics nonetheless. In Moscow they have decried the exorbitant costs and the often brutal methods employed, such as the violent clearing of small kiosks. Accusations of corruption abound: rbc, a media organisation, has alleged that several contractors were linked to family members of the deputy mayor responsible for blagoustroisrvo. In smaller cities such as Voronezh, residents complain about incompetence. "Would you let your kids play in this playground?" one mother yells, pointing to a metal slide that empties inexplicably onto a small rubber landing surrounded by scrubland.


Yet the impact of blagoustroisrvo may take longer to manifest itself. Denis Leontyev, KB Strelka's co-founder, calls the consultancy "an institute of values", the key one being "human-centric" thinking. In a country long ruled by leaders who put the interests of the state and the collective ahead of the individual, that is an important shift. The question is whether blagoustroisrvo can help create more than just a European-looking facade.


The early results offer some reason for optimism. In areas with leaders willing to embrace more open communication-a group growing larger as a new generation of bureaucrats rises through the ranks-blagoustroistvo can become a space for fostering dialogue between the state and society. Take Palekh, a town of some 5,000 nestled in forests north-east of Moscow. Once a centre of Russian icon painting and later lacquer work, Palekh fell into disrepair after the Soviet collapse. Now with kb Strelka's guidance, the central square has become a bustle of activity, as bulldozers crunch dirt and workers lay new cables.


Change has to start somewhere


Town meeting halls, where the authorities have taken the unusual step of listening to residents, also play a part in Palekh. Public hearings have debated the merits of fountain shapes, road widths and foliage. "The fate of every tree was discussed," boasts Stanislav Voskresensky, one of a host of younger technocratic governors appointed in late 2017. The approach has shaken up the region's ossified ways. "More often than not, such hearings were formalities, a box that needed to be checked," says Igor Starkin, a veteran administrator who took over as the head of Palekh earlier this year. Now, he is a disciple of engagement: "Feedback creates a union of souls," he says. The authorities' new-found openness has stunned residents, too. For many, the blagoustroisrvo discussions were their first experience of civic activism. "There's always been lots of talk, but only among ourselves, never in public," says Olga Kolesova, the director of the local museum. "This is the first time they've given people a chance to say something."


It would be foolish to see blagoustroisrvo as a cure for Russia's repressive politics. Mr Putin will not loosen his grip on power because of a few new parks. "They don't want democracy, they want results and budgets," says Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist. Any civic activity, she notes, quickly "hits a ceiling" when it moves away from safe topics such as urbanism to challenge those in power directly. Yet it would be equally foolish to ignore the processes that blagoustroisrvo both reflects and stimulates. Russians' creative energies may not have an outlet in politics, but they have not been stamped out. As Michal Murawski, an anthropologist from University College London who studies Putin-era urbanism, quips, "There is politics in every plitko." Sometimes a square is more than just a square. ■