Of Potemkins and Putin Park: The politics of public space in Moscow

Christopher Frey
23 min readDec 2, 2016

Written by Chris Frey
Photography by Arthur Bondar

This story is featured in issue 3 of The Alpine Review, which is out now.

Lately, Moscow’s public spaces have been showing a new hipster swagger. But is a high-minded approach to urbanism masking a darker politics beneath?

As entertainment it seemed a bit avant-garde for a Saturday afternoon in the park. On stage a DJ was grimly fiddling with knobs on a console, awash in swirling blue lights and smoke effects. The music was a shape-shifting barrage of digital backwash and screeches, electronic noise as amniotic fluid. Wooden shipping pallets had been arranged in artful configurations for people to sit on. But the crowd — young, hoodied and good looking — instead stood, arms-crossed and stoically hip against the onslaught. It was raining slightly, which only helped the mood.

For a minute I might have imagined I was in some cooler precinct of Brooklyn, Hackney or Kreuzberg — if it weren’t, that is, for the luxury apartment block looming in the background, executed in the manner of neo-imperial Stalinist architecture. Or that the performance was taking place in a green space unofficially known as “the park of fallen monuments,” where busts of Soviet leaders and cultural heroes, once more prominently displayed about the city, have been put out to seed.

The gig was just one of hundreds of performances staged in parks and public squares around Moscow to celebrate the city’s birthday, held annually on the first weekend in September. Later that evening, around eighty-thousand people would attend a free concert by Aerosmith, the day’s headlining act, in front of the Lubyanka — a squat, neo-baroque building that once served as the headquarters of the KGB, and now houses the FSB, the KGB’s successor agency.

At a price tag of seven million dollars, those 2015 City Day festivities, might have been Moscow’s most extravagant yet, even though Russia’s economy was sputtering under sanctions and rock-bottom oil prices. Some critics questioned the day’s Potemkin-like quality. The bash was “likely [intended] to boost national pride at a critical time,” noted one columnist, “and show the world that Russia is uncowed and unrepentant of its policies of the past two years, notably its seizure of Crimea and support for pro-Moscow separatists fighting in East Ukraine.”

But with millions of Muscovites happily filling the streets, squares and riverside promenades this beefed-up City Day seemed also designed to showcase something else. The fact that their city — so much maligned over the years, by turns totalitarian then tacky, never an easy city in which to live — was suddenly, well, actually, very nice. Maybe even, forgetting Aerosmith, kinda cool.

This feeling stuck with me for maybe an hour as I walked in the light rain toward Red Square, picking my way through the swelling crowds. And it ended the moment I arrived at the spot on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge where the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was assassinated only six months before. Every day since then, a loyal group of volunteers had attended to a makeshift Nemtsov memorial there—a solemn sidewalk gallery of flowers, pictures and personal messages—though not without considerable harassment by the authorities. One of the volunteers told me she worried the street cleaners would use the excuse of City Day to take everything away.

High Line on the Moscow River

I was last in Moscow in 2008. Back then much of the city caterwauled with excavators, jackhammers and hydraulics. Heritage buildings and entire downtown blocks were being knocked down to make way for garish, steroidal new developments largely marketed to the tastes and aspirations of the new elite.

The city hadn’t seen so many demolitions since Stalin’s monumental reconstruction plans in the 1930s. Walking around Moscow, one quickly got accustomed to the massive green veils, or stories-high hoardings emblazoned with advertisements for BMW and Rolex, shrouding construction sites throughout the downtown core. Invariably, what emerged was either a glammed up facsimile of the original building, with added height and girth that overwhelmed Moscow’s nineteenth-century streetscape, or some pastiche of ostentatious international styles and periods. As one architect described it to me, it was a building boom “about making a hyper-capitalistic Moscow for rich people,” one that “cared only about housing oligarchs, not about the needs of average people.” Public space, often conceived at immense scale by Soviet planners, was little cared for and treated as infill — land that could be freed up for more construction.

Though life was in many ways appreciably better, economically more stable, Moscow was fast becoming a city of grotesque proportions and lurid fairytale flourishes — though the sort of fairytale conceived in a bordello or casino. Neon onion bulbs and gothic Stalinist turrets — how many new buildings could wear a turret or two? They came across as the architectural equivalent of breast implants. Colossal new malls were set down like confectionary.

“The effect is at first amusing, then disturbing,” wrote Peter Pomerantsev of the period in his book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. “It’s like talking to the victim of a multiple personality disorder.”

The Moscow I encountered more recently, with a new mayor in charge, was jarring in its pleasantness. Here was a resplendent and sophisticated version of the city, with all the amenities and entertainments of a cultured European capital. Gorky Park, before a post-apocalyptic funfair of derelict rides and chummy drunks, was now filled with stylish restaurants, attractive landscaping and ping pong tables (ping pong had somehow become a thing, an emblem of the new fun). Young, handholding rollerbladers skated past cheerful, open-air dance classes. A new home for the contemporary art gallery Garage had recently opened in the park, clad in a shimmering polycarbonate skin designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

Just to the north, a traffic-clogged four-lane expressway, the Krymskaya Embankment, had been made into an art-directed promenade with sculpted wave decks and artist kiosks — a kind of High Line on the Moscow River.

In the style of gentrification everywhere, former industrial sites had been converted into chic art and design hubs, populated with galleries, cafés, boutiques and work studios. Somehow, the restaurant food was many grades better. There were, egad, self-identifying hipsters. (“No Sleep Till Brooklyn: How hipster Moscow fell in love with Williamsburg,” went a headline in The Calvert Journal.) In the historic centre, streets had been pedestrianized and billboards ordered removed. There were even bike lanes — in Moscow. Not that any sane person should yet want to cycle there, but someone at city hall must have felt the need to check that box of European urbanity.

And yet, this comelier, more livable Moscow had taken shape during a period of escalating political repression and nationalistic propaganda. On the day I arrived in late August of 2015 it was announced that Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov had been convicted on terrorism charges and sentenced to twenty years in prison, after bizarre court proceedings that Amnesty International likened to a “Stalin-era show trial.” The conflict with Ukraine had given an already compliant media, much of it controlled directly or indirectly by the Kremlin, a symbolic cause to rally around — one used enthusiastically to further marginalize or mock opposition voices, or to underline the West’s weakness and mendacity. Ukraine stories still led the TV news every night, even if there wasn’t really anything new to report.

What few opposition or liberal-leaning news outlets remained were either being purged of their freethinking editors or bought and then folded into state-controlled media portfolios. Meanwhile, a growing list of civil society groups and NGOs were targeted for closure as disruptive “foreign agents.” Even the Dynasty Foundation, a non-profit that funds scientific research in Russia, was ordered to cease operations due to its founder’s links with liberal causes.

Hipsters, foodies and cyclists, it was turning out, do not a rousing vanguard of dissidents make.

Hipsterism: The New International

On the afternoon of City Day, I met Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper at a coffee shop near Bolotnaya Square, site of some of the largest anti-government protests in 2011 and 2012, mobilized in response to accusations of electoral fraud and the impending inauguration of Vladimir Putin for a third presidential term. Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, a young-looking 48, is a media entrepreneur, having launched a string of lifestyle publications, vaguely liberal or counter-cultural in outlook, which helped popularize global trends in fashion, music, food and design for a Russian audience. His most successful magazine, Afisha, launched in 1999, is credited with introducing the word “hipster” to the Russian lexicon. Featuring a mix of reviews, listings and commentary, Afisha proved influential among Moscow’s young urbanites and an emergent creative class. The kind of people who hoped their city might be more like London, Brooklyn or Berlin.

Because of this, Oskolkov-Tsentsiper has been called Russia’s “godfather of hipsterism.” It’s a sobriquet he both embraces and makes light of, looking back on his influence with an air of intellectual detachment. “Hipsterism is simply the tastes of this era, the zeitgeist, the last ten years of global youth sensibility,” he said. “Sometimes it’s ridiculous, as incredibly cool younger people often are. And like any cultural movement, once it’s identified and named it becomes a caricature of itself. In this case, beards and micro-beers.”

He maintained the same critical distance to the recent remaking of the city, which, as a design consultant on Gorky Park and another high-profile renewal project, he has had some hand in. “The city has definitely benefitted a great deal, it is suddenly very pleasant. But I’m not convinced this fashionable wave of urbanism has been so successful on its merits.”

Instead, he argued, the cause of high-minded urbanism had been appropriated by the authorities as a kind of ersatz politics. “They found it was a way to channel the frustrations of unhappy youths, to do something other than protest. It’s like, ‘Why are you criticizing all the time, do something, take care of your courtyard, think about the bicyclists.’ It was an attempt to introduce what they call ‘a constructive agenda.’ Which somehow allows this movement to organize about something that has zero importance from the point of view of the authorities. So rather than worrying about Ukraine or fair elections, let’s worry about pedestrians and bicyclists.”

The Moscow That Isn’t There

During visits to Moscow in the 2000s, I occasionally visited with David Sarkisyan, the voluble, chain-smoking director of the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture. Sarkisyan’s office at the museum was its own wünderkammer, every surface cluttered with tchotchkes, memorabilia, fragments of mosaics and Stalinist kitsch, precarious ziggurats of papers and books. Some of the items had been scavenged from demolished Moscow landmarks, unfortunate baubles from the campaign the Yerevan-born director was leading to save the city’s fast-disappearing historic architecture.

According to the Moscow Architectural Preservation Society (MAPS), more than one thousand historic buildings had disappeared between 2002–2007 alone. It hardly mattered that a quarter of them were officially listed as heritage sites since preservation laws were rarely enforced, and—surprise!—heritage buildings had a magical habit of being delisted overnight and suddenly eligible for destruction. Or if not delisting, there was simply neglect — let the old structure rot to the point that demolition was a matter of public safety. Failing that: arson.

As for what went up in their place, Sarkisyan described the prevailing aesthetic as “a symbiosis of Disneyland, Las Vegas and Turkish resort,” hellbent, he might’ve added, on effacing Moscow’s past. And yet this effacement was underwritten by a peculiar, almost pathological irony; preservation was regarded with disdain by developers and much of the political class, though one of the dominant styles of Moscow’s post-Soviet architecture were buildings that purposefully looked old, aping one historical period or another, or several at once.

There were, for example, the “sham replicas,” or mulyazh, of actual historic buildings. Developers simply knocked them down and threw up copies with only a cursory nod to the original. Sometimes they kept the façade, but just as often not — a kind of homage as insult. “Maybe you can say these people like the past, just not the authentic past,” Sarkisyan told me in 2008. “They’d rather remake the past to conform to their present tastes, while using the cheapest materials.” Fortunately, the Moscow city administration had a handy if oxymoronic colloquialism to describe all this, calling it “construction anew of a historic building.”

Indeed, it was the city itself leading the demolitions, or more precisely its long-serving mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. Most of the large-scale redevelopments came at the behest of his administration, and Luzhkov’s wife, the billionaire property developer Yelena Baturina, was a frequent beneficiary of building contracts. “The city’s millions of square meters [being built] is a giant mechanical washing machine,” a member of the city’s architectural advisory committee told a newspaper. “The more buildings there are, the more you can steal.” Luzhkov took free reign, overruling planning committees and imposing his vulgar, monumentalist tastes on the city. (For reference, I suggest a Google image search for “Peter the Great Statue Moscow”, a masterwork of towering ugliness.) Responding to mounting criticism of his various projects, Luzhkov took out a full-page ad in the Izvestia newspaper to elucidate his building philosophy: “in Moscow’s culture the notion of a copy sometimes has no less bearing than that of an original. This is because the conceptual, historical and cultural ‘baggage’ that such a copy carries can often be richer and more profound than the original design.” Somewhere Walter Benjamin was experiencing a case of vertigo.

“The problem comes to this,” said Sarkisyan. “Moscow has too much money, in too few hands. And it tends to be the worst kind of money — real estate or oil money. This money spreads itself across the city, but the culture cannot keep up. The dialogue between development and preservation is unequal. And what we are losing in architecture is symptomatic of how the country as a whole is losing its culture.”

Sarkisyan was among Luzhkov’s most persistent and pithiest critics, though he and his allies rarely succeeded in stopping a demolition. At best, he was able to publicize and document what was being lost, occasionally deploying some agit-prop to do so. After three major heritage sites were razed in rapid succession in 2004 — the art nouveau Voentorg department store, Moskva Hotel, and Manezh exhibition hall — he organized a mock public funeral complete with three coffins.

When Sarkisyan died from lymphoma in 2010, at the age of 62, Luzhkov made good of a last opportunity to punish his old foe. The city that Sarkisyan fought to save from itself rewarded him posthumously by refusing his desired burial in Moscow’s Armenian cemetery. But time, it turned out, was also running out on the mayor. A few months after Sarkisyan’s death, Luzhkov was sacked from his job by then-president (and Putin’s seat warmer) Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev vaguely cited “loss of trust” as cause, though pundits found no shortage of reasons: Luzhkov’s aloof handling of crises, his growing insolence toward the Kremlin, and, of course, corruption in the handling of building contracts.

Sergey Sobyanin, Luzhkov’s replacement as mayor, surprised many by disavowing his predecessor’s attitude toward city building, promising an approach to planning that would improve quality of life for everyone, not only the elite few. Revitalization of parks and public spaces was made a priority; destruction of historic buildings was, if not halted completely, at least curtailed. Across Moscow, the architectural quality of new buildings improved thanks to the adoption of open design competitions.

Though Luzhkov was investigated but never charged, in many ways it is Sarkisyan’s vision of Moscow that has won out. The local architects he championed, such as Yuri Grigoryan and Alexander Brodsky, are now among the most admired, inventive and in-demand. Grigoryan’s firm Meganom is leading two of the city’s biggest projects: the dramatic transformation of Moscow’s riverfront into a corridor of green spaces and transportation links, and the mixed-used redevelopment of the Zil industrial zone, once home to the Soviet Union’s largest automobile factory.

“I think David would see that things are ten times better than before,” said Grigoryan when I interviewed him at Meganom’s offices. “He would’ve been very pleased with the improvements to public space.” That Muscovites now use places like Gorky and the Krimskaya Embankment as avidly as they do is perhaps its own validation. “But I think he would still be disappointed in the level of political and cultural discussion.”

This Must Be The Place, Nyet

The notion of public space as understood in the West — its precepts, the values it tends to privilege — is relatively new to Russia. Five years ago there were few academics or researchers in the country who might’ve described themselves as urban studies specialists, even as the field was exploding elsewhere. Largely this was due to the experience of communism, when most urban space was considered public by default, in that it was technically owned by the state.

“Everything was public space in a way, not just the streets and squares where the state controlled what you could do or say, but even housing,” explained Oskolkov-Tsentsiper. “People lived a very open, see-through life.” Forced to cohabitate with strangers in cramped, subdivided apartments, generations of Russians could make few claims to privacy. The masterful short stories of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya are rife with characters that yearn for just a moment’s peace whatever the cost, whether homelessness or the illness that affords a stay in a sanitarium.

“In the common areas of an apartment — the kitchen, the bathroom, the corridor — you were engaged in constant warfare against your neighbors,” said Oskolkov-Tsentsiper. “There were urban legends of communal apartments which had nice neighbors. But systematically, you had someone pissing into your borscht while you were out of the room because your child is screaming too loud at night.”

The obsession with privacy one sees in Moscow today is a product of this legacy. Most foreigners see the profusion of tinted car windows, gates, guards and high fencing around private villas or apartment buildings and assume it’s a matter of safety. Though terrorism remains a legitimate threat, Moscow is a very safe city in terms of everyday crime. Its days of brazenly cartoonish gangsterism are, for the most part, long past. There are fewer murders per capita than in most big American cities.

When Sobyanin became mayor, there was little in the former Kremlin chief-of-staff’s resumé to suggest he had an abiding passion for bike lanes, parks, pedestrianized streets and contemporary design. How then did twenty-first century urbanism become the guiding philosophy at city hall? “It’s like they decided in the past five years Moscow must become more like a European city,” I was told by Ilya Azar, a political reporter with meduza.com, one of Russia’s few remaining opposition news sites. “They want to make the city more attractive, draw more tourists. I don’t know that [urbanism] was his idea, I think he just adopted it because he felt it was something people would go for. Maybe he thinks Moscow is not ready for a Gay Pride march, but pedestrian streets and bike lanes — okay.”

For intellectual and technical support the Sobyanin administration looked to the Strelka Institute, a postgraduate architecture and design school co-founded by Oskolkov-Tsentsiper in 2010. At its birth Strelka represented an odd collision of interests: the curriculum was created in part by Rem Koolhaas, the architect and theorist; the money came from Alexander Mamut, one of the Kremlin’s most loyal oligarchs. But with its roster of international lecturers, tuition-free classes taught in English, a savvy publishing house and event programming, Strelka quickly became the epicentre for a new type of conversation about the city and how it works — or should work. The Strelka Bar, meanwhile, became a popular, though pricey, boho place to be seen.

Unexpectedly, the fledgling institute found itself with a deep-pocketed client — the city government — willing to pay for the expertise of its instructors and the ideas about civic space it supported. “There wasn’t much expectation it would become the centre of something,” said the architect Grigoryan, one of Strelka’s early instructors. “Politically, it was established in opposition to the mayor and the way things were then being done in Moscow.” Strelka spun off a for-profit consultancy to handle the new business. “At the beginning, we had to explain what public space is, because there was not even the term really in Russian. Not in the way architects or city officials use it, nobody cared.”

Gorky Park was the first project to get the green light. Paid for by the businessman Roman Abramovich, best known in the West as owner of the Chelsea Football Club, the renovation was completed in less than a year and greeted with widespread enthusiasm when it reopened in December 2011. “It was a fast-win strategy,” said Grigoryan. “Together with Strelka becoming more prominent, it created this revolution in public space. It’s a little totalitarian in the way of doing things, but it helps actually get it done. Now there are new public spaces popping up everywhere.”

The mass opposition demonstrations of 2011–2012, the largest Moscow had seen since Boris Yeltsin’s days, may have ironically helped create an appetite for the mayor’s new urban agenda. By declaring them illegal the authorities forced protestors to assert their right to the city as a space for free expression. To avoid arrest, opposition activists got tactically creative, organizing protests that weren’t supposed to look like protests. Flash mobs gathered for “promenades” — group walks through the more genteel and storied neighborhoods of central Moscow. Instead of political speeches, crowds chanted, “We are just going for a walk!” Or they assembled en masse in public parks and squares, just, they insisted, to hang out.

When strict new laws barring unauthorized gatherings were enacted in June 2012, even these more benign types of actions were halted. But from this spirited wave of protest came a sense of rediscovering the spaces of the city, and how it could be experienced. Sobyanin’s investments in parks and public space came at an opportune time. Proving, perhaps, that even the politics of hanging out could be coopted.

Happy Moscow

In 1935, Joseph Stalin gave the Soviet people permission to be happy. “Life has become better, Comrades; life is merrier,” he said in a new year’s day address, officially proclaiming good times ahead. The goals of his first Five Year Plan, an accelerated program of industrial expansion and farm collectivization, had recently been achieved ahead of schedule. (The severe famines and hardships it caused, with millions dead, went unacknowledged.) The Second Five Year Plan would shift the focus of production to consumer goods, and bringing more material comforts to life.

And fun — there would be time and space for fun, fun as ideological imperative. Soccer’s popularity as a spectator sport soared. “Parks of culture and rest,” modeled after the original Gorky Park, were opened across the Soviet Union, combining facilities for art and sport to deliver a more cultivated life to the masses. “‘Happiness,’ a word previously coded as bourgeois and self-indulgent,” writes the historian and literary scholar Eric Naiman of the time, “became a marker of the fortunate condition of Soviet society as a whole.”

Nothing heralded this new attitude so much as the opening of the first lines of the Moscow Metro that same year, the opulent, deep-tunnel design of its stations fulfilling Stalin’s promise that they be underground “palaces for the people.” With their capacious, vaulted ceilings, marble surfaces and chandeliers, the Metro elevated that most mundane of everyday rituals into something both hallowed and fanciful. The aesthetics were a mash-up of the modern and classical, drawing on sources as varied as Egyptian tombs, folk art, constructivism, and triumphalist Soviet kitsch. Lavish decorative details, such as statuary, ceiling mosaics, murals and bas-reliefs, imbued each station with its own narrative, typically celebrating the efforts of the workers, the peasantry or its glorious leaders. That the Metro’s trains travelled an average speed twice that of New York’s subway was held up as a victory for socialist know-how and technology.

The expense of the Metro’s design was not without its critics, who cited the city’s more pressing needs aboveground. Stalin’s policies encouraging rapid urbanization, for example, had resulted in a crippling housing shortage. In his book Landscapes of Communism: A History Through Buildings, the architecture critic Owen Hatherley recounts how Stalin dismissed the protests of senior engineers who worried over the cost of the system’s more sumptuous proletarian luxuries. But as a delegation from Great Britain was told in 1936 during an official tour, the Metro was more than just a public transit system. It “was a symbol, an expression of the power of the people to create gigantic and beautiful things, a foretaste of the wealth to be at the command of all as the successive [Five-Year] plans unfolded.”

Even today, the Moscow Metro retains its capacity to awe, and even impress with a standard of efficiency uncharacteristic of Russia. If there’s anything the communist project got right, the one area in which it clearly bested the West, it’s in the design of its subways — the Moscow template being repeated across much of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries.

On another recent trip, after disembarking at Kropotkinskaya station, and crossing the Patriarch’s Bridge on my way to the Krymskaya Embankment, I was struck by the historical parallel between the latter day zeal for parks and public spaces and Stalin’s grandiose Metro plans. Both arrived during periods of darkening political prospects. Just as Putin has further tightened the screws on opposition voices in recent years, the latter half of the 1930s were dominated by a notorious series of show trials and Stalin’s Great Purge, a wide-ranging campaign of terror targeting everyone from Communist party officials to the upper echelons of the Red Army. (A paranoid-filled crusade, it bears noting, that would undermine terribly Russia’s ability to defend itself when Germany later invaded).

Are the parks merely a twenty-first century version of Stalin’s “palaces for the people,” a means of placating or distracting Muscovites? When I put this idea to Hatherley, he was skeptical.

“There is a school of thought that says this is a way of buying off the Bolotnaya [demonstrators],” he told me. “You know, have a nice coffee and a riverside promenade instead of protesting. One of the reasons I think that’s a bit of a non sequitur is that when or if this government is finally brought down, it will not be brought down by people who drink coffee in the center of Moscow.” Rather, Hatherley said, it will be brought down by the people who have until now most identified with Putin’s politics. “It will be brought down by people in the provinces and small towns.”

He allowed that there were some modest similarities between the two periods, but with a caveat. “The mid-thirties redesign of Moscow did create some nice public spaces, the Moscow Metro being the most obvious example. And it is noticeable that it’s the thirties when they started landscaping the banks of the [Moscow] river, as is happening now, at a point when the government was sending hundreds of thousands innocent peoples to their deaths. But the quaysides of Moscow, Gorky Park and the Metro, which were very nice, don’t stop being nice because of the Great Purge. Though it’s worth bearing the Great Purge in mind if you’re thinking about them.”

“Those being cynical [about the changes now] are very right to be cynical. But I don’t think a city becoming more pleasant in some respects should be opposed. Particularly one as massively unpleasant as Moscow.”

The Moscow-born journalist Masha Gessen, one of the organizers of the “protest promenades,” has been less admiring in her attitude to the city’s changes. In a 2014 New York Times article that in part decried Moscow’s “hipsterization,” she described the renovation of Gorky Park as “first and foremost a Soviet nostalgia project,” cultivating “the ambience of a 1950s Soviet movie in which well-fed labourers strolled along the Volga embankment singing songs of love and a glorious future.” More recently, Gessen has written about the forced removal of Moscow’s many small vendor kiosks, a scruffy though happily organic feature of street life here ever since the end of communism.

While there is much to criticize in the efforts to rub out some of Moscow’s rougher edges, it’s too easy to square the blame on hipsters — as happens just about everywhere else. The hipster is merely a scapegoat, conspicuous in his or her fashionableness, for the many ways in which gentrification can upset the fabric of a city, a phantom that is more zeitgeist than useful social category. Criticism would be better focused on the matrix of forces that truly shape gentrification — from covetous developers and property speculators to income inequality, government policy, even the lack of access to mental health and addiction services. Besides, nobody actually calls themselves a hipster. It’s always the guy or girl who is younger, better looking and more with-it than you.

Putin Park

Seeing how well parks were doing for the popularity of Mayor Sobyanin, someone in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle must have decided that the President also needed in on the action. Directly east of the Kremlin and Red Square, on the grounds where the Hotel Rossiya once stood, Moscow’s first new park in over fifty years is taking shape — a project announced by Putin himself, and on which the Kremlin, not city hall, has taken the lead.

The design of Zaryadye Park, by the firm Diller Scofidio+Renfro of New York’s High Line fame, envisages a kind of domeless biodome with a comfortingly nationalist theme. Taking up 13 acres, it is composed of four artificial eco-regions simulating the archetypal Russian landscapes of forest, wetland, tundra and steppe. Advanced heating and cooling technologies will ensure temperatures for each microclimate stay consistent through the year. Conceptually, this idea of a tamed or simulated wilderness would seem to fit Putin’s style and sensibility — he of the shirtless, elaborately orchestrated photo-ops, whether stalking game in the Tuvan bush, or diving for sunken treasure that, it later turns out, has been left there for him to find.

Though several big projects, like Zaryadye, appear still on the go, many of those closely involved in the city’s experiment with Western-inspired urbanism describe it as over. Economic hardships are cutting into budgets. The geopolitical climate has put a chill on hiring Western expertise. (There were at one point rumblings that deteriorating relations with the U.S. might kill DS+R’s involvement in Zaryadye.) Last spring, the person responsible for the mayor’s parks agenda, Sergey Kapkov, resigned his from post with little explanation.

Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, who used to divide his time between Moscow and New York, recently decided to settle in New York more or less permanently. “We’re witnessing the end of this period because of the political winds blowing in the opposite direction,” he said in a recent Skype conversation. “I think a number of the city’s important cultural administrators will be replaced by people more aligned with the politics of the government. Also, quite a lot of young, talented, creative people are already leaving.”

Maybe much of Moscow’s urbanist zeal was in the spirit of bread and circuses, the city as performative spectacle — or “ersatz politics” as he put it. But even Oskolkov-Tsentsiper felt the period will have a lasting impact. “This wave of enthusiasm about changing the city is authentic and involves a lot of people. It’s really becoming a mass phenomenon, not just small isolated pockets of Little Brooklyns in Moscow. The ambition is much bigger and much of what is happening is hopefully protected from the ideological changes.” He was less sanguine about Strelka’s missed potential. “It’s the part which I’m most sorry to lose,” he said. “Strelka had a special opportunity, probably exceptional among Russian institutions and think tanks, which are often financed by the state or the city, and not terribly inclined to take a critical position. As Strelka now makes quite a lot of money from [government] commissions I think that independence goes out the window.”

Yuri Grigoryan, fully engaged with big projects that could shape Moscow’s future identity, is committed to making the most of the situation. “It’s a personal question for everyone,” he said. “I live and work here, I missed my chance to emigrate 25 years ago.” Though still encouraged by the progress being made in the city, he worries over how politically sustainable it is, describing the mood as being like “two islands beside one another, or two different smells in the air.”

In this atmosphere, he said he finds himself frequently asking, “Am I patriotic? Am I patriotic enough?” He likes to think so. “But if I disagree with something it puts me on the other side. This seems to be the way things are.”

Chris Frey is the Toronto correspondent for Monocle magazine and the founding editor of Hazlitt.

You can read lots more like this in The Alpine Review №3: Permanence, available now to buy from us or at your favourite local indie mag dealer.

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