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STRELKA ESPAC ESSAY

Daniele Belleri

WHO IS SCARED OF MOSCOW'S COMMUNITIES? ESPAC THEME: The new collective. What is the potential for community after communism?

27th October 2013

Daniele Belleri

STRELKA ESPAC ESSAY

Who is scared of Moscow's communities?


There is a popular, ambiguous argument you can easily hear of in left-leaning, well-educated Western circles. It says that communism in Eastern Europe had been undoubtedly negative on all extents but one. According to this belief, the Soviet regime had been of course a dictatorship, yet at least it had been able to promote a spirit of collaboration between people. It had shaped a vision for which individuals could feel they were sharing a collective destiny. It had fostered a sense of community that has then disappeared, and it is now terribly missing, especially in turbo-capitalist, post-1991 Russia. This argument, though deep-rooted in our foreigner's mind, hardly survive a short visit eastbound. Quite disappointedly, when asked about the toughness and the selfishness of the life in 21st century Moscow, only seldom the locals do express some complain. Even when they do it, it is clear that it is not to regret the old order. After this experience, you would be tempted to quickly dismiss the initial argument as a sheer example of bad faith and lack of intellectual rigor. In fact, the very consideration on how the concept of “community” has changed in the last decades, if sincerely stripped from its political duplicity, remains a crucial point to understand contemporary Russia. Especially when you deal with the connections between society and the built environment. Indeed, living in Moscow means coping with a city that is still largely communist in its physical appearance. Even if you underestimate the relevance of architecture and urban planning, you can't but think that you are traveling on a subway built by a totalitarian regime, you are walking under facades rich of Soviet effigies, you are enjoying a centralized heating system which is a product of the work of the Russian proletariat. No other major European city which has experienced a non-democratic regime during the course of the 20th century can present such an evident, loud testimony of the past. Not Rome and surely not Berlin. The hard, material foundations of Moscow still tells about Real Socialism. Compared to that, the evidences of the current domination of capitalism appear fleeing, perhaps as rapid and intangible as the fluxes of high-frequency, automated trading: Asiatic SUVs passing by swiftly, temporary shops, people's seasonal clothes marked by Spanish, French and Italian fashion brands. At an individual level, few people would acknowledge that communism still exercises some sort of influence over their behavior. But what about the collective level, related to the very physical structure of the city, its planning? To understand this point, and how it correlates with Soviet history, we need to go back to a fundamental day in the history of Russia. On the 7 th December 1954, Nikita Chruš ëv made an appearance at the periodical meeting of the National Conference of Builders and Architects. In this occasion, the then First Secretary of the Communist Party exposed the guidelines of a brand-new State program of construction that in the following decades would have changed forever the look of Moscow and of the whole Eastern bloc. The year 1955 signs the start of a new time in USSR: the era of the mass pre-fabricated housing. At the heart of this revolution, whose impact over Moscow is only comparable to the gigantic plans made by Ildefons Cerdà and Baron Haussmann respectively for Barcelona and Paris, there is the basic pattern of the Micro Rayon. This building scheme, developed with strict criteria of economic efficiency in mind, has been representing a huge shift for the Russian society and it had been dominant all around the Soviet Union for tens and tens of years. In a way, the general idea of urban community expressed by communism can be read through the geometrical disposition of the residential condominiums within the micro district.

Daniele Belleri

STRELKA ESPAC ESSAY

Who is scared of Moscow's communities?


I am inclined to believe that the way in which USSR officials designed Moscow still influences not just the collective way of living of the Muscovites, but also to some extent the new residential developments adopted after 1991. To put it another way, a particular concept of the relationship between the city and its inhabitants has survived the change of the political system. A seemingly absurd continuity between communism and capitalism can be individuated, at least in the field of urban planning, with the result that in the last hundred years in Moscow the communitarian dimension has been constantly discouraged and weakened. At the end of this essay I will briefly speculate whether any alternative future scenario can be envisioned on a sociological and urban point of view. But what do we mean when we say community? In general, the many different definitions given by sociologists tend to agree on a three-fold scheme. Therefore, the term community deals with a group of people sharing a space (though it may be more correct to talk about a "realm" and not necessarily a physical space), some common values or rules (the closer the community, the “thicker” the set of values), and an awareness of being part of the same social entity (which can sometimes lead to a voluntary segregation of the community from the rest of the society). Among the almost endless types of ideal communities (local or national, ethnic or religious, political or professional, sportive or cultural, virtual or real), in this context of this essay I am just interested in those community that can play an active role in the urban environment. Hence, the concept will be observed here from a quite specific perspective. I will illustrate my thesis using seamlessly the theorizations given in urban sociology and in urban planning by authors such as Anna Minton, Jane Jacobs, Georg Simmel, Mancur Olson, Robert Putnam and Louis Wirth, as well as the positions that the same social unit deserve into different political-economic systems. It is good to remind how the concept of community is per se neither good nor bad, neither capitalistic nor socialist. Taken to the extreme, the so-called “communitarianism” utopia can be seen as a political system on its own. Communities are a necessary part of any healthy society. However, an excess of community can be perilous. Liberal democracy at its best could be somehow defined as a network of flexible, “morally-thin” communities, in which individuals are free to decide whether to stay in a unique community or to move between different social dimensions. In this scenario, each community contributes to a constructive debate regarding the best configuration of society as a whole in terms of values, policies and even urban development. At the same time, an excessive power of communities can produce a sort of “dictatorship of the particular interests”. A network of isolated groups adverse to any kind of mutual compromise will shape something similar to a tribal society. According to the German-born philosopher Hannah Arendt, one of the common features of the main 20th-century totalitarian regimes is their will to suppress any intermediate body between the central state and the individual – de facto destroying the social space where communities are expected to thrive. In her Origins of totalitarianism, Arendt argues that willfulness is a prerequisite for an undisputed political control over the masses, or better over the atomized “mass man”. Political parties are reduced to unnecessary entities, and any kinds of free associations, those that Tocqueville famously regarded as an antidote against the "tyranny of the majority", are either posed under the control of the State or eliminated. Quite tellingly, even groups of philatelists, esperantists and ornithologists were forced to

Daniele Belleri

STRELKA ESPAC ESSAY

Who is scared of Moscow's communities?


close during the Stalinist period. At that time, the State's interference reached even the primary social unit: the family. At school, children were encouraged to denounce their parents' slightest political betrayals. Shifting to a planning level, a closer watch at the Chruš ëv's speech of the 7 th December 1954 can be revelatory. In this long relation focused on technical details, culminating in the renowned claim “We are not against beauty, but against unnecessary elements”, it appears evident how philosophical reflections could not get much space within the no-nonsense frame of the mass-housing program. Nonetheless it is still remarkable how rare the presence of words hinting at any kind of human and social factor is, for a project conceived to affect the lives of millions of people. Along these lines, the term community is never mentioned at all. While underlining its past experience as a plumber, Chruš ëv speaks exclusively in terms of economical efficiency and of resource savings. This approach is then reflected in the mathematical rigor of the rayon's master-plan. A huge squared lot intended to house about 150.000 people is divided into quarters. Each quarter is bordered by a major street and it is filled with pre-fabricated, either four-storey or nine-storey block of flats, disposed in a geometrical grid. Common services such as schools, shops, ambulatories and public transportation, best reachable by foot, are scattered within the area, in the midst of abundant green spaces. The Micro Rayon put forward the idea of the city as an empty ground where a limited array of standardized elements is infinitely reproduced. In this mechanical vision, people cannot but be regarded as predictable pawns to be placed at a convenient distance from to the shared facilities. A full judgement on the Soviet housing program cannot prescind from the historical condition in which the Politburo had to operate in. In order to fix the historical shortage of dwellings in Russia, a titanic effort was needed. Certainly there was no room to consider soft matters such as the livability conditions as priorities. Architects and builders had to work like fire brigades: the faster the better. Yet it is possible to read the housing program in the context of an ideology that certainly did not consider the development of communities as a positive thing. Of course the social bonds were never erased, also because Chruš ëv was not interested in pursuing the political terror of Stalin. Yet the whole Micro Rayon was designed conforming to a "managerial paradigm" that reduced any issue to a technical fact. In this realm, any community reclaiming too much public attention was possibly considered a political threat. In the late 1960s, a group of artists living in the then-new neighborhood of Belyaeyevo, in south Moscow, started to work on a series of creations that we know ascribe to the Russian Conceptualism avant-garde. One of their first public shows, which promoted quite different aesthetic standards from to the orthodox Palaces of Culture, was abruptly interrupted by government bulldozers attempting to destroy the exhibits. Another important chapter regards the relationships between neighbors within the pre-fabricated district. The construction program started by Chruš ëv had a profound impact on the life of millions of families. After a housing crisis dating back to the 1920s, finally householders received a private flat to live in. This represented a major change from the Stalin years, when the shortage of accommodations had been so conspicuous that people had had to squeeze with strangers into shared flats or uncomfortable dwellings such as abandoned churches and barracks, not to mention the risk of becoming victim of a political tip-off.

Daniele Belleri

STRELKA ESPAC ESSAY

Who is scared of Moscow's communities?


Within the new apartments, husbands and wives were finally able to decide who to invite at their dining table. This fostered an entire new kind of social scene. As in the case of Belyayevo, art and culture initiatives flourished from the spaces of the private rooms, sometimes reverberating on the outside. Yet it would be exaggerated to think that this change had been enough to challenge the general political order. In fact, the distribution of State apartments allowed the government to gain a wider consensus and gratitude from the population. The benefits of a respectable place where to sleep and meet friends were enormous for two generations accustomed to live in miserable conditions since the aftermath of the October Revolution. The picture above can be roughly extended until the early 1990s. In order to understand how things have evolved hereinafter, and how the relationships between the built environment and the society can be read nowadays, I now need to individuate the urban scheme that can be regarded as the most symbolic of the present situation in Moscow. Given the difficulty to find a single pattern which might stand out in the planning panorama as the Micro Rayon did for about forty years in the recent past, I have eventually chosen to focus my attention on those urban complexes that in the West are usually indicated as "gated communities" (alternative indications based on the recurrence of the topic on Russian media are those of “closed condominium”, “residential compound”, “gated complex,” “upscale dwelling,” and “residential village”). One important specification regards the purpose and the value of this choice. Indeed, I have no statistical proof that the gated communities have been the most widespread housing scheme in Moscow in the last twenty years. This pick has been made for two kinds of qualitative reasons. The first one deals with the fact that gated communities as we presently intend them were a quite negligible phenomena during the Soviet era. The second one concerns the frequency with which the term as well as its equivalents have been quoted in local newspapers and magazines. As a result, I guess that the gated communities can be interpreted as a distinguishing feature of contemporary Russia, just as the Micro Rayons were a prominent trait of Soviet Russia. According to the literature analyzing what have been happening in the US since the 1970s, a gated community can be defined as a collective residential solution which is clearly delimitated and separated by its surrounding environment, in terms both of physical isolation and of restricted access. What really distinguish this living typology from any other vast, CCTV-guarded condominium is its voluntary detachment from the outside social order: A disconnection which often leads to gated communities miming the traits of the Modern State. If no place like this is given without a private security force patrolling the area 24 hours a day, some gated communities have even provided themselves with a separate set of rules potentially in contrast with the national or local law. Gated communities in Moscow obviously present some differences from those, say, in England or in California, due to the different economical, political and social contexts. Surely the most evident manifestations of this many-sided phenomenon have been the so-called “Elite houses”, namely those ridiculously expensive apartments for high bureaucrats and leading financial officers that depict how literally politics goes to bed with economy in the Russian capital. Far away from the address of Shvedskiy Tupik's House no.3, where the inner circle of Vladimir Putin's ministers and friends is hosted

Daniele Belleri

STRELKA ESPAC ESSAY

Who is scared of Moscow's communities?


in an unique condominium, less prestigious gated complexes exist too, assuring the Muscovite middle or lower middle classes a protection from migrants and other marginal populations living in nearby deprived neighborhoods. Further out of the city, the situation become more complicated, the metropolitan Green Belt having been one of the favorite destinations for people of all social extractions in the last decades. The crucial question is: what kind of community are these housing development actually producing? In these compounds, the level of social homogeneity is much higher than in the Micro Rayon. Still, this is infrequently accompanied by any particular mutual recognition between the fellow members. Some studies have argued that the most frequent psychological state developed by people living in such environments is not a sense of safety. Paradoxically, the hyper-protection would produce a growing sense of insecurity, resulting in a more and more intense desire of detachment from the outside world, or in the formula reported by sociologist Maria Zotova: “More gated, less community�. At the same time, it would be an excess to say this mixture of paranoia and isolation in unavoidable. Since the last three decades, some currents of American urbanism have started paying a great attention on how a specific set of physical devices can improve the "living conditions" of suburban, low-density neighborhoods. Such handbooks usually include detailed indications on how sidewalks, gardens and fences should be arranged in order to boost a stronger sense of community. Unlike what happened in the case of the Micro Rayon, the "quality of life" is considered an important factor in the gated community's discourse. Safety, proximity to green areas and availability of private parking lots are important services that these compounds want to satisfy. At the same time, all these benefits are to be enjoyed first and foremost at an individual level. The main reason a person living in a gated community would be willing to divide its space with others is given by the straightforward financial consideration that common services cost less to each contributor if shared by a larger number of people. Here the similarity with the Micro Rayon becomes explicit. In both cases, the best form of spatial organization is that which allow each person to enjoy common services despite the presence of hundreds or thousands of peers asking the same thing: A well-functioning, apolitical urban machine. A parallel line can be traced between the ideologies that have produced the pre-fabricated city and the fenced compounds. Both systems have put communities on the sideline, even though in radically different ways, and with obvious contrasting purposes. On the one hand, the totalitarian Soviet regime could not allow the existence of islands of "particular interests", which could have cultivated different priorities than those of the planned economy. On the other hand, liberal democracy can accept communities as long as they substitute large portions of their internal set of values with the very morality base that legitimates the free market. On a certain extent, political diversity is here tolerated, provided that it can be later absorbed into a different niche of consumption. Indeed, gated communities are founded on an ensemble of values extraordinarily thin, centered on the idea of protection. These residential developments often guest a network of atomized men and women, living side by side and ignoring each other. That's how the three-fold idea of community has been overturned and neutralized. In Moscow, two different ideologies have produced two planning schemes. Yet at the

Daniele Belleri

STRELKA ESPAC ESSAY

Who is scared of Moscow's communities?


foundations of both of them a comparable paradigm can be read: A scheme which prevent communities to gain importance, provoking individuals' atomization. The Russian capital seems then defined by its physical structure and by its practical management criteria, while communities and a shared political platform are relegated at the tail-end. Using a vocabulary dear to Pier Vittorio Aureli, one might argue that Moscow in the 20th century has been much closer to the Roman concept of urbs than to that of civitas. The social trust level is a common sociological indicator: A percent index derived from the share of people in a certain community stating that they trust strangers. An higher level of social trust is generally considered a positive factor. From a theoretical standpoint, because it shows a balance between central power central, communities and citizenship. From a practical point of view, both because an higher level of trust imply a lower cost of financial interactions (think at the fluctuations of interest rates) and because the social trust tends to grow along with national wealth: the richer the more trusting. Since these kinds of measurements started, Russia never obtained a high result, especially compared to countries such as the Scandinavian ones. In 1990, the registered level of social trust was 37%. Ten years later, it has collapsed to 24%, expressing the country's economic plight in the transitional phase. In 2008 it has recovered to 29,9%, following the GDP expansion of the new century. If the positive economic trend continues, social trust will probably follow. Even so, there is no evidence that a richer Russia will necessarily develop forms of urban planning that contrast segregation. Even if Moscow's gated communities developed an internal cohesion, this would not necessarily represent an improvement for the whole society. Is there any future for community in Moscow? Until now, I have focused on the common ground between capitalism and communism in terms of their approach to urban planning. Now I would like to step back to the differences, being this a crucial matter when talking about the possible upcoming evolutions. While communism planning was founded on the unique and monolithic scheme of the Micro Rayon, capitalism shows a more flexible nature. Even though the difficulties of reclaiming some sort of civitas in a city like Moscow ought to be acknowledged, it seems to me that the intrinsic resilience of capitalism can offer some hope. Let's look at the spaces still unoccupied by what we have called gated communities. There you will found plenty of minority experiences either of micro urban planning or of bottom-up urban actions. A former thoroughfare becoming a pedestrian street. A no-profit association fighting for the preservation of historical palaces. A voluntary program of surveys for improving the services offered by local libraries. These are minuscule, almost insignificant events, especially on an economical scale. But they tell us about something potentially bigger: the foundation of new communities gathered around an interest for what it's public. As the first generation who did not directly experienced communism is entering the working world, it is right to remind that capitalism – even a crony capitalism such as the Russian one – always allows interstices of free action, provided that the subversives will be sooner or later absorbed in the free-market mechanism. In these interstices you can glimpse the possibilities of a new equilibrium between the metropolis and its communities.

Daniele Belleri

STRELKA ESPAC ESSAY

Who is scared of Moscow's communities?

Belleri Strelka ESPAC october 2013  
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