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Moscow gets a much needed facelift. But is it worth the cost?

patterns of thought

Russia's capital is finally seeing the fruits of its 3-year, $2 billion beautification campaign – and the results are impressive. But critics still abound, arguing that the public was underconsulted and the project overpriced.

Visitors walk on a pedestrian bridge over the Moskva River at the newly opened Zaryadye Park off Red Square in central Moscow on Sept. 11.
Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
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Moscow is a city that's notorious for its grand, overpowering architecture. Modernizing and humanizing it by enabling public access and convenience is no small task.

But that is what the $2 billion My Street project launched by Mayor Sergei Sobyanin is attempting to do.

And depending on who you ask, the massive remaking is either a magical transformation that shows this glorious, ancient city arising Cinderella-like from its Soviet-era rags, or else it's an endless source of dust, noise, and traffic snarls, as well as a giant trough of public funds for greedy officials and construction magnates to wallow in. (And in Russia's far-flung provinces, you will only hear complaints about the exorbitant resources lavished on Russia's narcissistic capital at the expense of everyone else.)

Some of Moscow's major downtown thoroughfares have been closed for months at a time and completely dug up, bringing howls of outrage from local residents and businesses whose lives were disrupted. Outdoor kiosks, small businesses selling everything imaginable that proliferated after the collapse of the USSR, have been almost completely cleared from city streets. Moscow traffic, always verging on paralytic, sometimes became an intolerable nightmare; road rage incidents multiplied.

But over the past year or so, Muscovites have seen many of those same streets re-emerge from the construction hoardings with broad, tree-lined sidewalks, benches, flower beds, bicycle lanes, and traffic islands. Some have been transformed completely into pedestrian malls. Archaeological discoveries turned up by the works have made headlines and some have been turned into permanent outdoor museum displays. And residents seem more happy with the transformation than not.

A man walks past an excavator parked on a heap of wreckage during the demolition of street kiosks and stalls declared illegal by the city authorities in Moscow in August 2016.
Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
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“This had to be done a long time ago. It is long overdue,” says Nikolai Shumakov, president of the Russian Union of Architects. “There are some defects, of course. But these changes are basically welcome.”

Remaking the city

It's the newest iteration of Moscow, a city that has been overhauled many times in the past century. Ever since the Bolsheviks opted to move the capital here from St. Petersburg following the 1917 Revolution, Moscow has been the canvas for successive Communist leaders to impose their own visions of what the “capital of world socialism” should look like – often by ripping down some of the city's oldest neighborhoods.

Employing the labor of German prisoners of war, Joseph Stalin built the seven enormous “wedding cake” skyscrapers that still hover over central Moscow. Nikita Khrushchev demolished a vast swath of the ancient Arbat district to make way for a broad avenue lined with domino-like office towers, now known as New Arbat. Later Soviet leaders bequeathed cold, utilitarian public buildings, and the endless vistas of high-rise tenements that stretch to the city limits and house Moscow's teeming millions.

Today, the outlines of Vladimir Putin's Moscow are just coming into full focus. The Moscow City Center project, a gaggle of wildly shaped modern glass office towers resembling London's Canary Wharf, is testimony to the yet-unfulfilled Putin-era hopes of transforming Moscow into a global financial center.

It falls to Mr. Sobyanin, mayor since 2010, to apply the finishing touches. In addition to the My Street project, he has initiated a sweeping, controversial program to demolish thousands of old Soviet-era tenements and move their residents into new housing. Moscow has also seen a major expansion of its metro system, and the inauguration of a rapid transit network and several new expressways on his watch.

Next to the Kremlin, on the site once occupied by the giant, crate-shaped Rossiya Hotel, Moscow's first new park in 50 years is wowing visitors. Called Zaryadye, after an ancient district behind Red Square's market stalls, the $250-million park features vegetation from four separate Russian eco-zones, an underground concert hall, and a platform over the Moscow River that affords unprecedented views of the Kremlin and the city's historic river embankments.

In what looks like a typical Russian paradox, the park almost immediately had to be fenced-in, and now can be entered only via metal detectors and police searches, after it was vandalized within days of its opening.

Political implications

Polls show that inhabitants of Moscow increasingly like the project's growing results, which bodes well for the energetic mayor, Sobyanin, who faces re-election in less than a year.

“Focus groups show that the majority of Moscow's population support these changes,” says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “They like the fact that there are fewer cars, more sidewalks, more greenery. So, the wishes of the authorities and the population appear to be aligned. Opponents of the project object to this modernization from above. They believe the most important issue is that people aren't consulted, and the changes were not agreed with local communities.”

People rest at a glass dome with a greenhouse at the newly opened Zaryadye Park off Red Square in central Moscow on Sept. 11, 2017.
Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
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That does have political implications, he says. In last month's municipal elections, downtown Moscow districts – including those most affected by the renovations – surprised the establishment by electing large numbers of a liberal opposition bloc to local councils. These districts are traditional bastions of middle-class opposition, so the voting may not be a direct response to the city works. But authorities will now have to face much more focused criticism from newly elected deputies.

“Part of the opposition regards anything the authorities do as incompetent, and an excuse for corruption, and they are now sitting inside the councils,” says Mr. Makarkin.

‘Same country in a different way’

Not everyone agrees the beautification project is for the best. “Of course it's good to improve our city,” says Nikolai Lyzlov, a Moscow architect. “But I don't like it when everything is done to a single standard, in one style, by one company, everywhere and rapidly. Our city was created over centuries, every district has a different atmosphere, and here it is being homogenized. It would be so much better to do this as a slow process, directed by the municipalities and with the participation of citizens.”

And, although an astute reader of the Russian media can detect a distant sound of thunder, little heed has so far been paid to the growing chorus of voices across Russia's vast hinterland complaining of the disproportionate resources devoted to prettifying Moscow.

Although 40 Russian centers are currently undergoing urban renewal drives ordered by the Kremlin, the total budget for those cities, whose locations range from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, is just $700 million. Moscow's My Street project alone costs $2 billion.

“We are also trying to make our city of Omsk better and more comfortable for life but, the thing is, we seem to live in the same country but in a different way,” says Sergei Kostarov, a professor of Omsk State University in western Siberia. “We can't help but notice that building Zaryadye Park in Moscow cost the same as our entire city budget. It just shows that the centralization of political power in Russia still results in the centralization of everything.”

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