The ‘Right to the City’ Emerges? Moscow’s Anti-Regeneration Protests

A 1950s Soviet poster advertising the newly built homes which the Muscovites are now trying to save from demolition. Artist: V. Govorkov, 1955.

Last month saw some of the most populous and socially significant protests in Moscow. A series of rallies was held against the plans by the Moscow authorities to demolish old ex-public housing stock and resettle over a million residents. What was supposed to be an uncontroversial policy and in the run-up to the municipal and federal elections may have been seen as a vote-winner, led to an unprecedented mobilisation of residents. The protesters see the plans as an unconstitutional attempt of a grand-scale expropriation in favour of city authorities and developers, and believe that they risk social cleansing and the change of the city in the interests of those who do not live there.  Local activism, lawsuits, engagement with parliamentary and other bodies followed, and the protests show no signs of abating, despite, in some cases, physical attacks and threats to participants.

The collision, unpleasantly familiar to Londoners, New Yorkers and others who see their cities similarly taken away from them, can be fruitfully seen as the emergence of the collective consciousness of the right to the city. In his numerous works on the subject, Henry Lefebvre envisaged this right as sustained political action aimed at ensuring participation of disparate actors through collective ownership and management of urban space. The Moscow protesters are sometimes portrayed as petit-bourgeois nimbys who are trying to hold on to their properties at the expense of the needs and wishes of others — and of the authorities’ will to ensure the people decent conditions of living. The criticism is, on the whole, unfair; yet in many respects the Moscow protests are different from Lefebvre’s revolutionary vision. Nevertheless, the right to the city is being born, however its exact configuration in the Russian context bears some reflection.

Background

The need for some regeneration and resettlement in Moscow is universally accepted. Its 1950–60s housing stock was built quickly to ease the dire housing shortage and never meant to be permanent.  A prior programme of resettlement, where people were given like-for-like or better properties has been going on for a while with little if any outcry. Indeed, many in the capital are still desperate for a move but unable or unwilling to meet the cost of buying a new property and relying on the state to step in like in good old times. So it is likely that the new programme was meant to look even more socially attractive — and for the more trusting part of the population it perhaps is.

Is their trust warranted? To begin with, the scale of the new plans is considerably greater and will affect over 8,000 apartment blocks and 1.6 million people. To carry them out, an ‘extraordinary’ bill was introduced into the national parliament and is now due its second reading on 9 June. Many features of the bill are indeed extraordinary. If passed without amendments, it will allow the city authorities the freedom to designate ‘regeneration zones’ at will, and potentially to tear down structurally sound but ‘morally outdated’ homes. It also suspends planning, health and safety, architectural and environmental restrictions in Moscow — the freedom not enjoyed by local authorities or developers anywhere else in the country. Procedural niceties are also dispensed with: a single offer to move will be made, and those who refuse could be evicted by an unappealable court order. The compensation for the potential loss in value is not even mentioned.

The above was enough for the presidential legislative scrutiny committee, along with many others, to declare the bill fatally flawed. However, the cavalier way it treats the constitutionally protected property rights of those affected (not meant to be interfered with except on strictly circumscribed grounds) makes it truly politically explosive. The bill is curiously reticent as to how the right in one property is extinguished and the right in another is accorded; yet it seems that this does not happen automatically or straight away. The significance of this can be better understood if one knows that property in one’s own home is one of the cornerstones of the post-Soviet political settlement. The right to privatise state-provided homes for free was, as one author puts it, a consolation prize for all those excluded or cheated out of their share in the public assets they, or their parents and grandparents, had helped to create. Now this compact risks being upended.

There is even less clarity with regard to the co-ownership of land under and adjacent to the blocks. Under the current housing law, it jointly belongs to all flat owners who are, in principle, collectively responsible for its maintenance and use. There is a suspicion that the real reason for such extraordinary measures and the haste with which they are being implemented is to carry out a large-scale expropriation in favour of the city authorities and developers of the prime land currently unreachable and making no profit: the bill makes no provision for the acquisition of new land rights after resettlement. The suspicion is supported by the publicised lists of blocks slated for demolition (not necessarily derelict but often in prestigious areas, while less attractive areas are left alone) and confirmed by the words of a vice-mayor: ‘People must pay for the right to live in and use the capital.’

The city hall promises that everybody’s rights will be protected and nobody will be resettled outside their neighbourhood or adjacent areas. However, promises are easily broken and cannot be enforced.  It is feared that the dispossession of small property owners and the severe curtailment of their ability to affect planning decisions (e.g. to participate in environmental scrutiny) will lead to the feudalisation of social relations. These fears do not look unfounded.

The anti-politics of locality

It is the perceived collusion between the old-style quasi-Soviet bureaucracy and the rampant developers (who suffered heavy losses in the economic downturn) that gives the protest its radical flavour. In many other respects it is anything but. Many protesters have never been to any protests before, but the regeneration plans have been remarkably successful in creating rebels out of hitherto complacent, even content, people.

Even now, they self-position as ‘non-political’ (all the while articulating such political demands as resignation of the mayor) and jealously guard against the attempts by different political forces to appropriate the protest: their involvement is widely seen as the kiss of death. They know that the authorities are adept at dismissing their political opponents, and may themselves, for many reasons, sees the opposition as marginal: ‘When we, the people of this city, demand that the mayor resign, it is one thing; when we are seen as ‘a handful of activists’, it’s completely different.’

As a matter of tactics, this sounds reasonable. However, more than tactics is at play, and reveals the emergence of space itself as a principle of organisation. The first mid-May protest was organised by locality: people rallied under the banners of their neighbourhoods. This indeed goes beyond politics, or at least the politics within the familiar liberal-democratic confines. In this regard, people’s aversion to ‘politics’ may grasp something important: the realisation that traditional politics fragments and compartmentalises their lives just as successfully as the capital does in its drive to profit out of every little segment of them. Therefore, the connection to locality seems to be the only ‘real’ thing capable of helping them re-grasp a more authentic experience of social life. The right to the city and the fight for it appears as a fight for a threatened locality.

The politics of ownership

Property rights often appear as a bête noire of progressive politics. For Lefebvre, they are what separates owning from living, what prevents de-alienation and appropriation of the city by those who live there. However, the Moscow protesters widely frame their discontent precisely in terms of private property: this is the framework through which they understand its meaning. The primarily non-market way of its acquisition, explained above, somewhat explains the depth of feeling about it and the wealth of connotations that property bears. For others who acquired their property in the open market, the threat of being deprived of it for no good reason is the violation of their autonomy. The idea of a ‘property ladder’ to climb is non-existent, and history, heredity or choice are all bound up in their emotional attachment to the place. Some fight for their blocks because ‘we survived the war [WWII] in them’.

The above is not an unproblematic vision: there are also renters and those who rely on social housing. Yet, as is typical for the former socialist bloc, the percentage of proprietors is very high, around 80–90%. What Lefebvre meant by de-alienation — the reconnection of the city with the web of relations between those who inhabit it 1 — in this context appears as the people finally fully grasping the meaning and psychological import of their legal ownership now that it has been threatened, while before it may have been an abstraction.

Even though the ‘possessive individualism’ of such ownership gets a bad rap, in the Moscow protests private interests became enmeshed with community concerns. Where David Harvey saw such possessiveness as the reason for ‘political withdrawal from communal form of action‘,2 here it had the opposite effect. Numerous earlier discontents about the state of the city as a whole have been channelled into the protest, in which we can discern the sense of insulted and denied ownership of the city as such. The relationship between the mayor and Muscovites is notoriously fraught. It’s not all bad – but there is much unhappiness with the authorities’ record of often thoughtless urban ‘improvement’, tearing down protected buildings, the destruction of the environment, endless repaving and turning a blind eye to illegal construction. The protest re-appropriates all the things that constitute the city and redefines the residents as something other than the human mass to be managed or profit from.

Horizontal ties

Whatever happens to the regeneration of the city, the widely noted feature of the protest has been the revival of horizontal social ties without which no functional society can exist. This is no mean feat in a city with an estimated population of more than 15 million, as atomised and transient as any other megapolis. Yet the horizontal ties, among other things, became the value to fight for, as the plans threaten them in multiple ways. For one, the underhanded haste with which the authorities and the developers try to garner unquestioning support for their plans (even while the legal framework for them still does not exist), with no consultation or disclosure, has already created animosity between neighbours. These ties are definitely a work in progress.

The history of slum clearance in the UK and the mixed social consequences of that endeavour, including the destruction of social networks and creation of the pockets of violence and desolation, come to mind. Among the likely consequences of the rebuilding of Moscow is the creation of ghettos of which the city has so far been free. The city hall’s promises about creating an appropriate infrastructure and minimally disrupting people’s lives are not borne out by the dismal prior record of development — Moscow is full of new, shoddily built high-rise blocks, christened ‘human anthills’ for a reason.  It is feared that the current plans will produce the city-wide landscape of sleeping pods for the deracinated population (which will also drastically increase as sky-scrapers replace low-rise housing). Another aspect is the people who rely on the horizontal ties and the familiarity of the locality for their thriving and survival: particularly the elderly, the vulnerable and the lonely, for whom their loss could be incompatible with living.

The right to dwell?

Lefebvre put his ‘right to the city’ into the context of a continuous ‘revolutionary’ effort of remaking the urban life, freeing it from the domination of both the state and the market. While few protesters in Moscow are likely to see themselves as the avant-garde of the working class, their unwillingness to submit to the non-choices offered as inevitable makes their protest quietly radical. This rebellion is ‘conservative’ in the same vein that resistance to enclosures was. Call it nostalgic radicalism, if you like: this being Russia, the unprepossessing blocks, which the residents are trying to save from the wrecking ball of change, gain a symbolic significance akin to Chekhov’s cherry orchard.

‘Change’ is the fickle currency whose value is often accepted unthinkingly in politics. Yet without specifying who changes whom, what, for what purpose and whom it benefits, we cannot appreciate its significance and challenge its inevitability. In ‘The Right to the City’ David Harvey stresses the transformative aspect of urban rights: to him it is the right to change oneself by changing the city. However, what the Moscow protests showed is that it may first be necessary to fight for the right to stay put: change, or at least some of it, is an imposition. Harvey says, ‘The freedom to make and remake our cities is… one of the most precious yet the most neglected human rights.’ Indeed. Yet sometimes it is equally precious — and the necessary first step in the re-appropriation of the cities —  simply to be able to hold on to them. The right to the city reappears as the right to permanence and the right to dwell in it, in the manifold meanings of the word.

Tatiana Hansbury is a PhD candidate, Birkbeck Law School

Show 2 footnotes

  1. H. Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996, p. 173–4.
  2. D. Harvey, The Right to the City, New Left Review 53, September–October 2008.
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  2 comments for “The ‘Right to the City’ Emerges? Moscow’s Anti-Regeneration Protests

  1. Paul Goettlich
    6 June 2017 at 2:16 pm

    I am a retired architect. I have a small farm now and grow vegetables and fruits. I also raise goats and chickens. In 1974 my father’s store was demolished by the Municipal Redevelopment Authority. It was comprised of several 3- and 4-story buildings, some dating to the American Civil War. The business was originated by my grandfather and supported many families. The building house not only the business, but also many apartments above it that was home to my grandparents and extended family members. It is widely accepted that this action by Redevelopment was a cleansing of the Puerto Ricans who lived in the area under the guise of urban renewal and the drug war. This area remains a gravel parking lot since 1974. It ruined the business, as my father was left by Redevelopment with not enough cash to purchase a new building.

    Given that scenario, I am 100% against Authorities making unilateral decisions regarding such actions as they seem to never consider the lives of the families and the cohesiveness of what has developed over years, regardless of its perceived beauty.

    I have lived in other communities such as Oakland, California where large scale urban renewal projects have left the ethnic and racial population devastated by what looks and smells like severe discrimination. The clear purpose almost always appears to be a cleansing to make way for the self interests of the moneyed Caucasians at the expense of everyone else.

    Now, as an architect I would like to see in this essay some photographic examples of the buildings in question. This type of critique is not complete without graphic examples. And I think this publication should require it in order to fully describe the arguments set out here. I am not will to consider this until it does have such examples.

    Thank you for your consideration.

    • Tatiana Hansbury
      13 June 2017 at 11:16 am

      Thanks for your comment, Paul. Your story clearly shows the commonality between the situations everywhere, and it was really sad to read how people, trade, relationships had to give way to a parking lot.

      As for the photographic examples, I don’t know if the format allows this. In any case, my purpose was to fix some of the facets of a still developing situation, with the focus on its socio-legal implications. The replacement buildings do not yet exist anywhere except in concept plans – some info can be found here http://archsovet.msk.ru/en/ But whatever the plans, they may never materialise, and, more importantly, the residents (or some of them) do not trust the authorities’ act of ‘benign paternalism’. And even if the new builds are amazing, does it compensate for the potential loss or downgrading of property rights? This can make residents merely lodgers in their own city – especially if, as often happens, they end up in hock to the developers for all other services.

      As for the existing blocks, the point is that ANY of them, regardless of their architectural value and condition can be at risk. For the most part, they are the typical khruschchyovkas (plenty of examples on the net, also see Owen Hatherley’s fascinating reporting in the Guardian). Some of them really must be demolished, but some can last for a lot longer with thoughtful refurbishment – there are great examples in Russia and elsewhere. Importantly, they have a lot of green space and all the infrastructure, as required by the Soviet planning rules.

      However, an organisation working to protect Moscow’s architectural heritage reports that valuable houses (some listed) also got slated for demolition – the forthcoming law allows that. This report here is in Russian, but there are photos, and you can see for yourself: http://www.archnadzor.ru/2017/06/01/renovatsiya-glazami-arhnadzora

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