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(en) Russia, Avtonom #22 - A place under the sun - Movement against urban tightening in Moscow

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Wed, 14 Jul 2004 09:53:50 +0200 (CEST)


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Every year in Moscow much enough squaremetres are built to house a typical
Russian city with 200 000 inhabitants. Moscow is spreading further on from
MKAD ringroad, which was build to the border of the Soviet capital, and in
the city itself builders are eager to use every availaible piece of land.
Yards, children's squares, garages of "common mortals", architectural
heritage and any free space are sacrificed from the way of development.
This phenomenon is typical for many big cities and was named "tightening
construction" in Russia.
Current construction boom is far from being initiated by increased demand
of housing only. In Russia constructors are operating in a unique market,
which allows them to squeeze profit as big as the costs - municipality is
financing both construction and maintenance of water, gas, and electricity
supply and sidewalks. Operator must only build carcass of the building,
and all the rest is given for free. Unless new house is a Condominium
where inhabitants are collective owners of land and communication system,
house is automatically added to city balance sheet.

Movement of dwellers against urban tightening is the biggest truly
grassroot movement in Russia of today - initiative is not from any
organisation or party, but from casual people. Surrounding environment, in
this case not nature but everything which surrounds people in cities -
land, trees, fresh air - is considered as something valuable and beloved,
which allows a moment of relief in the middle of everyday haste. For sure,
people have different opinions on question how their yard or micro-area
should be built - some prefer more trees, others garages, some would like
to have a kiosk selling beer in the corner. But in any case people
understand their yard and area as something their own, a common good which
gives them moral right to stand up for their rights against developing
interests of the strangers.

These protests are organised under banners of fight against unjustice,
against profits of companies and against worsening of the conditions of
life. Only few, most pragmatic people make calculations on how much value
their estate may lose due to mushrooming housing towers hampering
sunshine, cutting of a park or increasing stream of cars. This fraction is
seldom seen in protests against tightening, since they suppose that
everything has been paid and decided a long time ago. Most of those
protesting just love their yards, trees planted with their own hands, and
familiar surroundings.

For elderly, demolition of old houses (usually accompanied with relocation
of their inhabitants to new suburbs built to distant borders of the
megalopolis) is a most dramatic and tragical event. For them, leaving
their old neighbourhood, where they have spent most of their lives, where
other familiar elderly live, where every brick is like their own, is
almost like death. Usually most staunch and uncompromising activists are
found among this group of people. Also those who understand value of
architectural heritage of old Moscow, old Sankt-Petersburg and other
cities are organising against demolitions. Usually development projects
are of commercial interest only. House of hotel “Moskva” is among those to
be demolished soon. All Moscow State University faculties remaining in
Ohotniy Ryad will be moved to Vorobevy Gory, they will be replaced by
business estates. Well-behaving clerks will replace shady humanists from
faculties of Journalistics and Asian and African studies

Movement against urban tightening is spontaneous and decentralised; this
is why its scale is difficult to estimate. But one may be certain that
this movement has existed for years, it has spread to all major cities and
it gains results. City authorities are forced to found committees to solve
quarrels between inhabitants and developers, and most controversial
projects are halted. Developers hire conflictologists to negotiate with
dwellers, and they bury project in case it becomes obvious that costs of
courts and regaining their “good reputation” become too big. Usually these
conflicts take years to be solved. Developers halt active works and play
time, and when inhabitants cool off a bit project is introduced once
again. This strategy is based on simple arithmetics – struggle demands
lots of time and efforts of dwellers, and developers hope that people get
tired and are not able to unite their efforts and renew the protest
campaign. This is why most fruitful campaigns are those which help people
to find each other, and during which such a group of activists is formed,
which is able to constantly monitor situation and organise other
inhabitants of the area to struggle whenever necessary. Due to this
collective activity, people gain chance to solve other actual problems of
the area: to build up children’s square, to build lampposts and so on.
Often before protest action they never realised that they may influence to
such issues on themselves.

One journalist, without much of sympathy on side of the movement, got it
right when talking about most effective tactics of the movement – “(in
Russia) It is only possible to stop construction with angered inhabitants,
who engage with the bulldozers”. This is a definite fact – escalation of
the conflict is usually only way to influence to situation. Blockades
against construction works and cutting down parks, to which mostly
pensioners and mothers with minors are participating, and resistance
against violent relocation are often organised by desperate inhabitants.
Developers and security often turn physical; police also gets involved,
threating with arrests and prosecution. Resistance at the borderline of
physical violence, and at times passing this border, is psychologically
very difficult to engage in for many people. Dwellers defend legitimacy of
their actions; they only use such methods when all other means to
influence the current situation are lost. They began with writing letters
to authorities as loyal citizens; they believe in righteousness of
existing order and state in defending their interests. And just few months
afterwards, they strongly and categorically talk about hypocrisy of the
power. Now they see power as main reason of their trouble, as their enemy,
and business and state structures as two heads of the same hydra, that
THEY always make deals between each other whereas worries of inhabitants
are not of interest to anybody.

Appeal to laws is another important condition for a succesfull campaign.
Russian legal system is complex and contradictory, thus no developer may
completely follow all demands given to planning and agreeing a project.
There is no means to build following every possible sanitary and
architectural regulation in most of the urban territory. Having legal
cover given by qualified lawyer, protests are not anymore just noise by
discontent pensioners (“who are always discontent anyway”), but a campaign
to reclaim legality. Inhabitants of one house in Gagarin area of Moscow
have already 12 years succesfully defended their huge yard, because they
have filed a huge file against developers which is pending, and any
attempts to bring technics to yard are immediately interfered.

Participators of the movement against urban tightening usually attempt to
solve only their own particuliar problem, they are not politicized and
they see the current political system as both legitimate and necessary.
But in the process of interaction with the political power, they receive a
good dose of critical attitude, and soon they see protests as only method
to bring change. Although such grassroot movements do not aim to change
the society as a whole, they act as a catalyst of social transformation.
They surpass atomization and alienation of modern society through creation
of unformal social relations; they create new practice of active and
direct participation of population to local politics. This way these
activists create foundations of massive social and political movements of
the future.

Arina Mayhova

Post Scriptum

Current oil boom has made Moscow a city of cranes, which propably may be
compared only with Chinese special economic zones or post-unification
Berlin. Leave your place for 2 months, and you may see a 25 floor monster
built another side of the road when you return. In only country where
elite is yet used to live in blocks of flats, Caribbean cruisers are built
on dry land. Mother of all Orwellian iron-curtain concrete hells, Moscow
is gaining even more height and weight due to tireless efforts of
Moldavian and Tadzhik gastarbeiters, whose life is cheap – more than 60 of
them might have died in a fire last year, although building corporation
claimed less than 10 victims, all with Russian surnames.

But although a visitor would find little or nothing beautiful in Moscow
suburbs (and half of the city centre looks like a suburb as well), many of
the inhabitants are determined to stand for the little beauty which is
left.

After printing 22nd issue of Avtonom, in Tuesday 22th of June 2004 there
was another meeting of movement against urban tightening in Moscow. This
meeting, organised in Pushkin square, gathered no more than 70 people, but
they came from at least seven different local initiatives. Day before
inhabitants of Krylatskoe, who were main initiators of the meeting in
Pushkin square had gathered twice more people in their own area.

Krylatskoe is one of the nicest regions of Moscow, which is threaten by a
project to build a 6 line highway through Moscow river and through park of
Serebryanyi Bor, one of the most popular places for recreation inside
Moscow. Inhabitants of this area are certain that highway is built
exclusively in interests of the elite and bureaucrats, many of whom have
their dachas in the NorthWest direction. Meeting gathered under banners
“Luzhkov (Moscow mayor) does not live in Moscow, so he may spit on us”,
“Moscow – a place for despotism”, “Lets us save Krylatskoe from despotism
of bureaucrats” and “Cynicism of Moscow powers has no any limits”.

Many of the orators in the meeting pointed to numerous legal violations
committed in their areas, many court processes are pending. It is also
positive that appeal to laws was not seen as only saviour from all
trouble, grassroot activists also understand necessity of protest actions.
Movement against urban tightening was and is self-organised, independent
and decentralised movement. “Usual suspects” (political parties and fringe
groups) were practically absent in meeting of 22nd of June. Besides
inhabitants of Krylatskoe, participators included activists fighting
against cutting of Park Beryozovaya Roscha from Horosheva region,
inhabitants of Pokrovskoe-Streshnevo (also fighting against cutting of a
park), Kuzminky anti-development activists and inhabitants from around
Hadimskoe field - current Moscow governement wants to build a massive
suburb there. Last one is the site of a famous catastrophe which took
place 110 years ago, when more than 1000 people died when a crowd panicked
after a firework accident during coronation celebrities of tsar Nikolai
II. In May 2004 in Moscow “A committee for defence of Muscovites” was
founded, it has representatives from various local groups but is
fulfilling only coordinatory functions.

Aleksei and Sanya

(For more articles from old issues of Avtonom in Russian, check out
www.avtonom.org)


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