Putin’s Moscow Is a New Kind of Potemkin Village

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If Karl Marx could see Russia today, he might revise his view of religion’s role in oppressive regimes. In the country’s capital, urbanism has become the new opium of the people.

Authoritarian leaders have long seen cities as a stage to demonstrate their competence and benevolence. Josef Stalin presided over the construction of the Moscow subway, to this day one of the world’s most impressive. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev built an entirely new capital in the steppe, complete with an indoor beach. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is notorious not only for silencing dissenters, but also for keeping Minsk spotlessly clean.

Over the past several years, however, Moscow has taken the approach to a whole new level. I lived and worked there from 1993 to 2003, and when I walk the streets now, I find what I see hard to reconcile with my memory of the place. Back then, kiosks and metal detached one-car garages (known as “rakushki,” or clamshells) clogged the passageways and courtyards. Cars ruled the streets and sidewalks. Public transport was for suckers. Simple bureaucratic tasks commonly became epic quests. Whenever I heard of grand development plans, I assumed they would end like their predecessors, unfinished and mired in recriminations.

I was wrong. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, has proven on a grand scale what a determined administration — and a lot of oil money — can achieve, especially when committed to putting on the best face for an event like soccer’s World Cup. It hasn’t happened without waste, personal enrichment or harsh methods. The city bulldozed kiosks and is forcibly evicting hundreds of thousands of people from 1950s-era apartment buildings. But there’s something to show.

Suddenly, Moscow works. The transportation system puts plenty of other cities to shame: Since 2011, the city has added 30 subway stations, a new light rail ring and kilometers of bike paths. Traffic cameras have tamed the cars, which actually stop at crosswalks. Public spaces draw people outside, offering playgrounds, benches, green areas and architectural marvels such as the Diller Scofidio + Renfro designed Park Zaryadye, with its observation bridge soaring over the Moscow River. Smartphone apps and one-stop shops have made navigating the bureaucracy easier.

On the city’s western edge, the Skolkovo Innovation Center — Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s answer to Silicon Valley — keeps growing despite widespread skepticism and an early corruption scandal. It has all the elements of a proper tech hub: a radically application-oriented graduate school; a vast technopark with offices, labs and prototyping equipment; residents working on things ranging from payment systems to flying motorcycles. Skolkovo reports that in 2017, the combined revenue of its startups reached almost 50 billion rubles (almost $800 million) — tiny compared with Russian gross domestic product, but something.

So what’s not to like? For one, Russian leaders’ newfound love of urbanism has an ulterior motive: pacifying the middle-class Muscovites who came out by the tens of thousands in 2011 and 2012 to protest the lack of choice in the parliamentary and presidential elections. It’s the carrot in a strategy that also has a lot of stick, including harsh laws against demonstrations and the beating and jailing of protesters and their leaders. Standing on the bridge near the Kremlin where opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in 2015, it’s harder to enjoy the pretty view.

That’s not all. For many of its creators, the new Moscow represents a genuine desire for a different future, a vision of what Russia could be. In that magic kingdom, the next generation would use the infrastructure to build businesses and organizations that would transform Russia’s economy and society, from one preoccupied with the division of spoils to one focused on value creation. Putin played to that aspiration at a recent Moscow forum devoted to urbanism: “These are investments in the quality of life of our citizens, in the creation of great opportunities for the self-realization of every person.”

That vision is all the more poignant given how completely it is at odds with the country’s actual governance. The people in power, from Putin on down, have time and again demonstrated their disregard for private property and personal freedom. Those who cross the wrong people regularly lose their businesses or worse. For all the wonders of Moscow, Russia’s best and brightest will keep wanting to leave a country where they can’t express themselves, where they can’t choose their leaders, and where whatever they build can be taken away. Western sanctions aren’t the only reason there’s so little investment outside of big state projects.

Looking at the cost of upkeep, one has to ask how long Moscow can keep the dream alive — particularly in an economy forecast to grow at a rate of less than 2 percent a year. As of 2016, the city’s spending per person was more than double the average among other Russian regions. Transport projects alone get about $9 billion a year, siphoning resources away from the rest of the country. The greening of Zaryadye requires the constant replacement of squares of grass that seem unwilling to take root. What will happen if the money runs out?

That said, it doesn’t have to end badly. Under a regime more committed to the rule of law and personal freedoms the illusion could turn into reality. This reimagined Potemkin village, with its shiny new trains and abundance of brilliant inhabitants, could become the foundation of a broader rebirth. Given Russia’s history, and given the extent to which Putin has eliminated any mechanism for the peaceful transfer of power, it’s naive to hope. But so what, I will.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mark Whitehouse writes editorials on global economics and finance for Bloomberg Opinion. He covered economics for the Wall Street Journal and served as deputy bureau chief in London. He was founding managing editor of Vedomosti, a Russian-language business daily.

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