On the fracturing fault-line between East and West, Russia is failing to adapt the cities of its socialist past to the demands of contemporary neoliberal capitalism
Back in November, our newspapers proudly brandished an image of a man defiantly nailing his scrotum to the cobbles of Red Square. Look! They cried at this stomach churning sight, marvel at the self-mutilation of this frustrated activist, whose previous performances involved sewing his lips together and even wrapping his naked body in barbed wire!
Petr Pavlensky is a poster boy of the human-interest gore story that our media revels in. His political views are diluted just enough with the violence of his actions to make him universally interesting. While he gave interviews, emphatically outlining his ambitions to create ‘a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of contemporary Russian society’, our papers were busy finding an online source that didn’t pixelate out the good bits.
Our inherent curiosity towards this type of journalism doesn’t come as a huge surprise – François Hollande’s private life probably does sell to a wider audience than his economic policy, and yet with a country as little understood as Russia, we should be cautious not to be distracted by media-friendly diversions like Pavlensky and Pussy Riot while our picture remains so incomplete. This is a place undergoing a severe existential crisis, having fallen within a very short space of time from global superpower to a developing economy. Considering Russia’s accession last year to the World Trade Organization – their role as a potentially significant player in the global economy should really concern us more than their balaclava-ed women activists.
In 1928, Stalin defined Russia’s economic future in his first Five Year Plan – a list of economic goals that the country would strive towards to lay the foundations on which a new type of society could be built. Crucially, this meant changing the basis of the economy from the agrarian idyll of Russian folklore to one of industrial production. The effect was not just a change in the way people worked, but a restructuring of the fabric of the country towards a centrally managed and self-supporting process of extracting, processing and use within the same economic area.
Nikolay Milyutin played a key role in the method by which this industrialisation of the economy happened – and without coincidence he was both the commissar of finance and chairman of the commission on new town planning. It is then no surprise that these goals were set out as both financial and urban ambitions. Under his direction, new cities were built, and old ones reconsidered to maximise economic productivity. He described the city as ‘a functional assembly line’, insisting that for the goal of productivity, urban use should be linearly laid out according to process, alienating functions and equitably distributing social infrastructure. This model is one of absolute rigidity – once built adaptation is impossible. Rather than allowing the capitalist economy, with its markets and laws, to determine the functions of a city, in this case it was ‘production and its planning’. The economic success of the country in its venture towards industrialisation should therefore become centrally planned, focused and universally implemented through the urban fabric.
This rapid industrialisation, and the method of implementation, were short-sighted economic goals. A highly specialised structure has prevented flexibility within the global market, while years of neglect and political complacency mean that the backbone of the country has not been modernised in line with its Western counterparts. Furthermore, the aggressive extraction of resources in the first half-century of socialism means that there is little raw material left to justify production in a contemporary society in which tertiary industry is fast overtaking a need to make.
However, as the built fabric of the country is so totally intertwined with its now obsolete economic goals, any form of modernisation or adaptability has to look much further in its strategy, finding new urban methods to solve a contradiction between policy and infrastructure. Over a sixth of the population live in urban settlements that are entirely controlled by a single economic driver. Even if the country tried to diversify its economy, it would have to entirely re-think the way its cities are used.
The same week that the papers were filled with Petr Pavlensky’s scrotum, the rouble hit a four-year low. This was welcomed by the Russian government as a great opportunity to exploit favourable trading prices which would make its exports more appealing to stronger Western economies. These trading partners have been distancing themselves from products of diminishing quality, made with increasingly antiquated technology – often Russia’s exports fail to reach the quality checks of EU trading standards. Instead, Russia is having to travel east for investment. The Russia–China Investment Fund, signed at the end of 2012, encouraged a direct trading route between the rouble and renminbi without diverting through the dollar. Russia’s politicians do not seem to be looking for a way to reconfigure the economic base of their country, but rather set out their stall in a different market.
Why should we be interested in this? Physically staggering the boundary between Europe and Asia, Russia’s economy holds our stability in the balance. Their existential crisis is seeing them fumble between the East and West, while their economy awkwardly and thoughtlessly retrofits the urban structures of socialism with neoliberal capitalism. The current riots in Kiev are beginning to show us the socially devastating impact of such political hesitation, and almost more powerfully, the gravitational force that Russia has in determining a potentially global balance. There is a lot more complexity to the current state of Russia than its social outrage and scandal – we would be wise to keep an eye open once the glamour of the Games comes to an end, and drops it from our daily papers.
Tamsin Hanke is an architect who’s dissertation on Russia’s cities won the 2013 President’s medal