'Hipster Stalinism:' Populist Renewal Projects Come to Moscow

An interior view shows VDNKh metro station in Moscow, Russia on June 2. Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

One of Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin's pet projects is a multi-billion-dollar revamp of the "Soviet Versailles:" an enormous ensemble of extravagant, mainly Stalin-era, pavilions, fountains and statuary in Moscow's northeast. Sobyanin accompanied President Vladimir Putin last year on a visit to the site, known as VDNKh, to open a new oceanarium for 8,000 sea creatures, including killer whales.

The regeneration of the sprawling park-cum-exhibition space is one of several large regeneration projects underway in the city of 12 million as planners and officials put behind them the urban experiments, embraced by Moscow's creative middle class, that flourished before the 2014 confrontation with the West over Ukraine.

The new approach is well funded, populist and in tune with a resurgent Russian nationalism, with some dubbing it "hipster Stalinism." Its scale has led some to draw parallels with the transformation of Moscow into the imperial capital of the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

"The masses love rhetorical, epic architecture more than anything else," said Natalya Dushkina, a professor at the Moscow Institute of Architecture, when asked about VDNKh.

Updating Soviet-era structures

Most of the buildings at VDNKh, built as a paean to Communism and visited by millions every year, are high Stalinist, and Sobyanin's team is working to adapt their totalitarianism to modern Russia—creating some bizarre juxtapositions.

Near the new oceanarium is a huge, glass-domed building that once contained Soviet space rockets—but recently housed an exhibition of objects used in the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. In winter, paths are flooded to create Europe's biggest ice rink. There is a new museum of bombastic nationalist history, and an aging Soviet Yakovlev Yak-42 plane was rigged up by a Moscow electronic musician last year to "play" her songs.

"Architecture shouldn't be the hostage of the ideology that created it," said Sergei Kuznetsov, Moscow's chief architect. "During the Soviet Union's twilight years, its collapse, and the emergence of the new Russia (as) an extreme rejection of everything linked to the Soviet Union was very popular… the Vandals took Rome and defiled even the holy places. But now people are sobering up: it's not a time not to throw stones but to collect them."

Another major part of Sobyanin's regeneration of Moscow is a project called "My Street:" A $1.9 billion program to make the city more pedestrian friendly. The hundreds of streets to be revamped include Moscow's Garden Ring, a traffic-clogged eight-lane highway circling the city center, and Tverskaya, Moscow's main thoroughfare, which will both see their sidewalks widened and thousands of new trees. The changes will return Tverskaya to how it looked under the Soviet Union.

"If you want to make a Muscovite happy then plant a tree," said Mikhail Alekseevsky, an anthropologist working for Strelka KB, the design bureau hired by the city to oversee "My Street." Alekseevsky said the project was the most ambitious of its kind since Stalin ordered the bulldozing of large swathes of old Moscow and the construction of a new, Communist capital in the 1930s.

Moscow is also expanding its transport network, with 16 new metro stations expected to open this year and the re-launch of a 34-mile circular passenger railway. Dozens of municipal parks across the city have been re-vamped, and a huge abandoned site by Red Square in the heart of Moscow is due to be greened over.

"The mayor is concerned about his voters and wants to be loved by them," said Grigory Revzin, a prominent architecture critic and partner at Strelka KB. "We are building the infrastructure of public spaces. It is the infrastructure of a new economy."

No public input

While Western architectural bureaus remain heavily involved in Moscow's reconstruction, there is little left of a once strong appetite for Western urbanism.

People cool off in public water fountains in Moscow, Russia on June 27. Maxim Zmeyez/Reuters

Moscow official Sergei Kapkov was the figure most associated with an earlier period of innovation and improvement in urban design epitomized by the successful re-modeling of a dilapidated Gorky Park. He was credited with channeling the energies of a new generation of Western-orientated Russians into improving their city. But many of those associated with Kapkov joined anti-Putin demonstrations in 2011 and 2012, and he resigned last year after apparently having his ideas blocked in the new political climate of falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine.

Critics of the current direction allege the methods are authoritarian, that large-scale projects are riddled with corruption and that Sobyanin lacks a vision for the city. Many Muscovites are angered when the center is transformed into a huge building site in the summer months, and take delight in pointing out numerous design flaws—including inadequate drains that see fashionable Moscow streets turned into rivers during rainstorms.

"When you start looking closer there are a load of details that haven't been thought through and are hurried. Decisions are taken behind closed doors," said Yaroslav Kovalchuk, a prominent architect. One of the reasons, he said, is politically driven time frames. "The planning horizon is 2018," Kovalchuk said, referring to the year of the next presidential elections when Putin could stand for a fourth term.

Many also worry about a general lack of public consultation, which echoes a Soviet management style of bestowing gifts on the population—rather than trying to understand what is needed, or wanted, by ordinary people.

One February morning this year, Muscovites woke up to discover bulldozers had overnight destroyed hundreds of kiosks, mostly around metro stations, selling goods like snacks, cigarettes and newspapers. City Hall said the kiosks were illegal. Street entertainers on Moscow's iconic Arbat Street have been removed in recent months, and small shops nestled in the city's ubiquitous underpasses have mostly been stripped out, leaving the tunnels bare and sometimes forbidding.

"A lot of good things are being done but the methods are repulsive," said Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, who set up the Strelka Institute in Moscow as an urbanism hub in 2009 and worked on the redesign of VDNKh in its early stages.

"It's a very strange sensation when people are made happy against their wishes—but it's actually characteristic of the general political situation. Public spaces are a wonderful symbol of society, and they are being changed with minimal participation or by overcoming resistance from the public itself," Oskolkov-Tsentsiper said.