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While most of Moscow slept Monday night, the city government razed ninety-seven small commercial buildings that housed stores and cafés. Seven more are slated for destruction later in the month. The businesses in these buildings employed up to several dozen people each, so upward of a thousand Muscovites woke up unemployed. The city claims that the structures had been erected without proper permits, but, in the months leading up to the demolition, several business owners, fearing what was to come, managed to secure court decisions affirming their buildings’ right to exist. They were razed anyway.
The anti-corruption blogger and former Moscow mayoral candidate Alexey Navalny has written that the businesses had all the papers necessary to operate—otherwise they could not have stood up to police inspections and would not have been allowed to use city water and power. Of course, he claims, these papers were obtained, like most papers in Moscow, in illegal and extralegal ways, with money and connections. The city government could thus invalidate these papers anytime—or demand bigger bribes. In fact, Navalny writes, the reason the city is going after the small businesses rather than large shopping malls is that the latter pay bigger bribes.
On the surface, the mass demolition accomplishes two craven goals: it clears the slate—and space—to collect ever bigger bribes for potential new construction, and it eliminates the competition to Moscow’s many large shopping malls, which are hurting for customers and renters. The obvious impetus comes from Russia’s harsh new economic reality. The pie is shrinking, so the smallest and least powerful no longer get their pieces.
But there is also a powerful aesthetic motive behind the destruction. The dissident writer Andrei Sinyavsky famously said that his dispute with the Soviet regime was “purely stylistic” rather than political. The feeling was mutual: the Soviet government did not like Sinyavsky’s writing either. It demanded a uniform, predictable, and regimented aesthetic. The new Russia is not, at present, a fully fledged totalitarian regime—but it increasingly feels like a totalitarian society, with its unanimity on all matters and suspicion of all difference. It wants to look like one too.
Back in the eighties, Moscow and other large Soviet cities (with the exception of part of Leningrad) looked empty and orderly. Their avenues were wider than many American highways, with sidewalks the width of a Manhattan street. Their buildings were imperial architecture on steroids, with courtyards the size of a Manhattan block and arches through which you could squeeze a few townhouses. Façades were impenetrable—buildings were often entered through courtyards—and this, combined with the vastness of distances, kept people from clogging the streets. What humans one did see generally looked the same, dressed in basic gray and more gray. The absence of private business kept what passed for commerce looking uniform too.
The first legal private commerce consisted of people standing on the sidewalks. In early 1992 Boris Yeltsin issued a decree legalizing the sale of consumer goods by individuals, and some individuals cut the decree out of the newspaper, pinned it to their clothes to ward off police, and went out to procure scarce goods for resale. Foreigners who happened to visit Russia back then will never forget the spectacle of people standing in the street holding out pieces of raw steak or fried chicken—and, perhaps more shockingly, that of others buying these goods. “Fresh meat, I just got it today!” was the advertising slogan of the era.
After a few months, the private traders’ assortment grew, along with their sense of security, and they started putting out folding tables for their wares and folding chairs for themselves. Then they started building makeshift structures out of glass, plywood, and aluminum siding. They were eyesores, though still an improvement over the sight of men with raw meat in their hands and a piece of newspaper on their jackets. The structures, known as kiosks, also provided some protection from dirt and weather for both the merchandise and the people who sold it. The sellers could now continue working late into the night.
For a magazine piece in the late nineties, I spent a week roaming Moscow, cataloguing all the things you could buy at three in the morning. This included cigarettes and alcohol, of course, but also flowers, stuffed toys, and sheepskin coats. The storekeepers explained that it cost the same to pay a salesperson to keep the store open as a security guard to watch it when it was closed, and there was demand. Flowers, I was told, were bought by men rushing to late-night assignations, and the same men, feeling guilty, bought stuffed toys when they were returning home to their wives. The sheepskin store enticed middle-of-the-night customers with special two-in-the-morning discounts. The net result was that, in less than a decade, Moscow had gone from being a city where you could never buy anything to a city where you could buy anything anytime—usually a short walk from your house, because kiosks clustered around public-transport stops and outside large official stores. This felt like freedom.
The proliferation of kiosks also brought the city down to human scale. They filled the vast squares and occupied parts of the too-wide sidewalks. They put objects at eye level, filling what had been an eerily empty field of vision. Being a person in Moscow stopped feeling like being a Lilliputian in the land of Gulliver.
Over the years, many of the kiosks grew into more permanent structures, often referred to as pavilions. Successful traders erected one- and two-story buildings that connected to the city’s power and plumbing infrastructure, and soon those buildings housed mini-marts, cell-phone shops, and cafés. Some of them were still ugly, usually in a bland prefab way. Others, like a pyramid-shaped glass structure in one of the city’s most central squares, were ostentatiously ridiculous. A few used scaled-down elements of the architecture of surrounding buildings to serve as attractive bridges between larger-than-life Moscow and its people.
Over the past few years, the Moscow government has razed the last of the kiosks. Last year, it declared war on the pavilions. The owners fought by going to court, and some won. They posted court decisions on the outside of their stores, much the way their predecessors had pinned the newspaper clippings to their chests. This time, the law did not protect them. On Monday night, their buildings were razed. People scrambled to move furniture and merchandise out as the bulldozers moved in. In the morning, Muscovites from every part of the city started posting photographs: men staring at what remained of the interior of a mini-mart; café furniture in the street; a woman standing next to vats of flowers in the middle of the street; and, everywhere, bulldozers and giant piles of building debris.
It will take a few days or more to clear all the rubble. When that’s done, Moscow will look a lot more like it did in the eighties. Its residents’ colorful and often stylish clothes will look jarring against this new-old backdrop.