Vibrant, Noisy and Booming Welcome to the New Moscow
Moscow was long in the hands of criminals and the nouveau riche. Today, Europe's biggest metropolis is undergoing rapid change. It is becoming more open and more cosmopolitan, despite Putin's nationalism.
In his company's loft offices above the roofs of Moscow, along with the hammocks and Soviet-era memorabilia, Artemy Lebedev has a provocative piece on display. Guests who use the bathroom while visiting Russia's best-known product designer find themselves inside the Kremlin, so to speak, sitting between the battlements of the fortress walls, gazing out at Red Square and listening to the sounds of the city. The voices of pedestrians and the traffic noise are a recording, the buildings and churches are painted onto a mural and the Kremlin wall is made of red-painted wood.
The 41-year-old designer is Moscow's enfant terrible. Together with his studio, he has designed a microwave for South Korean company Samsung, rectangular traffic lights for Istanbul and, for the nerds of the world, a computer keyboard that has acquired cult status with its luminous keys.
Lebedev has traveled to more than 200 countries, but he always feels drawn back to his native city. It is impossible to escape his creations in Moscow, where he has designed street signs and building numbers, mailboxes and even the maps for the city's metro system.
"Moscow never sleeps. It's the best city in the world," says Lebedev, "a city of unlimited possibilities, not as deadly boring as Berlin, where the restaurant kitchens close before midnight. No other city has this much energy. Moscow is just cool!"
Lebedev may be an eccentric, but he isn't exaggerating when he talks about the Russian capital. Moscow has never been as modern and cosmopolitan as it is today. There is free WLAN in subway cars, parks, restaurants and cemeteries, and you can use your smartphone to pay for parking spaces without having to walk to a parking meter. When you drive away, the main traffic office calculates online the exact number of minutes you parked. If your car was there for 53 minutes, you pay for 53 minutes.
Dozens of streets are being converted into pedestrian zones, there are 300 automatic bike rental stations, and movies are shown on outdoor screens in the city's parks, even after midnight. And Moscow is constantly setting new records. Last summer, for example, it overtook Paris and London with the total square footage of shopping malls.
Vibrant, Noisy and Booming
All of this is happening despite the economic crisis that has gripped the country, and despite the sanctions Western Europe and the United States have imposed in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine.
Moscow is vibrant, noisy and booming. Its newest landmark is "Moscow City," a city within the city, located next to the government headquarters on the Moskva River, and visible from an airplane. The 374-meter (1,227-foot) Federation Tower, Europe's tallest skyscraper, is almost finished. The building will feature a spa with a swimming pool on the 61st floor, an exclusive restaurant on the 65th floor and penthouse apartments with up to 750 square meters (8,072 square feet) of living space and breathtaking views of the vastness of Moscow.
The city is still seething at 2 a.m., and traffic never stops. People are sitting in restaurants that can hold their own with the gourmet temples of New York and Tokyo. The White Rabbit, for example, with renowned chef Vladimir Mukhin, was ranked 23rd among the world's best restaurants last year.
Yet the view from the Federation Tower also makes it seem as though time has stood still in Moscow. The landmarks of the former Soviet capital -- the seven Stalin-era skyscrapers, the Socialist-Classicist buildings, which include the gigantic Foreign Ministry and the equally enormous university on the Sparrow Hills -- are all still there. And then there are the grand boulevards the communists built through the center of the city, the Moskva River, meandering through the sea of buildings, and the red-walled Kremlin in the downtown area.
Moscow is almost 870 years old and it has been the capital of the Russian nation for 500 years. It is the heart of the country, its financial center and a place all Russians long to be. Europe's largest city, some 12 million people now live in Moscow with the greater metropolitan area boasting a population of 16 million, plus an estimated 2 million illegal guest workers from neighboring Russian republics.
And Moscow is no longer merely the city of criminals, the nouveau riche and ruthless social climbers -- the city were those who were poor or lacked connections were left behind. Moscow's character is changing. The city seems to be turning into what it never was before: a city for its residents.
The metropolis' expansion is no longer focused solely on glitz, glamour and superlatives. Today's objective is to achieve quality and not quantity -- quality of life. In this sense, the city is on a collision course with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is more concerned with the size and power of his realm than on the wellbeing of the individual. He is leading the country away from the West and depriving citizens of the ability to make their own decisions.
Doing as it Pleases
But Moscow, whose natives never liked Putin, the former KGB agent from St. Petersburg, refuses to fall in line with the Kremlin - even as pressure on the opposition and public enthusiasm over the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula have placed Putin in a much stronger position than he was just four years ago. Back then, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Moscow to protest ballot rigging in elections to the Duma, as Russia's parliament is known.
Moscow in 2016 is a city that is both rebellious and pragmatic. It comes to terms with the autocrat in the Kremlin , and yet it still does as it pleases.
While Vladimir Putin merely imitates elections, the city government proclaims its "Active Citizens" project, a series of miniature referendums. And while the Duma, which toes the Kremlin line, would like to use its power to make laws to even ban lingerie advertising, Moscow still has the most decadent nightclubs east of Amsterdam, like the Golden Girls, for example, or the Kapriz, where men strip for women.
The Kremlin orders controversial theater productions canceled elsewhere in the country, while the avant-garde triumphs on Moscow stages. School children are taken en masse to see a propaganda show that depicts the war in Ukraine, complete with trenches, real Kalashnikovs and dummies of fallen soldiers. Yet at the same time, a Soviet-era café -- redesigned by star architect Rem Koolhaas -- has been turned into a post-modern art gallery. Hollywood luminaries Woody Allen and George Lucas attended the grand opening last summer.
The young and educated are setting the tone in Moscow, people whose shopping carts are filled with wine and cheese instead of vodka and shish kebab. Moscow has become a city of the middle class, which is partly the achievement of current mayor Sergey Sobyanin, who is not a Muscovite but actually hails from Siberia. He is also not a liberal but an apparatchik: the former head of Putin's presidential administration and later deputy premier. But he has assembled a staff of young reformers who tick differently than those in the Kremlin leadership.
Even opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta credits him with being one of the few Russian politicians to have tackled the "reform of an entire system," by trying to give Moscow the format of a European city. He has plenty of money to spend on the effort. The Russian capital has a budget equivalent to 22 billion ($25 billion).
Saturday Night on Butchers' Street
It's a Saturday night on Myasnitskaya Ulitsa, or Butchers' Street. The former imperial post office is on this street, and so is building number 13, which now houses the #SanctionsBAR. DJ Max Fabian has been spinning here since 11 p.m. The idea for the bar arose when the West imposed sanctions on Russia and the interior is a parody of what has happened between Russia and the rest of the world since then. Oil barrels are scattered about, a chandelier to which dollar, euro and ruble notes have been pasted hangs above the dance floor, the water pipes resemble Kalashnikovs, and an image of US President Barack Obama's head, with a line drawn through it, adorns the menu. Obama's image also appears on the toilet paper.
But the best elements are the collages and caricatures on the walls: Putin allowing Obama, French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to starve to death on a teeter-totter; Putin kicking Obama; Putin and Leonardo DiCaprio, who tells the Kremlin chief that he deserves an Oscar for the Minsk peace negotiations.
While young Muscovites party in the #SanctionsBAR, road crews are finishing their work outside. They had torn up the pavement of Myasnitskaya, installed pipes and built broad sidewalks. The street, once narrow and polluted, is now a boulevard. Revelers emerging from the #SanctionsBAR at night can now stroll all the way down to the Kremlin.
There is excavation underway everywhere in Moscow at the moment and the man responsible for it all is Maxim Liksutov, the city's deputy mayor and transportation minister. And he is not universally well-liked. "Do you want people to no longer be able to drive to work in downtown Moscow?" a columnist with the pro-Kremlin news site Wsgljad asked. "You want to destroy downtown Moscow? Are you sure you're not a CIA agent?"
It is true that Liksutov is not a Muscovite. In fact, he comes from Estonia. And he has joined forces with Danish urban planner Jan Gehl, who initiated the construction of the Strøget in Copenhagen, once Europe's longest pedestrian zone. At the city government's request, Gehl also submitted a plan for Moscow, which would open up the city for pedestrians.
Getting Muscovites used to walking is almost certainly a task only an outsider could take on. Liksutov, 39, is a former businessman who made his fortune in the coal business in his native Estonia; Forbes estimates his net worth at $650 million. In 2011, he gave up his Estonian passport so that he could join the Moscow city government. Previously, he had worked for Russian transportation companies and designed the highly successful high-speed rail system to Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport.
He has been tasked with providing Moscow a new infrastructure. "We surveyed 60,000 people and asked them how they envisioned their future lives in the city," he says, and now he is basing his work on the results. The subway system now serves up to nine million passengers a day, and the intervals between trains are often less than one minute. Moscow's metro is considered the world's most effective and attractive.
Getting Out of the Cars
"When I came into office, there were no plans at all to avert a traffic disaster," says Liksutov. "Tens of thousands of Muscovites had simply switched to their cars to avoid the outdated, dirty and uncomfortable public transportation system."
There is a total of about 3.9 million cars in the city today, and 200,000 more are added each year. But the city now wants to encourage residents to get out of their cars and back into the buses and trains. Liksutov himself takes a commuter train to work and only gets into his official car after disembarking at the Kiyevskaya railway station. "We want Moscow to become a pleasant place to live," he says.
For a city that has long merely been seen as a backdrop for those in power, it is a paradigm shift. It is now to become an attractive place to live.
The city government has initiated a program with which it aims to revolutionize public transportation. The metro's 300-kilometer (186-mile) rail network will be expanded by about 140 kilometers by 2020, and about 60 new stations will be added. A new subway station now opens every few months with the 200th station going into service in February. The station lies outside the city's beltway, in a section called New Moscow: In 2012, Mayor Sobyanin pushed through a plan to expand the capital toward the southwest, by an area twice the size of Berlin.
"We also want to turn Moscow into a model city when it comes to traffic," says Liksutov. He has already acquired 5,700 new buses, streetcars and trolley buses and has increased the number of legal taxis eight-fold. He has also introduced bus lanes, which were once considered about as far-fetched in Moscow as expecting drivers to stop at pedestrian crosswalks.
What's more, he is having bike paths installed, and the red lanes along the ring of boulevards surrounding downtown Moscow are already finished. He is also building a new, 58-kilometer metro ring to connect suburban lines with one another. Service is expected to begin in September.
Putin's government, on the other hand, is making no progress in the rest of the country. In 2012, the minister for regional development at the time said that Russia needed half a million kilometers of new roads. "At the current rate of construction, that would take us about 1,000 years."
The reformers in Moscow's city government, however, are stepping on the gas. While old-boy networks are getting in the way of modernization elsewhere in the country, one of Liksutov's first decisions was to replace more than three-quarters of his staff with younger employees.
"We only need two or three years to get things going here that take decades in other parts of the country," says Liksutov. "Moscow is currently developing more rapidly than any other city in the world."
Change in the Southeast
There is a district in southeastern Moscow that embodies the change initiated by the city government more than any other neighborhood -- and also shows the degree to which Moscow is booming. The Russian capital's economic clout now exceeds that of the Czech Republic or Finland and is responsible for more than a fifth of the Russian gross domestic product. The unemployment rate is less than 2 percent.
City officials chose a former industrial ruin as the site of Technopolis, the largest of 19 new high-tech parks. The site once housed the Lenin Komsomol auto plant, which the Soviets built in 1930 in collaboration with Ford. After World War II, the plant produced the Moskvich, a copy of Germany's Opel Kadett.
A real estate developer is now building a giant shopping mall on the site, and the city government has plans to build housing and offices for tens of thousands of people, skyscrapers included. But the pièce de résistance is Technopolis. Several dozen innovative companies have moved into one of the old factory buildings, including a manufacturer of computer-guided drones that deliver products from medication to pizza. City officials were enthusiastic about the company, while military and intelligence officials have voiced security concerns.
The startups are attracting specialists like nanophysicist Irina Rod. She has returned to Russia from the West, where many of her colleagues had emigrated to, "because, with Technopolis, they have finally established the conditions needed to work properly," she says. Rod, who conducted research at the University of Duisburg-Essen in western Germany for seven years, has spent the last two years working for a joint venture of the Dutch firm Mapper and Russian high-tech holding company Rosnano.
The city government has rolled out the red carpet for such investors, waiving property taxes, reducing corporate income tax by a quarter, setting rents at below market level and guaranteeing a maximum waiting period of six months from the date a startup files an application for incorporation to the date of registration. "For Russia and our sluggish and often corrupt bureaucracy, that is sensational," says Rod.
The 35-year-old is standing in a clean room, which has special protective features against contamination. She is wearing a white astronaut suit over a sweater and jeans, and her long, blonde hair is tucked under a white hood. Rod is in charge of quality control for microscopically small electronic lenses, which guide beams inside large 3-D printers.
She originally left the country because Russian microscopes were inadequate for the highly specialized research she does. "But now Moscow has an advantage," she says. "The elevators for rapid professional advancement move twice as fast here."
Thinking and Art
Moscow is Russia's biggest think tank, as well as a hothouse for artists. This is on full display on Kazakova Ulitsa, a small, inconspicuous street where the Gogol Center is located. The former theater for railway workers, founded in 1925, is now the city's most popular stage. It isn't a theater in the conventional sense, but rather a contentious workshop, an alternative to the city's classic repertory theaters and the large, government-owned venues like the Bolshoi Theater. This is precisely why the Gogol Center has become a new home for Moscow intellectuals -- and a thorn in the side of Russian patriots, only a metro station away from the Kremlin.
Moscow's cultural aficionados are no longer as interested in what is playing at the Bolshoi, but rather in questions like: "Have you seen Kirill Serebrennikov's latest play?"
A bespectacled, balding 46-year-old with a trimmed beard, Serebrennikov opened the Gogol Center three years ago. Sergei Kapkov, the city government's culture minister at the time, appointed him as artistic director. Since then, Serebrennikov has been setting off a fireworks display of unusual ideas at the site, located directly at the Kursky railway station. "We are a place of absolute freedom. We do what we and others like," he says.
In his deliberately makeshift theater, the walls are un-plastered and the benches for the audience are hard. He doesn't want spectators to feel too comfortable. The center houses four theater groups, a discussion club called Gogol +, a Gogol cinema, showing foreign films never made available by Russian distributors, the Gogol Café and a bookstore, Gogol Books.
Sergei Kapkov, Moscow's culture minister until 2015, wanted this diversity, and he gave Serebrennikov the job without publicly posting the position. Kapkov once worked with politician Boris Nemtsov, who was later murdered. He said that his primary employers were the people of Moscow -- those who wanted an interesting city -- and not Putin or Mayor Sobyanin.
Kapkov first turned his attention to the large theaters, providing one with a new theater company and another with a new artistic director. He extended the opening hours of museums and transformed parks into recreation zones, where Muscovites can now dance, skateboard and watch films. Kapkov, say the city's residents, gave the city a new sense of self.
'You Have Everything Here'
Serebrennikov is from Rostov in southern Russia, and he sees Moscow as a challenge. "You have everything here," he says, "democracy and totalitarianism, luxury and squalor, great art next to trash, power and the absence of power, order and anarchy. And there are people of all nationalities, with millions of ideas. Moscow is like the Wild West. You can pan for gold in this city or you can go to the dogs."
His theater is usually sold out, and almost every production becomes a sensation. Last year he produced "A Common Story" by Ivan Goncharov, a classic novel written in 1847 that describes the conflicts between the nobility and the rising merchant class. Serebrennikov reinterpreted the novel into a commentary on the new Russia, about the collision between youthful idealism and practiced cynicism.
Serebrennikov does not accept limits on his thought, despite the many warning signs. Most of them come from the other Moscow, the Moscow of federal power.
Serebrennikov faces a constant hailstorm of criticism, from public prosecutors to the police to the tax authorities. He is accused of anything from spreading pedophilia propaganda to inciting revolution or failing to pay social security contributions for his actors on time. In the Duma, lawmakers with the Kremlin party are collecting signatures against Serebrennikov's "ambivalent productions."
"Russia is a country of paradoxes," says the director. "You can get a letter from the public prosecutor's office in the morning stating that it wants to review plays that haven't been on the program in a long time. And then you step out into the street and see that a great new pedestrian zone has just been opened, or a brand-new museum for contemporary art."
Ignoring the opinions of Moscow residents or making one's own taste the measure of all things, as former Mayor Yury Luzhkov did, is an approach that hardly works anymore in 2016. Muscovites no longer accept decisions by city officials with the same equanimity, thanks to thousands of activists and volunteers, known as Volontjory, who didn't even exist years ago. They include young people like Igor Ponosov, who has made his mark all over the city.
One example is Pyatnitskaya Ulitsa, an old shopping street, which passes the old broadcasting center on its way into downtown Moscow. It was a narrow and noisy street, perpetually jammed with traffic moving slowly toward the Kremlin. Then, suddenly, a pedestrian crossing appeared near the 500-year-old St John the Baptist Church. It consisted of the classic white crosswalk, and the corresponding blue sign with a black figure had been erected on the side of the street. And yet, neither the city nor the traffic police had installed the crosswalk.
Instead, it was put in by Ponosov and his friends one night. They procured paint and the traffic sign, put on reflective vests and then blocked off the street, first on the right side and then on the left. It took them two hours to finish the crosswalk. "The city belongs to people," says Ponosov. "We do what the city government doesn't do. People need to wake up and think about their own needs. And do something about it."
A few dozen other crosswalks were created in the same way. Ultimately, the city painted them over, because they were in violation of the law. But now a traffic-calmed zone has been created on Pyatnitskaya Ulitsa, which is partly the achievement of Ponosov and his friends. They call their efforts "partisan interventions" and their website, Partisaning.org, a platform for "activists and urbanists."
Ponosov, a friendly man with curly hair, was a 22-year-old street artist when he moved to Moscow from Nizhnevartovsk in Siberia 13 years ago. He worked in a bank during the day and sprayed graffiti at night. At the time, he says, he spent entire days in Moscow police stations for hooliganism and vandalism. But he also recognized how unwieldy the city is, and how much energy it extracted from people, if only because of its size. At some point he began to get involved.
A Better Place to Live
In 2010, Ponosov designed maps that showed where it was relatively safe to ride a bicycle in Moscow, at a time when cycling in the city was exceedingly dangerous. Then he and some friends cut down advertising banners in the streets and used them to make tents for the homeless, "so that they become noticeable in the cityscape and someone pays attention to them." They installed orange benches they made themselves -- dabs of color in the gray Moscow winter -- and wrote on them: "This bench was made by city dwellers for other city dwellers - use it!"
What drives Ponosov is a mixture of street art and a concern for others. Other activists want to make Moscow more environmentally friendly and stand outside supermarkets on weekends, calling on people to separate their waste and recycle, because recycling hardly exists in the city. Or they help Muscovites with legal disputes with companies that are paving over green zones or illegally erecting new buildings.
This is precisely the opposite of what the Kremlin expects from the Russian people. Getting involved in public affairs and changing things from the bottom up -- for the functionaries surrounding Putin, which expects unconditional loyalty, this is the stuff of the devil.
The volunteers are not naïve. They know that they can thank the city government for the fact that Muscovites can now vote on paid parking, on which monuments are to be erected and even on the paving stones used in sidewalks and the design of streetlights. But this also suits the Kremlin. At a time when public political life in Moscow, the city with the largest number of protest voters, is practically banned, this form of freedom can curb dissatisfaction with other issues.
Igor Ponosov knows that. But politics isn't as important to him as a self-determined life. "Even today, Moscow is still a cross between Europe and Asia," he says, "but it has become a better place to live."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan