Sergey Sobyanin (centre) meets local residents in Golovinsky district, Moscow. Photo: Mayor and Moscow Government Press Service. Denis Grishkin.
In the second decade of the new millennium, urbanism is popular in Russia. Beautification of parks, city planning, pedestrianisation of city centres, markets and outdoor spaces — the “urban agenda” has come to define a significant industry in Russia and a test site of state-society relations under authoritarian rule. Billed as apolitical on the surface, the urban agenda is, in fact, deeply political, opening up questions of democratic self-governance, frustrations with state bureaucracy and corruption.
Here, Moscow has led the way — both in terms of the political potential of this agenda and the imitation democracy it generates, but also the sheer scale of the reconstruction. Millions of roubles have been spent on beautifying the city, in places changing it beyond recognition. As Pyotr Ivanov, an independent urban sociologist based in Moscow, wrote in 2016: “Even the minimal democratic processes that existed in Moscow have been stopped and replaced with technologies of pseudo-engagement. Before our eyes, municipalities were abolished and the institution of public hearings removed. Instead, platforms such as ‘Active Citizen’ and ‘Youth Parliament’ were created, allowing us to ‘participate’ in making decisions and other aspects of city life, but in fact replacing engagement and making our voices heard with game-like participation in praising the city.”
On top of this, as Alexey Kovalev writes on NoodleRemover, a cult of personality has developed around Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin — which is spread by a media empire connected to the Moscow city authorities. “The mayor’s office doesn’t just control the agenda — the Moscow government’s agitprop department literally dictates it. Every week, it sends a huge 40-page document to editorial offices, which in maximum detail describes how and what to write about the great and uncomparable Sergey Semyonovich Sobyanin.”
One peculiar manifestation of Sobyanin’s personality cult and citizens’ participation in city life are the transcripts of the mayor’s meetings with residents that his office publishes online, which document how unidentified local residents respond to Sobyanin’s programme of beautification. Here, we publish the transcript of Sobyanin’s opening of the Mikhalkovo estate park, northwest of Moscow city centre, in October 2017. We translate it here in full — for its literary and sociological value — as part of our Cities in Motion rubric.
24 October 2017
Sergey Sobyanin: Good day!
Residents: Good day!
Sobyanin: Hello. How are things with you here?
Residents: It’s excellent here, we have this park.
Residents: Everything is amazing, unrecognisable.
Residents: And we’re in a good mood.
Residents: We’ve been living here for a long time, it’s very nice.
Sobyanin: It’s a wonderful place, beautiful.
Residents: Thank you.
Sobyanin: The Mikhalkovo historical estate is a historical monument. Unfortunately, everything here was in disrepair, nothing had been repaired in a long time. Residents have been asking us to put things in order for a long time. We came up with a project, we agreed it with you, held a vote.
Residents: Thank you.
Sobyanin: But it seems like it’s turned out well.
Residents: It’s amazing! We want to express our huge gratitude to you. The park is amazing. There’s lighting. It’s been adapted for children. Before we had to travel to other neighbourhoods. Now we have this park, we’ve breathed a sigh of relief. Huge thanks to you. It’s been done both beautifully and creatively, and, most importantly, quickly.
Residents: There’s a lot of playgrounds.
Residents: Yes, it’s very good.
Sobyanin: Of course, the situation here was difficult. We released a lot of water, it seems, and then the smell…
Sobyanin: And there were a lot of vehicles.
Residents: We put up with it, we knew what it was for.
Sobyanin: But you had to put up with it because there was no point doing this without cleaning up the ponds, of course. They cleaned the ponds, shored up the bank, installed lighting, CCTV — everything that you need. How’s the playground?
Residents: The playgrounds are excellent, great.
Sobyanin: Are there any remarks?
Residents: It’s remarkable.
Residents: It’d be great if there were more basketball hoops.
Residents: And we also want a playground for little kids.
Sobyanin: What do you want?
Residents: A playground for the really little kids.
Sobyanin: A little playground for the little ones? OK, we’ll do it, we’ll build a playground for the little ones next year.
Residents: And some more basketball hoops.
Sobyanin: We’ll do the basketball hoops if they’re needed. Yes, yes. Of course, the boys need to play basketball.
Residents: And I want to shake your hand. Our ancestors, the founders of this estate, must be proud of you, because you transformed this completely abandoned place into a little corner of heaven.
Sobyanin: The park in Mikhalkovo isn’t the only park which we’re working on, we’ve doubled the number of parks in Moscow over the past few years, there’s twice as many of them.
Residents: Yes, we’ve read about that.
Sobyanin: And those parks that were already there, we also restored them. The Mikhalkovo estate has always been considered a park.
Sobyanin: But what was the quality like? It was quite different. It’s was the same in other parks: both in the city centre and in the suburbs. Your district isn’t bad, I think, especially with such a pearl like this estate.
Sobyanin: It wasn’t a pearl before, but now you can call it a pearl
Residents: It’s as if no one privatised it.
Sobyanin: No, nobody is privatising it.
Residents: We follow what’s going on in Moscow. It’s all good and wonderful, it makes us happy and, of course, our kids.
Sobyanin: We’re going to be working more on creating and restoring parks. We’re planning, by the way, to build a small park in the Golovinsky neighbourhood, in one of the micro-districts. There’s also a programme on beautifying courtyards, we’ll be continuing it annually, because we need to rebuild those courtyards, which were reconstructed first in 2011, at a new level. So this is constant work, it’s not some kind of cowboy job, it’s planned, methodical. All projects are agreed with the residents, they’re done so that it’s more comfortable, convenient for residents, not for someone else. That’s very important. Thank you very much.
Residents: Thank you very much!
Residents: Thank you for finding the funds, the opportunity, you noticed us, honestly, you did something.
Residents: Sergey Semyonovich, thank you so much.
Sobyanin: Thank you. Let’s take a photo to remember this.
Sobyanin: With the boy? The girl?
Residents: The boy.
Sobyanin: How old is he?
Residents: Three months. Thank you so much for this park. We live here and have waited a long time for this. We would just walk around and think: “When are they going to get to our park?” And we’re very happy.
Sobyanin: Nothing was done here for 30 years. Of course it went into this state.
Residents: It feels like nothing has been done here since Catherine the Great.
Sobyanin: No, something was done in the Soviet era. Sometime in 1970. And they tried to restore a small part of it in 2015. But nothing on this global scale was done. But the park is wonderful. Such ponds. God himself ordered it to be repaired.
Residents: The only thing we want is for it to be maintained. I don’t know, perhaps the people themselves can take care of it.
Sobyanin: Well it’d be great if people themselves will take care of it.
Residents: We try, we always clean up after our dog and bring our rubbish home if there’s no bin. If we have a barbeque, then we clean up after everyone.
Sobyanin: What’s your name?
Sobyanin: Thank you.
Residents: Thank you so much.
Photo: Mayor and Moscow Government Press Service. Denis Grishkin.
Sobyanin: How good is it to run here now?
Residents: Thank you so much. It’s now very comfortable for me to run here. Thank you so much.
Sobyanin: It’s a bit better at least.
Residents: It’s a lot better.
Sobyanin: And the ponds are a bit cleaner. And the atmosphere, the lighting.
Residents: We walk the dog here in the evening, and it’s no longer scary to walk here with the lighting. Thank you so much.
Sobyanin: There is CCTV in any case, just so you know. For security.
Residents: Thank you.
Sobyanin: Thank you. I wish you success.
Sobyanin: Good day! Hello.
Residents: Well done. It’s nice to have walk here, and there’s the epoch of the old and new. Very nice. It was a bit wild here. Now it’s clean. I don’t even recognise it. You’re in the centre, you could say, of Moscow — and here’s this wonderful oasis.
Sobyanin: Well it’s not quite the centre of Moscow.
Residents: Well it nearly is. But anyway. The air is even different here. Very nice.
Sobyanin: They haven’t tidied up here for a long time, they haven’t beautified it in a long time.
Residents: We had a very different story here for two years. You couldn’t come here without boots. And now it’s easy to go for a nice walk. There’s pushchairs, children play.
Sobyanin: In my opinion, they haven’t done anything worthwhile since 1970.
Residents: Yes-yes-yes. And now we’re over the moon.
Sobyanin: It’s a very beautiful place.
Residents: It’s wonderful. There’s a good path, thank you very much. You could say that our husbands’ grandmothers came here in their youth.
Sobyanin: Did they build the bike paths? They should have.
Residents: No, everything’s super. Everything’s good. It’s a big area.
Sobyanin: Good health to you, all the best.
Residents: Thank you.
Sobyanin: Do you like the park?
Residents: It’s a very nice park. We live here, we come here with our children. There’s places to workout. A beach, ponds.
Sobyanin: I think you’ll be able to sunbathe on the beach next year.
Residents: Yes-yes. We’re waiting for summer. So we don’t have to leave town. And we can just come here from home...
Sobyanin: What trips out of town are you talking about! This is such a wonderful park.
Residents: Thank you.
Sobyanin: There’s a beach, the ponds are clean.
Residents: Before it was scary to walk here. Now everything’s lit up. Thank you so much.