The Politics of Russia’s Apartment Demolition

Guest: Maxim Trudolubov on Moscow’s apartment demolition plans.

Restoring Dzerzhinsky


There are good ideas. There are bad ideas. Then there are really, really bad ideas. It seems that the Moscow city government might embrace the latter.

There are plans to spend 50 million rubles to erect several monuments around Moscow. So far the agreed restorations include statues to Lermontov, Chaplygin, and Shchusev. Also being considered are statues to Herzen, Ogarev, and a monument called the “First Komsomoltsy.” Also under consideration is to restore Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police, to his pedestal on Lubyanka Square. According to the Russian press, some members of the Moscow city government think this is a grand idea.

“I think that it’s possible to restore [Dzerzhinsky] and put him back in place. But then it’s unclear why he was taken down in the first place. If they say that the money has been allocated [to return the statue], then it should be done,” says Andrei Metelskii, the vice-speaker of the Moscow city council and member of the city’s committee on culture and public relations. The proposal seems to also have the support of representatives from the LDPR, KPRF and United Russia deputy Vladimir Kolesnikov.

Unclear why Dzerzhinsky’s statute was removed in the first place? I can think of several thousand reasons. Most of them from mass graves from the Red Terror. Are Russian officials really that historically tone-deaf?

Many often assert that Putin’s Russia has restored the Soviet Union. I usually take such pronouncements as silly hyperbole. But is there any better symbol of Soviet revanche that returning Felix Edmundovich to his former stead?

The Kremlin’s Electoral Coup


This week’s Russia! Magazine column, “Sobyanin Wins! Navalny Wins! The Kremlin Wins?”

I felt something strange while watching Sunday’s Moscow mayoral election: excitement. It had real drama. Sergei Sobyanin’s margin diminished with every counted vote, hinting at the possibility of an unprecedented second round. Like everyone else, I was stunned at Alexei Navalny getting 27 percent of the vote. The election appeared so real it was surreal. Everything in Russia seemed so unpredictable . . . so alive. I too quickly jumped on the Navalny-giving-the-Kremlin-a-bloody-nose bandwagon. And then I thought otherwise.

The unpredictably, not to mention the meaning, of Moscow’s mayoral election depends on what you think the purpose was. If you think this election was about Navalny and his surprise showing, then he made the Kremlin shake in its boots. If you believe the poll was about re-electing Sobyanin, then sure he won, but he has little political capital to show for it. But this election wasn’t about Navalny, though he played an important role. It wasn’t even about re-electing Sobyanin, though that was a key goal. This election was really about the legitimacy of the Russian political system. Given Sunday’s results the plan seems to have worked.

What does legitimacy mean? No leader or ruling elite can rule by coercion alone. Even the most brutal dictator needs the consent of key constituencies to maintain the legitimacy to rule. The Putin system had unquestioned legitimacy for a decade. The politically active part of the population was lulled by prosperity. Everything, however, changed with the 2011-2012 protests. The system was shaken as an important sector, Moscow’s educated, cosmopolitan middle class, broke with Putin. They openly declared the Putin system a sham and its representatives as irrevocably corrupt.

Putin launched a two pronged solution to this problem. The first, and most visible, was a tightening of the political screws. The other was to enact a controlled opening of the political system. This was codified in two reforms in the final days Medvedev’s presidency: the easing of rules on party registration and returning elections to governors and the mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Sunday was the first test of the electoral reforms. And indeed, more political parties participated and, in the case of Moscow and Ekaterinburg, opposition candidates made a strong showing. Most importantly, the status quo remained. United Russia or its affiliates retained political dominance. Everything went off without a hitch. Most of all, in the words of Putin, the vote was “legitimate and transparent” to boot.

Migrants and Corruption


I got a gig writing for the Nation. Here’s my first article, “Corruption, Not Migrants, Is Russia’s Problem.” A few words updating the story. Yesterday the police liquidated the migrant camp at Golyanovo. The Moscow city administration announced that it will not erect any new camps. However, the Ministry Interior has a new facility to detain migrants in Severnyi outside Moscow. So far 400 foreign nationals are housed there, including the remaining 234 from Golyanovo. This campaign against migrants, therefore, continues. Here’s the opening paragraph of the Nation article:

On Saturday July 27, a group of plainclothes police arrived at the Matveev market in Moscow to arrest Magomed Magomedov, a Dagestani, for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. As the police detained Magomedov, a crowd gathered to protest. Fisticuffs ensued as one of Magomedov’s relatives attacked an officer, Anton Kudriashov. When the dust settled, Kudriashov’s attacker, Magomed Rasulov, had fled, allegedly after bribing another cop. Kurdiashov lay dazed with a cracked skull. Responding to the incident, an incensed President Putin captured Russians’ anger. “[Citizens tell] us it is impossible to continue tolerating this level of lawlessness… Policemen were standing there and watching as their colleague got beaten up. Why? Are they such cowards? Perhaps, but it’s unlikely. Most likely, their inaction is earning them money from those merchants. This is obvious and well-known to everyone.” Putin’s right to single out corruption. It’s not only at the center of the Matveev market incident but at the heart of the migration issue. The sweeps of illegal migrants are populist measures meant to divert the attention, and especially that of the Moscow electorate that will vote for mayor on September 8, from the real scourge of Russian society: corruption.

Read on . . .


Moscow in Perspective

Moscow.  Being in Russia’s capital provides a perspective impossible to acquire through the news.  Contrary to popular belief, the Internet doesn’t bring us closer together.  Instead, via the Internet Russia exists as mystified, mediated through the ghastly stories that both the Russian and Western media are obsessed with.  It is only after being here a few days do the images of the culture industry, pounded so forcefully into an observer’s consciousness begin to disperse like a fog.  Granted, Russia still doesn’t appear in total focus–that is impossible for any one individual to achieve.  The mediations conjured in the Internet’s ether are nevertheless replaced with those recorded by one’s senses.  Having the soil under your feet, those familiar, yet uncanny smells–the dry, hot bursts of metallic air from the entrance to the Metro or the moldy scent of apartment vestibules, along with rubbing shoulders with others on the screeching metro cars, gives a vantage no journalist, no matter how talented, can portray.  The two dimensional flicker of the computer screen littered with the foreboding text of tragedy after tragedy can never replace the human senses even with all their limitations.

The power of place also gives simple reminders, if not lessons, that a dead lawyer, a murdered priest (though 2000 people did show up to his funeral), and certainly a slain antifa activist, are far from most Moscovites’ daily concerns. Talking with Russians about their lives makes events in the news sound like reports from an alien planet.

I realized how much most issues the Russian and Western press miss daily life when I happened to walk past the infamous Anti-Sovetskii cafe last week with A., the woman from the university that registered Maya and I.  As we walked past chatting, I happened to notice the Hotel Sovetskii across the street.  “Isn’t that cafe Anti-Sovetskii somewhere around here?” I asked.  She didn’t know what I was talking about.  “I read about it in the news about a month ago.  The restaurant was named Anti-Sovetskii but the district head made them take their sign down.”  Then I noticed the red awning draping above the entrance to a restaurant a few meters in front of us. “I think that is it,” I said, pointing ahead. It was difficult to be sure at first glance because the eatery’s name was conspicuously missing save a few nails which made no discernible outline.  It was only after examining the display in front on entrance was I able to confirm that it was indeed Anti-Sovetskii.  After I explained the scandal to A., she repeated that she had never heard of it.

IMG_0128And why the hell would she have?  After all, when she enters work everyday, she doesn’t see Stalin, but large photos of Petr Stolypin and Sergei Witte on one end, and Gorbachev, George Bush I, and Yeltsin on the other.  All the stories the media pounds about the rehabilitation of Stalin has nothing to do with daily life.  His image is mostly where it belongs–in museums.

Several minutes later we’re talking about her position at the university.  She just started working there a few months before.  The last company she worked for went belly up.  She says the work in the university is fine but the pay is low.  She tells us that the average salary in Moscow is about $1000 a month and she is making well below that. “Is it hard to find work?” Maya asks. It is, she reports, especially work that pays enough to afford life in Moscow.

There has been one word I have heard repeatedly since I’ve been here: Krizis.  (The only word I’ve heard more is probka, or traffic jam, and indeed Moscow’s streets are a traffic nightmare.) Usually “crisis” is proceeded with “after” or “since.”  Its impact on people and their families seems to vary.  “None of my friends or myself have felt any crisis,” says I., our driver from Domodedovo airport.  I.’s part-time gig is transporting foreign academics to and from the airport.  The job is through a friend of a friend who helps get foreign scholars visas and apartments in Moscow.  “Look,” I. says pointing at one of the many construction sites outside Moscow.  “Where is the crisis?”  He tells me that his work hasn’t suffered in the last several months.  Apparently shuttling academics is steady work.  “Most of my friends aren’t officially employed,” he explains.  I. discards all official unemployment statistics as worthless.  “They (i.e. the powers that be) don’t know how we live.”  This ignorance on the part of the state does have some advantages.  “Neither I or any of my friends pay taxes,” he tells me.

The conversation then turns to race relations in Russia and the US. “Aren’t almost all African-Americans Muslim?” I. asks.  Very, very few, I tell him.  “What about Michael Jackson?”  “I think he converted,” I say.  “But you could never really know about Jackson.  I’m not sure he was even human”  “Mike Tyson?” he interjects. “I think he converted in prison, but I’m not sure,” I tell him.  I. seemed to think that naming two potentially black Muslims proved his point.  The reason why I. was so curious about American blacks and Islam was he was convinced by TV reports that Muslims were encircling Russia–from America and Europe in the West, the Caucasus, the Stans, and the Middle East to the south.  He probably thinks that the Uyghurs were on the verge of taking over China, but I didn’t think to ask.

I. then entertained us with his views on Russian domestic politics.  “Russians need a dictatorship,” he explained.  “It’s part of our mentality.”  He then went on to equate democracy with chaos and praise Putin as a wise mafia don.  When I mention Medvedev and how the media likes to make like there is a conflict between he and Putin, he assures me that they are part of one “team.”

“It used to be a team, but now it’s just Putin,” says our rental agent, M.  Clearly more liberal than I., which wasn’t too difficult, M. lamented Putin’s grip on power. Yet despite his more amicable political views, M., like I. asked us strange questions about the United States.  “Is it true that Americans are using different currencies instead of the dollar?” No way, I tell him.  Most Americans don’t even know that there are other currencies.  The fact that we were paying him in dollars for his services didn’t seem to strike him as ironic.  Apparently, Russian TV is reporting some wild things.  If not, then someone is.

Work has been sporadic for M. since the crisis.  Apartment rentals aren’t what they used to be, though it appears that rents haven’t fallen.  No matter how bad things are in Moscow, he says, they aren’t even close to what they are in the provinces.  He has the impression (as does our landlords) that there are whole regions where almost everyone is unemployed.

Of all the things that I’ve heard so far, it is I.’s statement that “They don’t know how we live.” that haunts me.  I don’t know how most Russians live in this city either.  Prices are high.  Rents are high.  Pay for the vast majority is low.  Granted, most Moscovites don’t pay rent–they are lucky enough to own their apartments.  Still, daily life here is not cheap.  The metro is up to 19 rubles. I’ve see more and more people jumping fare as a result.  Newspapers have gone up.  Four years ago, Kommersant was 5 rubles, now it is 15, even 20 if you buy it from a kiosk instead of the newspaper machines in the Metro.  A loaf a black bread I bought two days ago was 19 rubles.  Restaurants are mostly out of reach for many Russians like I., who claims he never goes to them.

The difference from four years ago is quite palatable.  A Saturday night stroll through the center of the city was like walking through a ghost town.  Four years ago the clubs, bars, and restaurants were buzzing.  Now the city’s nightlife seems asleep.  Most restaurants and clubs appear empty. There are more shops closed early or simply closed down.  Many boutiques have more workers than shoppers  The places I have seen people, and especially young people are the street, McDonald’s, and Starbucks (I’ve counted at least 5 so far).  Places that are cheap enough and they won’t throw you out.

pics.1Yet, some are doing well.  Really well.  Just who they are exactly, I don’t know.  I imagine they are people like Telman Ismailov, whose son sliced a Volkswagen in half severely injuring its 70-year old driver with his Lamborghini Murcielago last week in Geneva.  You might also see some of them shopping at the new shopping center at the Letto hotel near Smolenskaya.  There you can buy shoes for $500.  Or visit TsUM, near Kuznetsky Most where shoes are $1000 and children’s pants are $200.  Even the local children’s clothing store around the corner from my apartment has outrageous prices.  Moscow is shrouded in a veneer of excess only comparable to Beverly Hills.  The Rolls-Royce dealer down the street from the Lenin Library mocks passersby as do the Bentley, Ferrari, and Lamborghini dealers down the street from Lubyanka.  The glistening windows of Catier, Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Bosco Family serve as Lenin’s nightlight.

Perhaps this is why when I read editorials in Novaya gazeta like “Russian Business: Either in a suitcase or in prison,” I can’t help but shake my head in disgust.  It makes me want to stop reading the newspaper completely.  It is no wonder that most Russians don’t care about the death of Magnitsky or believe that a jailed or exiled oligarch is simply just desserts.  After all, in the public consciousness few have made an honest living in the first place.  So I can’t really imagine many average Russians on the daily hustle and bustle, having to navigate through the packed roads or metro cars to get to and from work getting too emotional about a dead lawyer tied up in an alleged $3.25 million in tax evasion scheme which ran afoul with MVD officers who allegedly skimmed $230 million from the state budget.  They probably think that you reap what you sow when mixing that kind of money with those kinds of people.  Is it right? No. Is it tragic? Yes.  But that is the reality the perspective of being in Russia gives you.

Mutilated Volkswagen photo is from Novaya gazeta.

Luzhkov the Weather Warlock

I think I finally understand why the Kremlin was so hell bent on securing Yuri Luzhkov’s continued domination over Moscow politics: the weather.  Yuri Mikhailovich can control the weather.  Or so he promises.  According to Time,

For just a few million dollars, the mayor’s office will hire the Russian Air Force to spray a fine chemical mist over the clouds before they reach the capital, forcing them to dump their snow outside the city. Authorities say this will be a boon for Moscow, which is typically covered with a blanket of snow from November to March. Road crews won’t need to constantly clear the streets, and traffic — and quality of life — will undoubtedly improve.

iphoto_1251987724602-1-0jpgThis won’t be Luzhkov’s first foray into the Promethean.  In 2002, Moscow’s Grand Prince pushed a project to reverse the flow of the Ob River to irrigate Central Asia.  Needless to say, the people of Central Asia are still parched.  Luzhkov is also known for shelling out $2-3 million to the Russian Air Force to seed the clouds around Victory Day and City Day.  With a city budget of $40 billion, $2-3 million is minuscule price to pay for a sunny day.  “Well, we should do the same with the snow!” Time quotes Luzhkov from a speech he gave to farmers in September. “Then outside Moscow there will be more moisture, a bigger harvest, while for us it won’t snow as much. It will make financial sense.”  The total cost to keep the snow at bay all winter is estimated to be $6 million, half of what the capital shells out to clear the streets.

While Time calls Luzhkov’s attempt at playing weather warlock “his zaniest plan to date,” you can’t fault the boyar too much.  He just the next episode in a much zanier history. Weather manipulation research began in the Soviet Union in the 1930s under Stalin’s order and continues up to the present.  Putin used weather control in 2003 for the St. Petersburg 300th Anniversary celebrations.  In September, China deployed 18 planes to “spray cloud dispersal chemicals” to prevent bad weather during its recent 60th Anniversary celebrations.

Creating clear holiday skies  is not its only application.  According to James R. Fleming, during the Cold War both the US and Soviet Union saw weather manipulation as a potential weapon.

Howard T. Orville, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s weather adviser, published an influential 1954 article in Collier’s that included a variety of scenarios for using weather as a weapon of warfare. Planes would drop hundreds of balloons containing seeding crystals into the jet stream. Downstream, when the fuses on the balloons exploded, the crystals would fall into the clouds, initiating rain and miring enemy operations. The Army Ordnance Corps was investigating another technique: loading silver iodide and carbon dioxide into 50-caliber tracer bullets that pilots could fire into clouds. A more insidious technique would strike at an adversary’s food supply by seeding clouds to rob them of moisture before they reached enemy agricultural areas. Speculative and wildly optimistic ideas such as these from official sources, together with threats that the Soviets were aggressively pursuing weather control, triggered what Newsweek called “a weather race with the Russians,” and helped fuel the rapid expansion of meteorological research in all areas, including the creation of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which was established in 1960.

The American war machine even implemented “weather warfare” during the Vietnam War.  Between 1967 and 1972, the American military shelled out $3.6 million a year to have planes fly more “2,600 cloud seeding sorties” to “reduce the trafficability” on portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail as part of covert operations “POPEYE” and “Intermediary-Compatriot.”

In present day Russia, it seems weather manipulation is mostly for adding sunny and clear skies to their “palaces on Monday.”  Not everyone is keen on the idea, though. Russian environmentalists are up in arms over the idea of “banning” snow from Moscow.  They fear that such a drastic alteration of Moscow weather patterns will have long term disastrous effects. The plan still has to pass through Moscow ecology department and discussed with suburban residents since the snow will be dumped on them. However, given the mayor’s political weight, there is little doubt the plan will pass.  Man’s destined domination over nature will not be denied.

“Good people live in bathtubs.”

communalaptVedomosti has a great article on the history of Russia’s housing crisis. Housing, as Maksim Trudoliubov notes, is a chronic historical problem in Russia, one which the Soviets tried to attenuate, but made little headway until the 1960s.  “The comfort of our home life is still not good for many of us,” Trudoliubov begins.  “As in the early Soviet and even in the “mature Soviet” period housing was the main problem for the majority of citizens.  Life was collective not because the state managed to inculcate citizens with a fancy for the romanticism of “communal life,” and because of this all of Stalin’s construction projects must be seen in this light. There’s just not enough housing (as is the case up to the present).  But even more important, housing–from the bunks in dormitories to elite apartments in nomenclature buildings–was an instrument of manipulating people.”

Indeed, as Truboliubov continues, solutions to the housing problem took on a variety of realist and ideological forms to manipulate people.  Lenin, for one, saw the housing problem a matter of distribution and allocation.  According to the Soviet founding father, the Tsarist elite held a monopoly over living space.  The solution was a simple but cold revolutionary formula of “K = N – 1,” where K equaled the number of rooms, and N the number of residents.  Meaning that “the number of people in an apartment must be one more than rooms.” Well, as the those intimately familiar with Russian housing know well, the proportion of people to rooms was often many times more lopsided than Lenin’s prescription.

Things only worsened after the Civil War when structural dilapidation, poverty, disease, and general governmental decay exacerbated the existing housing problem.  As Truboliubov writes, “In 1921 37% of buildings in Moscow were unsuitable for habitation.”  As one resident of what is now Building 9 on Bolshaya Dmitrovka, the street that runs parallel to Tverskaya, central Moscow’s main drag, commented in 1922, “The pluming system, drainage and heating are destroyed.  Apartments lack facets, radiators for central heating, and are stripped of stoves. In the majority of apartments the floors are taken apart, and dirt and garbage are everywhere.”

Apartment life in the 1920s was abysmal to say the least. As any reader of Bulgakov’s Dog’s Heart will know, apartments were allocated and reallocated in a sporadic, albeit proletarian, manner.  Residents of various classes were cramped together.  Revolutionary justice in housing required the bourgeoisie to give up their rooms to the new proletarian ruling class.  And “when there weren’t any rooms to rent, then people rented corners, that is parts of rooms, corridors and kitchens.”  And if those weren’t available, then sleeping in bathtubs served as a desperate alternative.  The average living space in the 1920s was an average of 5.2 to 5.8 square meters per person.

Stalin’s industrial campaign of the 1930s only made matters worse as millions of peasant migrants flooded into Russia’s cities.   As David Hoffman notes in his Peasant Metropolis, migration was so great that there was no conceivable way for the authorities to provide adequate housing.  The solution was often the rapid and shoddy construction of worker’s barracks.  The crunch was so great that the average number of persons per room in the Soviet Union rose from 2.71 in 1926 to 3.91 in 1940.  One can only guess that the increase would be even more if the statistics only accounted for the country’s industrial urban centers.

More people meant less comfort.  One American cited by Hoffman described his friend Kuznetsov’s living conditions in the barracks of the Kuibyshev electronic factory in the 1930s,

“Kuznetsov lived with about 550 others, men and women, in a wooden structure about 800 feet long and fifteen feet wide. The room contained approximately 500 narrow beds, covered with mattresses filled with straw and dried leaves.  There were no pillows or blankets.  Coats and other garments were being utilized for covering.  Some of the residents had no beds and slept on the floor or in wooden boxes.  In some cases beds were used by one shift during the day and by others at night.  There were no screens or wall to give any privacy to the occupants of the barracks . . . I could not stay in the barracks very long.  I could not stand the stench of kerosene and unwashed bodies.  The only washing facility was a pump outside.  The toilet was rickety, unheated shanty, without seats.”

Rapid urbanization also gave rise to the Stalinist internal passport system in 1934.  The passport system was an attempt to slow migration, especially that induced by the famine in Ukraine.  The logic was to prevent an already desperate situation was getting worse.  With housing and food supply already short (urban residents were on rations), a tidal wave of starving peasants would have brought the situation to the brink Soviet officials reasoned. The policy was certainly cruel.  But Stalinist policies were never known for their niceties.

The passport system also became a permanent biopolitical measure of population control.  Urbanites got them.  Kholkhozniki didn’t.  And though getting off the collective farm was easily done, the system put in place institutionalized discrimination until the mid-1970s when Russia’s rural inhabitants began getting passports.  This is not to say that urban residents were allowed to move freely.  City to city migration required registration.  True, people still moved throughout the postwar period, but the passport and registration system was yet another bureaucratic control for the authorities to wield when necessary.

Substantial housing relief didn’t come until the 1960s when Nikita Khrushchev attempted to tackle the housing problem with the mass production of five story, box like apartment buildings.  The “khrushchevki” provided relief, gave many their own apartments, but were hardly aesthetic or structural masterpieces.  But a shoddy apartment was better than no apartment, especially for those war refugees who were living in dugouts until the late 1950s.  And the continued housing projects of the Brezhnev period provided additional living space.  So much so that by the end of the Soviet period, the square meter per person had grown to 15.3 square meters.

Present day housing, though still a problem, appears to be improving.  As Truboliubov notes, according to Rosstat, the average living space has increased to 20.9 square meters per person.  This is still low by Western European and American standards (Germany, 36 sq. m.; Sweden, about 40; and the US, 60), yet by Russian standards, which has a totally different historical relationship to living, privacy, and relationships, this is a great improvement.

Finally, Truboliubov ends his narrative with a reminder that registration, though deemed illegal by the Russian Constitution, remains in force.  The authorities repeadtly balk at abolishing it.  They only seem to always promise to “modernize” its application.  Why?  As Truboliubov notes, one of the features of a capitalist system is to increase the mobility of not just capital, but labor.  But Russian capitalism works on an additional profit motive. The registration system has an additional function as an “instrument of extracting the profit of corruption.”  “The Stalinist institution of registration now properly serves the bureaucrats as a source of income.”

Photo: English Russia.

Moscow Costs but Pays

The fact that Moscow is expensive city is well known. For the second consecutive year, the Cost of Living Survey, which is conducted by the Mercer Human Resource Consulting has ranked Russia’s capital as the most expensive city in the world. Expensive it is. For western expatriates. But what of the millions of Russians who live there? How much does it take to survive the mean Moscow streets?

Figures released by the Moscow City government say that a minimum of 6,500 rubles ($266) a month is necessary to live in Moscow. A tripartite Moscow commission placed their minimum a bit higher at 8,000 rubles ($327). But as Nezamisimaya gazeta points out, most experts note that this government “minimum” is based on the the government idea of the rock bottom necessary for a person to live. That means a person who is “not dying from hunger, lice free, and doesn’t go naked or barefoot.” In addition to this the Russian government includes a “minimum subsistence basket” of foodstuff and services. “What goes into this basket?” NG asks.

The minimum set of services includes working utilities and 18 square meters of living space. The minimum set of “non-food” goods are clothes, shoes, linen, furniture, housewares, the necessities of life, hygiene and medicine. It is necessary to have nine pairs of underwear over 2.4 years, seven pairs of hosiery over a year, and six pairs of shoes over 3.2 years.

For a comparison, in Great Britain a mobile phone, an mp3 player, a digital radio, and a DVD recorder and a host of other digital products are added to the subsistence basket.

Those are two very different notions of minimum subsistence. It’s no wonder that many accuse the West of decadence.

The Russian calculation of minimum subsistence is nothing to praise. There is nothing noble in poverty. Nor is there anything pretty in inflation, a problem that has been hitting Russia for almost a year now. Between 2004 to the final quarter of 2007, the cost of living for employed Muscovites rose from 4265 rubles ($173) to 6563 rubles ($267). For lowest on the economic ladder, the elderly and children, the cost of living went up in the same period 2531 ($103) to 3983 rubles ($161) and 3377 ($137) to 4934 rubles ($200) respectively. Moreover, estimates from 2006 put 1.3 million Muscovites living at the lowest income level out of a population of 10.5 million. This number has dropped in the last three years by 160,000 people. This trend is being reproduced across the country. From the beginning of 2005 to the last quarter of 2007, the number of people living in poverty has dropped from 24.5 percent to 15.8 percent. And people still wonder why Putin, and now Medvedev by association, is so popular.

It may be expensive for Russians to live in Moscow but it seems that they are making the money to do so. The median income for Muscovites as of October 2007 is 23,873 rubles a month. From that they spend an average of 67 percent (15,995) of their income of foodstuffs. That’s over twice what the government says is necessary to live at minimum subsistence. Still most Muscovites seem live somewhat cautiously. The average amount of their monthly salary they devote to savings and buying foreign currency is 8.8 percent (2100 rubles) and 8.4 percent (2005) rubles.

Moscow’s Rise Not Without Costs

Today’s news is buzzing with reports of Moscow becoming the most expensive city in the world. According to a survey by Mercer Human Resource Consulting, Moscow has topped Tokyo as the world’s costliest city. Many news reports have noted the obvious irony that the former capital of Communism is now the capital of capitalist expenditure. Few articles give much analysis as to why Moscow has surged so quickly and to such heights except for London’s Independent. In an article in today’s addition, it seems that Moscow’s rise has not come without cost.


Prices for flats have more than doubled in the past year and the average cost per square metre is about ?2,700 and rising by the day. A modest city centre flat is now hard to find for less than ?190,000, a big price when you consider that the average national wage is ?170 per month and the average monthly Moscow wage about ?350.

Ordinary Russians are embracing mortgages (albeit with interest rates well above 10 per cent) in order to get a foot on the property ladder before it is too late and are rushing to put their names down for apartment blocks that have yet to be built in an attempt to avoid seemingly unstoppable inflation.

Cranes labour over Moscow’s skyline day and night and immigrant workers from across the former Soviet Union toil on building sites for poverty-line wages as developers try to snap up more and more land to cash in on the boom.

There are not nearly enough good quality flats to go around and prices seem set to rise even higher. Indeed buying a flat in the Russian metropolis is now just a dream for many young Muscovites, who can only rent rooms in rundown flats in the city’s concrete suburbs in Soviet-era tower blocks.

People desperate to get a foot on the property ladder resort to desperate measures; the media often carries stories of contract killers hired to bump off flat owners, of elderly people tricked out of their city centre apartments, and of apartment blocks burnt down “accidentally” to force people to sell.

Renting in the centre of Moscow is also too expensive for many. Western companies regularly shell out more than ?5,000 per month in rental costs for their employees and it is hard to find anything decent for less than ?1,000 per month. Hotel prices in Moscow are also higher than anywhere else in the world.

The average room rate is ?165 per night, thanks to the city’s bizarre strategy of knocking down large cheaper Soviet-era hotels and replacing them with exorbitantly priced, Western-style four- and five-star hotels, while making no provision for anyone on a more modest budget. Visitors to Moscow are therefore forced to choose between slumming it in a hostel or living it up at the Metropol.

The Mercer’s report should be taken with a slight pinch of salt, however. It was primarily drawn up to help multinational companies decide how much to pay their expatriate employees posted abroad.


The final note is an interesting tidbit. As news agencies quickly churn out the news about Moscow ascendant, they forget to ask the vital question in regard to any such statistics: Expensive for whom and for what? Now for expat employees, I’m sure glitzy clubs and Moscow whores can drive up one’s cost of living rather quickly. All of this begs the question as to what this news actually tells us about life in Moscow.

In all, very little. However, there is one truism: Moscow is expensive. Muscovite natives, though, know how to cut corners and navigate the city’s costs with exactitude. Very few of average Russians are paying exorbitant rents, and they are certainly not staying in four- and five star hotels. This is in no way to suggest that Muscovites aren’t effected by the city’s rise of expensive prominence. As the Independent article points out, public transportation costs and food prices have risen substantially in the last decade. Moreover the scramble to wrestle expensive property from the hands of pensioners has resulted in scams, terror and violence.

The rise of Moscow in post-Communist Russia has had other results. You can’t look across the skyline without having your view obstructed by a construction crane. Construction requires labor. Lots of it. And the cheaper the better. Moscow’s boom has a magnetic pull on populations, flooding it with immigrant labor. The recent rise in racial tensions in the city cannot be separated from the centripetal forces of urban expansion and financial dominance. While some wish to paint Russia’s current race problems as simply manifestations of a deep seated racism within the Russian psyche, the current socio-economic conditions of the capital serve as a better explanation. This is not to say that racism in Russia is absent of cultural roots. It is to say that they rise to the top under particular conditions. Hence the slogan “Russia for Russians” and other xenophobic rhetoric becomes quite salient in many minds.

Moscow may be on top but that doesn’t mean is has come without cost. If anything the capital’s boom places it well within processes that every metropolitan on the planet is experiencing .

Study Finds Moscow Metro Rife with Racial Profiling

Here’s a surprise. Moscow militsa stop non-Slavs 22 times more often than Slavic looking people. I would have never known! So says a new study reported by Fred Weir of the Christian Science Monitor.

The study, in which monitors observed more than 1,500 police document checks at 15 Metro stations over a five-month period in 2005, concluded that Moscow police are engaged in “massive ethnic profiling.” The practice is unlawful discrimination, a violation of the equal rights of citizens under the Russian Constitution and the country’s international commitments. For example, the United Nations Race Convention prohibits racial discrimination with respect to “freedom of movement,” and guarantees the “right to equal treatment” by judicial officials.

Anita Soboleva, executive director of Jurix, the lawyers’ group that conducted the survey with funds from George Soros’ Open Society Institute, says “Police ethnic profiling reflects social attitudes against people who look ‘different.’ This racist approach appears to be deeply ingrained in police procedures.”

The full 72 page report written by the Open Society Justice Initiative and can be downloaded here argues that the Moscow Metro posts the “highest ethnic profiling odds ratio ever documented.” Here are some figures (benchmark means the sample number of people monitored at a give stop.):

These high rates of police harassing and extorting non-Slavs persists despite a Fenurary 2003 order by Moscow police Moscow police chief Lieutenant-General V.V. Pronin that instructing officers that:

Let every officer know that it is prohibited for the police to use the kinds of treatment that humiliate citizen’s personal dignity, to check identity papers and registration in the city of Moscow without cause. According to the Law [On Police, Article 5], a police officer is obliged to protect and respect every person with no regard to their citizenship, place of residence, social, economic and professional status, racial or ethnic origin, gender, age, education, language, religious, political or other affiliations.

Yet as one narrative in the report of a Turkish worker named Bairam tells:

After the decree of [Pronin in 2003] prohibiting th[e] lucrative pursuit, the only thing that changed for the Turk is that now he is stopped not at the exit from the Metro station, but closer to home . . . And what really deserves attention is that all the papers of the Turkish citizen are in thorough order. But alas, the practice is that policemen, depending on their mood find fault either with the visa, or residential permit (every day they claim that something in his papers is counterfeit. . .) Sometimes Bairam didn’t have any money on him, and the officers would kindly give him a comfortable place for the night in the police cells. If by the morning no one brought them 1,500 Rubles (and that is the standard bail for the Turkish worker), they took his mobiles (during 6 months Bairam left 3 of his mobiles with the police), watches (one), new purse (one), and new leather gloves. . . . But as long as he will stay in this Moscow district, he has found only one solution—to keep it secret and silently share his wages with them.

The report makes many, many recommendations to the Moscow police and the Russian government to address the problem of racial profiling. However, given the amount of non-Slavic labor migration into the capital, a remedy to police harassment will be hard to come by. Policies can be set in place, and if the Pronin order is any indication there are, but they must be enforced. Enforcement of law is always something missing on Russian authorities’ agenda. If anything, the report further confirms the already wide evidence of the ugly public racism that many face in Russia’s cities.

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