Russia’s rehousing storm: Moscow moves to demolish homes of 1.6m people
Growing protests in capital over mayor’s programme to resettle over a million people
An excavator demolishes a five-storey apartment block in Moscow. City authorities have initiated a plan to demolish low-rise housing. Photograph: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images
Kari Guggenberger had carved out a good life for herself and had taken no interest in politics until the Moscow city government unveiled plans to demolish huge swathes of residential property in the Russian capital and resettle more than a million people in new homes.
Now the 35-year-old Muscovite has left her job at an IT company and thrown herself into a campaign to save not just her own flat but hundreds of thousands of others before the bulldozers roll in.
“People are rising up to protect old Moscow,” she says. “The task is to save our town.”
Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, has been facing a growing storm of protest since announcing the so-called “renovation” scheme to sweep away 8,000 aging apartment blocks and clear prime land for high-rise property developments.
Officials have promised that uprooted residents will be offered flats in new buildings nearby that, equipped with modern amenities such as lifts and underground parking, will assure them of a better quality of life.
Don’t be fooled, say the protesters, who accuse city bureaucrats of allying with construction magnates to ride roughshod over citizens’ property rights enshrined in the Russian constitution.
“It’s not about renovation. It’s about expropriation,” says Guggenberger.
Many Muscovites were shocked by the gargantuan scale of the renovation programme that Sobyanin presented to President Vladimir Putin in late February, which will involve resettling 1.6 million people, more than a tenth of Moscow’s population.
Putin signalled approval, instructing the mayor to “do it in a way that makes people comfortable”.
Most of the buildings the mayor’s office wants to destroy date back to a nationwide construction spree launched by Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev in 1955 to address acute housing shortages after the second World War.
Tiny flats in the five-storey “Krushchovky” blocks that mushroomed across the Soviet Union were considered the height of luxury, offering families accustomed to even more cramped communal apartments privacy in quiet, leafy neighbourhoods.
Times have changed and flats in these no-frills buildings are no longer considered particularly prestigious addresses. Some have been so badly neglected that residents can’t wait for Sobyanin to get on with his renovation plan.
But others such as Guggenberger, who has spent all her spare cash replacing the wiring and pipes and installing a chic Italian kitchen in the flat she bought in north Moscow eight years ago, are determined to stay put. “I chose to live in a Khruschovka and I don’t want to move to a high-rise ghetto,” she says.
Russian state television has framed Sobyanin’s plan as a long-overdue rescue for Krushchovky dwellers from slum-like conditions – leaking pipes, collapsing ceilings and mouldy walls, even though many of these old buildings are still in a viable condition.
Federal television channels have also omitted mention of the draft law of renovation that sets the stage for a resettlement programme that critics compare to the mass deportations of Josef Stalin’s era.
The legislation empowers the city authorities to confiscate entire buildings after offering residents new flats of the same size, but not necessarily equivalent financial value. Those who object will have no right to appeal and may face eviction.
Praise and criticism
Appointed mayor of Moscow by the Kremlin in 2010, Siberia-born Sobyanin has won praise for hugely expensive projects to expand the city’s transport network, revamp parks and widen pavements to make the city centre more pedestrian-friendly.
But his methods tend to be authoritarian, particularly when urban-regeneration schemes demand the demolition of privately-owned property.
Few people complained when the mayor’s office ordered the removal of thousands of rickety garages dotted across the city deemed illegal and unsightly by the authorities. More contentious was the “night of the long teeth” in February 2016 when bulldozers reduced to heaps of rubble many of the street kiosks that had been providing small traders with a living for more than a decade.
With the renovation plan it appears that the mayor – nicknamed by critics as the “tundra expert” or “reindeer herder” for his liking for empty spaces – has gone a step too far.
Muscovites have been mobilising in local neighbourhood communities and on social-networking sites to try to block the scheme. Every day brings more recruits to the campaign, including many people who have never considered joining a civic protest before.
Stirred to action by the prospect of losing her treasured home, Guggenberger has emerged as a driving force behind the “Moscow Against Demolition” page on Facebook that, with 22,000 followers, is the biggest online forum fighting the renovation plan.
“I never gave politics a thought before, never voted and never went on protests,” she says. “But they have hit on the most precious thing we own and we are all waking up.”
Activists are urging Muscovites to join a march against the renovation programme this Sunday that will test the strength of the fledgling civic protest movement.
The authorities are clearly alarmed by the upsurge in activism, which comes as Moscow prepares for municipal council elections this September and the mayoral poll next year.
After discontent reached Putin’s ears last month the Russian president intervened, saying he would refuse to sign off on a law permitting forced evictions.
Some say that the mayor, who is thought to be angling for the job of Russian prime minister once his mayoral term expires next year, has been egged on by political rivals plotting to wreck his career
That prompted Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Russian parliament, to postpone the second reading of the renovation Bill until July to give legislators time to draft amendments.
There are signs that Sobyanin may backpedal on the scheme. A list published by the mayor’s office last week identified 4,500 residential blocks slated for demolition against 8,000 originally planned, raising the possibility that some buildings might be spared.
Uncertainty about what lies ahead has plunged Moscow residents into “a Kafkaesque terror in which their lives are subject to some vague law that can arbitrarily be interpreted by small-time bureaucrats”, wrote Russian journalist Andrey Pertsev on the Moscow Carnegie Centre’s website.
Conspiracy theories abound suggesting how Sobyanin came to risk popular discontent with such a drastic demolition plan.
Some say that the mayor, who is thought to be angling for the job of Russian prime minister once his mayoral term expires next year, has been egged on by political rivals plotting to wreck his career.
In a measure of deep public distrust of the authorities, most activists believe the mayor’s office is in cahoots with corrupt property developers to give a much-needed boost to the local construction industry.
An economic slowdown in Russia caused by low world oil prices and western sanctions has taken the froth out of the Moscow property market. Highly-leveraged property developers, who made fortunes when the business was booming, are now struggling to find buyers for flats in new high-rise blocks on the outskirts of the city.
Government contracts to tear down Krushchovky and erect new buildings in their place could, so the theory goes, put the mojo back in the market and make millions of dollars for bribe-taking local officials.
“We are at war with Big Money,” says Guggenberger. “So far there’s no blood. But who knows what lies ahead?”