Nostalgia, Moscow Style

Svetlana Boym

Authoritarian Postmodernism and Its Discontents

For the celebration of Moscow’s 850th anniversary, in 1997, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov ordered the clouds over the Russian capital to be dispersed. Dressed as Prince Yuri Dolgorukii, Moscow’s legendary founder, Mayor Luzhkov rode majestically through the streets of the city. The Soviet-era pop diva Alla Pugacheva, clad in virgin white and sporting an oversized cross on her bosom, blessed the nation. St. George, the patron saint of both Moscow and Luzhkov, triumphantly slew a dragon symbolizing the enemies of Russia in an exclusive Red Square performance choreographed by the ex-Soviet Hollywood director Andrei Konchalovsky. The program concluded with the “The Road to the Twenty-first Century: A Transmillennial Journey,” the world’s largest laser show ever, created by the French wizard Jean-Michel Jarre. The point of the show was to lead the way to the future via the past through a series of pulsating magical apparitions from Yuri Dolgorukii to Yuri Luzhkov, from the battleship Potemkin to the spaceship Sputnik, all beamed onto Muscovite skyscrapers from the Stalin era. And projected straight into the sky were images of famous Russian icons, including Byzantine religious images and the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

One rarely witnesses the creation of a myth. The ceremonies for Moscow’s 850th anniversary were one such occasion, at once reinventing Russian tradition and the Soviet grand style. This extravaganza was not an attempt to destabilize familiar monumental propaganda but instead to create its post-Soviet rival. Where Stalin had contemplated reversing the flow of rivers, the all-powerful Moscow mayor would attempt (at least for a day or two) to alter the course of the clouds. The forces of nature were to be orchestrated into a seamless mass spectacle. On the last day of the celebrations, ballerinas from the Bolshoi Theater performed scenes from Swan Lake in plein air, competing with real swans floating nearby. Minutes before the ballerinas were to begin “the dance of the little swans,” freezing rain began to fall. Temporarily subdued by technology, halted at the gates of the city for two days, the bad Russian weather had finally reached the capital. Slipping in puddles, the ballerinas trembled in the drizzle, while the real swans fluttered their wings to Tchaikovsky. In the end, the rain actually helped highlight the special effects. After all, most Muscovites watched the performance on television, where it looked perfectly choreographed. The only thing that the mayor of Moscow couldn’t control that weekend in August 1997 was an accident in a Paris tunnel that took the life of the Princess of Wales. Perhaps the only event that could have distracted attention from the spectacle in Moscow, the death of Diana prevented scheduled appearances by stars like Elton John. Rumors of an international conspiracy briefly surfaced but soon subsided. The show had to go on.

To appreciate the “economic miracle” of Moscow’s brief gilded age, which lasted from 1995 to 1998, one had to be either high up, enjoying panoramic views, or in motion, speeding through the streets in a traffic-defying BMW. The city in those early post-Soviet years did not move at the pace of the pedestrian. In the years of the economic miracle, Moscow was one of the world’s most exciting destinations. To a foreign visitor, it resembled a permanent fair of fun and conspicuous consumption, with Russian bistros and McDonald’s, honking Mercedes, bursting casinos, girls “without complexes” in micro-miniskirts, and advertisements everywhere, promising instant gratification. Featuring its very own mini-Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building in the Gorky Amusement Park, as well as the gigantic monument to Peter the Great and the world’s largest neo-Byzantine cathedral, Moscow devoured the dreams of other cities—of Paris, New York, St. Petersburg, Istanbul, Rome, and Hong Kong. In the capital of the new Russia, you could fast-forward through 1,001 nights in a single evening. Everything seemed possible. The city was like a gigantic casino in which you could gamble forever.

As the most spectacular commemoration of the post-Soviet era, Moscow’s 850th anniversary celebration had a complex political and psychological agenda: it was intended to put an end to the work of memory and grief, of spontaneous urban transformation. The time of change, of perestroika, of cultural cleansing, of debating the present and future—all this appeared to be irretrievably over. Indeed, in the final years of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, street life in the capital had been unpredictable and fascinating, “more exciting than fiction,” as people would say. Organized ceremonies had begun to lose their authority; disorganized events flourished. In the historic center of Moscow, one encountered impromptu Hyde Park Corners, where citizen-orators openly and passionately debated issues from the beginning of democracy to the end of the world. Nearby was the nascent postcommunist market, a bustling extemporaneous shopping fair where one could buy almost everything, from Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago to Turkish underwear, from exotic pets to Matreshka dolls representing diverse aspects of Russian culture from the slain royal family to the Soviet Writer’s Union, from great Russian novelists to Soviet politicians. In those years the wounds of Soviet history were being opened up rather than covered over, eventually to be healed (everyone hoped). Moscow-in-transition defied easy synthesis or the inner determinism that one imposes only in hindsight.

The urban culture of perestroika ended with two violent outbursts of very different political significance: the barricading of the “White House” in downtown Moscow, a unique act of popular resistance to the August 1991 coup d’état and the siege of this same building, which houses the Russian Parliament, two years later by government troops, a controversial action that shook citizens’ belief in the government’s commitment to democracy. A few years later, Mayor Luzhkov wanted to forget the barricades. It was then that he built the largest underground shopping mall in Europe, a complex beneath Manezh Square near the Kremlin, which had once been a rallying ground for popular demonstrations. Luzhkov hoped that leisurely strolls in the gardens and grottoes of conspicuous consumption would supersede politics and protest. The new official nostalgia was thus bound up with the collective forgetting that was considered healthy, necessary to the forging of a new identity. As contemporary wisdom put it, “In Russia the past has become more unpredictable than the future.”

The tradition of celebrating the city’s anniversary is recent. And as it turns out, Moscow’s legendary past is a retrospective invention. The chronicles for the year 1147 make only the briefest mention of the fact that during the reign of Yuri Dolgorukii—Yuri the Long-Armed—a “new and larger fortress was built in Moscow.” We do not know with any certainty that the legendary prince Yuri was the founder of the city; we know only that in the middle of the 12th century, he and his warriors camped on the banks of the Moscow River and, apparently, had a decent meal. In fact, the “founding of the city” did not enter the Russian consciousness until 1847, when Tsar Alexander II decided to celebrate Moscow’s 700th anniversary with great pomp. In 1947 Stalin revived the tsarist tradition and celebrated Moscow’s 800th anniversary. This grand event occurred during Mayor Luzhkov’s boyhood, and he remembers it with great affection. Continuing the tradition, Luzhkov is thus doubly nostalgic—nostalgic for Russian and Soviet glory and for his own postwar youth.

Nostalgia—from the Greek nostos, or “return home,” and algia, “longing”—is the longing for a home that no longer exists or that never existed. Post-Soviet nostalgia is the perfect counterpoint to the future-oriented utopias of the early days of the Soviet Union. In fact, nostalgia itself is somewhat utopian—except that it is not focused on the future; and sometimes nostalgia is directed toward no specific time but instead toward some ideal of the past, of a past perfect and, as such, alluring and notoriously elusive. Nostalgia seems at first a longing for a place, a home; but actually it is a yearning for a different time—the time of our childhood, of the imaginary historical past, some distant age of stability and normality. Those who are nostalgic want to obliterate history and replace it with a private or collective mythology, to revisit time as one revisits place, to restore the lost paradise. Nostalgia is double-edged: it can work as a kind of emotional antidote to politics, but as such it is one of the best of political tools.

In the official vision that has guided recent architecture in Moscow, the grand restorations will allow citizens to escape confrontation with the Soviet past. They will discourage the critical and ironic explorations of memory and history that have informed the work of certain contemporary Moscow architects—work ignored by the city establishment. Luzhkov’s projects appeal to the common denominator of collective nostalgia. It is not by chance that post-Soviet Moscow architecture seems somewhat childish. Working within the mythology of Moscow as the “third Rome” and the “big village,” it is at once authoritarian and intimate, cosmological and cozy. The architecture of the new Moscow is a kind of vernacular postmodernism of toy towers, gilded cupolas, fountains, and fairy-tale bears. As such it is not unfamiliar—it is part of the current global vernacular, of the late-20th-century fascination with local historical styles. What is exceptional is the way it works vis-à-vis institutional functions and power structures. There is no written directive, no manifesto directing its development. New Moscow architecture is both more and less than a stylistic phenomenon. It is characterized by charismatic concealment; each construction site is shrouded in mystery. Yuri Luzhkov has ruled Moscow with the “mystery and authority” that Dostoevsky described as essential to power. Neither the rulings of official architectural commissions nor the results of official competitions have gotten in the way of the mayor’s plans. He has planned much, and everything has been built by a coterie of architects and artists close to him, particularly Mikhail Posokhin and Zurab Tseriteli, who enjoy the unquestioned status of court artists.

The new architecture can be seen as a revealing example of how a historicist style can collaborate, in a sense, with those who want to forget the nation’s recent history. Just as Socialist Realism was intended to be national in form and socialist in content, so Moscow postmodernism is supposed to be historical in form and antihistorical in content. The enemy of the new Moscow tradition is the culture of the Khrushchev thaw of the ’50s and ’60s and the Gorbachev perestroika of the ’80s. During the Khrushchev era, architects built mass housing, mostly on the outskirts of Moscow. One could argue that ’60s-style Soviet modern architecture further destroyed the physical heritage, but it also inspired new ideas of urban planning, developing a less hierarchical, more horizontal axis for the city. Partly in reaction to the cheap modern uniformity of the ’60s, as well as to Stalinist grandiosity, the unofficial culture of the thaw produced a new image of Moscow, manifest in film, literature, and music—this was the “tape-recorder culture,” the culture in which the music everyone wanted to hear was banned but easily available on homemade recordings. This culture celebrated everyday urban epiphanies and discovered the more intimate spaces of city neighborhoods, as if reclaiming them from the shadow of the Stalinist skyscrapers and larger-than-life monuments. A sense of urban neighborliness supplanted official patriotism. Bulat Okudzhava’s songs of the ’60s and ’70s created a new intonation in Moscow urban folklore: nostalgic, wistful, and individual. The back streets, inner courtyards, and small squares around Arbat Street became Okudzhava’s “little patria.” It was a place devoid of national or state symbolism, with just an occasional monument to Pushkin in the background. The inhuman city seemed suddenly to have a human scale. Fellow citizens with their daily joys and sorrows became the heroes of songs. They took public transportation, made dates in the metro tunnels, and dreamed of a utopian blue trolley that might take them away from despair. The post-Stalinist Moscow of the tape-recorder culture made spaces for alternative communities of urban dwellers. And it was not escapist; it was a way of inhabiting the modern city against all odds.

This kind of democratic style is alien to Moscow’s recent grand projets. The new nostalgia is for centralized urban space. And so the new pedestrian streets and malls, supposedly built for ordinary Muscovites, are decorated with heroic figures of the new city pantheon, from St. George to Pushkin, all erected by order of the mayor. The grand projects have included the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior; the building of the largest underground shopping mall in Europe near Red Square; the construction of the memorial complex on Poklonnaya Hill for the 50th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War (also known as the Second World War); and the erection of huge statues to Peter the Great and wartime hero Marshall Zhukov, and smaller ones to Dostoevsky and Pushkin.

Moscow’s new nostalgia, its focus on architectural restoration, is characterized by a megalomaniacal impulse that recreates the past as a time of mythical giants. It encourages neither historical reflection nor individual longing, but rather a totalizing nostalgia for eternal grandeur. Megalomania tends to cover over sites of destruction and loss and to demand “rebirth,” not reconstruction. And this impulse in not really all that new; Moscow has seen it before. Legend has it that during the Napoleonic Wars, Muscovites were especially proud of burning their city to the ground rather than surrendering it to the French; after the Russian victory at Borodino, Moscow was defiantly rebuilt, its citizens asserting that the fire provided the opportunity for new beautification. Catastrophic fires were not unusual in old cities of the time, but the fire that destroyed Moscow in the early 19th century was thoroughly mythologized. Moscow was described as the firebird of a fairy tale, a city-phoenix risen from the ashes, more stately and magnificent than ever. The mythical time of Moscow is not the time of historical progression but of eternal rebirth. Luzhkov’s political cunning has been to revive the glorious myth. The city-phoenix is not a melancholy city. It does not mourn the past but recreates it anew, each time bigger and better.

The Largest Shopping Mall in Europe

In the mid-1990s, the Russian-American artists Komar and Melamid took a poll of artistic tastes all over the world and vowed to create each country’s “most wanted” and “least wanted” paintings. Russia’s most-wanted painting was a blue landscape with bears and Jesus Christ in the foreground, dubbed “The Appearance of Jesus before the Bears.” Komar and Melamid couldn’t have predicted that Muscovite architects would so quickly transform art into life. In the extensive shopping complex underneath Manezh Square—the aforementioned largest in Europe—the visitor is greeted by a grouping of statues, large figures of St. George and the Russian bear surrounded by the blue waters of an artificial canal, with the golden cupolas of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in the background. The mall is crowned by a cupola that in turn is crowned by a statue of the ubiquitous St. George—again slaying his dragon—astride the map of the world with Moscow at its center. This decoration is the mayor’s choice, yet “the people” like it anyway.

To get to the mall, you walk to Manezh Square, once a favorite site for military parades and popular protests. As you approach, you find yourself strolling along marble embankments, crossing arched bridges over blue streams—as if in the middle of Moscow you had stumbled upon some Black Sea resort vaguely remembered from childhood (before such places became post-Soviet battlegrounds in wars of independence). In the square where there once had been arsenals and assemblies, today you find instead luminescent fountains, Disney-like visions of fairy-tale bears, of Ivan the Fool, the Princess Frog, the old man with the goldfish, and other characters from Russian folklore.

Muscovites and visitors to the capital come here to take leisurely walks even if they never dream of buying anything in the expensive foreign stores underground. They come to relax, to enjoy romantic outings, to eat ice cream, or to have themselves photographed with Ivan the Fool and the bears. They even come for the sea breeze—artificial, of course, for there is no sea in Moscow, except in the imagination of the city’s rulers. Stalin tried to conjure the sense of the sea by calling Moscow the “port of five seas” and embarking on a major “Petersburgization” of the Soviet capital. It is rumored that the ubiquitous sculptor Tseriteli, one of the creators of the mall, used an unrealized project for a Black Sea resort while modeling the Manezh embankments (just as he was said to have reused a rejected statue of Christopher Columbus as a template for his Peter the Great, the founder of the Russian fleet). Along with the sea breeze, a political agenda emerges at the Manezh mall. Luzhkov is known to support the rebuilding of the Black Sea Fleet and the return of Sevastopol—now part of the Ukraine—into the Russian fold. Thus the innocuous shopping mall fantasy, encouraged by city authorities, hints at territorial ambitions. The mall in the center of Moscow is not simply a late-20th-century arcade, a phantasmagoria of brand-new commodities; it is also part of a nostalgic dream of lost empire, a reminder of other cities whose dreams might be embraced and realized in Moscow.1

The shopping mall thus revives the Muscovite past and attempts to compensate for the Stalinist reconstruction of Moscow, which targeted for demolition both religious buildings and commercial thoroughfares. Built in close proximity to Okhotny Row and Kitai Gorod—trading quarters of ancient Moscow—the mall evokes the old bazaars of the city, with their extemporaneous shops, kiosks, and vendor’s tents. As one Moscow observer noted in the 1920s, these tents embraced all sorts of shadow economies: “The tents are gloomy even during the day. From all appearances every tent has its own not-too-expensive trade. One sells cheap furs, another old repaired shoes, still another iron and copper utensils. But that’s all a stage set for those who are not in-the-know. The real trade goes on behind the curtains. These tents took everything that was delivered to them by Moscow thieves, from silver spoons … to a tombstone monument… . One day police found here a huge cannon stolen from the Kremlin.”2 In the 1920s Walter Benjamin describes the bustling quarters this way:

Pedestrians force their way between cars and unruly horses. Long rows of sleighs transport the snow away… . The eye is infinitely busier than the ear… . The smallest color rag glows out of doors. Picture books lie in the snow; Chinese sell artfully made paper fans and still more frequently paper kites in the form of exotic deep-sea fish… . A basket seller … carries at the end of his pole glazed paper cages with glazed paper birds inside them. But the white aura of a real parrot can sometimes be seen too. In Miasnitskaya stands a woman with linen goods, a bird perching on her tray or shoulder. A picturesque background for such animals must be sought elsewhere, at the photographer’s stand. Under the bare trees of the boulevards are screens showing palms, marble staircases and southern seas.3

For Benjamin, the street fair turns Moscow into a fantasy world of potentialities, where real birds compete with glazed paper apparitions, and the dreams of exotic places offer cheap gratification and utopias of escape. The useless but colorful objects, collectibles for a foreign eccentric, became a counterpoint and indeed antidote to the emerging Soviet ideology. It was in Moscow that Walter Benjamin decided not to join the Communist Party. He recalled that he could not come up with a theory of what was going on in postrevolutionary Russia; all he could do was to gather facts, because in a moment of great historical transition “factuality is already theory.” Benjamin turned instead to collecting and recollecting. He collected snapshots of material life and in his writing turned them into allegory and trompe l’oeil. He found a transient urban paradise in both the cacophonous Moscow street fairs and in the snapshots of marble staircases and southern seas. Walter Benjamin could never have dreamed of the Manezh Shopping Mall, where the marble staircases and the sea breezes are “real.”

The construction of Manezh led to an unexpected archeological discovery: a fragment of a 16th-century bridge. But this was not incorporated into the project; it remains underground in an archeological museum. It is enough that nature and archeology are evoked through signs and simulations. Luzhkov is a great believer in historical remakes; the Luzhkov style cannot tolerate competition from any originals. The new architecture appeals to history but has no use for real ruins, archeological finds, old buildings. The design of the shopping mall is a mishmash of historicism, managing to recall the architecture of both the neo-Byzantine Cathedral of Christ the Savior and the Moscow metro. In fact, in the chaotic early years of perestroika, the metro was the scene of much free trade, with vendors leaning against the statue of some forgotten poet or Party leader while selling everything from porn magazines to yogurt. The Manezh Shopping Mall is like a permanent version of the impromptu mall in the metro.

Critics of the project, who included architects, journalists, and lovers of old Moscow, charged that while appealing to the vernacular “architectural environment,” the project destroyed the unique classical ensemble that Manezh Square had become by the 19th century. Critics also took aim at the Luzhkov style as such. Grigory Revzin, a prominent critic, writes: “A normal course of development would presuppose the emergence in the center of Moscow of different kinds of stores. Then the city authority took over. So the gigantic complex is being built in the most expensive way; the cost of rent goes up to $5,000 per meter, and the price of the merchandise rises accordingly. This is not a normal course of life but its simulation—not commerce, but its symbol… . The market infrastructure created by the central authorities is not a norm but the illusion of a norm, just as Moscow’s state capitalism is an illusion of the free market.”4 Revzin traces the history of the Moscow building boom to the early 1990s, when a private architectural firm with the symptomatic name “Perestroika” built the first speculative office buildings in Moscow, which turned out to be extremely profitable. The mayor’s office took over the private initiatives, got rid of this kind of “perestroika,” and proceeded in secret to build its own projects. In the article “Why There Is No Good Architecture in Moscow,“ one of the editors of the architectural magazine Project Russia, Bart Goldhoorn, comments: “The Moscow administration regulates architecture, creating numberless committees, commissions, councils, departments, and so on. All of this takes place according to unwritten, unratified, and unknown laws and rules. A building has to be in the Moscow Style, or it won’t be built. Everything, alas, is sadly reminiscent of Soviet times, when via criticism and self-criticism, everybody was supposed to understand the best way to please the authorities.”5

The new Moscow Style has been described as a “good” imitation of “bad” 19th-century eclecticism and as a new historicist vernacular style. The public projects, as well as the new restaurants, children’s playgrounds, and apartment interiors, favor the Russian vernacular, while the new business centers evoke the international corporate mode. Moscow’s self-fashioning is Russian at heart and in public, but Western at work and at the office. The interest in neo-Russian architecture began in the late 1960s in reaction to international modernism, especially as it was mass reproduced in Khrushchev’s day. This was a rediscovery of the architectural environment of “little Moscow”—not a huge village but a cozy, intimate neighborhood. Indeed, “environment”—sreda—became the most popular term in architectural discussions; architectural environment was understood as the genius loci of the city, a spirit that had once made the city livable and cherished, before it was sullied and reconceptualized by Stalin and Khrushchev. If this search for architectural environment was nostalgic, it was a reflective nostalgia in a minor key, marked by an interest in context and detail, a love for architectural fragments, a search for layers of history, a humanization of the imperial city.

Yet nobody could have predicted that the dream of rebuilding what had been lost could turn into a nightmare when realized too literally. The reflective nostalgia of an earlier generation dwelt in fantasies of past homelands, not in grandiose remakes. While some architects, such as Yuri Gnedovski, president of the Union of Architects in Russia and author of the article, “Why There Is Good Architecture in Moscow,” argue that the grand projects have realized the dream of those who favored context and history, other historians and critics, including Revzin, Goldhoorn, and Nikolai Molok, see it as a perverse transference of theory into practice, a transformation of intimate vernacular dreams into imperial construction.6 A Russian proverb warns: “Don’t dream too much. Your dreams might come true.”

Some patriotic theorists of Russian postmodernism have actually argued that postmodernism originated in Russia, not in the West, the best example of that style being exuberant and eclectic Stalinist architecture. In this view, the new Moscow Style becomes a kind of a second wave of native postmodernism—a state capitalist version rather than the model communist one. But the postmodernists of Moscow fail to consider the question of structures of power. Western postmodernism claims a plurality of cultural narratives and a decentering of authorial style. The Moscow grand style, of yesterday and now, despite its eclecticism and fantastic simulation, never challenges the centrality of power; instead, it celebrates this central authority in a cheerfully oblivious manner. The ultimate goal is to recreate neither neighborhood culture nor historical architecture, but rather to revive the great foundational myths. The nostalgia of the late-’90s seems to be posthistorical, a longing for a life of peace and plenty, and an invention of a new tradition of eternal Russian grandeur. History has become spatialized, the art of memory turned into the art of leisure.

It is ironic that when the Manezh Shopping Mall was built, a nearby building, the Historical Museum, began to shift and crack. In the 1920s, the Russian Constructivists, inspired by Le Corbusier, had dreamed of destroying the Historical Museum, built in a turn-of-the-century, neo-Russian style. In Stalin’s time the museum was revamped and redecorated. Now it is being threatened by new technical and historical difficulties. One day the Historical Museum might crumble altogether, and then the Manezh Shopping Mall, whose underground galleries look alternately like film noir sets and Piranesian ruins, will have to suffice as the new-old relic of Moscow’s late 20th-century gilded age.

The political and financial crisis that erupted in 1998 brought an end to the grand Luzhkov style and the mayor’s megalomaniacal dreams. At this point, what remain from the first post-Soviet decade are the jokes and memories of aging perestroika buffs, and the grandiose architecture of the new Moscow Style, the architecture of the victors. The panoramas in the grand style will construct the memorial landscape of these years for generations to come. Only in Moscow could the feast during the plague disguise itself as a “movable feast” that perpetually recreates itself from ashes and crises. “Crisis, what crisis?” has become a common saying in Moscow. In this way crisis, too, was turned into a style of Moscow life.

Unofficial Moscow

The 852nd anniversary of Moscow began with a terrorist attack in the Manezh Shopping Mall. A homemade bomb exploded in the video arcade, wounding thirty people. While the newspapers reported suspicions of “Chechen terrorism,” a note found on the site of the destruction targeted the lavish consumption of the new bourgeoisie: “We don’t like the way you live. A hamburger half-eaten is a revolutionary hamburger!” Whether the bombing was an act of political terrorism perpetrated in response to Russian military action in Dagestan or the work of a lunatic “revolutionary” remains unknown. Such an event is always tragic and absurd. And for Moscow authorities it was an additional blow that the explosion hit the showcase of Luzhkov-era reconstruction, the largest mall in Europe, a symbol of Moscow’s wealth and success. By the following morning, Luzhkov was at work clearing away the debris, heightening security all over the capital, and continuing with the annual program of celebrating the anniversary of the city’s founding—now the “Day of the City”—in his beloved St. George-decorated Manezh Mall.

Yet the rifts that were opening up in Muscovite public opinion could not be so easily patched by the presence of the militia. Moscow’s gilded age, the era of stability, of nostalgia for the grand style, and of the reconciliation between authority and the people, seems to have come to an end. In 1999 two civic holidays were observed: besides the Day of the City, there was a new event called “Unofficial Moscow.” (In this way, Luzhkov’s “Day of the City” acquired the undesirable aura of the “official.”) “Unofficial Moscow,” sponsored by an ambitious political candidate, Sergei Kirienko, represented a broad urban initiative of artists, journalists, musicians, and intellectuals who no longer supported the Luzhkov style. Although disjointed and eclectic, composed of left-leaning artists and right-wing politicians (the Russian right that vaguely corresponds to market liberalism and a broad democratic platform, in Western parlance), this “unofficial” group succeeded in one respect—it shattered the illusions of Luzhkov-style restorative nostalgia and normalization.

This “alternative” Moscow celebration had an improvisational, jazzy spirit; it was not an exhibition of achievements but of projects, potentials, and dreams. Events included the opening of the virtual Museum of Contemporary Art; the music festival “Jazz-off”; political theater in which “Human Rights Passports” were distributed to those living in the city without a resident permit; a film retrospective on “Unknown Moscow”; an exhibit of the project of the Museum of the Soviet Union; a celebration of city outsiders on the web page “What We Don’t Like about Mascow” (the “a” was intended to imitate the native accent and mock local pretensions); a reading of Pushkin’s poetry by stutterers (another underrepresented minority); literary festivals at the student residence of the Institute of Literature; and a meeting of the fans of the writer Viktor Pelevin, with an incognito appearance by Pelevin himself. Unofficial Moscow explored “buried” cities within the capital, from the commemorative signs telling of pre-Christian settlements to the flower beds on the site where the monument to the Bolshevik Felix Dzerzhinsky once stood. It used Internet technology, but in general it was not slick. Although a special bus circulated among the sites, many participants preferred to join that vanishing breed, the Moscow pedestrian. Unofficial Moscow decentered the city, made it polycentric. In the thin, cool air of the Moscow Indian summer, revelers discovered an invisible city, Moscow in miniature, just below the line of sight. It was a city of eccentric dreams, not megalomaniacal fairy tales.

On the pedestal of the Mayakovsky monument, young lovers with flowers tattooed on their shoulders sipped Sacred Stream and Baltica, Russian brands of mineral water and beer. Nearby were tents representing various parties and political movements, including Democratic Russia, human rights organizations, a student radical movement for the abolition of compulsory military service, and neighborhood committees protesting urban disrepair. A special video station invited Muscovites and guests of the city to speak into the camera, to get their fifteen minutes of fame, to make a tape that would be delivered directly to Mayor Luzhkov. Occasionally interrupting the speakers, a band would begin some casual jazz and rock, and the crowd would move from applauding to bouncing to the rhythms of the music with distracted eagerness. The event did not represent a coherent political platform. Like the Luzhkov holiday, it was about “de-ideologization,” only this time the task of defining “a normal life” was taken away from the central authority. If anything, Unofficial Moscow symbolized a dream of urban democracy and of diverse ways of inhabiting the city, of making it a home, not a fortress.

The difference in rhetoric and symbolic representation between the two holidays was obvious. Unofficial Moscow was antiheroic—it had no St. George, no Yuri Dolgorukii, no battleship Potemkin, no icons in the sky. It had instead musicians, dreamers, entrepreneurs, all encouraged to have their own distinct, nonconformist personalities. This was Moscow without towers and walls, a horizontal Moscow, decentralized and democratic, represented by people, not leaders, by individuals, not masses.

The most poignant artistic event of the festival was the opening reception for the Museum of Contemporary Art in the classical pavilion of Neskuchny Park. There were no actual works of art there, only a projection of the internet homepage of the exiled exhibition. The curator of the state collection of Russian contemporary art, Andrei Erofeev, has had to keep works by dissident artists of the former Soviet underground in the basement of a building in the capital. Occasionally, helped by grants from the Soros Foundation, he has shown the art in the Russian provinces. No ideological censorship has been imposed on this collection from the Soviet era, yet no suitable exhibition space in Moscow has been found to house the show. The Central House of Artists (TsDX) temporarily housed it, but the rental agreement was abruptly terminated when the administration of TsDX learned that the exhibition was partly sponsored by Sergei Kirienko (whose money was hardly the dirtiest in town). The failure to show this art, then, was not a case of market censorship but of the unwritten laws of Moscow protectionism and the mayor’s extensive control over the city’s real estate. The administration of TsDX politely apologized and attributed the canceling of the exhibit to the need for emergency repair of its parquet floor. In keeping with the old tradition, the art of the Soviet dissidents remained unexhibited, underground.

If the Luzhkov style was nostalgic for Stalin’s grand gestures and for the apparent stability of Brezhnev’s era, Unofficial Moscow recovered the alternative culture of the same period. Yet unlike the political activists of the past, the organizers of Unofficial Moscow did not claim an oppositional stance; the art they championed was not prohibited but provincial, not underground but eccentric. In other words, they were not so much against as in counterpoint to the official celebration. They gave voice to the other Moscow that had been rendered invisible by the architectural megalomania of the capital.

During the festivities, on the wall of one student’s room, I discovered a cheerful, bright red poster of Yuri Luzhkov. “That’s not mine,” said the student, smiling. “It’s art.” The portrait was reminiscent of American pop art and of Soviet sots art—the art that parodied socialist realism—only now the subject was not the grand leaders of the past, but the architect of Moscow state capitalism. Hanging on the old wallpaper next to an outdated calendar and a picture of someone resembling Julia Roberts, Luzhkov, like Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev before him, has became a fixture in the market of contemporary antics. Wearing his familiar leather workman’s cap—a populist touch—the mayor seemed to be staring back into the glorious Moscow past, when the city imagined itself to be the center of the world, just as on the map at the Manezh Shopping Mall. Lit up by lasers and joyfully self-absorbed, Luzhkov’s Moscow excited itself, simulated itself, gambled with itself, made love to itself. There seemed to be nothing outside Moscow—only barbarians at the gate.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
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