THROUGHOUT ITS 900-year history, Moscow has been called many things. “Stench, stones, luxury, poverty,” was Tolstoy’s assessment in 1881. Travellers and residents alike have long remarked on the city’s blend of glamour and gore, the sacred and the profane. In the Soviet era, it was seen as massive, grey and forbidding; amid the oil boom of the 2000s, as gaudy and unlivable. Yet in recent years, some unexpected descriptions have joined the list: pleasant and functional. Or as Vladimir Putin declared in September at the re-inauguration of his handpicked mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, Moscow has become “hospitable and comfortable”.
Mr Putin’s gratitude is genuine. Throughout a period that has seen mass protests, grinding recession and international tensions, Mr Sobyanin has provided steady stewardship to a city that accounts for nearly one-tenth of Russia’s population and roughly one-fifth of its GDP. Since his appointment in 2010, he has also overseen the most sweeping transformation of the capital since the Stalin era. Armed with a budget that brings in some 20% of all regional revenues, he has refurbished scores of parks, repaved hundreds of streets, built dozens of metro stations and erected a new light-rail line. Public services have leapt into the digital era. Europe’s largest city has become one of its fastest changing. Yuri Saprykin, a cultural commentator, argues that Mr Sobyanin will go down as a figure like Baron Haussman, who oversaw the renovation of Paris under Napoleon III.
That transformation has cemented Mr Sobyanin’s status in Mr Putin’s court. As Andrei Kolyadin, former head of the Kremlin’s regional politics department, puts it: “He is one of the Kremlin towers.” While serving as Mr Putin’s chief of staff in 2005-2008, Mr Sobyanin was mentioned as a possible successor. His handling of Moscow has put him on the shortlist for prime minister, were Mr Putin ever to jettison his longtime sidekick, Dmitri Medvedev.
In Russia’s hyper-centralised system, Moscow plays an outsized role, even for a capital, serving simultaneously as the centre of government, finance, media and culture. The city reaps revenues from big national companies and well-paid employees based there, generating an imbalance that breeds resentment from other regions. The World Bank reckons that, while Moscow has a GDP per person around that of the Netherlands, Russia’s poorest region languishes closer to that of Honduras.
The previous mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, had ruled Moscow as a medieval fief since 1992, developing a reputation for corruption and crass taste. Historic buildings came crashing down, glitzy shopping malls popped up and traffic ground to a halt; in the meantime, his wife, a construction magnate, became the country’s richest woman. Mr Sobyanin set out to break with the Luzhkov era. He told potential hires that he wanted to “build a new Moscow with new people,” recalls a former senior city official.
The new mayor focused on urban planning and public space. If earlier eras saw cities fight “for territory” or “for factories”, Mr Sobyanin has said, today they must fight “for people”. Residents can now cruise wide pavements, on city-sponsored bikes and scooter-sharing programmes. Less visible, though no less important, has been the modernisation of government services. “One-window” hubs have streamlined bureaucratic processes that used to require trips to separate offices.
Critics charge that the changes have been cosmetic. New streets have come at the cost of lower social spending. Mr Sobyanin’s demolition of small street kiosks, and hasty plans to raze ageing housing stock and resettle residents, betrayed a troubling disregard for private property. Improvements in quality of life have come with tighter limits on political freedom. In this year’s mayoral election, Mr Sobyanin ran virtually unopposed; Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition politician, who nearly forced a run-off against Mr Sobyanin in the 2013 election, spent election day behind bars. “Sure we have bike paths, but people get beaten with truncheons on them,” says Lyubov Sobol of Mr Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Still, much of Moscow’s liberal intelligentsia, often highly critical of Mr Putin, has come to acknowledge Mr Sobyanin’s work at the city level. As Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of the Echo of Moscow radio station, says, “Through gritted teeth, people admit that things were worse and became better.”