Authoritarian leaders have long seen cities as a stage to demonstrate their competence and benevolence. Josef Stalin presided over the construction of the Moscow subway, to this day one of the world’s most impressive. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev built an entirely new capital in the steppe, complete with an indoor beach. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is notorious not only for silencing dissenters, but also for keeping Minsk spotlessly clean.
Over the past several years, however, Moscow has taken the approach to a whole new level. I lived and worked there from 1993 to 2003, and when I walk the streets now, I find what I see hard to reconcile with my memory of the place. Back then, kiosks and metal detached one-car garages (known as “rakushki,” or clamshells) clogged the passageways and courtyards. Cars ruled the streets and sidewalks. Public transport was for suckers. Simple bureaucratic tasks commonly became epic quests. Whenever I heard of grand development plans, I assumed they would end like their predecessors, unfinished and mired in recriminations. (Read more…)