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Sergei Kapkov’s Moscow

A revolution from above

In March 2011, Duma deputy Sergei Kapkov was named Gorky Park’s director. He soon proposed an ambitious park renovation. He brought in Strelka Institute experts. Soon it was clear, this wasn’t an ordinary renovation. Moscow would get a whole new public space, for a new generation with new tastes and expectations. In September 2011 Kapkov was named Moscow’s Culture Department head. His team’s job looks very simple yet extremely complex. They must develop institutions for the people, make them interesting. This means parks, pedestrian ways, theatres, libraries. The department hires new people for such transformations.

Cultural institutions, considered a Marxist value in “Das Kapital”, were in ruins. Kapkov’s task was to turn them into cultural capital, put this value to work, to benefit Muscovites, and somehow humanize the city space.

Kapkov’s team soon meet huge opposition. The cultural sphere hadn’t changed since Soviet times. Museums, theatres are used to getting funding, not because people visit them, but just because they exist. Libraries operate mainly for librarians. Cultural personnel aim to maintain the status quo, and their own status in the system.

At all levels, library staff care only of completing a task on time. No one considers whether the task means anything or makes sense. It’s a direct system, a disciplinary one in all ways.

I was in a field where unemployment is not a disaster, but for many librarians, losing their job is a real disaster, even death in a sense, because they have no prospects. Thus they hold on to their jobs differently than others that I used to talk with.

We ended up in a certain situation. There was keen attention to any manifestations of civil society from all sides. I'm talking about people who went to protests with white ribbons, and people who just fought for their rights attended cliquish events about the Gogol Theatre. I understand though that people feel they were robbed. But it happened, and it did much to stop the process.

Kapkov’s team tried to anticipate the social demand from the new generation: young, educated Europeans, the so-called “creative class”. In December 2011 it was they who came out to protest dishonest elections. Clearly, nice parks and modern theatres were not all they needed.

With the protests, something amazing happened. The protesters in winter 2011–2012 wanted two things: free politics and an honest government. People weren’t coming out for just honest elections, but for a more humane, European life, and so we could interact with the state more easily, just like we’d interact with an institution like a gym.

Then Muscovites seized the city. It was a real occupation. For if they were opposed by armed men in body armor, military equipment, that just shows a real seizing of Moscow occurred. We remember the battle for the boulevards. A literal battle with machines, sprayhoses. Thank God it didn’t come to real blows, but citizens clearly battled for their city. Yet who they fought against is a complicated issue. My answer is: against monstrous bureaucracy. What forms it took, who represented it, is a different question.

Despite the acute political situation, Kapkov et al. managed to attract many talented people: brilliant young directors, managers with a post-Soviet outlook, creators with bold visions and previously no chance to realize them. The Cultural Dept. under Kapkov was a whole generation of children who started to work for the city. Many however had to face enormous resistance.

I feel two men who could save the Russian theatre – could have saved it three years ago – were Kirill Serebryannikov and Konstantin Bogomolov.

They’re two men of another generation, who speak another language, yet they know how deal with a large troupe in a big theatre. Because all the other guys aren’t allowed to play in serious theatres.

New people with new thinking won’t arrive anytime soon. That’s not even due to new systematic things. It’s just how the system works. The system knows how to defend itself.

Alyona Vladimirskaya did an amazing study: she looked at Kapkov’s hires, and what happened to them a year later. Young people came wanting to do something unique. A year on, 10 had become careerists, 70 left. Twenty became even more conversative than the old guard, because the system knows how to work on them. They are overwhelmed by senseless bureaucratic jobs. So either they reach a breaking point and say, “No more.”, or they get used to it, if they have a thing for such work, and begin to love it.

For some Kapkov’s reforms were a delight, for others they sparked doubt, and still others were annoyed. The Department is criticized for destroying cultural traditions, for focusing on faddish youth, for letting culture give way to street improvements – and Muscovites were divided about the street improvements. In general, what did the efforts mean under political reaction, curbs to civil liberties?

Then came collision: as some people accepted things with joy: not only Gorky Park but Krymskaya Naberezhnaya etc. were renovated, sidewalks were expanded. Really, where I live it was not possible to walk, but now it is. This is directly linked to one’s feeling of dignity. Moscow is Europe’s biggest city. Its city center was never meant for 13 million. Myasnitskaya, Novoslobodskaya, Spiridonovka St. were built for a population of one million, but now 10 million go along them. Naturally they have to push and shove.

Where is dignity, if one must push and shove? If political freedom comes to where people push and shove, hate each other, this freedom might not yield good things right away. Yet this collision happened. Aha, that means the regime didn’t meet some of our demands, i.e. political freedom, honest politics it doesn’t want to be square with us. On the other hand, the regime gives us this, but we won’t accept it, we’ll just hate the sidewalks. All Moscow moaned all summer about sidewalks, and it was impossible to listen.

Take bicycles. In a European capital, bikes symbolize democracy. It’s a democratic thing. This newest urban class in a European capital is very agile. It constantly absorbs people from the provinces. It is rather democratic. Here things looked slightly different. These bikes with bank ads on them are not hipster items, there is no freedom in them. It’s corporate culture, not middle-class youth culture in a big city. One always felt these efforts worked on an oligarchic model.

Moscow’s cultural transformation was pushed from above. With time the same fiat from above either overturned things, or removed them from the culture department’s purview. Kapkov’s team had too little time, many of their reforms were stillborn.

I wouldn’t say that very serious reforms happened.

Firstly, culture and art got some long-overdue attention. It became a hot topic on newspaper front pages.

Secondly, since many discussions were held, when I worked at the Department, we convened the council of directors often.

I feel these weren’t reforms but preparing for reforms that never happened. Everything kept on working as it did. People just have a bit wider perspective, which is good.

How successful were we in doing it? I think not very successful. We didn’t get the desired results. Could one even achieve them in 3 years? I don’t know. I think not. Look at the West, their library reforms took much longer. We had to be more active, to get things to a point of no return within 2–3 years. Our softness in this case led to nothing good. We needed to be harsher, have more initiative.

Something changed, but what roots were put down? And anything rooted could be destroyed quickly, if desired.

Despite debate over Kapkov’s efforts and how good they were, under limited abilities and time, one can’t deny that Moscow has changed unbelievably. In a way, the young Europeans’ demands were heard, even realized. Not the political ones, but at least the cultural or urbanistic ones.

In the last two years when I’ve visited Moscow, I think it resembles more and more 1970s Moscow. I think it is more melancholy. People walk slower. There are many people strolling. In the ’90s, early 2000s people rushed, now they stroll along. Fewer ads strung up, things are somehow quieter. It definitely seems to foreigners that Moscow became more European. The same for car–pedestrian relations, for example. For many years crossing the street was a deadly risk. That’s what I felt after coming back from the West. Now it’s not.

But is there a critical mass of such changes already? I don’t think so. Elsewhere, yes: the humanization of society is clearly happening. Who deserves credit: Afisha magazine, Kapkov, whoever? I don’t know. One should see it as a combined force, because parks are something everyone goes to, likes. If someone doesn’t like them, it’s our people, the uptight Moscow intelligentsia.

You can cast blame or not, build some model, but I think Kapkov did a great thing: he let many city people feel involved in city life. They felt they were heard and were needed. I think Muscovites accepted these reforms, but I fear no one said thanks. Alas, that’s not a tradition here. I’m trying now to tell these people thanks for everyone. I think it has been taken for granted. When they opened Gorky Park, speeches flowed, as did gratitude. Muscovites knew who to address it to then. That all happened. There were no flowers or speeches this time, I think. The cycleway unveiling was also quiet. Thank God, this also departs from the format of the past which had already given us all they could.