Russia's red heart

August 2, 1996

Here is a blockbuster of a book, massive in its exploration of the fluctuating fortunes of a capital city long associated with Stalin's urban massif of crenellated "frosted wedding cakes" in concrete and steel, yet also the home of the Kremlin, Red Square and St Basil's Cathedral. This juxtaposition is itself an illustration of the exceptional, imperial position occupied by Moscow in the history of Russia and carried over into the Soviet Union, sufficient for Timothy J. Colton not only to regard Moscow as unique but also to embark on an astonishingly detailed and wholly absorbing investigation of what this meant in the past and what present changes mean for Moscow and for truncated Russia.

Before 1917, the "private Moscow" of workers, consumers and investors operated to meet the needs of most of its inhabitants, but the public city, lamentably under-governed, lacked vital civic functions. The governance of Moscow was suspended between a "fickle central state and an indifferent local population". Though politically literate, the Bolsheviks were woefully ignorant of the prosaic but essential details of municipal government. What Bolshevik triumph meant for "Red Moscow" Colton traces in great detail - the rigours of civil war and the impact of centralisation in the name of survival produced a city even more undergoverned.

The ravages of war communism gave way to the piping days of the Nepmen, the New Economic Policy, which opened shops large and small, excavated rubbish, ran the tramcars once more, albeit surrealistically crammed and crowded, and allowed "Muscovites to sup and dance the foxtrot". Reurbanisation was in full swing, grand schemes abounded but, as Colton points out, "community democracy" was not on offer nor likely to be so. The soviets did not become "strong agents of local control" and the territorial appetite of the party was growing. City planning had an air of "faddishness and self-conceit". Duly consulted, Le Corbusier envisaged Moscow transformed into rectangles of housing and industry, wiping out the street pattern, leaving only the Kremlin and little else as reminders of Russian history. The city of the past could not be combined with the present or future.

The iron fist of Stalinism crashed down on Moscow, squelching fruitless speculation about the ideal socialist city. What was decided in the first half of the 1930s would have "profound and lasting effects on Moscow", though Stalin stemmed the sycophancy that proposed renaming the city, Velikii Stalingrad, Stalingrad-Moskva. In "Stalin's Moscow", reverentially designated Stalinskaya Moskva for two decades, Colton perceives two cities: one a temple to the greater glory of Soviet order, an expensive roost for the privileged nomenklatura, the other providing for the majority only the barest necessities.

Dynamite and bullets worked their effect. The Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer, the Sukharev Tower, the brick wall round Kitaigorod (the latter to keep the traffic flowing), all fell to explosives and pickaxes. During the great purge of 1937-38 many thousands of Muscovites were physically gunned down and the "sour smell of death" pervaded the city.

Colton loosely connects the human toll of the prewar killings with the losses in war, though surprisingly he devotes only a brief passage to wartime Moscow. Unlike Leningrad the capital suffered no great physical damage, but he might have explored the wartime strikes that have recently been investigated and the plethora of issues relating to wartime social policies, labour conditions and industrial organisation.

There can be little argument with the comparison Colton makes between the Moscow of the 1920s and Stalin's Moscow, the former, whatever the horrendous shortcomings and shortages, populist and periphery focused, the latter elitist and centrist. Only the chosen few benefited from the giant construction projects of an "idealised, monumental Moscow", which was otherwise a "spartan place". Too often in Colton's view the "architectonic energy of Stalin and his men" finally dissipated in trivia.

In late Soviet Moscow Colton discerned that incongruity between social and political trends "not dissimilar to that found in late imperial Moscow": a "vanguard city" within a system itself not in motion. Nikita Khrushchev's building blitz made reasonable living conditions look less unattainable but his renewed rule over Moscow "sowed seeds of degeneration". Under Leonid Brezhnev what passed for stability was stagnation, "pseudo-self-government" in the metropolis concealed what Colton discreetly calls an intuition that democracy and community control could exist and might ultimately prevail. It is to this process that he devotes the final section of his book with both narrative and rigorous analysis: Mikhail Gorbachev beleaguered, party plutocracy dissolved, Boris Yeltsin a la maraude in Moscow against entrenched privilege, "pugilistically proconsumer". President Yeltsin exterminated the party on November 6 1991, obliterating the Soviet federation one month later. "Black October", 1993, when tank guns shelled the White House, resulted in Moscow's worst public blood-letting since Red October, 1917.

At the close of this monumental and absorbing study, furnishing rich material for the historian, erstwhile Sovietologist, demographer, architect and well-tempered traveller, Colton addresses the problems of postsocialist stability and postSoviet Moscow. Moscow will not be "without clout" in Russia, but both metropolis and society are deeply troubled. If the Communists could not eradicate "Russian-ness" from Moscow with dynamite, the post-Communist coalition will not save Moscow for democracy unless it delivers economically.

For Moscow itself, whose advanced technology, postsecondary education, mass communications and culture betoken a bright future, Colton prescribes an undramatic course. He commends patience and forbearance, asking of Moscow and Russia something as yet unachieved, even challenged as unattainable: that both should learn to tame their own history.

John Erickson is director, Centre for Defence Studies, University of Edinburgh.

Moscow: Governing the Socialist Metropolis

Author - Timothy J. Colton
ISBN - 0 674 58741 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £28.50
Pages - 939

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