Capitalist Growth: Moscow’s Urban Expansion

Benjamin Sacks

Comparisons between the on-going Arab Spring and the 1989-1991 collapse of the Warsaw Pact have become commonplace. Regardless of whether or not those assumptions are accurate, the Middle East’s current strife has incidentally refocused attention on post-Soviet Russian experiences. The Russian Federation’s journey towards ‘Western-style democracy’ has been arduous, uncertain and by no means complete. The vast country is a modern-day laboratory, an experiment in political bureaucracy, social norms and competing visions of the state’s future. Geographers have always been fascinated by the Russian landscape, its people, cultures and unique view of the world. Indeed, the first writer-photographer team allowed to widely travel across the Soviet Union in the détente years were geographers; in 1976, after two years of negotiations, Bart McDowell and Dean Conger (both of the National Geographic Society) were given previously unparalleled access to document life inside the Western World’s chief foe.

Three decades later, Oleg Golubchikov (University of Birmingham) and Nicholas A Phelps (University College London) have investigated the effects of urban sprawl in the post-Soviet environment. In the July 2011 issue of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Golubchikov and Phelps analyse this decidedly non-Soviet issue via the experiences of Khimki, one of Moscow’s numerous satellite cities. Specifically, the authors reviewed:

– ‘The politico-economic and ideological context of transition;

– The relevance of the Soviet cultural and material legacies;

–  The role of urban planning and vested interests in urban development practices and relationships between them’ (p. 426).

They found that Moscow’s rapid urban growth ‘represents an interesting case of the mutation of global urban entrepreneurial strategies under neoliberalism [market-based economic policies]’. More importantly, Golubchikov and Phelps’ research suggests that traditional periphery growth models, including the so-called ‘growth machine’ developed to explain American urban growth, may be insufficient in explaining Moscow’s experience (pp. 426, 436-7). The Soviet Union’s collapse was incomplete; a complex, top-heavy bureaucracy remained, and local administrators carved out sectoral “fiefdoms”, all but monopolising urban planning within their respective constituencies (pp 435-7). Competition nonetheless exists. In response to a burgeoning middle class, developmental, rather than political urban needs are prioritised now more than ever before. If some construction projects, often funded by Russia’s oligarchs, seem outlandish or even bizarre, they are tempered by less- or non-publicized efforts to manage urban growth, provide necessary resources to residents and cultivate living standards closer to their Western counterparts.

 Oleg Golubchikov and Nicholas A Phelps,  ‘The Political Economy of Place at the Post-Socialist Urban Periphery: Governing Growth on the Edge of Moscow’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 36 (June, 2011): 425—40.

 Bart McDowell and Dean Conger,  Journey Across Russia: the Soviet Union Today (Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1977).

 ‘National Geographic Writer Bart McDowell Dies’, The Washington Times, 25 January 2009, accessed 17 July 2011.

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