February 13, 2016

The Long Kiosk Goodbye

The Long Kiosk Goodbye
1931 Soyuzpechat kiosk

The words “architectural scandal” may sound like a contradiction in terms. But in a Russia grappling with post-Soviet identity, as well as its position on the global stage, the look of its monuments, city streets, and even sidewalks is a matter of national importance.

The latest ignominy is the destruction of 97 kiosks around Moscow, most of them small businesses near metro stations. What’s coming to be known as the “Night of Long Shovels” was allegedly motivated by the aim to remove dangerous or illegally built structures. But the fuzziness around the legality of the structures – not to mention the legality of their demolition by the blitzkrieg arrival of bulldozers on the night of February 9 ­– has led to more than a bit of debate.

A bit of the legal nitty-gritty: two months back, City Hall announced its decision to dismantle 104 kiosks and pavilions (more often called “samostroi,” literally meaning self-built, but with “shanty” connotations). That means owners had ample time to vacate and even self-unbuild their stalls.

Alexei Ionkin, an official at the Moscow state real estate inspectorate, said the permits for that land were only temporary. "They erected capital buildings while they weren't allowed to, and that's why we've deemed them squatter settlements," he said.

Sure, “temporary” goes back as far as 25 years in some cases, and most of the kiosk owners had the correct paperwork – or at least, correct (and exhaustive) when their building was completed. But when a decision is made "at the highest level," there’s little arguing to be done.

Whatever way you point your bulldozer, Russia’s got a generally quixotic relationship to architecture and historic preservation. Take Tsaritsyno, Catherine the Great’s eighteenth century red-brick retreat outside Moscow.

Tsaritsyno Palace (Credit: Helen Filatova)

It was "reconstructed" (translation: the unfinished complex was finished using modern methods and materials) under the auspices of former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, as a glitzy palace with slight resemblance to Catherine’s original. Or the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, née a Soviet swimming pool, née a much less opulent Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Not to mention the botched renovations of Gothic bas-reliefs, from a St. Petersburg angel transforming into a “victim of lobotomy” to the disappearance of a Mephistopheles figure, allegedly because the demon faced an Orthodox Church.

In these cases and plenty of others, historical “preservation” would be better defined as tearing down old buildings and then building replicas with new materials and lots of imaginative freedom. Not to mention plenty of legal and bureaucratic manipulations to put it all under the label of “improvement.” Russia, after all, is a country that has spent much of its post-Soviet existence working out how history can be “improved.” And often enough, that rewriting is accomplished by denying the costs of various construction or destruction projects – whether those costs are in rubles or in lives.

With a view of legality that includes destroying the evidence and ignoring the consequences, the vanishing kiosks are none too surprising. Still, to keep things legal, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin is on board with nullifying the kiosks’ existent paperwork. After all, what’s wrong with prettifying Moscow? He sees the demolition as a return to Moscow's “open, beautiful, beloved” squares and streets – you know, with those wide, sweeping, Stalinesque avenues. And he has a point, if you take a peek at pictures of pre-pavilion Moscow.

Krasnopresnenskaya Metro Station
Krasnopresnenskaya Metro station (Credit: Shakko, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Quite a contrast to the look today.

Still, there’s the government’s alleged support of small businesses to contend with. President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev have both waxed entrepreneurial about the importance of small businesses, as captured in Sergey Elkin's cartoon of the two pundits pontificating in late 2015 about supporting small businesses. 

Text: Nov. 19, 2015: "Putin discusses the insufficient support for small businesses." Dec. 1, 2015: "Medvedev leads a conference about supporting small businesses." Feb. 9, 2015: The bulldozers speak for themselves. A hair salon and bakery are the targets. Follow Sergey @Sergey_Elkin.

That would seem to contradict the bulldozing, which may have left 2,000 people unemployed, based on figures from Moscow’s City Hall itself. If ten-square-foot pavilions selling flowers, ice cream, and pastries aren’t small businesses, it’s hard to say what is.

The Kremlin of February, it seems, would disagree. In the words of presidential administration head Sergei Ivanov: “These hellholes have nothing to do with so-called small businesses, because, as a rule, they serve as breeding grounds for crime and unsanitary conditions. Any business, whether small or large, must first be civilized.”

The road to civilization? Installing vending machines to provide items previously obtained in kiosks. After all, business can’t get much smaller than having no staff. Plus, Moscow is in the market for 1-billion-ruble renovations, after undertaking massive road reconstruction last year.

All these developments may mean a modernized Moscow on the surface, but for folks whose tax money and livelihood is getting bulldozed by the facelift, Moscow’s makeover may end up looking like a botched job.

Top image: 1931 Soyuzpechat kiosk, by Branson DeCou [Public domain]

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