Culture / Development

Death by a thousand kiosks

Moscow Mayor Sobyanin’s wholescale destruction of kiosks feels like social cleansing disguised as urban planning, argues James Allcock.

IMAGE CREDIT: TATIANA RODIONOVA

In a 24-hour period, over a hundred kiosks, small shops, and shopping centres in Moscow were demolished on the orders of the Moscow Mayor, Sergei Sobyanin. The measures are extreme for what can only be considered a very slight social ill, if one at all. These kiosks, while perhaps less attractive than other Moscow architecture, are where the lifeblood of the city lives. Small businesses inhabited these places: convenience stores, cheap fast food outlets, tobacconists and money changers. Mostly staffed by (if not owned by) Central Asian migrants, it is in these kiosks and miniature shopping centres that Moscow feels like it was built to a human scale. An iconic image of Moscow in the mind of many a Western traveller is the buzzing warmth and light of a kiosk huddled against the grey, cold concrete/marble mass of a Soviet apartment block or Metro station.

This is the less formal edge of the Russian economy, but it is also where ordinary people shop; away from the boutiques of the city centre, and the multiplexes, lie the cheap shops selling imported goods, cigarettes, shashlik and pastries which keep the city going. The BBC cites claims that around 15,000 people could have lost jobs in the demolitions, which were motivated by claimed illegality surrounding the titles for the land. We will probably never know the validity of those claims.

Admittedly, it is easy to see how the removal of these kiosks will add an elegance and grandeur to many of Moscow’s public spaces. The square surrounding the entrance to Chistiy Prudi (Clean Ponds) Metro stations, in the north-east of Moscow’s garden ring, will regain a sense of scale perhaps not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. But the dramatic rapidity and force with which the face of the city has changed forever is a reminded that urban planning can often describe ethnic cleansing. In a society forever taxed by further regulation, further opportunities for the state to remove rights from its citizens, this is only a small step, but it joins many others in the march towards societal control. The destruction of informality, disorganisation, and ultimately opportunity.

Muscovites I have spoken to, mainly ethnic Russians with stable jobs and good incomes, have a barely contained glee at the removal of what they see as a universal blight on the face of the city. But in their love of order and cleanliness, perhaps they are missing something in the fabric of Moscow that only a visitor, a foreigner, can appreciate.

Without making a mountain out of a molehill, we can claim that Sobyanin has been on a crusade against kiosks for over a year; in March of last year he announced the introduction of 150 vending machines in underpasses following the closure of small staffed kiosks and marketplaces in these tunnels; vending machines which will and have inevitably succumbed to vandalism. Like the kiosks above ground, the underpasses of Moscow’s streets and Metro system are where the walls feel close enough, and the density of people sufficient, that a visitor begins to think that yes, perhaps this city was built for humans after all.

James Allcock 

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