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Russia Is Building Shopping Malls Where Stalin Held Show Trials

Bloomberg via Getty Images

The demolition ball keeps the time of the city, a metronome that swings on every corner. The city changes so fast you lose all sense of reality, you can’t recognize streets. You look for a place where you went to eat a week ago, and before your eyes the whole block is being demolished. Whole swathes of town are demolished in fits of self-destruction, wastelands abandoned for years and for no apparent reason, skyscrapers erupting before there are any roads leading to them and then left standing empty in the dirty snow. The search for a style is psychotic. The first builds of the boom imitated whatever the post-Soviets had seen abroad and most desired: Turkish hotels, German castles, Swiss chalets. When Ostozhenka, the area right opposite the Kremlin, was knocked down, it was renamed “Moscow Belgravia”; there are “Mos Angeles” and “Moscow Côte D’Azur.” Dropped into the city as artificially and awkwardly as the political technologist’s faux Western-style parties. Elsewhere you can spy a neon-medieval: behind high black gates peak out Disney-like towers tacked onto pink concrete castles, with rows of offices shaped like the knight’s helmets, so they look like an army of warriors emerging from the ground. Often you find all the styles compiled into one building. A new office center on the other side of the river from the Kremlin starts with a Roman portico, then morphs into medieval ramparts with spikes and gold-glass reflective windows, all topped with turrets and Stalin spires. The effect is at first amusing, then disturbing. It’s like talking to the victim of a multiple personality disorder: Who are you? What are you trying to say? Increasingly new skyscrapers recall the Gotham-gothic turrets of Stalin architecture. Triumph-Palace, briefly Europe’s tallest apartment building, is a copy of the Stalinist “seven sisters.” Long before the city’s political scientists started shouting that the Kremlin was building a new dictatorship, the architects were already whispering: “Look at this new architecture, it dreams of Stalin. Be warned, the evil Empire is back.”

Luxury residential buildings stand on Ostozhenka street in central Moscow, Russia
Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

But the original Stalin skyscrapers were made of granite, with grand mosaics and Valhalla halls leading to small, ascetic apartments. The new ones try to be domineering but come across as camp; developers steal so much money during construction that even the most VIP, luxury, elite of the skyscrapers crack and sink ever so quickly. That unique Moscow mix of tackiness and menace. One time I see a poster advertising a new property development that captures the tone nicely. Got up in the style of a Nazi poster, it shows two Germanic-looking youths against a glorious alpine mountain over the slogan “Life Is Getting Better.” It would be wrong to say the ad is humorous, but it’s not quite serious, either. It’s sort of both. It’s saying this is the society we live in (a dictatorship), but we’re just playing at it (we can make jokes about it), but playing in a serious way (we’re making money playing it and won’t let anyone subvert its rules).

I can hear the groan and feel the shudders of the excavator before I even turn onto Gnezdnikovsky Alley, the air already filling up with clouds of red-brick dust. A nineteenth-century, two-story palace folds so easily. The clumsy arm of the excavator pulls down a wall awkwardly, like a toddler playing, revealing for a moment the innards of an old apartment—the 1970s wallpaper, photographs, a radio—and then the demolition ball swings, and it’s all gone for good. Gnezdnikovsky is just off Pushkin Square, what tourist guides describe as “Moscow’s historic center.” It should be untouchable. But the tremors of drill and demolition ball only become more frenzied with every meter closer you get to the Kremlin. Property prices are measured by distance from Red Square: the aim is to build your office or apartment as close to the center of power as possible, the market organized by a still feudal social structure defined by needing to be within touching distance of the tsar, the general secretary of the Communist Party, the President of the Russian Federation. The country’s institutions—oil companies, banks, ministries, and courts—all want to crowd around the Kremlin like courtiers. This means the city is almost destined to destroy itself; it can’t grow outward, so every generation stomps on the heads of previous ones. Over a thousand buildings have been knocked down in the center so far this century, with hundreds of officially “protected” historic monuments lost. But the new buildings meant to replace them often stand dark and empty; property is the most effective money-laundering scheme, making money for members of the Moscow government who give contracts to their own development companies, for the agents who sell the buildings to the nameless and faceless Forbeses, who need some way to stabilize their assets.

The illuminated Triumph Palace residential building, developed by Don-Stroy, stands above the capital's skyline beside a Gazprom advertisement in Moscow
Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On the corner of Pakrovka three plump women who look like schoolteachers or doctors patrol an art nouveau apartment block, surrounded by their Labradors. They squint aggressively as we approach, then relax and greet Alexander Mozhayev when they see him. Mozhayev is a member of what in another context might be a somewhat marginal profession, an architectural and urban historian, but here he has developed a slightly cult-like following as the guardian spirit of Old Moscow. Mozhayev and his friends have started salvaging buildings from the wrecking ball. They picket in front of wooden houses under threat, try to raise enough fuss that developers back off.

Little vigilante gangs like these three women have become common in Moscow, protecting not from burglars but from developers, who send arsonists to set buildings ablaze, then use the fire as an excuse to evict homeowners by claiming the houses are now fire hazards. The motivation is great: property prices rose by over 400 percent in the first decade after 2000. So these fires have become habitual in Moscow. Muscovites have taken to patrolling their own buildings at night: gangs of doctors, teachers, grannies, and housewives eyeing every passerby as if he were an arsonist. It’s pointless for them to call the police; the largest groups of developers are friends and relatives of the mayor and the government. The mayor’s wife is the biggest of the lot. The near mythical Russian middle class, suddenly finding they have no real rights at all over their property, can be thrown out and relocated like serfs under a feudal whim.

We follow Mozhayev as he climbs into the remains of a broken wooden mansion, recently gutted by one of these mysterious fires. In the palace the snow wafts through the burnt-out roofs into rooms with sky-blue wallpaper and the remains of an ancient fireplace now hung with icicles. Under open boards beneath our feet we can see bums sleeping in the basement. Mozhayev finds old notebooks from the people who once lived there. He begins to tell the story of the building, who lived here and who did what. His little audience listens closely. There is something almost hallucinogenic about his storytelling: the roof on the house seems to grow back, you can feel the fire burning in the hearth and hear the footsteps of lost aristocracy and the gossip of their servants, then see how the house was taken over by communists in 1917, hear the shots when the original owners were executed, and see the little palace be converted into a communal apartment—where everyone was arrested during Stalin’s terror—then become a small hospital during the war.

“Old walls and doors know something we can’t understand,” Mozhayev wrote in one of his essays: “the true nature of time. The drama of human lives is written in the buildings. We will be gone; only places remain.”

Russia has problems with its memories. There isn’t a building that we walk past that wasn’t the scene of execution squads, betrayals, mass murders. The most gentle courtyards reveal the most awful secrets. Around the corner from Potapoffsky is an apartment block where every one of the families had someone arrested during Stalin’s terror. In the basement of what is now a brand new shopping mall was the courtroom where innocent after innocent was sentenced to labor camps, the courts working so fast they would get through two cases inside a minute. Whenever twenty-first-century Russian culture looks for a foundation it can build itself from, healthy and happy, it finds the floor gives way and buries it in soil and blood.

How do you build a history based on ceaseless self-slaughter and betrayal? Do you deny it? Forget it? But then you are left orphaned. So history is rewritten to suit the present. As the President looks for a way to validate his own authoritarianism, Stalin is praised as a great leader who won the Soviet Union the war. On TV the first attempts to explore the past, the well-made dramas about Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s, are taken off screen and replaced with celebrations of World War II. (But while Stalin’s victory is celebrated publicly and loudly, invoking him also silently resurrects old fears: Stalin is back! Be very afraid!)

The architecture reflects these agonies. The city writhes as twenty-first-century Russia searches, runs away, returns, denies, and reinvents itself.

“Moscow is the only city where old buildings are knocked down,” says Mozhayev, “and then rebuilt again as replicas of themselves with straight lines, Perspex, double glazing.”

This piece has been excerpted and adapted from Peter Pomerantsev’s new book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (PublicAffairs, November 11).