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Campaigning to Destroy: How Moscow Authorities Promoted Mass Housing Demolition

This article was originally published by Coda Story

By Daria Litvinova

This was something this year’s Moscow Urban Forum, one of the biggest city events in Moscow dedicated to city planning and urban development, definitely would be remembered for.

An entire floor of a residential building with four life-sized apartments (a one-room, a three-room, and a couple of two-room apartments), furnished, with water running from bathroom taps, was on display at the All-Russia Exhibition Center in Moscow between July 6 and 12.

These were apartments—“comfort class,” information stands insisted—Muscovites would get under a program seeking to demolish some 4,000 Soviet-era apartment blocks and relocate around 1 million people.

Announced by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin in February this year and endorsed by President Vladimir Putin, the program elicited unprecedented outrage among Muscovites.

At first, the idea to replace pre-fab khrushchevki, standard Khrushchev-era five-story apartment blocks erected as temporary housing, seemed reasonable. But then the bill outlining the program was introduced in the State Duma, Russia’s lower chamber of parliament, and it became clear that city authorities have targeted not just outdated buildings, but those in good condition, too.

After several months of small protests here and there, thousands of people took to the streets in May, unhappy about the prospect of moving from their furbished homes to empty new apartments that Moscow City Hall would choose for them.

To cope with boiling discontent ahead of both presidential and mayoral elections, city authorities launched a large-scale propaganda campaign aimed to convince Muscovites that they would benefit from the program. Judging by the life-sized apartments presented at the forum, Moscow City Hall clearly took the task of persuading people very seriously.

“It was a very powerful campaign,” admits Yuliya Galyamina, one of the activists at the helm of the protest against the program.

Promises, Promises

The propaganda wheels began turning in late April and early May, not long after municipal representatives from all the districts of the city invited residents to meetings to explain what the program entailed. In dozens of districts, hundreds of angry homeowners turned up, anxious about the future of their homes and worried by the lack of answers on the authorities’ part.

“I have never seen so much rage,” recounts Levon Smirnov, an activist who was present at one of these meetings. “It must have been after those meetings when authorities realized they needed to do something about it.”

On May 2, City Hall released a preliminary list of some 4,500 buildings slated for demolition. Residents of those buildings, authorities said, would be invited to vote between June 15 and July 15 on whether they want their building to participate in the program or not.

Days after the list was put out, a dozen newspapers owned by the Moscow government—including Vechernyaya Moskva, a free newspaper with an overall circulation of 1.5 million, and numerous district newspapers—ran special issues devoted exclusively to the demolition program.

At least seven of those special issues featured a statement from Sobyanin, the Moscow mayor, entitled “Renovation is a unique chance to build a comfortable city,” the full preliminary demolition list, interviews with district prefects explaining why the program is a good thing, and testimonies from residents who desperately want to move to new apartments.

At the same time, Mayor Sobyanin upped his media presence. In May and June he gave eight interviews, according to his official website mos.ru, compared to one to two interviews during the month before Muscovites had started to protest against the program. These interviews were mostly devoted to the renovation plans and were mostly given to state-funded TV channels, which remain an important source of information for most Russians and a significant number of Muscovites.

The message was simple—the program is designed for the homeowners’ own good. Most of the khrushchevki are dilapidated, Sobyanin explained, and are dangerous to live in. Apartments in those buildings are small and stuffy, he told state TV channel host Sergei Brilyov while showing him an apartment in one of the new buildings.

Those new apartments, he explained in another interview, will be much more spacious simply because current construction standards stipulate bigger bathrooms, kitchens, and corridors. High-quality materials will be used in construction, and interior fittings will be “comfort class” as opposed to cheap default ones often used in construction.

Because of all those factors, the new apartments will have a 20-to-30 percent higher market value than the old ones, Sobyanin insisted. But most importantly, the new apartments will be within walking distance of people’s current homes.

Sobyanin’s promises were reiterated by other top-ranking City Hall officials in a further couple of dozen interviews. A nicely designed section about the program was added to the City Hall’s website, with pictures of new attractive buildings, cozy courtyards, and spacious apartments.

According to Galyamina, the civic activist, the advertising was effective in persuading people in her neighborhood in northern Moscow. “Some people believed this rosy picture and stood by it, repeating that they trust the mayor and everything he promised,” she says.

Valeria Vazhnova, a young resident of a five-story building in southeastern Moscow, echoed her sentiment. “It was painful to see the majority of my neighbors believing these promises and not even bothering to read the actual bill,” she says. “They imagined this fairytale in which they would be given apartments across the street and refused to listen to reason.”

But many homeowners still remained wary. In mid-May, their distrust spilled out on the streets. Three major rallies over two weekends gathered some 26,000 people, which is comparable to the 2011-12 Bolotnaya protests against rigged parliament elections and President Vladimir Putin.

Overwhelming Support

State and pro-Kremlin media kept the coverage of these protests to a bare minimum—some ignored them completely, others ran brief news stories without mentioning what the protests were about.

Rossiya 24, a state TV channel, aired a two-minute segment on the biggest protest that took place on May 14 but insisted that only “one in five” protesters lived in five-story buildings. The reporter added that “hundreds” of those protesters actually came to support the program.

The state-run Vecherniaya Moskva newspaper topped that. The day before the protest, it ran a news story about 35,000 people participating in small rallies all across town in support of the program. The story didn’t mention the source of this information, and these rallies were not reported elsewhere.

This was the message the City Hall sought to send: Most Muscovites support the program.

State-run pollster VTsIOM released three polls documenting overwhelming support for the program—80 percent of residents of the buildings on the demolition list. Daily updates about the vote in the buildings up for demolition rarely named a number lower than 90 percent of votes for entering the program.

The website of the Renovation Headquarters, created for the occasion, ran lists of buildings that were not up for demolition but participated in the vote nonetheless. Among those, according to the website, only seven buildings throughout the city voted against entering the program, and 292 voted for it.

These numbers were supposed to be updated as the votes came in, but they never were, even though several five-story buildings' residents say they have submitted votes against the program on behalf of at least three other buildings. After the vote was over on July 15, these lists disappeared from the website.

What’s more, a Russian journalist, Alexei Kovalev, discovered groups and communities in social networks created in support of the program by supposedly ordinary Muscovites that are tired of living in awful, falling-apart khrushchevkas but in reality were groups run and promoted by companies and people affiliated with Moscow City Hall. “Those who genuinely support the program—real residents of old, dilapidated building—are the elderly; they don’t use social networks,” Kovalev says.

Finally, Sobyanin himself gave a speech at the State Duma on June 6 declaring “overwhelming support” for the program—at the same time the parliament doors were picketed by a hundred angry Muscovites.

Russian political analyst Yekaterina Schulmann said the Moscow authorities had hit upon a particularly fruitful tactic by characterizing the opposing force as a minority. “When people are told that they are an insignificant minority, that they are against the majority, they start feeling uncomfortable,” she says.

However, the affected residents are not the only ones targeted by this tactic. The Kremlin initially saw the program as a smart pre-election move that would make people happy and grateful to the authorities, Schulmann says. It didn’t look so good for the Kremlin when the protests broke out, so it was important for Sobyanin to report a victory after all.

Pyrrhic Victory

And on paper, this is precisely what Sobyanin did. According to the official results of the vote, 89.8 percent of the buildings up for demolition voted for the destruction of their homes and to enter the program. Protests died down. On July 1, President Putin signed the controversial bill into law. The program seems to be finally given a green light.

But was it its aggressive propaganda that brought victory to City Hall?

In some cases, it probably was. Vazhnova says her attempts to explain the reality of the program to her neighbors failed because her neighbors stood by “what Mayor Sobyanin said”; as a result, more than 60 percent voted for demolition, which is enough to include their building into the program.

But when it comes to the big picture, Moscow authorities may have won a Pyrrhic victory that has little do with propaganda. Muscovites are weary of the government’s heavy-handed, one-sided communication style, believes Denis Volkov, a sociologist from the independent pollster Levada Center. More effective were the numerous concessions authorities had to offer, the sociologist says.

Fifty Moscow districts were not included in the program at all, even though initially Sobyanin had said all the five-story buildings in the city would be included. In some districts, the number of buildings up for demolition was drastically reduced from more than a hundred to just a handful.

Additionally, the bill outlining the program was significantly amended before passing. Authorities had to guarantee homeowners apartments in their same district, allowed them to contest the choice of their new apartment in court, and introduced an option for demanding a new apartment equal in market value or monetary compensation.

“That dealt with the acute phase of the unrest,” says Schulmann. “But it doesn’t mean there won’t be a second wave of protests and a considerable wave of court cases when actual demolitions kick off.”

In addition, confrontations as big as this one usually leave a long information trail. People will remember that their opponents conceded. “Those who were against the program will remember that their actions led to something. That they won something,” says Schulmann.

*****

*****

Daria Litvinova is a Moscow-based journalist. 

[Illustration by Alessandra Cugno]

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