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Why Moscow doesn’t make anyone’s list of the world’s most livable cities

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Will Englund of The Washington Post’s foreign staff has lived in Moscow for 10 years over the past two decades. He served two previous tours there as a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun.

MOSCOW

A Danish architect named Jan Gehl has been hired to create a vision of Moscow 15 years down the road. At a conference here the other day, he waxed enthusiastic about the beautiful possibilities for Europe’s largest city:

Traffic cut down to two lanes in each direction. Sidewalks wide enough for strolling, shaded by millions of trees. Trams zipping this way and that, no more dank underground street crossings. With the noble skyline intact, and Tverskaya Street reconfigured as a “fabulous boulevard, the Champs Élysées of the East,” there would be parks along the 104 miles of riverfront (if you count both sides of the river) and a citywide feeling of uplift to inspire residents — an end, in short, to all the Sovietesquerie that weighs so heavily on Moscow today.

Oh, and no fewer than 200 neighborhood squares, to create anchors of local identity.

Viktor Vakhshtayn pointed out a big problem with that one. “Neighborhood? It’s hard even to translate that into Russian. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Vakhshtayn is the director of sociological research at the Russian Presidential Academy, and he noted that the idea of a neighborhood, and all the assumptions and associations that go with it in Washington, New York or almost anywhere else in the world, just don’t exist in Russia.

As they were speaking — in an old riding academy turned into a gleaming exhibition hall, just outside the Kremlin — I couldn’t help but think back to my first visit here, in 1990, and the huge pro-democracy demonstrations that took place in the winter cold just steps from where I was now sitting. Moscow was a forbidding sight in those days, intimidating to a newcomer, dark and gray and crumbling, yet with an unmistakable sense that it was on the verge of profound change.

In the end, it was money, not democracy, that washed over the city. From the show-off gaudiness of the 1990s to the more assured tastefulness that occasionally makes an appearance today, Moscow has been for nearly 20 years in a state of constant construction. At the huge Manezh Square, where hundreds of thousands gathered to give voice to their hopes two decades ago, a giant shopping mall now makes such demonstrations impossible.

But a thorough remake of the city is still a long way off and is fraught with challenges that go beyond shiny glass buildings and extravagant boutiques. That’s what brought Gehl, Vakhshtayn and hundreds of other designers, planners and thinkers this year to the second Moscow Urban Forum, sponsored by the city government and devoted to the question of whether the Russian mega­city can be made to work — on a human scale.

The upshot is this: Moscow can throw off the physical legacy of its Soviet past, if it has the will. But the civic legacy? That could be a lot harder.

The capital is full of energetic, creative, ambitious, well-educated people. But it is not full of citizens. Cramped as it is — with an official population of 11.5 million and an actual population quite a bit bigger than that — “we separate ourselves from each other, because the level of trust is so low,” said Natalya Zubarevich, a geography professor at Moscow State University.

The alienation between residents and the authorities is profound. As many as 60 percent of the people here feel no connection to the city, Vakhshtayn said. And if the world has low expectations of Muscovites — a global survey by Simon Anholt,a British branding expert, found that people ranked Moscow 49th out of 50 large cities in friendliness — Russians are even harsher on their capital. They ranked Moscow dead last.

So people push past one another as they dodge both lethally untended icicles and the cars that turn most sidewalks into parking lots. They rarely get to know the family across the hall. They shout “Girl!” to get the attention of a waitress. Teachers, doctors and passport clerks all expect a handout for doing their jobs.

The Soviet Union came of age amid unspeakable cruelty and matured into a profound cynicism. It was hostile to social networks, or to any organic development, and civic engagement was unthinkable. Russians never adopted the habit of thinking of themselves as citizens, and they fell into the protective circle of family.

But unlike their parents, today’s Russians can travel freely abroad. Many of the best and brightest, in search of opportunity, go abroad and don’t return. Too often, says Vladimir Mau, rector of the Russian Presidential Academy, Moscow has been little more than a transit point for ambitious people on their way from Siberia to London.

But others come back, and they’re starting to ask themselves: Does it have to be this way?

The mayor’s office, hardly a hotbed of sedition, thinks not. Moscow has to find ways to keep its creative class, says Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. He said the city has 2 million to 3 million well-educated, creative, constructive citizens, and these are the people he wants to keep happy. The physical environment and services are a part of that, said Andrei Sharonov, Moscow’s deputy mayor for economic policy — but trust, confidence and engagement play bigger roles.

Some at the conference argued that a physical transformation of the capital could help give birth to a civic culture. Maybe Gehl’s 200 neighborhood squares could begin to give Muscovites a sense of 200 distinct neighborhoods — or, more to the point, of one neighborhood, their own. Maybe bicycle-friendly boulevards in place of clotted cars — Moscow is, after all, a flat city, easily navigable on a bike, if not for the fury of the grinding traffic — would promote health and fellowship.

Moscow, of course, has a deep devotion to the arts and a richly layered history. It boasts a beautiful core of pre-Soviet buildings and a smattering of brilliantly conceived structures from the early 1920s, which were designed in the first flush of revolutionary fervor and are unlike any in the West.

“Moscow has this amazing flavor to it — the unique and mystic drama,” said David Erixon, a Swedish design expert.

But for decades, the Soviets put up public buildings that were designed to make passersby feel small and threatened, and they constructed apartment houses out of astonishingly depressing prefabricated concrete slabs. Getting rid of the worst of these — because many of them are still there, casting a pall — could give people a reason to want to belong to their city.

Already, a huge and popular effort is underway to improve parks, starting with the now-elegant Gorky Park. This is just the first step, Sobyanin said, in giving Moscow public spaces that the public can cherish.

But, Vakhshtayn said, it’s the public that makes a public space successful, not the benefactions of the authorities, no matter how well intentioned. This year I saw some of that in action. For several days in May, young Muscovites took to the boulevard that runs by Chistye Prudy, or Clean Ponds, flocking there from morning until evening for lectures, seminars, songs and fellowship.

That became a truly public space, and the people who were there felt, perhaps for the first time, truly engaged with each other and their city. It could have been a start. But it was political demonstration that brought them there — a protest against the dictates of President Vladimir Putin — and before long, the police broke it up.

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