In 2011–2012, protesters dubbed “angry urbanites” were responsible for the largest mass public protests in Russia’s recent history. But those protesters now appear only mildly irritated compared to the Muscovites whose apartment buildings are slated to be demolished under the Moscow government’s plan to raze Khrushchev-era five-story buildings, known as khrushchevki, and resettle their residents. Muscovites are furious, and are teaming up with their neighbors to fight the “renovation” program.

The idea to resettle khrushchevki inhabitants announced by President Vladimir Putin and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin could have been seen as a PR move in the run-up to elections: the president and the mayor solving the problem of run-down housing in the city (the khrushchevki were built rapidly and en masse as a low-cost solution to urban housing shortages across the Soviet Union, and many were not designed to be still standing over half a century later). But that rosy picture swiftly went up in flames.

The first warning sign was the publication by a real estate agency of a list of buildings allegedly earmarked for resettlement, which included perfectly sturdy brick buildings as well as prefabricated khrushchevki. People decided that the list was surely a fake, and it was soon forgotten. But the renovation bill that Moscow legislators introduced to the State Duma soon made people even more alarmed.

According to the bill, any building “structurally similar” to a khrushchevka can be demolished (the bill’s authors didn’t bother to list the criteria for determining similarities). Moreover, any building located in the “renovation zone” can also be torn down. The residents of the demolished dwelling will not receive apartments of equal value, but merely of equal size. They’ll get only one offer, and if they don’t like it, they’ll be forcefully evicted. The demolition cannot be appealed in court: construction regulations will be suspended inside the renovation zone. Many items in the bill refer to laws and ordinances that do not yet exist.

The vague wording of the bill and the blurry criteria for demolition have caused widespread panic. The mayor’s office hasn’t elaborated on its plans, which has only added to the anxiety and discontent: people interpret the silence as confirmation of their worst fears. Meetings with municipal officials have only added to the confusion—some of them cited the bill, while others swore that no such plans exist. Residents of the buildings at risk have been plunged into a Kafkaesque terror in which their lives are now subject to some vague law that can be arbitrarily interpreted by small-time bureaucrats.

The outrage is easy to explain. As a rule, the five-story buildings are located in the center of Moscow or close to it, in long-established, relatively prestigious bedroom communities. Many of them are not classical khrushchevki with low ceilings and tiny kitchens: some five-story buildings are quite comfortable. In many instances, people chose to live in these buildings and neighborhoods, attracted by the location, relatively low housing density, leafy courtyards, and accessible transportation. Some perhaps didn’t appreciate the benefits of their housing before the proposed demolition, but are now thinking about the possible alternatives. One would likely be offered an apartment in a poor-quality high-rise development near the Moscow Ring Road, on the outskirts of the sprawling city, up to half an hour away from the metro by bus. Such a change in circumstances would be welcomed by far from everyone.

While before the proposed demolition people may have been vaguely discontent, now they see clearly what they have to fear and fight against, and who is to blame for their misfortunes. This may be enough to trigger the protest vote during elections. People are unhappy with the government on every level: they blame the mayor for the idea of the demolition, the president for supporting it, and the parliament for passing the legislature. This is a more serious issue for most people than tax or retirement age increases. These issues are distant and not well understood, whereas any resident of an old Moscow neighborhood can picture a high-rise on the outskirts of the city or in the capital’s newly annexed boroughs and picture how much worse life would be there.

The government’s demolition campaign has resurrected long-forgotten concepts in the minds of Muscovites. At town hall meetings and on social networks, people talk about their constitutional rights, primarily referring to property rights violated by the draconian legislative changes. Such musings may easily lead to the conclusion that a government that violates the Constitution is illegitimate and hostile to the people of its city and country.

The threat of forced resettlement has had another effect that is highly undesirable for the authorities: people are coalescing into local neighborhood communities, including people who have never been involved in community activism. Even if by some miracle the mayor’s office only ultimately demolishes crumbling khrushchevki, these horizontal networks will stay in place and confront different problems, such as high-rise development or construction in parks. Neighborhoods will now have their own communities that will want to be represented in the government sooner or later.

The authorities’ key mistake was their failure to publicly articulate the goal behind their plan. The administration has opted for an uncertain line of defense, alleging that the residents were in fact expecting the demolition and had asked for it themselves.

Seeing how their government behaves, people have come to a simple logical conclusion: the authorities have embarked on the demolition project to serve their own interests, and are ready to violate the Constitution and laws to accomplish their goals. In this respect, it would be logical if a new developer linked to someone in the president’s inner circle appeared at the start of the project. That would explain both the municipal government’s unexpected yearning to resettle so many people, and the attention paid by Putin to the project.

The authorities are in a no-win situation. The best solution would be to cancel the “renovation zones” plan, with its suspended laws. The government should publish an official list of buildings slated for demolition and enter into a dialogue with their residents. This would help to alleviate people’s panic and anxiety.

But even in that scenario, reputational losses are almost inevitable: the mayor’s office, the Kremlin, and the Duma have already demonstrated that they are prepared to take radical steps, and only protests can scare them. If they stick to their guns, angry urbanites are bound to take to the streets. If they yield to public demands, they’ll demonstrate the effectiveness of mass protests.

New dissenters have ample opportunity to express their opinion in the coming months, with a number of elections looming on the political horizon, ranging from municipal Moscow elections in September to the presidential election early next year.

Opponents of the renovation scheme are already discussing other problems, like perennial sidewalk repair, corruption, and wasteful government spending both in Moscow and across the country. Politics isn’t conspicuously present in these discussions, but it will inevitably appear in the near future. And in answer to the question “what is to be done?” people may well decide to start by not supporting the government that launched the resettlement project.

  • Andrey Pertsev