Monday, July 21, 2008

Window on Eurasia: ‘Almost Like in Moscow’ – the Rise of Alternative Urban Centers in Russia

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 21 – Moscow is suffering from its own success as a city – a rising cost of living, increasing population density, and growing traffic jams – and while it is not about to lose its centrality in Russian life, other urban centers are emerging across that country which already serve as alternative “centers of attraction” for many people there.
Four journalists from Russkiy reporter describe the way in which this is happening in Yekaterinburg, a city whose development in recent years resembles that in Chelyabinsk, Saratov, Samara, Rostov, Krasnoyarsk, Kazan and Nizhniy Novgorod, all places which are becoming increasingly attractive for business and people.
The basis of this attraction, the four argue, is the provision of services allowing people to live “almost like in Moscow” but without the downsides of life there because leaders in these cities are not repeating “the mistakes committed in the development of the capital” over the last decade or more (
Yekaterina Gandrabura, a specialist in cultural studies, told the journalists that these cities were increasingly distinguishing themselves from provincial towns. “In the classical provincial variant, an individual has a very limited selection of social roles – child, parent, worker. And nothing else.” As a result, few are “able to realize his potential.”
And because the residents of such places know that people “living in other cities have a greater choice of roles and possibilities for professional, artistic and cultural self-realization,” places where one “can go into a Ukrainian restaurant or a Japanese one,” they will try to move to places where they can have the same chance.
Until recently within the Russian Federation, she continued, the focus was on Moscow, but now many people from these provincial towns are moving to regional centers like Yekaterinburg where not only are costs, traffic, and other difficulties less than in the Russian capital but also where city elites are acting in ways that will attract such people.
On the one hand, she pointed out, the city fathers in Yekaterinburg are spending far more per capita on roads and especially stop lights to better handle traffic. And on the other, they are engaging in the construction of what look to outsiders as “extravagant projects” like sculpture, Western-style bars and business centers, and the like.
But these projects, Gandrabura said, “should not be explained only by economic calculations,” even though by attracting the most ambitious workers, such efforts will promote growth. Instead, she insisted, these things “answer a strong demand of urban residents for a breakthrough out of the grayness of everyday life and the daily struggle of work.”
For such emerging cities, the article suggests, the quality of restaurants and night clubs, of hotels and markets, of universities and schools is thus far more important in determining whether these cities will hold their populations and become important centers or whether they will lose their most ambitious people to other places and further decline into provincialism.
One indication that such cities and the four insist that Yekaterinburg is among them are emerging is a “backward flow of migration” from Moscow. Young people who went to the capital to seek their fortunes or at least to escape the grayness of life around them are now coming back.
Why? Because they can get many of the same things they were looking for in the Russian capital at lower cost and with fewer problems – including ethnic tensions over migrants – in the smaller cities they came from originally. And at least some of them perhaps believe that their experiences in Moscow will give them a leg up at home in the pursuit of their careers.
Large regional centers like Yekaterinburg may “play in Russia a critically important role” for yet another reason: the Russian Federation’s enormous size, the journalists say. In Central Europe, an expert told them, major urban centers are 200 km apart. In European Russia, they are 200 to 400 km apart. But beyond the Urals, such cities are separated by more than 1,000 km.
Whether Russia’s provincial places will grow into real cities “almost like Moscow,” the article concludes, depends on how much the government and people of the regions recognize that they “have to take steps told hold people. And in this connection, the difference between Russia’s regions will grow rather than decline,” presenting new challenges to the center.
But at the very least, the conclusions drawn by the four Russkiy reporter journalists suggest that those in the Russian Federation and the West concerned about that country’s development should pay attention to aspects of urban life such as restaurants, bars, and even street signs that they often have dismissed as of only marginal interest.

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