Sub-Prefect Vyacheslav Ninilin of the Khoroshevsky district is the only genuine revolutionary I have met in Russia since 1986; and I made his acquaintance just this week.
In the history of Moscow’s growth as a city, what Ninilin is quietly achieving is as profound as what the architects and planners argued over, but fell short of constructing, in the 1920s.
Those were the days when the Garden City advocates debated with the Communalists; when the Moscow city government was the greatest patron of avant-garde architecture in the world. That was the period that ended with the condemnation of decoration and residential amenities as philistine and bourgeois, and the literal burial – literally between 1937 and 1939 – of those who advocated such values in hidden pits on Khodynka Field.
I am not talkingabout the play-acting that Boris Yeltsin called urban reform, when he headed the city administration between 1985 and 1988. All that’s left now of what he created is the kiosk mafia.
Nor do I mean the process of gentrification on the green fringes of the city, or the new elitism of the old city center. Such things have been re-peating themselves since the first beginnings of this great city. They are no newer than the show-off and payoff programs of Stalin and Brezhnev, which produced the pseudo-grandiosity that can be seen along Kutuzovsky Prospect, the Arbat quarter, Frunzenskaya Nab-erezhnaya and the generals’ block around Sokol Metro.
Khoroshevsky district is not likely to be noticed by the snobs of the fashionable interior magazines. It is too working-class for them. They pass through on their way out Khoroshevskoye Shosse to the dachas of Serebryany Bor. They stop only to buy cars at the Audi Center.
Khoroshevsky was cut out of the much older Frunzensky raion in 1991, when the traditional regions were reconfigured in the political gerrymander of Gavriil Popov. Frunzensky became part of the Northern raion; and Khoroshevsky became a district – heavily industrialized with Sukhoi and Ilyushin aircraft plants, the largest flour combine in the city, and so many other manufacturing facilities it was said that in Khoroshevsky they made everything from nails to airplanes.
Because of Khodynka /Field, the district had strategic significance for the occupants of the Kremlin. This is the site of Moscow’s original airfield. During World War II, when the Germans had overrun Sheremetyevo, Khodynka airfield remained safely enough out of range of German artillery that VIP aircraft could land and take off there. Until very recently, the facilities were carefully protected for emergencies. The runway is long enough to accommodate heavy transports, and an adjoining rail spur, and the two bordering highways can deliver tanks. In August 1991, and again in October 1993, the Kremlin was able to assemble a division of troops there overnight. From the mustering tents on the field to the White House or Kremlin was a short drive.
As the military value of the area declined, so did the infrastructure and communal standards. Privatization in the early 1990s made the inhabitants into owners, but left them relatively impoverished by citywide standards. Wage arrears – the great Yeltsin-era tax – hit Khoroshevsky’s residents, the working and the retired especially hard. The elderly waited in their apartments to die of poverty and medical neglect. The middle-aged died of alcohol in the podyezd. The young died of mindless violence on the street.
I know, because my first home in Moscow was in Khoroshevsky a decade ago. When I began living there, I remember friends, Muscovites, who disdained to visit me in such a proletarian quarter. These Krasnopresnensky.
When they can’t afford that anymore, they are bound to congratulate me on my foresight, if not my sympathy.
Sub-prefect Ninilin knows, because he was bom in Khoroshevsky. He studied there, and began his career as a worker in one of its aircraft factories. He rose to become a senior manager, before moving into the administration of the raion. He has headed Khoroshevsky district since its inception a decade ago. “It was a backwater then,” he remembers, “and the conditions were very bad. It was common for some buildings to have no hot water.”
Water, roads and renovation of the oldest buildings were his first priorities. Stimulation of new business, support of existing employment and maintenance of the tax base followed. Municipal managers were pursuing the same tasks all over Moscow.
What has distinguished Ninilin’s administration came next. After completing the renovation of water and heating facilities two years ago, the sub-prefect began to transform the communal space of the district with the idea, a revolutionary one, that there should be maximum comfort for every age group. Comfort to the eye and to the imagination – those aesthetic values were as much a part of the sub-prefect’s plan as the new water mains.
At first, the interiors of buildings were renovated, the hallways, staircases, and entrances painted, tiled, decorated, relit. Direct entrance-to-apartment security systems were introduced.
Then the external spaces were transformed. Individual garages were dismantled or removed. In their place, parking spaces, individually numbered, were set out. The roads were widened, their surfaces relaid. The walkways were resurfaced, and new paths designed. Trees, lawns, and flowerbeds were planted, and regularly maintained. Play areas for children, adolescents, and adults were designed and built from photographs and sketches Ninilin brought back from visits he had made to Australia, Switzerland, France, Italy and Spain. Special areas for dogs, and all that implies, were also introduced.
Then Ninilin did something no one had ever dared to do in Moscow in 80 years. He engaged a group of artists to paint pictures on the walls of the water, electricity and other utility structures that service the apartment buildings. These bright whimsical pictures, painted by Alexander Uglovsky and Sergei Svinin, have transformed gray blockhouses. They have helped win Ninilin’s construction of the yard at 68 Khoroshevsky Shosse, a city-wide prize to be announced this weekend.
The social impact of the change is a visible revolution in living habits. The open spaces of the district are now populated by families and children who had been driven away by adolescent gangs, muggers and alcoholics. The improvements in communal facilities have revived social pride and protectiveness towards the territory.
The parking-space concept is an experiment in bourgeois values that may succeed more generously than any of the privatization schemes dreamed up by Anatoly Chubais for the past decade. Instead of a handful of galvanized huts for an elite of car-owners, Ninilin has introduced hundreds of places assigned to individual owners. Each space is free of charge for its user, unless he wants to use the higher-security chained and padlocked rows. But responsibility to clean the space and clear it of snow is with its occupier. Claim-jumping will not be allowed. Ninilin’s hunch is that the system of interacting private and communal use of space will protect and support the yard, just as the Garden City movement predicted almost a century ago.
Ninilin’s experiments have no parallel in the city of Moscow, and perhaps not in the rest of the country, where the decay of infrastructure and shortage of communal services is worse than it was in Khoroshevsky. But they are a model of what Russian urbanites once dreamed of, and may yet be able to afford. They represent a revolution that will make you forget the reforms that Yeltsin, Chubais, plus their proteges still in office, were so proud of, and that were so false.