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Moscow's demolition project threatens to cause mass uprooting

Moscow's mayor wants to knock down thousands of Soviet-era apartment blocks and move 1.6 million people to new flats in a sweeping new project. But many Muscovites aren't willing to give up their homes without a fight.

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Will Moscow's Krushchevkas be torn down?

"I am fighting for my property. I decide where and how I live. No one decides for me what I need," says Kari Guggenberger. The activist is standing outside her apartment block near the center of Moscow with around 30 people. They've all come to get some clarity about the new draft law that Moscow's mayor Sergei Sobyanin is pushing through the Duma, the Russian parliament. 

The Duma backed the draft law on Thursday in a first reading. The next reading is likely to be in May. And if the draft ends up becoming law, it will make it easier for the city's administration to knock down around 8,000 five-story Soviet-era apartment blocks from the fifties and sixties. The mayor insists they are "shabby" and could become dangerous in the next 10 to 15 years.

But Kari disagrees. Her building may be more than 50 years old, she says, but that doesn't mean it should be knocked down rather than renovated. She called for this meeting on her Facebook group "Muscovites against Demolition" (in Russian), which has amassed over 10,000 members in the two months since she created it. And the numbers keep going up.

Moskau Abriss Plattenbau Moskauer gegen Abriss (DW/S.Beskorovainy)

Kati Guggenberger founded the Facebook group

Uncertain fates

Today, she is handing out leaflets explaining the draft law. And she invited a local politician to tell the group here more. "There is a huge difference between what is being said on television and what's in the law," Kari explains. "We as activists are trying to bring correct information to people, so that they can make a conscious decision."

Not everyone has made up their mind about the resettlement plans. But many feel uncertain about what is going to happen. "I feel terrible," says one young woman. "I don't feel protected at all. This is my only home and I bought it with my hard-earned money." Her eyes well up with tears. Before she turns away to cry, she adds: "I just feel scared now. Scared and uneasy."

After all, many of the details of the resettlement plan are still to be announced, and the draft law could still be amended by the Duma. Moscow's mayor has said that the final demolition lists probably won't come out until June. So all people here know is that the so-called "krushchevkas" they live in could be affected.

The low-rise apartment buildings were built in the 1950s and 1960s under Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev. Many were constructed out of prefabricated concrete slabs and were initially seen as a quick-fix solution to the housing shortage at the time. Later, many were built as longer-term housing. Hundreds of the oldest krushchevkas in Moscow have already been knocked down in a program that began in 1999. Their inhabitants were resettled under an existing law.

Russland Häuser zum Abriss in Moskau (DW/W. Ryabko)

Thousands of apartment blocks are to be knocked down

A new law for a sweeping new project

Now around 8,000 more apartment blocks are supposed to go. And the city needs to change the law to "help […] make the process faster," Pyotr Tolstoy tells DW. Tolstoy is a Duma deputy from the governing "United Russia" party and one of the authors of the new law. He says hundreds of voters have personally asked him when they will finally be moved out of their old apartments.

"Unfortunately, these buildings constructed under Krushchev and during communism have gone completely rotten, just like the communist idea," Tolstoy says. He thinks if Russia still wants to be a "great power in 10 to 15 years," it's important to improve people's living standards.

The politician adds: "Such a large-scale project has never been carried out in any other country. And if it's successful - and I believe that it will be and that people will move into new apartments - it will mean a new quality of life for them."

Moskau Abriss Plattenbau Moskauer gegen Abriss (DW/S.Beskorovainy)

Tolstoy: Demolition is necessary "to keep Russia a great power"

Moscow's mayor presented his new law on February 21, 2017, in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who personally backed the plan. The law states that krushchevkas and neighboring buildings with "equivalent construction characteristics" can be knocked down. And that the people living in them will be moved to new apartment buildings of equivalent size, in their district or in the neighboring district. The mayor has also repeatedly said that the people affected will be able to have their say on whether or not they want to move, including in a vote on the city's online referendum platform "Active Citizen."

In the interest of citizens?

The local politician here in Kari Guggenberger's neighborhood also assures people that the interest of citizens is of foremost importance for the government. But those assembled aren't so sure. Many are convinced the "Active Citizen" platform allows Moscow's administration to manipulate votes to validate plans that suits them.

A man in a leather jacket remarks: "It won't be our decision. It will be the decision of the people who have their eye on this land for elite housing developments." And another adds: "We don't have much of a chance. If they want to knock down my home, they will."

Kari agrees. She says the new law essentially allows the government to demolish any building it wants. And she says the land under their feet is expensive. Even if they are moved to an apartment of equivalent size in a neighboring but less central district, that could mean their new home is worth much less. And it's not clear yet whether they will have any say in what flat they get.

Home sweet home

And for Kari, having a choice is important. The IT project manager worked hard for five years to buy an apartment in this area and has been living in her flat for eight years now. During that time, she did it up three times - to get it just right. Now the one-bedroom apartment looks modern and has been decorated in shades of shiny pink and white.

Moskau Abriss Plattenbau Moskauer gegen Abriss (DW/S.Beskorovainy)

Kari has modernized inside the apartment

Kari says she felt safe here until the mayor presented his draft law in February. "But now I've lost that sense of security. […] I used to run home and feel protected. But now I'm afraid that I will lose my fortress."

That's why Kari is actively posting information about the Moscow mayor's plans on her Facebook group and her website. She also wants to found a community organization to protect people's property. Since everyone in Moscow knows someone who lives in a krushchevka and building work is likely to be extensive, "this affects absolutely everyone," the activist says.

"We are trying to get them to withdraw the law. But logically we know they won't," Kari says. "So we will wait for the lists to come out, and then we will fight for our homes."

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