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Moscow's forgotten periphery

Moscow's Chertanovo district is a social flashpoint: Residents are poor, the area decrepit and the rich city center far away. And city planners warn that this inequality will only get worse if things don't change.

"I have lived my whole life here, but little has changed, " says Julia. The single mother lives in Chertanovo, on the outskirts of Moscow. The 29-year-old sits in a park with her three children (top photo) — between a monument honoring the Soviet space program and a rundown high-rise apartment building. Not far away, a homeless person sleeps on a park bench.

"Many Muscovites think only drug addicts and criminals live in Chertanovo. That it's dangerous here," says Julia. "There is probably a grain of truth to that. Nevertheless, most residents want a better life. The city has done precious little to make life here better."

Chertanovo was built overnight in the 1930s as a workers' housing estate for the new industrial complexes that were springing up along the southern outskirts of the capital. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many of those companies got into financial trouble and closed their doors. Thousands of jobs were lost. The new Russian state was overwhelmed, and a lack of welfare programs added to the neglect that consumed the area. Criminal gangs spread out across the neighborhood, giving it a particularly bad reputation.

Buildings in Chertanovo | (DW/A. Kauschanski)

Chertanovo has fallen further into decrepitude after the dissolution of the Soviet Union

Julia and her children live in a social housing complex on the neighborhood's outskirts. She has a slight disability, which means she gets some welfare benefits. "It's very little money. I have to make some income off the books to make ends meet for me and my children."

There is an old playground outside Julia's apartment building. The asphalt is full of potholes. She points out a number of problems: "My youngest tripped on one of those holes; he fell down and got a bloody nose. The bins have no bottoms, so the garbage just ends up on the ground." She took photographs of those things and included them in a letter she sent to city administrators. She waited a long time before she got a reply. When it finally did arrive, she was told it could not be processed because she had submitted the complaint in an improper form.

"But there is so much to do here," says Julia. She tells of young kids that regularly hang around her front door and have loud fights in the back courtyard at night.

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The end of a futurist dream

Two metro stations away, Soviet planners in the 1970s conducted a large-scale experiment. They decided to build a city within a city on the northern edge of Chertanovo. The living complex was envisioned as a way to demonstrate urban coexistence based on communist ideals.

Modernist buildings in Chertanovo (DW/A. Kauschanski)

With its modernist buildings, the district was originally designed to present a communist utopia

The complex was constructed on a plateau overlooking a man-made lake. Sidewalks skirted lawns situated between Brutalist high-rises. Cars were not allowed between the buildings; instead, underground parking garages with direct access to apartments were built. The microcosm that the complex represented was designed to combine everything residents might need: Apartments, a cinema, municipal offices, a school, restaurants, a swimming pool and a library were all located here. Thus, residents of the futurist complex could easily take care of their everyday needs without ever leaving the area.

But the futurist dream has long since ended. With hardly any work here, residents must now take the subway to other parts of the city to earn their money. Now, new buildings are going up and Chertanovo is being increasingly swallowed up by an ever-expanding Moscow.

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'My customer refused to pay me'

A group of young men are repairing the facade of one of the buildings in the complex. They are so-called "Gastarbyteri," or guest workers, a term borrowed from German. Nawruz is from Uzbekistan: "We're all from Central Asia — Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan. We met here at work. We all came to Russia looking for a better life."

Migrants in Chertanovo (DW/A. Kauschanski)

The guest workers seek a better life, but are often faced with problems

Most migrant workers in Russia come from former Soviet states. They find work in construction, as taxi drivers, or in the service industry. They come here because the pay in Russia is better than in their home countries, where well-paid work is hard to find.

"But working conditions here are still pretty bad," says Nawruz. "A work permit costs a lot of money. We are constantly checked by police who want to see our papers. Often they threaten to have us deported."

A 2015 migrant rights reform bill was supposed to improve life for migrant workers in Russia. One of the measures in the bill was designed to lift workers out of the legal shadows by having them pay for work permits. But the complicated application process and the high price of the permit have raised doubts about the effectiveness of the legislation.

Not all migrants can afford to register, and by not doing so they can quickly come under scrutiny by the Russian migration authority. But those are not the only problems: "When I finished doing a bunch of repairs on an apartment, the owner who hired me just refused to pay the sum we had agreed to," says Nawruz. "Instead, he threatened to file a complaint with the police. "

Low wages also making finding adequate living space extremely difficult. Nawruz says he shares an apartment with more than 40 other workers. "We sleep crammed together in a very tiny space. It's really dirty, and there are cockroaches all over the place."

Read more: Gay parents flee Russia with kids: 'The authorities could take the children away' 

The problem of social segregation 

"Moscow is a city that was once almost entirely populated by migrants," says Olga Vendina. An expert on urban planning, she conducts research at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Geography. In 1900, more than a million people lived in Moscow; today, more than 12 million live in the city. Vendina says that "with growing inequality, social segregation has become one of the largest challenges facing Moscow."  

Apartments on an artificial lake in Chertanovo (DW/A. Kauschanski)

Spatial segregation already existed in the Soviet Union, says Vendina

 

Segregation is the social, economic, or ethnic fragmentation of a society. "Spatial segregation existed during the Soviet era," explains Vendina. As in Chertanovo, workers lived close to factories. The educated middle class — the intelligentsia — lived in proximity to universities and research institutes.

"Things are different today," says Vendina. "People don't move close to work; rather, work moves close to them." She says that the growing number of well-educated Moscow citizens has prompted businesses to move into the city center, or locate in middle-class neighborhoods.

The phenomenon consequently reinforces existing trends. Well-off neighborhoods profit from more job opportunities, and wealth becomes more and more concentrated. And that means the social infrastructure in poor areas like Chertanovo continues to deteriorate. Thus, inequalities are amplified — a problem that is not unique to Moscow.

"Segregation is dangerous because it hinders coexistence within the city," says Vendina. She says that modern urban challenges cannot be solved by individuals; instead, they call for collective action and societal solidarity. "Post-Soviet citizens are accustomed to delegating social responsibility to the state. But by doing so they are just supporting the existing system as it is," the researcher says. "We have to form the city in a way that meets our collective expectations. Only when we actively participate in urban development can we also change ourselves." 

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