By Irina Fedorenko, DPhil Candidate
I spend much time thinking about how one can bring about policy or behavioural change in countries with semi-authoritarian context like Russia. Are they Government-led, or could civil society have an influence? Can citizens really go out on the streets and demand bicycle roads for example? Or can they really protect an urban park or a beach from illegal development without risking their own freedom? While a few years ago the answer was generally “yes” and to “some extend”, in the current political climate and strengthening of State control, any civil society initiatives are considered to be oppositional and thus dangerous.
The crackdown on Russian civil society has led to the silencing of a few dozens environmental NGOs and practically eliminated street protests, due to the fear of being arrested (Crotty and Hall, 2013). In such circumstances, one would assume, the development of urban environmentalism or similar citizen movements would be very hard if not impossible to see. And, with the political and economical challenges the country is going through now making cities “prettier” sounds like the last priority in the long agenda.
However, when I arrived in Russia for my fieldwork this August, I couldn’t believe my eyes: how much the cities had changed, and how people had changed with them. Instead of drinking beer on the streets young people do roller-skating and drink smoothies. They set up recycling facilities, plant trees and carry reusable shopping bags. Of course, this is not to say that alcoholism and other social issues have disappeared, but the facade of the city has certainly change to a more “hipster” one. Being “green” is now trendy. Moscow now has the same bicycle hire scheme as London has. Cycling. In. Moscow. Two years ago that would be impossible to imagine. But where had these changes came from?
First, I think this is a reflection of the general trend of healthy lifestyle and “hipster” subculture popular on the West. Russia has been fanatical about adopting anything Western. The now famous picture of the line to the first McDonalds in Moscow is usually referenced as an example.
But in August 2014, this iconic restaurant had been closed due to alleged health and safety violations (read more here). Now healthy lifestyles and sports are trending, combined with appropriate jogging and pilates iphone applications and purposefully branded clothing and protein shake bottles, of course.
An alternative opinion held by some is that urban improvement is a politically safe way to streamline civil activism. For example in Moscow, the Institute for Architecture and Design Strelka, is the meeting point for young citizens who want to see change in improving their local environment. This institute collaborates closely with the power structures, and it would be hard to imagine their successful existence had they been working on other more sensitive issues, such as Human Rights, or corruption (Semenova, 2006).
Finally, as it has been emphasised by many that changes in social behaviour come from changes in infrastructure. As people create the environment, the environment creates people. And in my opinion, my hometown, Vladivostok, could perhaps illustrate this point.
The iconic symbol of Vladivostok, which would resonate with every Russian speaker, is the rock band Mumiy Troll. They are the symbol, the pain and the pride of the city, and they brought fame to Vladivostok nationwide with the 1998 song “Let’s leave“. They describe the horrible realities of the place with phrases like : “crashed SUVs lying around the roads upside down… young wife never came back home from her work… sailors are dying in the hands of drunk women… maybe in a thousand years they will excavate me from under all this trash…” And the chorus goes: “Let’s leave, there will be better times than in Vladivostok 2000”.
Those words are reflective of this the city when I was growing up. It was a dangerous and not at all attractive place. Besides high homicide rates, low income and pollution, it provided very limited opportunities for young people. During the 90s the region had negative population growth and many of the youth would take the advice of the ever popular song quite literally and leave. If in Central Russia, the migration patters usually go West, my classmates went off in all directions: Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Europe and the US as the “West”, and China, Korea and Japan as our “home region”.
But a lot has changed in the last decade. The Russian economy has stabilized and has been showing relatively good growth rates, but most importantly, from the point of urban development for my region, the Asia-Pacific Cooperation Summit was been held in Vladivostok in 2012. New Russia has taken an event-based approach to regional development: Forums, Summits, Olympic Games and the World Cup – all drive federal money to the regions and away from Moscow. Without a major international event, it would be hard to draw any attention to the city’s infrastructural needs otherwise.
In the city of Vladivostok, double the London Olympics’ budget was used to build the infrastructure for the summit. New bridges have been build, a new University campus has been established, and dozen of parks and recreation spots can now be found in place of abandoned factories. However the question remained: who will use all these new parks, cycling tracks, skating facilities and the opera theatre? When I was home a year ago, I sensed a post Olympic Beijing like feeling: ok, you have built all these grand stadiums, but what is next? Who are the people who will fill up the places in the most technically advanced opera theatre in Russia, which happens to have been built in a dangerous and unprivileged neighbourhood in the city?
Now two years after the Summit, when coming back to Vladivostok, I couldn’t even recognise the city. Not just the infrastructure, but the people have changed so much! Members of the public are queuing at the opera box office, they do roller-skating, extreme biking, skating, street dance, watching classics at open-air cinemas ,and doing collective meditations in the places where I would have never gone alone at night before. Dozens of new cafes with the most elaborate smoothies and tea lists, twice as long as wine lists in Oxford restaurants. And, a dedicated beauty salon just for beards, an iconic “hipster” destination.
And, of course, a Mumiy Troll had came back as a university teacher, at the new campus, and to be a face of the World Wide Fund for Nature. The band has now written another song about Vladivostok and this time it has a very different flavour. It’s called “Trolleybus 4“, and the city is described as the place “where wild strawberries grow, where the thoughts of eternal come, where there is the root of life and it is not just ginseng, where there are red mountains and blue sands, where the railway comes from the ocean”…
Once, having being a part of this city’s vibrant student life, and a leader of the first youth environmental movement, which advocated for the improvement of the urban environment, I cannot recall any protest or case of significant pressure coming from civil society. Instead perhaps we used “soft power” by talking with the politicians we knew. But from what I have seen now, maybe all these efforts did not have as much influence on people and their behaviours as a stall with fancy smoothies and a new clean bench in the park.
CROTTY, J. and HALL, S.M., 2013. Environmental responsibility in a transition context: Russian NGO perception and response. Environment and planning.C, Government & policy, 31(4), pp. 667-681.
SEMENOVA, T., 2006. Russian Civil Society and Governmental Policy. UNISCI discussion papers, (10).