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From the Field

Russia’s “Authoritarian Modernization” Through Urbanization: What Lessons Can Be Learned from New Moscow?

Can the recent New Moscow urban development project shed light on the political, economic and demographic issues of contemporary Russia? Vladimir Pawlotsky questions the “authoritarian modernization” at the origin of this project, which has seen the Russian capital more than double in area.

Far from the ever more numerous warmongering diatribes he has been known for since 2022 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, during his presidency (2008-2012) Dmitri Medvedev promoted the modernization of his country and nurtured hopes of a rapprochement with the West. Supposed to reduce the weight of hydrocarbons in the Russian economy by promoting technological innovation and political pluralism (Sakwa 2012), Medvedev’s "modernizatsia" remained a chimera for political scientists, who saw no decisive reform in it (Gille-Belova 2013; Wilson 2015). But for some geographers, Medvedev is indeed the architect of "authoritarian modernization" (Kinossian and Morgan 2014), since in 2011 he launched ambitious urban development projects intended, according to the Moscow City Hall website, to make the Russian capital "a liveable and competitive metropolis" and "a global financial center", capable of competing with New York, London, Hong Kong or Paris.

Among these projects, the attachment to the capital of a vast adjoining territory - New Moscow -, which took place in 2011, is supposed to offer a projection space to strengthen the metropolis’ attractiveness. In March 2011, Medvedev brought together a group of international bankers. Among them was Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who identified the transportation network as the major obstacle to Moscow’s attractiveness as an international financial center (Corcoran 2011). On June 17, 2011, in his speech to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Medvedev entrusted Mayor Sergei Sobyanin with the mission "to improve the development of the capital, stimulate the development of the financial center and make life easier for Muscovites, by examining the expansion of the capital’s borders and the relocation [from the city center to New Moscow] of the majority of the legislative and executive bodies of the Russian Federation". One month later, an adjoining territory of 230,000 inhabitants, located to the southwest of the capital and giving it a comet-tail shape, as well as three exclaves, were identified and attached to the capital (Figure 1). Multiplying the city’s administrative surface area by 2.5, New Moscow is intended to house the country’s political institutions, enable a new, more polycentric distribution of functions and jobs, and reorient commuting patterns. However, despite this attachment and without it being formally announced, the transfer was abandoned with the return of Vladimir Putin as head of state in 2012: political institutions and the headquarters of major companies remain close to the Kremlin.

How can we interpret this abandonment of the shift of institutions to New Moscow? What does New Moscow stand for today, and what does such a singular form reveal?

Based on an analysis of open sources and a field survey conducted in 2019, this article interrogates the results of modernizatsia applied to the Moscow urban. We return to the origins of New Moscow, the legacy of sixty years of Soviet planning. We’ll see that the project is also the product of highly fragmented metropolitan governance. Finally, we’ll analyze how it came to be attached to the Soviet Union, how its perimeter has been defined and what development projects are planned for it today.

Figure 1. New Moscow, urban planning from scratch based on major projects

Design and creation: V. Pawlotsky, 2023.
Source: Rosstat, 2020.

In search of polycentrism: the results of Soviet planning

Since the general plan of 1935, Moscow has been built according to a rigid monocentric structure (Essaïan 2017). Political functions are concentrated in the center, and urbanization follows an original principle in which population densities increase over 25 kilometers as one moves away from the center (Bertaud 2001). The opening up to the market economy in 1991 did not break with this dynamic, but changed the nature of the built-up area: Yuri Luzhkov, Mayor of Moscow from 1992 to 2010, encouraged thousands of businesses and large corporations to move into the center (Kolossov and O’Loughlin 2004).

While Russia’s population was shrinking, Moscow’s was growing, fuelled by inter-regional flows, with over 12 million inhabitants in 2020, compared with 8 million in 1991. Once the MKAD ring road has been passed, urbanization proceeds apace, and small municipalities on the outskirts of the city are transformed into large dormitory towns. Massive road construction, a considerable increase in the number of cars per inhabitant and low investment in public transport are leading to saturation of the transport network (Argenbright 2008).

Fragmented post-Soviet governance

It should be pointed out that the governance of the Moscow metropolis has been marked since 1991 by intense rivalries arising from the clear institutional distinction between Moscow - a federal city of over 12 million inhabitants today - and the region that surrounds it: the Moscow Oblast, with its 7 million inhabitants. They have equivalent status under the Russian Constitution, each with its own assembly and government, and each producing its own regulations and planning documents. No metropolitan institution coordinates agglomeration-wide policies (Colton 1995). By mobilizing divergent interpretations of Soviet law, in the absence of valid legal texts and property deeds, regional elites struggle to capture territories close to the MKAD ring road and the catchment area it represents (Malinova 2018). These interregional tensions and transport saturation contributed to Luzhkov’s dismissal in 2010 by Medvedev, who replaced him with Sobyanin, former head of Putin’s presidential administration.

On June 30, 2011, an agreement was signed between Gromov, governor of the Moscow oblast since 2000, and Sobyanin, mayor of Moscow, establishing borders on 264 plots, delimiting an area of 10 km². The agreement was a precondition for New Moscow, which was annexed just two weeks later.

Authoritarian modernization

While the aim of making the metropolis polycentric is consensual, the solution chosen surprises specialists (Kolossov 2013). None of the institutions in charge of planning were consulted, as urban planner Yuri Grigorian testifies: "The shape [of New Moscow] drove all the planners crazy. Nobody could understand who had designed such a tie for this concentric city in the middle of a plain. Why such a picturesque shape?" (Liaouv 2012). Plans are circulated in the media, outlining the proposed relocation of institutions, identifying them as generators of transport flows and proposing to transform their historic buildings into hotels and boutiques. However, several observers estimate that only 210,000 of the capital’s 6.5 million working population are civil servants. In a radio interview in June 2011, Moscow’s mayor responded to this criticism by saying that "businesses will follow: they will want to be close to government agencies and ministries, that’s how it’s always worked".

Once the connection had been made, the Moscow authorities launched a consultation process for the capital’s development, involving some sixty urban planning teams from twenty-one countries. The competition was won by the French team of Antoine Grumbach and Jean-Michel Wilmotte. Their project was based on the conversion of industrial and railway wastelands located within the MKAD, the construction of a railroad line between the three main airports and the heart of New Moscow, and a new metro line (Figure 2). Like the 2008 Grand Paris consultation, to which the Moscow authorities readily refer, this exercise does not make the winning project the future plan for the city. It does, however, enable a series of recommendations to be drawn from the various projects, and makes for a fine communications operation.

Figure 2. Wilmotte and Grumbach’s project for Greater Moscow (2012)

Design and creation: V. Pawlotsky, 2023.
Source: Website of the construction department of Moscow city council.

New Moscow 10 years on: mixed results

Very quickly, the majority of deputies rejected the idea of leaving the historic center of power, and were concerned about the transformation of the hypercenter into a tourist attraction. In 2012, Putin’s return to power brought the project to a halt.

However, New Moscow has been incorporated and is undergoing active development: its population has tripled in twelve years, reaching 700,000 in 2023 (Figure 3). While Moscow has been growing by around 100,000 people a year since 1991, since 2011 this growth has essentially been captured by New Moscow, leaving the demographics of “Old Moscow” relatively stable (Argenbright 2011, 2018).

Figure 3. The active and uneven development of New Moscow

Design and creation: V. Pawlotsky, 2023.
Source: Rosstat, 2012 and 2021.

Although the number of jobs in New Moscow has increased since the city became part of the MKAD, it remains relatively low, and no major hub of activity has emerged, leading more and more people to work in the center. The part of New Moscow closest to the MKAD resembles other dormitory suburbs. An open-air construction site, it drives the capital’s economy by feeding the construction sector, which directly or indirectly provides over a million jobs in the Moscow metropolitan area (Marchand 2010). With the opening of half a dozen metro stations in just ten years, some fifteen major developers have already reaped juicy capital gains by acquiring plots of land at the end of the 2000s and then building large complexes on them after annexation, comprising hundreds of buildings and several thousand apartments. Many observers see in the division of New Moscow the influence of powerful construction lobbyists (Botcharov 2013).

Far from stopping there, by 2035 the city council expects New Moscow to be home to 1.5 million people, create a million jobs and build a dozen more metro stations.

The organization of multi-family housing districts follows a structure that directs residents’ lives towards a central courtyard, parking lot, play area, pond or school (Figure 4). The mayor’s office favors traditional public facilities at the foot of the building: parking lots, schools, kindergartens, polyclinics and shopping areas. In the best of cases, the new metro stations are within a twenty-minute walk, but more often than not require the use of a bus or car. More rarely, developers have built suburban blocks where public transport is virtually non-existent. In the area furthest from the MKAD, New Moscow remains dominated by rurality: scattered villages, low-productivity agriculture and dacha cooperatives.

Figure 4. Typical neighborhoods – of collective or individual housing – in New Moscow

Source: website of the property developer Absolut Real Estate, 2023.

Is New Moscow a failure? The change in Moscow’s administrative boundaries has not resulted in a redistribution of metropolitan functions within the city. Jobs are still massively localized in the hypercenter, although in 2017, several projects were launched to renovate the residential stock of over a million Muscovites (Inizan and Coudroy de Lille 2019) and convert large industrial wastelands in the city’s "rust belt" (Lounkova 2021). Nevertheless, New Moscow has helped to channel the capital’s demographic growth by offering neo-Moscovites less expensive housing than within the MKAD. On the ground, however, developers’ lack of enforcement of regulations leaves a gaping hole in urban amenities, compounded by problems of transport, waste management, water and air quality (Bityukova and Koldobskaya 2018).

Moscow’s authoritarian modernization, although apparently effective in terms of the number of square meters built and the number of new metro stations, represents a major risk for the country as a whole. Against a backdrop of declining demographics at federal level, exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine, the continued strengthening of Moscow’s place in the country’s urban hierarchy is contributing to the political and economic fragmentation of the Russian territory as a whole.


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To cite this article:

Vladimir Pawlotsky & translated by Oliver Waine, “Russia’s “Authoritarian Modernization” Through Urbanization: What Lessons Can Be Learned from New Moscow?”, Metropolitics, 28 June 2024. URL :

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