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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Elusive Search for Order

In the early 1930s, urban critic and professional voyeur of cities, Lewis Mumford, bemoaned the American reluctance to rethink housing prototypes for the masses. He posited that only a communist society was progressive enough to grapple with this issue.


If he could read Timothy J. Colton's Moscow: Governing the Socialist Metropolis, that doyen of urban complaint might want to make a retraction.


Surely Mumford was not alone in thinking that without the hindrances of private property and speculative development a centralized government could construct a city with "flow-chart effectiveness." But as Colton, director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University, asserts, streamlined planning for the welfare of the public was never achieved by the Moscow bureaucracy.


The thesis that runs throughout the book is that Soviet Moscow was governed by a "disjointed monism," by which Colton means a society where pluralism does not exist yet authority is not monolithic. Moscow was a place where "different points of view were tolerated, integration was haphazard, there was recurrent random behavior," and, as Colton outlines, "slippage from approved objectives and norms was constant."


Colton puts forth his book as "an interpretative governmental, political, policy, and, in a limited way, social history of Moscow since 1917." With such an ambitious scope, it is not surprising the book reads as a textbook, and, like a survey, assumes little foreknowledge.


As Colton's prolific endnotes attest, his writing reflects a significant amount of original research -- documents from the Moscow Party and city archives, contemporary press accounts, oral histories and surveys -- as well as a mastery of current and past scholarship, a prerequisite for any scholarly endeavor. Yet a good portion of the material presented is culled from already published sources by both Russian and Western scholars. This can be frustrating to the reader who is well-versed in, say, the political transmutations of the Soviet state or the evolution of Moscow's urban plan, but in his attempt to create a comprehensive "city biography" this is unavoidable.


Despite the redundancy, this approach is laudable. Colton pulls together disparate topics, those subjects which are often treated by other scholars as if they have no relation to each other. Politics are discussed, and at times rather dully, but not merely for the sake of relaying political power plays as one would shout out the score of a football game, but as an integral part of a city where people have unglamorous needs like housing and transportation.


Colton has a penchant for statistics, a periodic tendency towards verbosity and often uses convoluted constructions. There is, however, the occasional reprieve. For those who wonder how Soviets facing the ongoing crisis of overcrowding ever procreated, Colton describes some ingenious solutions in the 1920s: "Amorous but bedless Muscovites kept a small fleet of 'bordellos on wheels' busy; these taxicabs for trysts were identifiable by their yellow stripes and opaque curtains."


One of Colton's triumphs is that he rescues architecture and urban planning from the purview of aesthetes, charting how successive regimes attempted to use Moscow's built environment as a tool in creating the socialist metropolis. One of the best examples of the city's impotence in serving its burgeoning constituency properly was the lack of a master plan on the cusp of the construction boom of the First Five-Year plan. This was not for lack of proposals, but an inability to take action. A master plan was finally established in 1935 to be replaced only in 1971.


Colton's compilation of unrealized urban plans illustrates the often fantastic and romantic ideas of Soviet planners. Take, for example, Georgy Krutikov's 1920s proposal that Moscow become a "'flying city' in which atomic-powered aircraft transported urbanites from industrial work stations to beehive living colonies floating in space." We may snicker today at this futurism, but it is often the radical, "out-there" solutions that prompt discourse and, hence, yield viable solutions.


"Moscow" also gives a glimpse of Stalin's more chilling projects. Colton gives a sense of physical proximity to Stalin's purges. He cites the numerous monasteries, cemeteries, estates, farms and hospital grounds where his victims were interred. He describes the Kalitnikovskoye cemetery located across from the Moscow Meat Combine as a "dump for nude corpses, tossed into pits with shovelfuls of lime by soldiers wearing rubber aprons and mitts; scavenging dogs loped through the graveyards with body parts in their jaws."


Colton treats Khrushchev's de-Stalinization, commending the long-awaited construction of desperately needed housing but regretting the lack of other basic services. He describes how Stalin's pompous architectural projects gave way to the standardized five-story concrete panel apartment buildings ubiquitous to outer Moscow. By 1958, all new apartment buildings were built to this height because a higher elevation would necessitate a trash chute, elevator, and could not be built as quickly. Furthermore, they would be easy to evacuate in a nuclear war.


While today we might see the incessant repetition of these cookie-cutter designs as eyesores that only confound drunk occupants who can't find their way home, there was a logic. Like inebriated pedestrians, American bombers flying over undistinguishable neighborhoods would also lose their bearings.


The book chugs through Brezhnev's considerably less sexy "epoch of stagnation" and on to the Gorbachev years and Yeltsin's entrance as the "White Knight." Colton treats the 1993 parliamentary election and ventures beyond to suggest arenas where developments will make a considerable impact on the future of the city, most notably in strategic planning of Moscow and its outer region, and future diplomacy between the city and the Kremlin.


"Moscow" is chock-full of statistics, maps, charts and photographs, with appendices on the city's population growth, administrative structure, brief biographies of municipal and Party officials and housing construction and supply throughout the Soviet era.


While perhaps not a book for the beach, unless you feel like napping -- this reader was caught contemplating the wallpaper more than once -- "Moscow" is a welcome addition to the ever-expanding scholarship on Soviet history and serves as a helpful reference book.





"Moscow: Governing the Socialist Metropolis," The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 939 pages, $19.