Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow Still the Center of Russia's Attention

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Perhaps one of the more troubling statistics about Russia is found not on the front page of a typical newspaper and not in the business section, but on the sports page. An astounding number of soccer clubs -- seven -- represent Moscow and the Moscow region in the 16-team Russian Premier League. They typically place in the top 10 in the standings, often monopolizing all three medals positions. Despite the presence of an occasional out-of-town interloper, the competition for the Russian soccer title tends to be an inside-the-Ring Road affair.

In no other country in the world is there such an overwhelming concentration of leading soccer clubs in the capital city. Using even the most generous headcount, Moscow is home to no more than 10 percent of Russia's population.

Soccer fans claim that soccer imitates life -- or vice versa. Indeed, the Premier League table is an accurate representation of Moscow's role in Russia. I have seen statistics showing that around 80 percent to 90 percent of Russia's financial resources are concentrated in Moscow. To someone traveling in other parts of the country, this figure can sometimes seem closer to 99.9 percent. Moscow is like New York City, Washington, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles combined. It is the center of government, business, finance, education and culture, a major industrial city and a crucial transportation hub. Russia is the world's largest country and spreads over 17 million square kilometers. Yet its power and its money are squeezed into a place measuring just 35 kilometers across.

During the Soviet era, Moscow had the best selection of consumer goods in the country -- the only place, in fact, where you could reasonably expect to find such rarities as butter or toothpaste. It was a Potemkin village, showcasing the supposed achievements of communism, as well as a vast nomenklatura distributor, a sort of members-only closed shop. Needless to say, everybody in the Soviet Union wanted to live in Moscow and had to be kept out. They could come and shop -- which they did, in huge numbers -- but they could not stay. In his brilliant novel "Moscow 2042," emigre satirist Vladimir Voinovich described the Moscow of the future, where a particularly sordid and malodorous form of communism had been built in one city, which had to be protected by a kind of Berlin Wall.

Despite the tough residency restrictions, the capital's population grew steadily throughout the Soviet period. There were two important sources of migration. First of all, manpower was needed to work at all those factories in Moscow, to do manual labor and perform low-prestige service jobs, such as cleaning the streets and operating the metro. Muscovites, even the children of first-generation newcomers, often got some kind of education or became artists. They were certainly not interested in working on the factory floor. To solve its chronic labor problem, the city had a quota -- or a limit -- for imported guest workers from other towns or villages who were called limitchiki.

Perhaps less numerous but even more important was the steady trickle of new arrivals coming in at the top of the social pyramid. The Soviet bureaucratic machine was a vast spider web consisting of party, economic, military and security networks. Each had its hub in Moscow. The most ambitious, competent, ruthless or well-connected apparatchiks worked their way up the career ladder, the apex of which was always a position in Moscow. This was the milieu in which the Soviet leadership cadres were formed.

There is a famous missive by the 16th-century Russian Orthodox monk Filofei, in which he calls Moscow a "Third Rome." Ironically, this description also fit Communist-era Moscow remarkably well. During the imperial era, Rome had its labor force -- slaves -- imported from the far reaches of the empire, while the empire itself was ruled by low-born generals rising to power through the ranks of the army.

Be that as it may, the Moscow-centric system of career advancement kept the huge Soviet empire together. It hampered the emergence of local elites, because whenever they did emerge, they got promoted to Moscow, taking their power base along with them.

There was, however, one hitch in this system. The Soviet Union was a conglomeration of 15 national republics, each of which emulated the pyramid structure by concentrating power in its own capital. President Vladimir Putin may feel that the disintegration of the Soviet Union was the worst disaster of the 20th century, but in reality it more closely resembled the rather banal collapse of a colonial empire. The collapse came about under the leadership of ethnic elites who rose to power under the old regime, much like the leaders of the national liberation struggle in Africa and Asia who got their education at European universities like Oxford and the Sorbonne.

In post-Soviet Russia, the Communist Party no longer rules, but that seems to be the only change as far as the administrative system is concerned. Residing in Moscow still requires a permit -- which directly contravenes the Russian Constitution -- and that permit can still be hard to come by. There are still guest workers -- now mostly coming from impoverished former Soviet republics. There is still a steady stream of officials and politicians arriving via the bureaucratic "underground railroad." And, as before, Muscovites do not govern Russia: Folks from St. Petersburg are currently in control in the Kremlin, and there is hardly a Moscow native anywhere in a position of influence.

To use the soccer barometer once more, Russia's Moscow-centrism has gotten worse. In the Soviet days, there were only five Moscow clubs in the top soccer league -- which was also larger than it is today. Lokomotiv and CSKA Moscow, moreover, spent years in the lower division. Today, Moscow clubs make up nearly 45 percent of the Premier League, and their proportion may rise to 50 percent next year if Khimki, this year's cup finalist, earns a promotion.

Russia has never had a successful regionalist movement. But developed industrial democracies have recently seen a trend toward devolution of power from national capitals to regional, local and municipal governments. In the United States, since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, individual states have reasserted their authority to make laws and pass regulations. In Western Europe, while the headlines have been dominated by the emergence of the United States of Europe and the creation of the vast Euro-bureaucrat class in Brussels, the real story has been the shift of power to individual regions at the expense of national governments.

The Putin administration is clearly very much concerned about a similar trend toward decentralization, as was seen in Russia under President Boris Yeltsin. Apparently, the rise of regional political elites can no longer be prevented merely by co-opting them to Moscow. Putin first curbed the power of the governors by kicking them out of the Federation Council during his first term in office. He has now reined them in further by abolishing direct gubernatorial elections.

Whether or not this will be enough is open to question. Local government decisions affect people most immediately. In a democracy, most voters want these decisions to be made locally by politicians who are accountable to them and not imposed by some overarching Politburo thousands of kilometers away.

Alexei Bayer is a New York-based economist and a columnist for Vedomosti. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.