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The Next Time You're in Moscow, Don't Bother Trying the Shawarma

Image edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Don't bother trying the Shawarma in Moscow. (Mayor Sobyanin swings in on a wrecking ball.) Image edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Moscow awoke earlier this week to find that the city has a new face. Before dawn on February 9, the mayor's office launched a massive campaign to tear down roughly a hundred small businesses, which officials say were constructed illegally. What is rubble today was shops, cafes, and kiosks last week.

Moscow has been at war for years with the businesses that colonized the city's empty spaces in the 1990s. This week's demolitions are yet another episode in that long battle, but they stand out for their sheer scale.

Chistye Prudy subway station. #NightOfTheLongDiggers [a joke adapting the “Night of the Long Knives”—the murderous Nazi purge that took place in 1934]

At least 104 buildings are slated for demolition, and many of them located in the very center of Moscow, in such well-known and touristy places as Chistye Prudy, Kropotkinskaya, Arbatskaya, or Pushkin Square.

The bulldozers and diggers worked through the night, with heavy police support, and, by sunrise, ruins scattered the city. Given the speed and secrecy of the campaign, supporters, critics, and Internet jokesters alike later compared it to a military operation.

Last night near the Novoslobodskaya Metro Station, a precision airstrike destroyed a Daesh [ISIS] headquarters.

In a blog post on Vkontakte, Russia's most popular social network, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin justified the demolitions on the grounds of public safety:

Сегодня снесли строения, незаконно возведенные на инженерных коммуникациях и над технической зоной метро, опасные для москвичей. Объекты возведены, в основном, в 90-е годы при явном попустительстве либо содействии чиновников.
Места, где находились эти объекты, благоустроим.
Прежним владельцам при их желании предоставим возможность построить торговые объекты в других местах и уже на законных основаниях.

Today we tore down buildings constructed with illegal access to utility lines above the technical zones of the Moscow Metro, which caused a safety hazard to Muscovites. The buildings were erected mainly in the 1990s obviously with either the connivance or complicity of officials. The former owners of these buildings will be offered the opportunity to build their shops in other places, if they wish, this time on legal grounds.

The ultra-nationalist National Liberation Movement offered its own, rather bizarre justification for the demolitions:

[…] московское метро, это стратегический военный объект №1 в Москве. В случае ракетно-ядерного удара США/НАТО – подходы в метро должны быть максимально освобождены, чтобы успело спастись максимально большее количество людей. Поэтому, всегда думайте головой, а не эмоциями, когда видите то или иное событие.

The Moscow Metro is the number one strategic target in Moscow. In the event of a nuclear missile attack by the US or NATO, the entrances to the metro must be as accessible as possible, in order to rescue as many people as possible. So you should always be thinking with your head, and not with your emotions, when you're looking at various incidents.

On aesthetic grounds, the now-demolished buildings were almost universally reviled, and most often described with such terms as “monstrous” or “evil.” These makeshift mini-malls are more and more glaring—especially in the center of Moscow—where the city has seen the beginnings of “hipsterization.” Starting with the complete revamping of Gorky Park and the former Soviet exhibition center VDNKh, the city has shown some willingness to raise public spaces to so-called European standards.

Advocates of such urban transformation have made these eyesore businesses into symbols of everything that went wrong with the city in the post-Soviet period: the anarchy, poverty, and corruption of former Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

Among such advocates is Ilya Varlamov, a popular blogger and photographer, and perhaps Russia's loudest proponent of bicycle lanes, pedestrian zones, and everything else said to make a city “civilized.” Varlamov's new website, Moslenta.ru, which is dedicated entriely to Moscow, has carried live reports from the demolitions, documenting what's been crushed to rubble.

While many regard the city's makeshift mini malls as odious, not all Muscovites applauded their destruction. Mayor Sobyanin's tactics (midnight demolition crews, playing fast and loose with legal documentation and court proceedings) illustrate many of the dilemmas with Russian jurisprudence.

Maxim Katz, a liberal activist in Varlamov's camp, summed up the situation as follows:

1. Строения сейчас находятся в собственности, их постройка с властями была согласована и это никакой не самострой, конечно,
2. Согласования эти получены в нарушении действующих тогда правил с помощью заноса мешков с наличными в кабинеты тех людей, которые отвечают за выдачу согласований (и в более высокие кабинеты),
3. Мэрия придумала сложную юридическую закавыку позволяющую ей снести эти объекты без решений судов так как они находятся рядом с коммуникациями.

1. These buildings were legally owned, and their construction had the consent of the city. They were hardly “unauthorized constructions” or anything like that.
2. They obtained this consent by violating the laws that existed at the time, bringing bags of cash to the offices of the people who granted such permits (and to even higher-ranking people).
3. The mayor's office came up with a complicated legal scheme allowing it to tear down these buildings with a court order, focusing on their proximity to utility lines.

Anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny (who challenged Sobyanin in Moscow's mayoral race in 2013, and nearly forced a runoff election) is calling for prosecutions against officials responsible for granting the businesses permits in the first place:

Заявлено, что снесут 104 объекта. Мне дайте, пожалуйста, 104 уголовных дела или административных дела или хотя бы дисциплинарных дела против бывших и нынешних чиновников, разрешивших или «не заметивших» строительство.

[The city has] announced the demolition of 104 buildings. So I'd like, pretty please, 104 criminal cases, or administrative cases, or at least some disciplinary actions against the former and current state officials who allowed or “didn't notice” these [illegal] buildings.

While the city's discussion has touched on many important political issues, Muscovites also display a certain nostalgia for a fading era of cheap shawarmas and tacky stores that sprung up from the wreckage of the USSR.

“Next time you're in Moscow, try the shawarma.”

Whatever comes next for the city of Moscow remains unclear. The business owners are unlikely to win compensation, though they've already promised to sue. President Putin's chief of staff has recommended leaving the spaces around the metro stations unoccupied, to restore the Soviet-era grandeur. Some suspect that city officials will eventually sell new crooked permits to a whole new slew of entrepreneurs, restarting the cycle of lawlessness and corruption. So far, only one thing is for sure: Mayor Sobyanin remains committed to further demolitions.

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