Anthropology of Moscow architecture. Interview with Michal Murawski

Park Zaryadye opened in Moscow two years ago and immediately stirred up controversy. It seems that the history of this place is the best indicator of the changes the city experienced during the last century. The park located in front of the Kremlin is a vivid illustration of how Moscow wants to be perceived by its guests.

During the Stalinist reconstruction of Moscow, the authorities decided to transform this historic place, by that time already a slum-like area, into the People's Commissariat of the Heavy Equipment Industry, a building similar in size to the unrealized project of the gigantic Palace of the Soviets; and, after 1945, into the colossal Zaryadye Administrative building, a tower earmarked for the headquarters of the NKVD. However, all of these plans withered on the vine. After Stalin’s death the projects were closed, and in the 1960s the Hotel Rossiya, designed by Dmitry Chechulin, was erected here – a building comparable in grandeur to the People's Commissariat. The “Rossiya” was supposed to transmit a completely different vision – that of new, open Moscow. In the nineties, the city construction works were managed by business interests which had the idea to demolish the old-fashioned hotel and build a modern hotel and office complex instead. Consequently, an enclosed waste ground became the most memorable symbol of the 2000s. It eloquently illustrated the crisis state of the town-planning system. Park Zaradye, built in 2017, attracted the attention of researchers right after its opening. The park became a symbol of Moscow’s modern reconstruction, highlighting the city’s contradictions.

The project Institute of Zaryadyology is dedicated to this complex terrain in its past and present states. It united students and faculty of the Vysokovsky Graduate School of Urbanism of the Higher School of Economics and contemporary artists. The project is the brainchild of an anthropologist of architecture Michał Murawski. The Institute of Zaryadology’s final event was the exhibition Portal Zaryadye at the State Shchusev Museum of Architecture in Moscow, curated by Michal and Daria Kravchuk. We talked with Michal about his first encounter with Moscow, the bourgeoisness of Stalinist residential architecture and the importance of collaborations between anthropologists and contemporary artists.

Michal Murawski is an anthropologist of post-socialist architecture and cities. He is Assistant Professor in Critical Area Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. Michal is the author of “Palace Complex: A Stalinist Skyscraper, Capitalist Warsaw and a City Transfixed” (Indiana University Press, 2019).

You're an anthropologist of architecture - could you briefly explain your research interests and methods?

People and buildings are intimately connected at every level – physical, sensual, aesthetic, emotional, affective, symbolic, economic, ideological, and so on. At the risk of stating the obvious, people – whether they live in cities or the countryside – sleep in buildings, are born in them or near them, die in them, think about them. So, while some people think anthropology of architecture is somehow paradoxical or contradictory, it can actually deal with almost every part of our lives.

An anthropologist of architecture, then, studies how people interact with buildings, and everything in between (including, for example, animals and the natural landscape – which are also often incorporated into architecture). I mostly look at the political and economic processes which underlie the formation of architecture, and the ideological and symbolic significance that people attach to buildings and urban organisms. My main focus is on architecture created during the state socialist period in countries like Poland, Russia and Ukraine (like the Palace of Culture in Warsaw, a Stalinist vysotka from 1955, which was the subject of my first book); but right now my research is on Zaryadye – a hybrid architectural-parkland-car park ensemble created on a site with an extremely rich and turbulent socialist (and pre-Revolutionary) architectural and social history. Zaryadye as it is today, however, to some extent seeks to forget or erase this socialist legacy (while at the same time, consciously or not) preserving many of its elements.

When was your first visit to Moscow? Can you recall what was the most memorable/expected/unexpected for you as a researcher? As a person?

My first visit to Moscow was in 1999, and my second in 2000. I came with my parents the first time, and then on a school trip. Both times we stayed in the Hotel Rossiya – I absolutely loved the place. I was fifteen on the school trip – we weren’t really allowed out of the Hotel beyond our official excursion programme, but we didn’t care, because there was so much excitement within. The amazing restaurant with the view right onto St. Basil’s Cathedral, the gift shops happily selling gallons of Stolichnaya to fifteen year-olds, the sight of our drunk teachers cascading down the corridors – and, of course, the unbelievable quantity of phone calls from prostitutes to our hotel rooms, who were unfazed by our protestations that we were underage, under-surveillance and, in any case, much too timid (or perhaps sensible) to accept their solicitations. I suppose these were the final years of the “wild capitalist” period, so it was good to see a little bit of that time in Moscow – it was sort of like the 1990s in the city in which I was born, Warsaw – but much more intense, much more impressive, and I suppose even more violent.

I remember the enormous scale of the streets, the SUVs, the Lenin Mausoleum, the New Tretyakov Gallery – I was totally seduced by everything there, the avant-garde stuff too, but also the Deynekas and the socialist realism – for some reason, I especially remember Lenin in Smolny by Isaak Brodsky. But I think the Rossiya made the biggest impression on me. And then the next time I came to Moscow was in 2007 – I took the train from Beijing with my German-American then-girlfriend and her brother. I remember taking them to Red Square and being more excited about showing them the Hotel Rossiya than anything else, and I couldn’t find it. I had no idea it had been demolished. We walked around for ages, I was too embarrassed to ask anyone where it was – what kind of idiot couldn’t find the biggest hotel in the world? Everything seemed very expensive and posh in 2007 compared to 2000 – we had to stay in a dilapidated guest house for Central Asian trade delegations on Ryazansky Prospekt, we couldn't find anywhere else we could afford.

You study Soviet monumental buildings, and in Moscow you also lived in one of themtell us about your experience.

By chance and luck, I was able to find a room in the vysotka on Kotelnicheskaya Naberezhnaya. It was fantastic living there. When I did my fieldwork on the Palace of Culture in Warsaw, I had a desk in the Palace administration offices on the 15th floor, slightly less than half-way up the building. And, in the vysotka, I also lived on the 15th floor, in a splendid apartment with enormous rooms and high ceilings, which has thankfully been subjected to very little Evro-remont – so it had original windows, and – thanks to my housemate’s courtyard foraging skills – a great deal of original furniture. Some of it – like the coatrack in the front room – had been purpose-designed for the building, and features in a number of the other apartments I’d seen (among them, as far as I can remember, ballerina Galina Ulanova’s house museum on the 6th floor). Igor Shuvalov’s notorious Tsar-apartment was below us on the 14th floor, so we speculated whether some of our furniture might not in fact had come our way thanks to the deluxe Evro-remont, which was carried out on his behalf.

The Moscow vysotka is very different to the Warsaw Palace. The Palace is a really socialist building, a social condenser, within which an enormous assortment of egalitarian, public and civic functions are gathered – swimming pools and gymnasiums for the youth, four theatres (including a puppet theatre), art galleries, two universities, an enormous Congress Hall, a cinema complex, the meeting rooms of the Warsaw City Assembly, and so much more. The Moscow vysotka, by contrast, is hideously bourgeois! The furniture is oaken and heavy, like something out of a modernist’s nightmare; and the rooms are arranged off a long corridor and connected by an enfilade. There’s even a separate service/servants’ staircase!

But we did our best to make our apartment as open to the outside world as possible. My flatmate Oleg curated a series of excellent apartment exhibitions, and I would organise lectures, book launches and symposia. This kind of apartment cultural life, which of course, has a rich Soviet heritage, just doesn’t really happen in normal people’s houses in London, outside of aristocratic or high-bourgeois salons, largely because people simply don’t have the space for it, but also because this kind of culture of intense communal co-habitation doesn’t exist there.

In your opinion, what are three the most remarkable tendencies in the urban development of today`s Moscow.

This is a very difficult question, which can be answered in many different ways. But if I had to identify three core trends, I suppose I would say:

The first trend is the lavish blagoustroistvo of public space and parkland, and the expansion of this model from Moscow to other cities in Russia and the post-Soviet space, via agents like Strelka KB and federal programmes like Komfortnaya Gorodskaya Sreda. This is in line with a global trend for creating new kinds of quasi-public spaces, which are at least partly green, but which are well-integrated with commercial functions and part of whose purpose is to raise the value of land around them, and to engineer or educate a new type of bourgeois town-dweller. The most aggressive example of this global trend is the High Line, which is like a bullet of gentrification running through Manhattan. This trend is attractive and well-suited to the public and political culture of late-Putinist Russia, which has a fondness for grandiose gifts from the sovereign to the people; and an enthusiasm for wealth, money and hierarchy.

The second trend is the festivalization of the city, and the explicit way in which this festivalization is integrated into the political and quasi-electoral process. In September 2018, there were fireworks over the Kremlin almost every day in the week leading up to the Mayoral election. And the election was actually held on a festival day, City Day! This is, on the surface, a democratic move, designed in principle to increase voter turnout. But the shameless way in which this festivalization of the election was conducted was astounding – free or cheap food, markets, live music and balloons at polling stations! One friend even told me that her 10-year old son won an iPad as a reward for planting a tree next to a polling station – he subsequently pressured his mother into voting for Sobyanin, telling her it would be bad luck if she didn’t reciprocate the generosity. She resisted, but many others did not. The whole of Tverskaya and much of the rest of the city was turned into a giant garden, with the clear message that the transformation of the city into a joyous jungle was a gift from the Mayor to Muscovites. On the other hand, this festivalization was extremely securitized and heavy-handed – there were crowd barriers, riot police and closed streets everywhere. Many people speculated that this type of military festivalization of election day was a conscious attempt to keep the type of people who would be likely to vote against Sobyanin or to spoil their ballot papers as far away from the polling stations and from the city as possible. In response to rumours that former Moscow culture chief Sergey Kapkov was working on Sobyanin’s electoral strategy this year, another friend joked – half seriously – that perhaps Kapkov was given the task of making the city as unpleasant as possible on election day for his friends, and friends of his friends. And this theory was at least partly confirmed by the election results – Sobyanin got one third more votes (over 70%) than in 2012, and turnout was actually lower than last time around (under 30%). Of course, this festivalization is not confined to election days. Nikolskaya and Kuznetsky Most are now festooned with festive lighting all year round; and the million-rouble plastic pink cherry blossom trees, planted in the Spring of 2018, remained standing until way into the summer.

The third trend, which is partly in conflict but partly in concert with the first and second, is the violent gentrification of the inner city, via the so-called renovation programme. Again, this is a Russian rendition of a global trend – the demolition of social housing and the evacuation of poorer residents to the city periphery or beyond the city altogether, is very well-practiced in London, for example. What is unusual in Moscow is the hyper-centralised character of this gentrification, which will – if it is actually implemented – entail the demolition of well-planned if sometimes dilapidated housing accommodating over a million people. Time will tell what the consequences of this will be, but the demolition of the Khrushchevki and their replacement by a mixture of sanitised quasi-parkland and highrise developer-built housing, could have an extremely negative and alienating impact on Moscow’s urban landscape, on social cohesiveness, on the experience of inhabiting the city.

Tell us a bit more how the project of the Institute of Zaryadyology was created? What are your feelings about it and how do you think the project will evolve in the future?

Zarydyology was a development, on a much larger scale, of the experimental ‘Palaceological’ research, which I carried out during my fieldwork in Warsaw. The scope of Zaryadyology was much greater, because I was working very closely within an institiution – the Graduate School of Urbanism (GSU) at the HSE – with a group of fifteen or so students and staff. This involved fieldwork in and around Zaryadye and the organisation of public discussions, roundtables and a closed symposium, to which we also invited artists, who were interested in creating artworks emerging from the themes identified by the students. I think the Institute of Zaryadyology was created for the purposes of this symposium, in order to accommodate the fact that we were now working on an extremely multi-disciplinary, complex project, which would eventually result in an exhibition at the Schusev Museum of Architecture. At this point, we were joined by curator Daria Kravchuk, and a group of eighteen artists and collectives eventually consolidated within the Institute, and prepared works for the exhibition. The exhibition – as the official banners and invitations declared – was co-hosted by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture and the Institute of Zaryadyology, thus absurdly elevating our Institute to the rank of quasi-state body. This was, of course, a sort of experiment – we were testing the limits to see how much status, grandeur and officialdom we could attach to our very humble and quite critical initiative. In the end, we were able to display, just a couple of hundred metres from the Kremlin, a GIF showing (among many other things) Oleg Kulik having sex with a dog; and the dismembered body of the President stencilled onto hexagonal plitka from Zaryadye Park.

The Institute is currently dormant, but it continues to exist – the next steps are exhibitions in London and hopefully at some point in Warsaw, which will compare and contrast the politics, economics and aesthetics of Zaryadye and Putinist blagoustroistvo with comparable projects there.

What's the most valuable in your opinion in collaboration between local artists and researchers within the project? Could you show one example of such collaboration?

The point of the collaboration between artists and researchers was so that the artists would respond directly to the themes identified in the students’ research in their Zaryadyological artworks. This was in line with the practice of ethnographic conceptualism, which aims to blur the boundary between conceptual art and ethnographic research, to encourage anthropologists to behave like artists, and artists to behave like anthropologists – both extend each other’s imaginations and take each other out of their methodological comfort zones. Almost all of the artworks directly emerged from the themes identified by the students, although each of them also does highly idiosyncratic, eccentric and new things with these themes – Alexander Morozov’s piece, for example, very eloquently developed the themes of internal colonization identified by some of the speakers in our symposium – focusing on the history of the old trading rows of Zaryadye as a focal point for the Siberian fur trade, which was one of the economic motors of Muscovy’s colonization of Eurasia from the 16th century onwards – a colonization, which is now reflected in the landscape ‘typologies’ and Eurasian cuisines centripetally gathered in Zaryadye Park and its restaurants.

Alexey Taruts’ work reflects on the idea of ‘authoritarian freedom’, promoted by geographer Olga Vendina during the Zaryadyological roundtables; as does Ariadne Arendt’s GIF, made on the basis of her painted depiction of the actionists on Red Square and Sergey Kischenko and Max Iliukhnin’s installation, King of the Hill; as well as Alexey Korsi’s work, which reconstructs Zaryadye’s invasive, disciplined soundscapes, Shazzamed by the artist on trips to the park. Anna Shevchenko satirises, in a very biting way, the attempt by Grigory Revzin, the most eloquent ideologist of blagoustroistvo, to depoliticise the process – Shevchenko’s piece is a reflection on Revzin’s infamously sarcastic viral Facebook post “Putin in every Plitka”, but also of his performance in our Zaryadological roundtables. Some of the other artists develop the themes from the research more obliquely, in new directions which were not previously anticipated by either the participants or the organisers. Hanna Zubkova, for example, who laid a red velvet curtain from a closed-down brothel in Amsterdam directly onto the brick arches of MUAR’s Ruin space, reflects on the widely-held idea, identified during the research process, that the Hotel Rossiya had to be demolished, because it was somehow “morally corrupted” by crime and prostitution. The theme of the curtain is repeated in Maria Kremer’s monumental work, which highlights, in a very polysemic way, the many processes, backgrounds and secrets that the smooth, sanitised surface of Zaryadye Park conceals. Egor Isaev’s film, On the Other Side of the Wall, directly emerges from the research process – it documents the experiences and opinions of the labourers who built Zaryadye Park, in the format of a film which follows geographer Katya Dyba’s and my attempts to interview the labourers in the slum-like workers’ gorodok adjacent to the park. Sergey Kischenko and Max Iliukhin’s work, as well as Kirill Melamud’s, meanwhile, highlight an important area which our own research overlooked – the false ecological credentials of Zaryadye; and Melamud – who self-identifies as a skomorokh – also draws attention, in an unsettling and quite subversive way, to the sacred energy contained within the site. Isadorino Gore’s dance, video and audio work, Return of the Gift, had quite a modest presence in the show itself – but is one of the most all-encompassing pieces, and perhaps the one which has the potential to have the longest and most autonomous life of all the works: it currently lives on in the shape of a mind-bending ritualized audio and video guide to Zaryadye Park – be sure to download it from the Isadorino Gore website and play it next time you go the park.

In sum, within the haunting space of the Ruin, the collaborative labour of the Institute of Zaryadyology resulted in the creation of a sort of mirror of the real Zaryadye Park, a portal into an anti-Zaryadye, which probed deep into the unconscious of the park itself, and of the present-day aesthetic and political landscape of Moscow. Thanks also to our mediator Yana Sidikova we were also able to elicit the reactions of a diverse array of visitors to the exhibition, most of whom had come to see the Museum of Architecture, and who stumbled on our exhibition by chance. This experience was in many ways more rewarding than simply walking around the park and trying to strike up conversations with park visitors. Within our portal, the visitors were consciously engaging with, and willing to comment on, works which were created out of a complex, extended dialogue between 30+ members of the Institute of Zaryadyology.

Download the exhibition brochure

Photo credits:

1 – Michal Murawski, photo by Olga Alexeyenko; 2 – Isadorino Gore. “Zaryadye... The Return of the Gift”, 2018, photo by Zhenya Yahina,; 3 – photo by Anastasia Pozhidaeva; 4 – Alexey Taruts. “Touch to Change”, 2017-2018, photo by Olga Alexeyenko; 5 – Alexander Morozov. “The Architecture of Providence”, 2018, photo by Olga Alexeyenko; 6 – Anton Zabrodin. “The New Flag of Zaryadye”, 2018, photo by Olga Alexeyenko; 7 – Maria Kremer. “Curtain”, 2018, photo by Olga Alexeyenko.