Over the weekend, Moscow was gripped by the largest street protests it has seen since 2011, when Russians took to the streets to protest corruption and flawed elections. This time, crowds of tens of thousands turned out to oppose plans to demolish thousands of five-story apartment blocks that date back to the Khrushchev era.

Alexander Baunov
Baunov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Russia’s latest political drama came as a surprise to all. For their part, the Kremlin and Moscow City Hall had failed to appreciate Muscovites’ attachment to their old houses and neighborhoods and their deep distrust for the authorities. The main anti-Kremlin opposition figures, meanwhile, did not anticipate the backlash and have not led the public rallies. Even experts on Moscow’s urban development had predicted that most residents would be bought off with promises of better housing.

The rallies revealed something new in Russia: a nascent civil society of well-organized people who have found a common interest and are fighting fiercely to defend it. Moscow has never seen this level of intensive communication on social media between neighbors who have never met before. For years, the city has been looking more and more European on the outside, with better sidewalks and bicycle paths. Now we see that Europeanization is also happening on the inside.

Moscow city authorities and the Kremlin reacted to the uprising by suggesting that the protestors were foreign-backed provocateurs, but that sounded even more ridiculous than usual. In turn, President Vladimir Putin, who initially backed the demolition plans, soon changed his tone and said that “nothing should be forced on people.”

The timing could not be worse for the Kremlin. The next presidential election, in which Putin will seek a fourth term, is less than a year away, in March 2018. The Russian leadership had wanted to see 2017, the centenary year of the October Revolution, pass without incident, sending the message that the current regime is stronger and abler than that of Tsar Nicholas II, and also has no need to repress its citizens.

This weekend’s crisis stems from a draft law, which was initiated by Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin and has passed one reading in the Russian federal parliament. It proposes the demolition of about 4,500 apartment buildings, which are currently home to around 1.6 million people, or more than 10 percent of Moscow’s population. Mostly five stories tall and without elevators, these apartments are known as khrushchyovki because they date back to the rule of Krushchev, during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The authorities are promising to rehouse the residents in modern multi-story blocks elsewhere in the city. The wording of the bill is intentionally unclear, though, so that not only the khrushchyovki but eventually any building from Soviet times could be part of the demolition and resettlement program, including the much more solid and comfortable houses of the Stalin era and the constructivism of 1920s and 1930s. That makes Muscovites even more anxious.

Evidently, the city authorities had convinced themselves that the residents of these blocks were mostly poor and elderly, and loyal consumers of state television, who would meekly obey the order to move from one apartment to another. In fact, many khrushchyovkites belong to a classic European urban middle class. Indeed, many of them have mortgages, having bought the apartments and spent money renovating them. And they prefer living in old-fashioned low-rise apartment buildings in leafy neighborhoods near to the city center to living in multi-story tower blocks at the city’s edge. To these people, the new government rehousing program looks like an act of outright confiscation.

Twenty-five years after the end of the Soviet Union, Moscow is certainly ready to overcome its old Soviet image. That may have been on the authorities’ minds when they drew up the redevelopment plan. Sobyanin, who was elected in 2010, had announced a program to turn Moscow into an urban center that would compete with the leading megapolises of the world. He promised a greener city fit for pedestrians and cyclists with new public transport.

But the only way the authorities could think of redesigning the urban landscape was through Soviet tactics, by trampling on the rights of those very citizens who were supposed to benefit from their plans. Even worse, they followed Soviet tactics without upholding the fundamental deal of the modern Russian political system—that ordinary citizens would not ask difficult questions about the privatization of Russia’s factories and oilfields in the 1990s, so as long as they could own their own property and have the state keep out of their private lives.

Having broken this pact by intruding on citizens’ private space, the authorities face an outright rebellion. Those who turned out for the rally on Moscow’s Sakharov Square on May 14 are serious, socially diverse, and under no illusion that Russia’s problems can be solved by merely replacing the head of state. They have very concrete goals, namely to defend their private lives and private property and, ultimately, their legal rights under the constitution.

In other words, they cannot be easily placated. Now that this movement has awakened, the Kremlin and Moscow mayor’s office will find it hard to keep it from pressing for more demands.

This op-ed was originally published in Foreign Affairs