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.
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.”