The inside story of Tatarstan’s remarkable, controversial green urban revolution

Since 2015, Tatarstan and its capital Kazan has experienced a whirlwind of construction of sustainable, green infrastructure. The project’s leaders call it a case study in participatory, horizontal urbanism — but some aren’t convinced. Welcome to Russia’s parks revolution.

It all started very badly, Kazan’s Deputy Chief Architect, Daria Tolovenkova, recounts. In July 2015, a worker took a chainsaw to a much-beloved, century-old weeping willow in Uritsky Park, one of the oldest green spaces in the capital city of Tatarstan, and one of the first to be subject to renovation under the Republic’s audacious programme to transform its parks and public spaces. A scandal immediately broke out: “It turned out that people had deep feelings towards this tree, that half of the city grew up around it. That’s when [the city administration] understood that you have to talk to people… ideally before construction works get under way.”

Tatarstan’s makeover project is a grand example of what is known as Russian as blagoustroistvo: the improvement and beautification of parks, public spaces, pavements, and other usable fragments of the urban fabric. In recent years, blagoustroistvo has become both big business and a governmental priority across Russia, and Tatarstan is a case study for the myriad controversies and peculiarities it entails.

“The difference is that while some steal, we in Tatarstan don’t”

The Tatarstan project is spearheaded by 28-year-old Natalia Fishman-Bekmambetova, who was appointed by the President of Tatarstan in 2015, aged just 24, as presidential plenipotentiary for parks and public spaces. The felling of the weeping willow seemed like a bad omen, and it immediately poisoned the public’s perceptions of Fishman-Bekmambetova’s grand designs. Although she was quick to condemn the incident, many commentators at the time held her personally responsible. Guzel Faizrakhmanova, an art historian and curator, tells me that many inhabitants of Tatarstan are distrustful of Fishman-Bekmambetova’s alien origins. Critics sometimes refer to her simply as “Moscow”. This kind of criticism, driven in part by prejudice towards Fishman-Bekmambetova’s gender or youth (or both), makes it almost impossible to have a serious conversation about public space in Kazan, Faizrakhmanova explains — one which recognises the enormous achievements of Fishman-Bekmambetova’s tenure while also drawing attention to its limitations.

Indeed, by most accounts, Fishman-Bekmambetova’s blagoustroistvo project is a dizzying triumph. As we sit in her trendy, co-working-space-style offices, she rolls out the figures at high speed: “we built 328 parks, waterside walks, streets, squares for less than half of the budget of Moscow’s Zaryadye Park.” Here, Fishman-Bekmambetova is benchmarking Tatarstan’s achievements against Moscow’s flagship, and notoriously budget-guzzling, Zaryadye Park, opened by Vladimir Putin in September 2017 in the shadow of the Kremlin (officially 14 billion roubles, or around $221.7 million; unofficially twice as much). “My budget is, I don’t know, a hundred times smaller [than Moscow’s]”. Unable to process this kind of statistical dissonance, I ask Fishman-Bekmambetova how this is possible. She hesitates for a split-second before answering: “The difference is that while some steal, we in Tatarstan don’t.”

Uritsky Park before reconstruction

Uritsky Park after reconstruction

Tatarstan’s new spaces are not limited to the centre of Kazan — they are located in cities, towns, and villages throughout the Republic. To the naked eye, their aesthetic seems consistent and contemporary: there is lots of timber-cladding, the benches and pavilion buildings take on Zaha Hadid-esque abstract forms. There is fashionable public art (fractal geometric bears, various shapes and figures made out of twigs), and playgrounds and sports facilities. In Kazan’s Gorkinskо-Ometyevsky Forest, there is a public pavilion called the “Eco-Centre”, clusters of play-areas, numerous cafes and snack bars, a skating pavilion, and a large box-park made out of shipping container-like units, which, I am told, will soon become a co-working space “for start-up entrepreneurs”. There are also lots of weedy plants and meadow-like areas characteristic of the naturalistic “New Perennials” movement in global landscape urbanism.

This is a radical departure from the aesthetic of blagoustroistvo and public architecture in Kazan pre-2015, which tended towards lavish fountains, glossy tiling, shiny pyramids, soaring mosques, and grandiose palaces housing offices for bureaucrats — the most magnificent of all being the Palace of Farmers, opened in 2010 in the shadow of the city’s white-walled Kremlin. But it is consistent with the eco-high-tech, New York High-Line aesthetic which began to spread throughout Russia following the reconstruction of Moscow’s Gorky Park in 2011.

Despite this apparent stylistic consistency, I am assured that Tatarstan’s new public spaces are not made to match the tastes of Fishman-Bekmambetova or the brigade of creative young urbanites that make up her team. The most important thing about Tatarstan’s new parks and squares, Fishman-Bekmambetova relentlessly emphasises, is that they are built on the basis of an extensive programme of public consultations. “In distinction to what happens in Moscow, we involve a maximum quantity of stakeholders into consultations from the very beginning. The built space itself is less of an achievement than the social process which led to it.”

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“All this is very important,” Fishman-Bekmambetova continues, “because I won’t stay here forever. I am trying to build a system which will be sustainable.” (She uses the English word.) Sustainability is not just about the environment and ecology, but also building an infrastructure that will allow Fishman-Bekmambetova’s participation-driven model of blagoustroistvo to live on after her eventual departure. To this end, Fishman-Bekmambetova tells me, she founded “Arch-desant” (roughly translated, “Architectural Paratroopers”), a complex design and architecture office attached to her own. Kazan’s Architectural Paratroopers constantly hire new staff, but so do staff keep splintering from the unit, founding their own bureaus, thus — in theory — helping to ingrain the “blagoustroistvo experience” deeper and deeper into the social and institutional fabric.

Participation is taken very seriously indeed in Tatarstan. In practice, it is led by Project Group 8, an activist design studio founded in the north-western city of Vologda in 2012 by architect Nadezhda Snigireva and urbanist Dmitry Smirnov. Project Group 8 relocated to Kazan in 2016 at Fishman-Bekmambetova’s invitation and put their model of urbanism into action on an industrial scale: holding project seminars, “design games”, coordinating large-scale surveys, public discussions, small-scale interviews, and myriad other “participatory design” activities.

I meet Smirnov on the roof of the soon-to-be box-park in Gorkinsko-Ometyevsky Forest, opened in 2016 on the site of a former brownfield site between housing estates and highways. There were plans to build an infectious diseases hospital and another highway here, but they were blocked following protests by ecologists and residents in 2015. Following consultations led by Snigireva and Smirnov, the forest-park was designed (by the Architectural Paratroopers) and constructed in less than a year. How much did it cost, I ask Smirnov? “Expensive,” he says, “300 million roubles” — about $4 million. About 100 times cheaper, indeed, than Zaryadye.

The new Gorkinso-Ometyevsky Forest

Where did Tatarstan’s drive towards top-down participation and sustainable blagoustroistvo begin? According to several of my interlocutors in Kazan, the process began in the mid-2000s, as the city was celebrating its millennium and preparing for the Universal Athletics Championships. The Republic’s authorities were determined to prettify the dilapidated urban fabric of the capital, as well as to construct grandiose new monuments and symbols — among these, the dominant Qolşärif Mosque and the Palace of Farmers. During this time, Tatarstan’s Ministry of Construction was led by Marat Khusnullin, who is now Moscow’s Deputy Mayor for Construction, and, according to many accounts, the city’s most powerful (and most corrupt) politician.

Until the mid-2010s, however, politicians’ understandings of urban improvement were more or less limited to grandiose sacral or bureaucratic edifices. The real shift, Guzel Faizrakhmanova tells me, followed the death of Tatarstan President Rustam Minikhanov’s son in an aviation accident in 2013. En route to pay respects in the cemetery adjacent to Kazan’s Gorky Park, Minikhanov was struck by the dilapidated condition of what was once one of the green lungs of the capital. Thus, the President simply decided to renovate the park. At this stage, Faizrakhmanova says, there was no notion of public consultation, either here or anywhere else in Russia. “The President simply decreed that the park has to be renovated and so they started to renovate it.”

“In distinction to what happens in Moscow, we involve a maximum quantity of stakeholders. The built space itself is less of an achievement than the social process which led to it”

Gorky Park opened, to great acclaim and popularity, several months later. All of this happened not long after the much-lauded transformation of Moscow’s own Gorky Park in 2011-2012 — a project on which Natalia Fishman-Bekmambetova worked as an assistant to Sergey Kapkov, who was promoted to Head of Moscow’s Department of Culture as a reward for his renewal of the Russian capital’s largest green space. Minikhanov was keen to emulate the success of his Muscovite colleagues, and to spread the Gorky Park model throughout the whole Republic. So, the narrative goes, he hand-picked Fishman-Bekmambetova out of Kapkov’s team and offered her the powerful role of Tatarstan’s blagoustroistvo boss.

Throughout Russia, then, urban improvement projects function as a series of consciously replicated models transposed across geographic distance and scales of magnitude. “We also work with municipal authorities [beyond Tatarstan],” Fishman-Bekmambetova stresses to me. “And this programme, which has now become federal, was to a large extent written by me and my employees.” Blagoustroistvo is not just a question of “turning Russia into an enormous Gorky Park,’’ as the anthropologist and cultural critic Mikhail Yampolsky has claimed; nor the “Zaryadye-ification” of Russia, as I have called it elsewhere; it is also the Kazanification — perhaps even the Fishmanification — of the Federation.

Lake Kaban before reconstruction

Lake Kaban after reconstruction

Let me come back to the notion of top-down participation — what we might call “vertical horizontalism”. Many people in Tatarstan, even among the implementers and fellow-travellers of blagoustroistvo, are quite scathing about Fishman-Bekmambetova, Snigireva’s, and Smirnov’s exercises in mass participation. “I was a huge fan of this idea two or three years ago, but now I’m much more sceptical,” Guzel Faizrakhmanova says. On one hand, the problem is that professionals get ignored. “Natalia Lvovna [Fishman-Bekmambetova] walks around and talks to every babushka, discusses where to put this or that bench… and when the architect comes over and says something from a professional point of view, Natalia Lvovna tells them, ‘oh, go and shut up, get out of here, you spiteful provincials.’”

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On the other hand, several people tell me, the public doesn’t really get listened to anyway: there’s so much participatory process going on that it becomes purely theatrical. “All of these public hearings go on for four hours and everyone shouts over each other, the architects, the ecologists, the local inhabitants,” Faizrakhmanova says. “Nobody listens to anyone: the inhabitants don’t like the architects; they don’t mind the ecologists so much, but the architects hate the ecologists! The effect of all this is that participation turns into this spiral of aggression.”

It’s fair to say that, wherever they take place, horizontal or “bottom-up” social and political mechanisms always necessarily involve a vertical, “top-down” component, whether financial, political, or otherwise. And sometimes, the more you emphasise how “grassroots” a given initiative is, the more from-on-high it may in fact have descended. In any case, urbanist implementation in contemporary Russia is always going to give rise to contradictions: such as the practice of transplanting participatory design studios wholesale from one city to another; or the naming of a grassroots, sustainable architectural practice after a vanguard military unit.

But systemic shifts have also resulted: for example, providing opportunities for young, decisive, energetic women — like Natalia Fishman-Bekmambetova, Daria Tolovenkova, Guzel Faizrakhmanova, and Nadya Snigireva (most of whose associates and employees are also women) — to rise very quickly to positions of far-reaching influence and authority in the patriarchal, gerontocratic, and hyper-bureaucratised political and architectural milieux of contemporary Russia.

The new Gorky Park

So where, ultimately, does the impulse for all of this prettification of public space come from? In Faizrakhmanova’s assessment, “it’s a programme by the authorities to attract the electorate. These are not such huge expenditures: it’s not the renovation of homes, which requires massive resources that Tatarstan does not want to spend. People have turned to parks — they get pleasant public spaces where you can wander and distract yourself from politics.”

Neither is Dmitry Smirnov from Project Group 8 under any illusions about the purity of the studio’s actions. “To cut the story short,” he says, “Russia finds itself in deep shit, because it doesn’t understand how to make its citizens happy.” Imperial posturing only goes so far. There is no money and no time (not in the context of electoral cycles, at least) to carry out a total replacement of infrastructure, of asphalt, schools, and hospitals. “So, the [Russian] Federation came up with this idea to busy itself with parks and squares, laying paving stones, putting up benches. The social effect is quick. This is why the country has recently decided to get on with blagoustroistvo on a federal level.”

Of course, says Smirnov, it’s a little sad to think that everything they’re doing is so nakedly part of the government’s electoral strategy. But then, as one colleague of Smirnov’s in Orenburg (which is also undergoing a blagoustroistvo drive, albeit a less extensive one than Kazan) put it, “elections will come and go. People will walk around [the city] and they won’t give two hoots whether it was done for the elections or not. We have to do it [blagoustroistvo] well; what difference does it make what sauce we cover it with?”

The author would like to express sincere thanks to Aygul Ashrafullina, without whose expertise and guidance this article would not have been researched or written.

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