Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Many Moscow Natives Don’t Identify as Muscovites, Sociologist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 26 – Many Moscow natives do not identify themselves as Muscovites, a Russian sociologist says, while some who have moved to the city, particularly those who have been there more than ten years, identify strongly with it, just two of the many paradoxes of life in the Russian capital.

            In an article on the Postnauka.ru site, Viktor Vakhshtayn, a sociologist who teaches at the Presidential Academy of Economics and State Service, says that one of the most intriguing paradoxes of Moscow is that “an enormous number of people live in this city without noting that they live in it” (postnauka.ru/faq/9646).

            For most of them, he continues, recent surveys conducted by the Moscow Institute of Social-Cultural Programs and the Public Opinion Foundation, “Moscow is not a city;” instead, it “is the administrative company of the country.”  That creates a very different relationship between its residents and their self-identifications.

            About 60 percent of Moscow’s residents were born somewhere else, and about 40 percent are people who were born there. According to the surveys, “about 60 percent of the people who continuously live and work in Moscow do not feel themselves to be Muscovites in any way.”  But that 60 percent is not made up entirely of the 60 percent born elsewhere.

            “In fact,” Vakhshtayn says, “among those who live in Moscow, continuously work here, and do not connect in any way with this place, 20 percent were born” in the city. Another 30 percent of this group, he adds, is made up of people who arrived in the Russian capital more than a decade earlier.

            At the same time, “the most-intensely-held Muscovite identity is shown by people who were not born [in the capital] but who have lived in Moscow more than ten years; that is, those for whom this move was a serious achievement, possibly their main life plan because for them, this was an identity that they won, unlike the case of many native urban residents.”

            “The underlying metaphor through which people who continuously live in Moscow see their city is that of ‘the city as office.’”  It is “an enormous multi-million roomed office, something like F[ritz] Lang’s [classic film] ‘Metropolis.’” It is not a place where “as a rule,” those who earn money want to spend it. Instead, they go elsewhere.

            This has some important implications, Vakhshtayn points out. “The archetype of social space was the agora in the ancient Greek polis. It was not so much a place in which you were comfortable and which you went to spend time with friends asa space in which the city recognize itself as a city.”

            Such a space is where an urban identity is formed, he says. “And if there is no place in which you feel your tie with this strange meta-city formation, then an urban identity will not be formed.” Moscow for many people lacks such a space, and that in turn creates some unusual circumstances.

            One of those was revealed when double-decker buses were introduced in Moscow. They completely transformed “the picture of the world” which residents had. Their sudden appearance has had the effect of giving people a chance “to see the space they have not noticed up to then with new eyes.”

            Vaynshtayn adds that his research shows that in Moscow at least, “the demand for the  activities of the institutions of culture is far from the most significant,” unlike what most people assume. Far more significant are “a demand for events because events are what creates a city in time” and one “for a cultural milieu” through which people can travel.”

             Another “ paradoxical fact” in Moscow is that parents are far more comfortable sending their child for walks in the city center than allowing him or her to play in the yard. “Their own district seems to them a much less secure place than does” the latter.  This is a very different pattern than the one found elsewhere.

            One needs “to understand,” he says, that this lack of identity is “a logical result of the fact that Moscow is a met-city formation,” that is, it is “a multi-space object” in which many different spaces intersect.  That makes it more difficult for individuals to craft an identity and then accept it for themselves.

            This can be seen by comparing Moscow to other cities.  “What makes Petersburg Petersburg?” The answer is simple: the places within the city like Palace Square and the Neva, none of which can be taken away. But “those relations which make Moscow Moscow are primarily those which are not localized on its territory” but rather outside its borders.

             Those objects include among others Sheremetyevo, Domodedova and the Moscow region. And thus “half of these urban objects could be moved and no one would notice it. Thus, those stable relations which form Moscow today as an urban unity are not in the full sense of the word “’Muscovite.’”

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