Dezeen Magazine

Owen Hatherley explores architecture of post-Soviet cities like Moscow

"Dictatorship in the 21st century looks like London or New York"

Moscow shows us that cities created by dictatorships can also have beautiful buildings and welcoming public spaces, says Owen Hatherley.

American pundit Thomas Friedman once claimed that no two countries that have a McDonalds have ever gone to war with each other. Having a McDonalds meant you'd achieved certain things – an open, internationalised free market, an Americanised, (sub)urban mass culture, an acceptance of mass production and modernity. Civilisation, in a word.

This ceased to be an accurate analysis in 2008, when the golden-arch-sharing former Soviet republics of Russia and Georgia had a brief war over the province of South Ossetia. But then nobody believes that this sort of Americanised mass culture is a guarantee of peace any more. Something else is.

The contemporary equivalent of Friedman's ridiculous statement would be something like this. No two countries that have craft beer breweries will ever go to war with each other. Nowhere that has redesigned one of its squares with granite setts, artistic benches and street art could possibly have torture chambers. And there's no guarantee against dictatorship quite like a project by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

People came expecting a post-apocalyptic landscape of crumbling concrete towers

One of the things I came to realise while writing a book about cities in what used to be the Soviet Union was that this thinking is incredibly pervasive. It's ubiquitous in western Europe and America, as you could see in the amazed shock during the World Cup at the fact that Russian cities can be very pleasant.

People came expecting a post-apocalyptic landscape of crumbling concrete towers, Lenin statues, gherkins and vodka, patrolled by angry grandmothers and marauding skinheads. They found typical 21st century European urbanism: convivial squares, well-designed public transport networks, beautiful, well-restored historic buildings, attractive, well-dressed young people and, of course, craft beer. That this should have been a surprise is a consequence of the way the region has been treated by the media, both in the west where the Cold War never ended, and in ex-Soviet countries themselves, where to leave Russia is to leave communism and hence to join Europe.

I'm not talking here about big fancy buildings by signature architects – oil dictatorships like Azerbaijan (Zaha) and Kazakhstan (Foster) have done that, following Dubai and Doha – but about the more sophisticated and holistic matter of public space.

During the Maidan protests five years ago, many alleged that Kiev was non-Soviet and non-Russian because it had vibrant street life and start ups and conceptual art. The fact Moscow already had these things was quietly ignored.

Russia has made huge strides in erasing the legacy of chaotic post-Soviet capitalism

Much the same happened when the enthusiastically pro-western Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili leafed through some architecture magazines and then got Fuksas and Jurgen Meyer H to redesign the country's public institutions. They built things like Rike Park, an extraordinary architectural zoo, with its statue of Reagan, its giant chess pieces, its cable car and its sanitary towel-like Always Bridge. This was presented by architectural magazines, returning the favour, as an act of progressive patronage.

When he ran for re-election, Saakashvili used a cover story from MARK magazine on Georgia's new architecture as an election poster. Georgians, no doubt noticing how these new spaces were thinly spread on collapsing infrastructure, dire poverty and mass imprisonment, proceeded to vote him out. But by this point, Russia was doing exactly the same thing, with the Strelka Institute and Garage as the pioneers of a European-style contemporary urbanism.

This isn't to praise the Russian capital – a ruthlessly unequal, increasingly unaffordable city based on the labour of barely paid migrant workers living in bedsits and barracks. It's just to acknowledge reality.

The country has in the last five years made huge strides in erasing, not so much the Soviet legacy, but the legacy of the chaotic post-Soviet capitalism erected on top of it in the 1990s.

I remember when this first started to be rolled out at Gorky Park, that once-model municipal showcase on the Moskva river gone scrubby and sad. Garage, an art museum founded by the owner of Chelsea FC's then-consort Dasha Zhukova, moved from a Melnikov-designed bus garage in the inner suburbs into a cardboard pavilion in the park by Shigeru Ban. In a city where every new building seemed to be a barely legal shoulder-padded neo-Stalinist postmodern assemblage of fibreglass, mirrorglass, Corinthian columns, CCTV and multi-storey car parking, Ban's building seemed breathtakingly light, relaxed and accessible; so too, although in a rather more arch way, was OMA's permanent building, built as an expansion of a humble 1960s pavilion.

After that came the deluge, as Moscow began to be treated as if it were in France or Germany. Widened and repaved streets took space from cars and gave it to pedestrians. In architecture, there was the construction of Diller Scofidio + Renfro's Zaryadye Park right next to the Kremlin, and the international-standard renovation of long-derelict constructivist icons like the Rusakov Club and the Izvestia Building. There was the removal of the giant adverts that used to be draped around every building and were often stretched across the streets.

Then the semi-formal kiosks that spread everywhere in the 1990s were demolished in massive numbers, without compensation.

You could have nice public spaces, nice buildings and be a bullying, reactionary dictatorship

Ironically by 2015, the post-Soviet capital city that had changed the least since the 1990s was Kiev, which everyone thought had "joined Europe" through violently rejecting Russia's attempt to force it not to sign an EU Association Agreement. Here you found illegal construction, inescapably domineering oligarchs, cars parked on what were once public squares and an unstoppable proliferation of kiosks in every public space.

You could, it transpired, have nice public spaces, nice buildings and be a bullying, reactionary dictatorship – as this is what Russia is. Does that make the spaces less nice? Perhaps. However the conspiracy theory that this programme was Putin's way of putting down some sort of putative hipster uprising, turning Moscow into Brooklyn or Dalston, is daft. Russia's rulers live in Moscow but they too may have found that it's more pleasant to eat sourdough pizza, drink IPA and walk to work rather than live in an endless 1990s of SUVs and cocaine.

Dictatorship in the 21st century doesn't look like it did in the 1940s, and it doesn't look much like it did in the '90s either. It looks normal. It looks like London or New York. In the era of Trump, Orban, Kaczynski and Salvini, that's the real, urgent lesson we need to learn from the post-Soviet space.