Guest article: Urban democracy*

Richard Rogers: “When public space is eroded, our civic culture suffers, even our democracy.”


Nowadays political process cannot be defined only as the relations between actors seeking power. Understanding of political day-to-day realities cannot be limited to the direct analysis of relations of power only. The realm of politics is so comprehensive that it includes all of the social spheres. From this perspective public space turns out to be the key factor, as it possesses the possibility to mobilize citizens. Public urban space can be considered as a platform for civic protest. The idea of protest space does not seem obvious in daily life, however its essence reveals exactly during the process of interaction of civil society and the authorities. Existence of space which can be potentially used for protests is indispensable for the successful implementation of democratic principles and the correct functioning of civil society. Nowadays, the effectiveness of protest space in Russia is doubtful. Russian authorities make an effort to prevent politization of “unoccupied” or, if you like, “empty” spaces.

Manezh square can serve as a perfect example of an attempt to transform space in such a way so that it is not possible to use it in order to mobilize citizens. If we trace the history of the abovementioned space, it is not a difficult task to notice, that as soon as it had become potentially comfortable for organizing protests during mass meetings of Perestroika period, a competition for the best project of its reconstruction was announced instantly because of its location under Kremlin’s walls. During Russian Federation’s fledging years this square was also playing role of public space suitable for protests, but then “Okhotny ryad” shopping center was built. These days Manezh square is the very picture of the idea of cultural entertainment. It is undeniable that small amount of spaces for protests in Russia’s capital theoretically lowers the effectiveness of potential opposition groups. Practically the absence of these spaces is fraught with reduction of political consciousness and decrease of political engagement of citizens, which leads to consolidation of power in the hands of elites. Consequently, current situation can develop in two ways: the destruction of spaces suitable for public gathering will continue, or we will witness the construction of new public spaces, which will meet the case of modern democratic society principles.

Events of 2011-2012 which were a response to fraudulent election illustrate the pivotal role of space for protest. Local authorities during the process of negotiation with organizers of this meeting were trying to move away their demonstration as far as possible from Kremlin, this demand stipulated location for the meeting. This aspiration can be easily explained by the mechanism of space structure’s functioning. It is important to note, that in Russian capital there is historically determined symbolic space structure of radiuses (which are, in general, trajectories of movement to center and away from it) and circles (which play a role of obstacles of radial movement). Kremlin wall is the last preserved part of the structure of the abovementioned circles; this fact gives political sense to mottos like “Let’s encircle the Kremlin!” In this context it is also necessary to introduce a concept of private and public dichotomy categories within the frameworks of space itself. As a part of protest, the public category of space tries to conquer the private one. The question of control over the last one is of huge importance. Kremlin, as a “personification” of space, which is under control of the authorities, plays a key political role for protesters. A compromise between the organizers of “March of millions” and the authorities was found, and radial direction of this march was transformed into circle one: demonstration’s march route was mapped down the Boulevard Ring, and after that down the Sakharov Prospect. As a result, tight control over the space of the protest together with reconstruction of Manezh square and reimposition of the graff under Kremlin’s defensive wall brought to naught a possibility of using of public space as a space for protest. Moreover, after events of 2011-2012 Russia’s authorities toughened the law about public events and meeting. Now every public gathering must be approved, and organizers of those meetings which are not sanctioned will be fined or even criminally liable. Russia’s authorities try to put down potential for protest by all means available. Continuation of this policy will lead to entrenchment of power and establishment of an authoritarian police regime. On the other hand it will also lead to demoralization and passiveness of civil society. Tight control over public space, impossibility of expressing of civil will by democratic methods will result in non-ability of society to organize itself. This scenario will approximate nation to the “doorstep of degradation”. If the authorities do not allow citizens to use public space, it will lead to creation of ideologically loaded space, process of communication of which will be reduced to postulates and ideas of the establishment, and space as a resource will slip out of existence.

Freedom of speech and pluralism in such a society is not possible. The rights to construct the space for protest have to belong to the citizens. By making obstacles on the way of this process, the authorities only distance Russia from progressive development trends. This case scenario looks presumable taking into consideration that politicking of citizens is desperately low. Voting turnout during elections for the State Duma was only 48 %. Interference of international community, nongovernmental organization, which will point out the failure to respect the human rights, and problems with humanitarian agenda, can possibly help to change the above-mentioned scenario.

Growing importance of public category in modern political context of Russia coincide with the development of “Occupy” movement all over the world what is illustrative of importance of this issue. Public space is a pillar of political communication. In a democratic society public urban space has to be “honest”. In such a way, the first scenario is not appropriate for solving problems connected with a lack of public space for protest in Russia. This scenario brings benefits only to those persons who are interested in consolidation of power in the hands of the establishment. This scenario is irrelevant in the long-term.

In order to find a way out of existing situation the central problem of which is the lack of space for protest, the federal government, as a first step, has to slacken the law about public events and meetings. Public space is a platform for self-constructing of political consciousness through freedom of expression. As soon as the citizens of Russia will have the right to express themselves freely, the shaping of public space will start. “Seizing” control over cities will help to develop self-organizing ability, raise the rate of political engagement of citizens and will stimulate social progress. The transfer of control over public space to those, who are, in fact, its owners, is a step of huge importance on the way of political regime democratization.

written by Polina Topolyan

*This guest article was written in 2016. All the opinions belong to the author alone and do not engage the owner of this website.