Urban Structure

Historically, Russian cities were centered around a kremlin—a fortified settlement high on a river bank, frequently on an easily defensible hill at a confluence of two rivers. For example, the Kremlin in Moscow is located high on Borovitsky Hill between the Moscow and Neglinnaya Rivers, and the kremlin in Nizhniy Novgorod is situated between the Oka and the Volga. Such locations made sense, because rivers served as transportation arteries, while the hill between two river valleys was easy to defend.

Inside the kremlin, the local prince's palace would be on a big square with churches, along with the armory, warehouses, some noblemen's houses, and soldiers' quarters. Outside the kremlin, a large square (e.g., Red Square in Moscow) would form the main market area. The lands beyond the square would be settled by artisans, merchants, ambassadors, and other professionals and skilled workers in the part of town called the posad. Sometimes the posad would get an additional fortified wall later on (e.g., Kitaygorod in Moscow). The peasants would live still farther away, but would regularly come to the city for market and in times of troubles. When enemies attacked, the entire local population would find shelter behind the kremlin walls. A few dozen cities in Russia have a kremlin, or at least a central square with some remaining walls adjacent to it. Pskov, Novgorod, Vladimir, and Yaroslavl all boast impressive kremlins worth a visit. Some monastery-based towns, like Sergiev Posad and Murom, have monasteries in the middle instead.

No kremlins were built after the 16th century. The cities built after that period would have a more expansive modern design, with broader streets and no walls. A lot of old Siberian cities started as small forts, but these were quickly outgrown and a large, grid-like network of streets was laid out, not unlike that of many cities in the American Midwest. Some Russian cities were developed in this period along rivers in a linear fashion. For instance, Volgograd stretches along the Volga for over 60 km but is very narrow, being constrained by the Privolzhsky Hills from the west and by the floodplain from the east. St. Petersburg was built in the early 1700s on a flat marsh at the mouth of the Neva with a distinct diagonal pattern of tree-lined avenues—a pattern similar to that of Paris or Washington, D.C. In fact, architects from France and Italy contributed heavily to the construction of both the American and the Russian capitals in the 18th century. Because of its unique history, St. Petersburg retains a wide-open plan, unlike Moscow with its curving and congested streets.

Soviet-era cities were frequently built from scratch around a factory, mine, or GULAG camp. Some were built as scientific cities to house important laboratories and institutes, frequently ones associated with the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Defense. Such cities, such as Novosibirsk, would utterly lack an old core.

Within most Russian cities in the Soviet era, old or new, a few typical districts could be distinguished: the historical city center (the core or downtown area); the old periphery (in the cities built before the Revolution); the industrial belt of the Soviet period; and sleeping quarters for the workers, connected to the industrial belt and the center by bus lines and by a subway in the biggest cities (Bater, 2006). Beyond the sleeping quarters there is usually a sharp city growth boundary in the form of a beltway, and beyond that is countryside, with scattered villages, summer dacha cabins on tiny plots, collective farms, and forests. Until very recently, the model was practically uniform. The main difference was in the size of the apartment houses: In the biggest cities these would have 9, 12, or even 24 floors, while in the smaller cities they would have only 3–5. A lot of cities also included village-like wooden houses built over 100 years earlier, and poorly built temporary barracks for construction workers that became permanent dwellings. Beginning in the 1990s, because of land privatization and the new possibility of owning a private home, many newly rich residents began to flee the city for suburbia in the familiar pattern of suburban sprawl. This phenomenon is well documented not only in Moscow or Novosibirsk, but also in Tallinn, Almaty, and Kiev.

City Center

The city center in the old cities almost always housed the kremlin or a big cathedral with a large square next to it. In the Soviet period, many churches were destroyed and replaced with large government buildings (with an obligatory statue of Lenin in front). Some prerevolutionary homes of the center would house museums or government buildings; others would have communal flats, with as many as five or more families each having one room and sharing a common kitchen and bathroom. In modern Russia, virtually all such flats have been converted into the company offices, and some new office buildings have been constructed in the historic city core. Almost all but a handful of the most elite residents (or, conversely, the homeless) now live outside this area. Today the city center houses government buildings, banks, offices, the most expensive boutiques, the oldest theaters, some urban universities and colleges, and some quiet pedestrian areas.

Old Periphery

The old periphery area, with homes built at least 100 years ago, would be immediately outside the old city center limits. In contrast to many North American cities, where there is usually a “zone of discard” between downtown and the residential areas, Russian cities would have this zone of reasonably well-maintained large residential homes, train stations, markets, and shops. Usually this would be the most desirable place to live. Today much of this area is undergoing rapid construction and gentrification, with new condos, shops, and office towers quickly moving in.

Industrial Belt

Mainly developed in the 1930s, the industrial belts of Soviet cities would accommodate the factories. In Moscow the belt literally surrounds the center, with only a slight asymmetry; in other cities it could be located off to one side of the city, usually downwind from downtown to minimize air pollution. Many of the old industries are now in decline, and some cities are now removing the old factories and replacing them with new residential districts and commercial centers.

Sleeping Quarters

Sleeping quarters (microrayony) were built to accommodate the people who would work in the industrial belt. The later microrayonys of the 1970s came close to embodying the Soviet planners' ideal of self-contained residential units, with everything but work available locally. A typical microrayon would be a city area of about 35 ha in size, surrounded by streets with mass transit (buses, trolleys, sometimes trams). It would include about 10–12 large apartment buildings; 6–8 stores; a school; a clinic; and perhaps a library or a small stadium surrounded by playgrounds, tree-covered areas, and flowerbeds. Workers who lived here would still need to get to their work by mass transit, but much of their lives (and almost all their children's lives; see Vignette 11.1) could be lived inside the microrayon. There was enough distance allowed between buildings to let air and sunlight in, but very little space allocated for parking. This made sense, because the car ownership rate was under 10%. Although Westerners often referred to the “drab appearance” of the apartment complexes, most were in fact painted in pretty shades of white, pink, light blue, green, or yellow, and some were covered in colorful glazed ceramic tiles.