Nadya Nilina: “Terror has been an important factor in the shaping of russian cities”

Nadya Nilina: “Terror has been an important factor in the shaping of russian cities”
Moskovskoe motorway. Residential blocks / © V. Popov, 1938-1940

If geopolitics did not play into it, settlement decisions would be based solely on the availability of essential resources for survival: natural materials for shelter, water and food. Albeit primitive, this is a potent explanation. Yet the further civilisation is from the primitive, the more interconnected and interdependent the settlements become and the least we are able to explain individual settlement decisions independently from a larger network. That is to say, the location of Russian settlements is as much dependent on the survival advantages of a particular place as it is on the position within a larger network of settlements, a network that trespasses national boundaries. Static settlement is but a small part of a dynamic system.

If we cannot talk of a settlement in isolation, we certainly should not be talking about its shape or architecture is a purely local product. By definition, the shape would be influenced by the nature of the network – its directionality and relative security, the kind and volume of vehicles that use it, the role of the location as a node, centre or a transitory space.

Thus, when we talk about Russian cities, I think we should consider them within the global network – the network that is a conduit for ideas, as much as it is for technologies, the know-how, and the actual goods. Despite the relative historical remoteness of Russia and the recent attempts to further isolate the country, the roots of Russian urban ideas lie at the crossroads of many different cultures. The use of wood is connected with the Scandinavian traditions; the regular grid with the Enlightenment ideas borrowed from the West and propagated by the tsars; the 19 th century redbrick industrial estates with the exchange of knowledge with England, etc.

The relationship with other cultures was articulated differently at different times, but in the general discourse on urbanism, the intellectual leitmotif was the ubiquitous reference to “the other”. When we talk about the provinces of the 18th century, the building types, such as municipal buildings, hospitals and residences are often a modest version of these types in the capitals. And the models in the capitals allude to their counterparts in other countries. The building may be built using local materials and techniques, and in that respect it is vernacular, but it often references some greater, and somehow better model. […]