MOSCOW’S 850TH ANNIVERSARY FESTIVITIES: LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL OR FEAST IN THE MIDST OF FAMINE?

Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 15

Moscow’s 850th anniversary festivities: Light at the end of the tunnel or feast in the midst of famine?

By Vladimir Mironov

On the evening of September 7, 1997, the sky of Russia’s capital city was illuminated by multicolored fireworks. The three-day celebration of Moscow’s 850th anniversary was drawing to a close. Over the weekend, five million spectators had enjoyed a huge street carnival, a rock concert, and performances by artists from all the republics and regions of the Russian Federation. On the city’s streets and squares, a carnival mood reigned supreme.

Now the holiday is over. And, while it is hard to make long-term predictions on the basis of a single celebration, some conclusions do suggest themselves.

For one thing, this was the first time in many years that millions of people filled the streets of the capital with the sole aim of enjoying themselves. Children, young people and the elderly alike decked themselves out in clowns’ noses and floppy ears, toted gaily colored balloons, and forgot about their everyday problems and anxieties. Was this an attempt to drown themselves in the holiday spirit, enjoy a temporary break from their humdrum lives and forget their dark surroundings, or was it a sign of confidence in the future?

Paradoxical as it may sound, it seems that the holiday’s relaxed atmosphere of the holiday was a sign of the latter. Despite a certain amount of unfinished work on the part of the city administration, which provoked horrendous traffic jams and transport blockages, the streets were calm. There were huge crowds, there were no scuffles or rioting, not even among young people. There were no outbursts of aggression. Instead, there was a general sense of calm which outweighed any annoyance over closed metro stations, overcrowded buses and streetcars, the insufficient number of toilets and other such inconveniences.

Was this chance? Hardly. In spite of the decline in production in Moscow, which seriously exceeds the Russian average, the level of unemployment in the capital is considerably lower than in other regions of the Russian Federation. One-third of Moscow’s banks may be threatened with collapse, yet investment continues to pour into the city. Many people link the gains they feel they have made in recent years and the fact that Muscovites are largely cushioned from the hard knocks suffered by people in other parts of the country, with the activity of the city’s mayor, Yury Luzhkov. These people make up Luzhkov’s base of social support, which grew even stronger during the course of the celebrations.

Moreover, the very scale of the festivities demonstrated the ability of the city authorities to organize such grandiose events. This was a sign not only that Luzhkov has a highly-professional team, able to administer the economic life of the megalopolis, but also that he knows how to capture people’s imaginations and fire their emotions. Luzhkov succeeded in uniting all Muscovites, regardless of political and ideological convictions, around the anniversary celebrations. He may even have started a tradition of observing this holiday on an annual basis. The attempts of the federal authorities to get the population to participate in the Independence Day celebrations were, by contrast, frustrated by the passivity of Russian citizens, who regarded the country’s main national holiday as just an excuse for a day off work.

The participation of Russia’s largest banks and finance houses in financing the holiday celebrations (only ten percent of the costs were paid out of government money) confirms both the influence of the Moscow authorities and the confidence of business people and entrepreneurs in Luzhkov and his team. From this, one may assume that the Moscow leadership has a reliable economic foundation at the present time. There is no political figure in the capital today who can mount a credible competition to Luzhkov.

As a consequence, the anniversary celebrations confirmed the mayor’s position and strengthened his image as a powerful and influential politician, able to achieve his goals despite covert opposition from politicians at the national level. Luzhkov’s growing strength on the Russian political scene is significant both for Muscovites and for the mayor himself. It seems likely that Luzhkov’s scope will increase both to lobby for the interests of Muscovites on the federal level and to resist any actions by the federal center which could, in his opinion, prove detrimental to Moscow’s interests (such as taking taxes from the Road Fund to the federal budget, or the city’s not getting subsidies for performing the functions of being a capital). It will be hard for the federal government to ignore the views and demands of a politician who has widespread electoral support, faces no political rival, and can inspire financiers and entrepreneurs with his ideas.

Luzhkov’s closing speech at the anniversary celebrations also strengthened his image as someone who expresses the views of that wing of the "party of power" which holds moderate nationalist or statist [gosudarstvennicheskie] views. A significant number of Russian governors hope that Moscow will once again unite the Russian republics and regions and that Luzhkov, as one of the most influential representatives of the "party of power," will "snatch" the patriotic and statist slogans from the Communist opposition, assume the leadership of the patriotic movement, and draw at least some of the supporters of Gennady Zyuganov, Aleksandr Lebed and Vladimir Zhirinovsky to his side.

Throughout the celebrations, Luzhkov demonstrated punctilious loyalty to President Boris Yeltsin. The president, in turn, expressed strong support for Luzhkov. This prompts the conclusion that the mayor of Moscow may be a candidate for the post of president from the "party of power." This could provoke an open confrontation with the team of "young reformers" who advocate a different program of economic and political reforms and who have the upper hand in the federal government at the present time.

All in all, Moscow’s 850th anniversary celebrations strengthened Mayor Luzhkov’s position on the Russian political scene and may have provided him with a springboard for a presidential bid when elections are held in the year 2000. It is a poor soldier who does not dream of becoming a Marshal. Especially if that soldier has already attained the rank of general…

Translated by Mark Eckert

Vladimir Mironov is senior research fellow at the Institute of International Economic and Political Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. A historian by profession, his research interests include center-periphery relations in the Russian Federation.

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