Living for a week in Kotel’niki, a still-emerging residential suburb in south-eastern Moscow, at the very end of the metro system, has given me a chance to experience life in a modern mikroraion, a ‘microdistrict‘, that very Soviet/Russian unit of city planning. Before I move closer into the centre of Moscow, here are some entirely subjective and no doubt superficial observations of the ‘Opytnoe pole’ (‘Practice Ground’) settlement.
As Moscow expanded, and rent/house prices were pushed up (though the economic crisis meant rents fell 8% in 2015), the pressure to build affordable housing meant a sprawl outwards. The result has been a rash of adequate but frankly tackily-built complexes on former industrial property, replacing crumbling Soviet apartments or, as in the case of Kotel’niki, on rural land. The interesting thing is that this was clearly once the domain of well-to-do families as scattered around, in the metaphorical shadow of the 17-storey blocks of flats, are substantial, well-built houses from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, presumably with land and views. Those times have gone.
The apartment blocks loom in their own henge of concrete menhirs. Some effort has been made to use colour and changing designs to give the colony at least a minimal charm, but there is a sharp limit to quite what such cosmetic measures can do, not least given that the many buildings tend to follow one of many three standard designs.
There are a lot of people living here, and as usual in such clusters there are various small businesses on the ground floor. A mix of produkty food and drink stores, and the characteristic Russian concentration on shoe shops, a 24-hour flower place, and — a sad sign of the times or the local population — also a 24-hour lombard, or pawn broker’s. There is a rather grim looking ‘cafe’ — bar — and a ‘coffee shop’ that is actually a portakabin serving plastic cups of hot drinks that appears wholly and sporadically patronised by Central Asian workmen from nearby construction sites.
Still, the very reason why this development is here — cheap land — has also meant that bordering on the microraion is that other delight of modern urban sprawl, the out-of-town shopping centre. So, there is a 24-hour Real hypermarket, a massive Castorama DIY store and a random selection of little booths around them, selling everything from fireworks to iPhone cases.
The idea is that these residential neighbourhoods represent pretty self-contained communities and certainly all the basic consumer needs are met, but there seems little (if any) other amenities, from places to eat (unless you count the Sbarro pizza chain at Real) to anything even faintly cultural. Oh, there is a tented tennis club on the way to the metro. Clearly this is a place to sleep, to cook, to watch TV more than to live. The hipsterisation of central Moscow, the bubbling vitality and liveability which is such a mark of the city’s troubled renaissance, is definitely not evident here. But then again, when people talk about the life of New York, they really mean the restaurants and happening of north-eastern Brooklyn and southern Manhattan, rather than the ugly residential streets of Staten Island or most of Queens.
If you want that, then it’s a 45-minute metro journey into the centre for you. Thank god for the metro: I said ‘still emerging’ above because the shiny new station only opened in September. It has to be said that the Moscow model of metro building (“how many new stations per year?”) contrasts very strikingly and refreshingly with the New York one (“how many years per new station?”). Nonetheless, presumably most of the local residents bought their flats here (and most do seem owned, not rented) before then, hence the number of cars clogging up the streets.
Those local residents seem to be disproportionately 25-35 year-olds. That makes sense: a kid, maybe a baby just growing up, they need a bit of space and can’t afford prices closer in. (The kinds of cars they own is a decent index of affluence: precious few of the SUVs and luxury imports you’ll see inside the Garden Ring girdling central Moscow. Rather, ageing and baseline smaller Fords, Renaults and Toyotas.)
At night, after the evening commute back, the place is very quiet considering how many people live here. It’s not just because of this development (though I think to a considerable degree), but in the past ten years, the population of Kotel’niki township has risen from 18,000 to 41,000. It’s not at all a dangerous or worrying quietness (I once saw a cop in the metro station, but that’s all), just the little death of the commuter suburb once everyone is ensconced in the kitchen or in front of the TV.
Not a bad place to live, though, and still a growing one, although at a slower rate I’d imagine given the economic crisis. There is that feeling of living stranded in between a forest and a building site, and the rough edges include paths to the metro that are still just mud tracks, drifts of rubbish, and a skyline of cranes and building skeletons.
Not bad, but anonymous and soulless. Kotel’niki means ‘Cauldron Makers’ and even its coat of arms is three golden cauldrons on a green field. However, the real root of the name is probably from the use of kotel, cauldron, for marshy lowlands. I suppose ‘Marshylowlandtown’ didn’t have quite the same appeal. Given that one of its component villages is one built around a sand pit and associated factory turning silica into brick which is called Silicate, though, I don’t know if euphonic naming was always the main concern.
Kotel’niki actually has a history dating back to at least the 17th century, but there are few traces of that now. The estates of the Belaya Dacha (‘White Cottage’) mansion build by General Balk-Polev at the beginning of the 18thC, for example, now house an agricultural firm (itself due to be flattened for more housing) and a glitzy outlet shopping mall.
The only substantive relic of the past that I know of around is the 17thC Kotel’niki Kazan Cathedral, but as it is at the opposite edge of the town, an hour’s walk away courtesy of the detour necessitated by a railway line in between, I may not get to it. Otherwise, with the exception of one abandoned tower (above) that for all I know is a 1950s water cistern or the like, and the odd house here or there still untouched by bulldozer, this is largely virgin territory. Brave new suburban world.