January 01, 2020

The Mayor Departs



The Mayor Departs
Yuri Luzhkov in September 2016, receiving an award for Service to the Fatherland, IV Degree Presidential Press Services

Yury Luzhkov, who died in December from complications during routine heart surgery, is difficult to pin to a particular pantheon of Russian political figures.

The longtime Moscow mayor (1992-2010) was the subject of a quasi-official smear campaign in 2010, leading to his unceremonious sacking by the president after a string of television “documentaries.” Luzhkov, who was 83 at time of his death, had retired from politics after his fall from grace, but Russia still gave him full funeral honors in December, flying his body home from Germany for a service at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (which he had helped rebuild), blocking traffic in central Moscow, followed by burial at the prestigious Novodevichye Cemetery.

Luzhkov was “a man of his era,” Vladimir Putin remarked. This was a somewhat ambiguous assessment from a man that routinely expresses his disgust for the 1990s, the era when Luzhkov arose as an ally of Boris Yeltsin leading the country’s largest city.

This man of his era ruled the capital for 18 years, and at one point had presidential ambitions. He was round-faced, of short stature, and his bald pate was often topped with a flat cap. He also had a particularly colorful sort of charisma that is out of place in 2020 Russia: he was a populist, a soccer fanatic, an eccentric beekeeper, and he had strong ties to the city’s construction lobby (some called him “grandpa Baturin,” as his second wife, Yelena Baturina, skyrocketed to the top of the Forbes list, thanks to her company’s many construction contracts in the capital).

In some ways, Luzhkov’s relationship with the city, coupled with his energetic tinkering and unusual hobbies (he holds patents for a particular type of fish pie and a rotary engine) made him into a sort of twentieth century barin, a pre-Revolutionary landowner.

Luzhkov was generous to the capital’s elderly, adding “Luzhkov premiums” to pensions, and had passionate tastes in art. People ridiculed his connection to Zurab Tsereteli, his so-called “court sculptor,” whose dubious creations proliferated around Moscow. The legacy of “Luzhkovian architecture” consists of many buildings – an eclectic amalgam of styles and shapes, usually in the most central, visual locations – that share a lack of respect for whatever historical building what razed to make way for it. And while Luzhkov was praised for fairly compensating the residents of the finally-knocked-down khrushchevki (five-story apartment blocks dating to the 1950s and 1960s), he was hated for not protecting residents of older central buildings coveted by developers, some of whom were forced out under suspicious circumstances. His infrastructure projects ranged from the crucial MKAD Ring Road to the meaningless but costly monorail.

Despite his sudden dismissal in 2010, Luzhkov is seen as a “godfather” to Russia’s political and economic system, Forbes wrote, citing his tactics aimed at weakening the city’s parliament and a custom of making political opponents offers they could not refuse. Luzhkov’s “paternalistic” model of rule, the magazine said, is only stylistically different from the “cold technocrats” of today.

Luzhkov had few fans when he was dismissed in 2010 as an embodiment of the capital’s corruption and nepotism. But upon his death many Muscovites expressed fond memories, comparing him favorably with the mayor who replaced him, the rather dull Sergei Sobyanin, who has unleashed an endless cycle of “beautification” at colossal cost.

“At least Luzhkov was a human, not a cyborg,” read one memorable comment on Facebook.


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