Putin bets on parks and trains to win over Moscow’s middle class. His bet is paying off. 

Over lunch at his go-to rooftop vegetarian cafe, where juice shots are called “Get Lit” and “Purple Swag,” the chairman of the Moscow mayor’s reelection campaign reels off the boss’s accomplishments. 

Parks renovated: 550. Bike paths laid: 137 miles. Life expectancy: 78 years, up from 74 in 2010. New clinics, festivals, roads, light rail and a fleet of Swiss street-sweeping machines.

“People say that for people to live well, like they do in the West, we need Western institutions,” the campaign chairman, Konstantin Remchukov, said. “But I’m telling you, no. You can make life better without Western institutions.”

In Russia’s jumbled, noisy, ­ever-evolving capital, Sunday’s mayoral election highlight the political bargain that the Kremlin wants Russians to accept: improvements in quality of life in exchange for letting President Vladi­mir Putin run things his way.

The city’s 60-year-old mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, is expected to cruise to reelection with no serious challengers.

He is Putin’s former chief of staff. But he is also backed by some segments of Moscow’s liberal intelligentsia, who, at the same time, voice disdain for Putin’s nationalism and authoritarian rule.

Supporters of the mayor frame it as a kind of grudging pragmatism. Things could be far worse, they say. And this metropolis of 13 million people has grown cleaner, prettier, more efficient and more livable on Sobyanin’s watch, they argue.

Andrei Kolesnikov, chairman of the Russian domestic politics program at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, summed up their mantra: “An open cafe is better than an open society.”

These contradictions and hard choices have become increasingly evident in Putin’s Russia, where any significant political opposition has been muzzled or squashed.

On Sunday, Russians will pick governors, mayors and local legislatures in dozens of regions. The ruling United Russia party is expected to once again dominate — with genuine opposition largely shut out.


People sit near a fountain at Gorky Park in Moscow in August. Many parks around Russia’s capital have been upgraded in recent years. (Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Regardless, jailed opposition activist Alexei Navalny has called for nationwide protests the same day against the government’s unpopular plan to raise the retirement age.

In Moscow — the biggest prize in the elections — Sobyanin has led city hall since 2010 and basks in improvements under his watch.

A new light-rail system now rings the city, easing millions of commutes. Dreary Soviet-era parks and desolate waterfronts have given way to landscaped footpaths, elaborate ice-skating rinks, craft beer bars and artisanal coffee shops.

At new one-stop service centers that have streamlined Russia’s notorious bureaucracy, machines spit out free coffee for anyone waiting longer than 15 minutes. 

The changes drew international notice when foreigners packed the capital for the soccer World Cup earlier this year.

To some political analysts and critics of Putin, the drive to transform Moscow is a clear bid to funnel a bit of Russia’s oil-and-gas wealth into pacifying the urban middle class. It was this segment of the population that turned out for mass anti-Kremlin protests in 2011 and 2012. 

The strategy, for now, seems to be working.

“They’re ready to accept the fact that they’re crushing the opposition and that there are no elections,” Carnegie expert Kolesnikov said. “The main thing is that he is modernizing the city. . . . It’s a deal with the devil.” 

Oleg Shapiro, a star Moscow architect who helped design many of the marquee urban-
improvement projects, said he chose not to cast a vote when Putin was reelected in March.

He acknowledged that while Moscow’s cityscape is becoming more Western, Russia’s political system is moving in the opposite direction. 

Still, Shapiro joined Sobyanin’s campaign as an official surrogate. He said that rather than pacify the public, his projects might help inspire people to seek more freedom. 

“There are many rather radical people who say, ‘Listen, you’re distracting people from the real problems,’ ” Shapiro said in an interview in his firm’s airy office in a cluster of boutiques, co-work spaces and design studios called Artplay. “Well in that case, so that things get worse for the authorities, why don’t we just all lie down and slit each other’s throats?”

Sobyanin hired progressive architects such as Shapiro as well as Western consulting firms including McKinsey & Company and Boston Consulting Group. He got rid of billboards and underpass kiosks and introduced new ­bus-and-taxi lanes and bike-sharing, scooter-sharing and car-sharing programs.

Speaking at the Moscow Urban Forum in July, Putin said Sobyanin was “restoring the coziness of Moscow streets” and pledged similar improvements in other Russian cities. 

Sobyanin, originally from Siberia, is a prototype for the kind of loyal, low-key technocrat that Putin is increasingly installing across Russia’s more than 80 regional governments.

Sobyanin’s predecessor as Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, ran the capital for 18 years as a personal fiefdom and drew residents’ ire for everything from alleged corruption to the 300-foot-tall statue of Peter the Great along the Moscow River

Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s president, tapped Sobyanin to replace Luzhkov in 2010. Three years later, Sobyanin faced activist Navalny in the mayoral election. Navalny finished with a stunning 27 percent of the vote — a sign that anti-Kremlin feelings were widespread in the Russian capital.

Much of Moscow’s liberal elite had joined Navalny’s campaign. Some, like avant-garde theater director Konstantin Bogomolov, are now on Sobyanin’s team.

“We want a better future,” Bogomolov said in an Instagram post announcing his decision. He didn’t respond to a request for comment on his switch. He once described Sobyanin’s Moscow as being “captured by corruption, stupidity, and lovelessness and lack of attention to its residents and problems.”

Remchukov, Sobyanin’s campaign chairman, is himself a fixture in Moscow’s Westward-looking upper crust. He edits a daily newspaper, and the Russian edition of GQ named him its “Trendsetter of the Year” in 2013.

But to expect Western-style democracy to migrate to Russia, he insists, is misguided. 

“For many people to be convinced that freedom is man’s most important need — one that will in the end lead to a resolution of all the other socioeconomic problems — I think we still have a long way to go until we get there,” Remchukov said. “You talk to people and you realize that they don’t care at all.” 

Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report.

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