Visions of the future and the preserved past. Alexey Raskhodchikov.25 february 2022

Alexey Raskhodchikov, Candidate of Sociology, Chairman of the Moscow Center of Urban Studies “City”

Speech at the second international academic workshop “Visions of the Future” in the city of Oryol on February 25, 2022

The topic of this workshop is always relevant and of a keen scientific interest. I would like to point out several considerations. For a start, let us contemplate the overlap of visions of the future and the past. As we explore and study cities, we usually discover that their past and future tend to resonate with each other. In cities, visions of the past take a material form of buildings, monuments, various points of attraction. Incidents of the long-ago and people that lived hundreds of years before us are usually connected to such buildings and places. We are told that Alexander Pushkin visited that place or that Mikhail Lermontov lived there, or we see a plaque with the inscription “In 1918, the Council of People’s Commissars held sittings in this building”. What I mean to say is that in cities, history is preserved through tangible, material objects.

History is always part of a city, at least to some extent. According to Tamara Dridze, a city itself is “a world dispersed in time as well as in space”. Most cities, we cannot perceive outside of their historical contexts. Solidified in buildings and places, history shapes people’s minds. It influences upcoming generations of citizens and cultivates new visions of the future.

Military monuments, for instance, serve as evidence of the bravery and heroism of our people; they are a link between the present and the past. The younger generation, especially young men, feel a strong connection to those heroes who fought and died for our country. Then there are monuments that trigger associations with other important events of our history.

I personally come from an old merchant town that has a lot of buildings, the construction of which was financed by local merchants on a charitable basis. They built numerous churches, hospitals and schools. When I was a schoolboy, I participated at various sightseeing tours around the town and I always marveled at how rich those merchants had had to be before the revolution that they could afford the construction of so many buildings, which was quite expensive at the time. Why did modern businessmen not do that? Thus, the vision of the past became some sort of archetype of normality for me, and the present situation did not seem normal in comparison.

However, sometimes it is the other way around when a monument of the past evokes a vision of a desirable future. The typical examples of that are the monuments to Ivan the Terrible in Oryol and to Prince Vladimir in Moscow as well as the construction of a church in Ekaterinburg, each of them causing heated discussions and triggering massive protests among citizens. In those cases, authorities made decisions without discussing them in advance with the local population.

When an image is imposed on people, and that image is not natural for that particular city, it is vehemently rejected. In management sociology, we call it an unwarranted interference with the symbolic space of a city and its population. Or, if we call to mind Henri Lefebvre’s concept, the people’s right to the city is violated. It is because the right to the city does not only encompass commercial buildings that can be erected anywhere, but, more importantly, symbols that cannot be constructed or destroyed on a whim.

Here is an important question for our discussion: is the monument to Ivan the Terrible a symbol of the past or the future? I would say the latter. In this, I am reinforced by the reports of the unveiling ceremony. Famous writer Alexander Prokhanov, political expert Sergey Kurginyan and leader of the Night Wolves motorcycle club Alexander Zaldastanov were among the special guests. That brings us to the conclusion that the monument was designed as an attempt to create a vision of the future with certain key points highlighted.

It is usually clear what we mean by visions of the past. But what are visions of the future? How can we identify them using the sociological instrumentarium? Why are they so important? For me, the essential question is if a vision of the future could be a rallying point for urban communities. Could it set a direction for the development of urban regions?

The second question from the standpoint of management sociology is who creates those visions and how they relate to the life strategies of citizens? Our colleague Alexey Shcherbinin seems to believe that it is the authorities who should undertake the creation of such visions and that this is their most important job. I could partly agree with that. It is generally accepted among management sociologists that the government can devise strategies, draw up development plans and validate them, fill them with implications and finance their implementation. However, those plans need to be discussed with the population. That is, a certain procedure has to be established, which includes debates with experts, with the population, critique, feedback and most importantly a compromise, a final consensus, which, unfortunately, does not happen very often.

In my opinion, what we lack here is the culture of debate. The culture of communication and of cooperation. We are not very good at public discussions and taking common decisions, unfortunately. And this is not only a problem of our officials, it is true for all of our society. We lack the culture of dialogue, the ability to develop a unified position. It is easier for us to squabble than to work out an agreement.

The third question is obvious. Studying cities, we get to understand that a city is always a conflict of interest. As Guy Debord wrote, “the spectacle of automobiles demands a perfect transport network which destroys old cities, while the spectacle of the city itself requires museum areas”. He also wrote that each social group has its own interests and in a big city, they tend to clash. For instance, car users are not happy with pedestrians, while pedestrians are disturbed by cyclists, and cyclists believe that the above two categories are only there to harass them. Each time we try to make a change in the city, we stumble over a conflict of interest.

For example, religious people want a new church which is supposed to be constructed in a public garden, because there is very little free space in the city already. The garden, however, is the place where elderly people and young mothers with their children love to take walks. That provokes a conflict. I believe that there is no vision of the future, no certainty that has to be there for everyone. To find our vision of a future that could unite us all, at least those of us who share the same city or come from the same generation, or the same nation for that matter, we will have to make a long and arduous journey of creative pursuit and compromise.