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Analysis & Opinion
29.09.10 Luzhkov – The Legend
By Roland Oliphant

Whether or not Yuri Luzhkov leaves this week or in the coming months, there is no doubt that his departure will mark the end of an era. As the only mayor Moscow has really known since the fall of the Soviet Union – his predecessor Gavriil Popov only served for one year, from June 1991 to June 1992 – Luzkov’s name is synonymous with the modern city.

“Yuri Luzhkov did a great deal for the development of Moscow, and is a famously significant figure in modern Russia,” said Vladimir Putin when reporters asked him about the mayor’s departure. And he should know. Moscow’s never really known anyone quite like the flat-capped, rotund honey bee enthusiast. Since 1992 – the year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and seven years before Putin himself was plucked from obscurity to succeed Boris Yeltsin as president – the irascible former chemist and Soviet-era manager has presided over the capital like a lord.

He was one of the biggest figures of Russian politics, mentioned in the same breath as former presidents Yeltsin and Putin. “He was one of those heavyweights in the Russian political arena, and his impact is very controversial, much the same way as trying to define the impact of Yeltsin, with whom I think he is comparable,” said Pavel Baev of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. Nikolai Petrov at the Moscow Carnegie Center sees closer parallels with Putin “in the sense that he met public expectations after several years of lacking a real master in the house, of meetings, of democratic saying, of lack of efficient government.”

But the truth is Luzhkov, as Baev conceded, has always been “very much his own man.” If he is compared to the former presidents, it is not because he resembles them, but because he could so easily have been one of them.

“Not Your Regular Political Animal”

A contemporary of Yeltsin – they were born just five years apart – the future mayor was shaped by the Soviet Union. He grew up under Stalin, entered higher education under Nikita Kruschev, and for many years was a card carrying member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He himself is “pretty much a Soviet man,” said Petrov, but part of the secret of his success was being able to fill the breach between Moscow’s Soviet and post-Soviet leadership.
He is also a product of the city he came to rule, but not in an orthodox sense. Muscovites like to say that to truly be one of them your grandparents should have been born in the city. Luzhkov’s were not – his father, a wood worker, moved to the city from the Tver Region in the 1930s. But he was born and raised in the city’s suburbs – and being outside the Moscow establishment had its own advantages. “I would say he made himself and his career,” said Petrov. “Unlike many other careers, it was done step by step, and it was due to his managerial abilities that he managed to become deputy mayor and later mayor of Moscow.”

And that became the Luzhkov legend: a self-made man who thrives under pressure, never backs down from a fight and seems to be even stronger when he was being attacked – by critics in the City Duma, by the opposition, or even, fatally, by president Dmitry Medvedev. “That’s his character; it’s the character of a peasant-like person,” said Petrov. “That’s why his agricultural habits and honey-making habits became such a very important element of his personality and his image.”

A graduate of what is now the Russian State University of Oil and Gas, Luzhkov is a chemist by training and worked for many years in scientific research – first at the Institute of Plastic Masses and then, for six years starting in 1964, when he joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, as a department head at the State Chemistry Institute. He continued to climb the rungs of the Soviet scientific community with a stint as director of a design bureau at the Ministry of Chemical Industry, where he finished with a brief stint as head of the science and technology department.
At the same time he was also cultivating a political career, becoming a deputy in the Babushkinsky District Council in 1975. Two years later he made it to the Moscow City Council, where he gradually rose until, during Perestroika, in 1987, he became deputy speaker.

Big break

Luzhkov’s big break came in June of 1991, when he was made first deputy to Mayor Gavriil Popov, an outspoken proponent of democratization. While Moscow was in the grip of the August coup attempt that year and his boss was busy siding with the moderates, Luzhkov made sure the city kept working. “He made his real career under Gavriil Popov,” said Petrov. “He was taking care of the city when Popov was making brilliant speeches.”

Moscow at this time was sorely in need of a manager. “After the Soviets Moscow had so many gaping holes—as a deputy, I would get complaints all the time about elevators not working for weeks, no hot water or heating for weeks on end in winter, burst pipes,” recalled Dmitry Katayev, a City Duma deputy between 1990 and 2005. “In 1992 I’d go out in the center on Petrovka Street at 7 p.m., it would be totally dark, kicked-in windows, puddles, and not a soul around. It was a deserted and eerie place.”

Against that backdrop, “Luzhkov was considered to be the savior who came to make our life better here in the city,” said Petrov. And he unquestionably made a difference. “It’s not that he himself created order, but he played a big role in it,” said Katayev, who became a fierce critic of Luzhkov’s corruption.

The new mayor poured energy into rebuilding and beautifying the city. He rebuilt at great expense the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, destroyed by the Bolsheviks to make way for a skyscraper that was never built – that single act comes the nearest to defining what we could call Luzhkov’s political ideology; an old fashioned, essentially conservative Russian patriot. “In so far as he was a communist, he’s the patriotic, nationalistic kind – not an internationalist,” said Petrov.

He littered the streets with monolithic bronzes by his friend, the Georgian artist Zurab Tsereteli. Loyal to President Boris Yeltsin and dismissive of calls by his opponents to resign, by the end of the decade he was one of the best-known and most popular politicians in the country, and had won two elections to prove it.

The Kremlin seemed just a step away, but sharp maneuvering by Putin’s team and a concerted negative media campaign (of which we saw echoes in recent weeks) saw his ambitions averted. Instead, he was offered a deal – he could keep Moscow, and merge his Fatherland-All Russia party with Unity to form United Russia. He would remain massively influential, but he was not to move down Tverskaya Street to the Kremlin.

It was around this time that critics say they saw a change in the way he ruled. “I divide Luzhkov’s rule into two periods: before 1999 to 2000, things were generally very positive,” said Katayev. “The breaking point came around 2000, when after the default of 1998 housing became more expensive, and there was such money in it that appetites went through the roof.”

Until then Elena Baturina’s Inteko firm had dealt mainly in plastics, and the abuses of her husband’s position – she got the contract to put up chairs in the Luzhniki Stadium, for example, and is rumored to have had her husband oblige every Moscow district to buy plastic Christmas trees of her making – were “little things, easily overlooked,” said Katayev. “But when in 2000 Baturina went into the construction business, the entire Moscow government turned to serve the construction business.”

Luzhkov’s resulting legacy, said Alexei Mukhin, the director of the Center for Political Information, is “the stereotype of the Russian governor as a businessman and politician all in one,” said Alexei Mukhin. That may last, or fade with time. But for Moscow the legacy will be more long-lasting. “It is a very significant contribution. He obviously made a huge imprint on how Moscow looks and how Moscow works, on what sort of feelings there are in the country at large about Moscow,” said Baev.

As far as Katayev is concerned, Moscow doesn’t look better. “The historic center has been marred, the transportation system can no longer develop in the city – all of the highways that were supposed to be built were built over with other stuff, transportation hubs have been built over with supermarkets that stick out onto the streets and take up driving space,” he said. “The Moscow ring road has been surrounded with construction on the outside, because there is cheap land there. The supposed general plan – and in reality it is totally chaotic and predatory construction – has caused colossal damage to Moscow.”
The source
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