Russia, June 21, 1999
I never could find my way around Toglatti!
|Sometime in the 1600's a city was founded on the shores of
the Volga River, just down a bit from where I am sitting. Then, in the 1950's,
the Soviets built a series of dams on the river, flooding the town so a new
city was built, higher up the bank, for the residents. In the 1960's, another
city was built next to that one, this city for the Italians from Fiat, who
came to start a car factory. In true Soviet tradition, the factory provided
for everyone's housing, schooling, healthcare, and recreation. A true Workers'
Paradise. The towns were renamed, New and Old Toglatti, in honor of the Italians,
and everything in the city was named Avto-something after the factory, AvtoVaz.
The factory is a Soviet wonder, producing half of the cars sold in Russia and making Toglatti a rich city in the process. I'm not gonna write anymore about the factory, I'm sure they have a website that I will link when I find it, but the city is so Soviet, it needs a description.
Now, if you were an urban planer, with unlimited resources at your disposal, how would you design a city from scratch? In Russia, they were really into replication, and it shows. Spread out over a huge grid in Toglatti, are the very same apartment buildings in Lidia's neighborhood. In fact, each grid is identical to the next one! They have numbered each grid to give people a reference point, but it is still confusing and monotonous. As Matt and I taxi around, I keep passing, what I think, is our dom, just to find out that it is kilometers away from us. Oh yeah, everything is really spread out. You'd think that a country with low car ownership and high public transport needs would build their apartment buildings close together to maximize shared resources, but not Russia!
All the Soviet planned cities are the same. Huge grids filled with identical apartments, spread out over large areas. It sometimes seems like the size of Russia put a zap to the planner's heads, making them want to conquer the country with apartment blocks. Remember the scene near the end of the original Star Wars, where the Millennium Flacon is shown entering the rebel base, and you see wild stone pyramids peaking out of dense jungle? Well that's what it feels like in a few of these buildings. Like we are in concrete towers rising from thick forests, we are so far from the next building!
Oddly enough, busses go to each and every building, though they are definitely not the most convenient form of transport. A taxi is better, but I can see where Russia is going. Soon enough, this place will look just like American Suburbia, with everyone driving their cars all the time. The roads, already full of crazy drivers, will be even more deadly and/or traffic jammed. Parking might not become the problem it is in America, because here people park everywhere, on the sidewalks, on any green surface, and many times, right in the middle of the street!
Moscow is already famous for it's horrible traffic, but the mayor is following Soviet tradition and building even more apartments, even farther from the city center. He's even encouraging people to move out to them! It might be a good way to stimulate and economy (gotta get a car to get to work), the USA certainly believes in it, but its going to wreck the already assaulted Russian ecology.
I guess the worst part of the Soviet replication planning, is the soullessness of it all. Since all the buildings look a like, in Volgagrad, Toglatti, Zelenograd, and outer Moscow, there is nothing different or special about each area. Once the uniqueness is lost, so is the civic pride and regional differences that make traveling so enjoyable. Now I know why my friends who travel all over Russia on business always go to Europe on vacations. Once you've seen one Soviet city, you've really seen them all.