Move Russia’s Capital from Moscow to Siberia?

Posted May 6th, 2012 at 12:47 pm (UTC+0)
12 comments

Heavy traffic routinely clogs traffic around the Kremlin in Moscow's central core. Photo: Reuters/Anton Golubev

Sergei Shoigu, the newly appointed governor of the Moscow Region, recently proposed that Russia move its capital to Siberia.

Shoigu, a native of the Buddhist majority republic of Tuva, just north Mongolia, may have been playing to his home audience.

The idea was immediately squelched, and the Moscow regional assembly dutifully approved Shoigu’s appointment to run Russia’s richest region.

On Monday, Vladimir Putin returns to the Kremlin to rule Russia from Moscow, an ancient capital now under siege by about four million cars.

I have visited planned capitals on four continents. The idea of taking a capital out of an old city is a good one – and it works!

I first visited Brasilia in 1976 when red dust marked the walls of Oscar Niemeyer’s futuristic government buildings. Brasilia was a bold statement by the leaders of a people who had clung to the Atlantic coast for five centuries. By moving the capital 1,200 kilometers into the interior, Brazil’s leaders refocused the nation toward its western frontier. Half a century after the move, Rio de Janeiro has recovered from the loss of its capital status – and is far better off without it.

Similarly, the construction of Islambad in the 1960s drew Pakistan’s focus away from the coast, where the first capital was located, in Karachi. Ditto Abuja. By creating a new capital in Nigeria’s interior, Africa’s largest nation has drawn economic activity out of Lagos, on the coast. Both are reasonably functional capitals in fairly chaotic countries.

By moving Russia’s federal capital to Novosibirsk, Russians would finally take their eastern vocation seriously. A few years ago, China displaced Germany as Russia’s biggest trading partner. If Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg as Russia’s “Window on the West”, Vladimir Putin could elevate Novosibirsk to Russia’s “Window on the East.”

Founded in 1893 at the site of the Trans-Siberian railroad crossing of the River Ob, Novosibirsk has grown from wilderness settlement to major scientific center with 1.4 million inhabitants, Russia’s third largest urban population.

Moscow State University looms over stalled traffic on Moscow “Garden” Ring Road in this 2003 photo. Since then, the banner ads have been taken down in favor of digital billboards which beam advertising messages to a captive audience of thousands of trapped drivers. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

Around the world, three other successful capitals were built to defuse rivalries among existing big cities.

Washington was established defuse the rivalry among New York, Philadelphia and Boston. In Canada, Ottawa was developed as a linguistic neutral capital, midway between English-speaking Toronto and French-speaking Quebec City. In Australia, Canberra was built a century ago as an alternative to favoring Sydney or Melbourne. It’s a pleasant, livable city where kangaroos actually jump around on lawns.

By moving its capital to a third city, Russia would lessen the huge imbalance between Moscow, now a virtual city state, and St. Petersburg, the neo-classical planned capital spurned by the Soviets.

Moving Russia’s capital to Novosibirsk, would have another fringe benefit – easily half of federal employees would refuse to move to Siberia, helping Vladimir Putin meet his stated goal of cutting bloated federal payrolls.

But the main reason for moving the federal government out of Moscow is the capital’s creeping traffic paralysis.

With 800,000 new cars hitting the streets of Moscow every year, streets are slowly seizing up. Last year, average speeds slowed by 15 percent inside the Garden Ring, which defines the city center.

Today, the average Muscovite spends three hours commuting to and from work each day. One snow day last winter, 3,000 kilometers of Moscow streets and “highways” were locked in a massive traffic jam.

It took a visitor, Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive officer of the Goldman Sachs Group, to state the obvious: Moscow’s traffic jams are a big obstacle to turning the capital into a financial hub.

Below ground, in the Moscow metro, things are not much better.

Last year, about 4 million people rode the Moscow subway system every workday – about 20 percent over capacity.

Now at rush hour, there 5.6 people per square meter of metro floor space. Sardines get more space in their cans – and they’re packed in oil!

Moscow’s government is responding by building 70 new stations and increasing the track network by 50 percent, to 450 kilometers by 2020. But it’s unclear if the city has the engineering capacity to meet these goals. Last week saw the reopening of a key line transfer point, at Park Kulturii. It took city workers 15 months to install new escalators and turnstiles with plastic glass doors.

Having fun yet? The best way to enjoy a Moscow traffic jam is to take an elevator to the top of the Swissotel (gray tower on the right). A lounge chair in City Space Bar offers a pleasant view of an endless red smear of red tail lights on Moscow's “Garden” Ring Road.

In another effort to curb the use of cars, Moscow has announced that free street parking in the city center will end in September. Rates will be light – 50 rubles an hour – or $1.70. By comparison, midtown Manhattan garages often charge $8 for the first hour.

To save 50 rubles, I can see oligarch shoppers ordering their drivers to cruise the Bentleys, further contributing to limo-gridlock.

The next step should be to defend pedestrians with an updated version of the technology used 70 years ago to keep Nazi tanks. To protect sidewalks from parked cars, all central Moscow sidewalks should be defended with steel poles, the contemporary equivalent of anti-tank traps.

But the core problem remains: half of Moscow’s jobs are in the city core.

Rather than taking the bold leaps followed by leaders of nations as diverse as Australia, Brazil, Pakistan and Nigeria, the Kremlin is settling for a half step.

In April, as outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev pushed hard to polish his legacy, he announced that a series of federal agencies will move out of central Moscow.

Their destination: to new territories created by expanding Moscow’s border to the southwest.

In case this move is seen as too bold, he said that a priority project will be to upgrade Kaluzhskoye Shosse. This highway will be redesigned so drivers can speed down the 25 kilometer stretch from new government ministries to the Kremlin – without traffic lights.

Traffic moves smoothly in these photos of Novosibirsk Photo: Texmon

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

12 responses to “Move Russia’s Capital from Moscow to Siberia?”

  1. John says:

    At same time as this discussion of moving capital – or possibly creating a shifting capital as in Republic of South Africa, comes word of the creation of a new mega-corporation for developing Siberia and Far East. According to Rossiiskaya Gazeta, population of the Far East has decreased 20% to some 6 million between 1991 and 2011 – something is just not going very well in the development of the Far East. Food products are expensive, yet the Chinese and North Koreans are looking to rent farm land in the Far East.

    So this new mega-corporation is going to boost Far East development, but even as it was announced recently, the Finance Ministry is pushing-back against the enormous investment expectations – and probably the unwritten probably of immense corruption. Kudrin sees this mega-project as a huge black hole of expense:

    “These plans immediately cross out the target for Russia to jump to 20th place in international ‘doing business’ ratings from the current 120th position,”
    (http://en.ria.ru/business/20120425/173043818.html)

    Inevitably, something will be happening, but there doesn’t appear to be any near-term rational development opportunities beyond natural resources available.

  2. bob lafayette says:

    really interesting article on moving russias capitol [and notes on other world capitols moving altho nothing about moving burmas capitol [not a success [yet] i believe

  3. […] Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a […]

  4. Tessa says:

    I like the concept. Washington, DC should be moved to St. Louis. The East is definitely out of touch with the rest of the country. Or is it that politicians are out of touch with reality?

    (James, dear, who proofs your work? “Washington was established defuse the rivalry among New York, Philadelphia and Boston.”)

  5. Thought provoking article. Liked the history evoked of past capital shifts and its effects. thank you.

  6. Traffic in Novosibirsk is not all that smooth as the these dated pictures suggest. The main North-South axis is regularly clogged. But North-West of town, close to the airport, we have a large flat area that would make for a good future federal capital.

  7. Sawak Sarju says:

    Why was Myanmar’s capital from Yangon ( Rangoon) moved to Naypyidaw ( formerly Pyinmana)

    Sawak Sarju.

  8. George Tessa says:

    I hope one day china will move its capital to chongqing which was ever the capital of china!

  9. Oleksander says:

    Sounds great ! I am all for a move like that , the further Moscovia’s capital is moved from Kyiv , the better .

  10. Steve says:

    This sounds like a great Idea for the Kremlin to move its operations. Just like Philadelphia isn’t the capitol of anything anymore for reasons stated above. Harrisburg is the capitol of PA. Its out in the middle of nowhere.
    Now that DC is so overcrowded with tourists, maybe its time to move it to St. Louis, the gateway to the west. Not a bad idea.
    But I digress, Moscow should really consider this. and the parking fees will help they’re government. They should have been charging for awhile now. Look at all that lost revenue.

  11. Goaty McCheese says:

    Brasilia is the ugliest, most soulsucking goddamn place on Earth. If the Brazilians had any sense they would burn it to the ground, then eat the ashes and crap them out, then set their ash-crap on fire for just to make sure it wouldn’t come back. An architectural travesty that makes Bergen-Belsen look like freaking Paris.

  12. Sawak Sarju says:

    Many countries have moved their Capital with no regrets.

    Capitals are move for specific reasons………Good Reasons.

About

About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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