During the winter and spring of 2011-12 residents of Moscow and Saint Petersburg went into the streets en masse for the first time in 20 years, demanding change in the regime of political and social inequality associated with the great imbalances of wealth in their country. As a response to the massive movements in the streets and on the Internet, the Russian government, in the form of the security forces and the parliament, began a brutal crackdown on all dissent. New laws criminalizing almost any public gathering as unauthorized political rallies and increasing the fines for participation in such gatherings 150-fold, along with parliamentary proposals to monitor and shut down internet service providers delivering ‘offensive’ content, are all intended to freeze movement and quell political unrest. However, there are unintended results of such inequitable uses of power: instead of freezing any specific movement, the entire field of action is activated. In such a tense, electrified field, one small action can precipitate lighting strikes in response.
It was into this newly electrified field that I arrived in October 2011, invited to Moscow and Saint Petersburg to collaborate with architects, sociologists, and activists committed to DIY methods for reclaiming urban development at the grassroots level. In Russia, as I soon discovered, discussion of urban development, architectural preservation and ‘community building’ are often the aesthetic surrogates for more dangerous political arguments. Wealth and political inequality are more than ever expressed in the ability to control these discussions. In fact, in a turn eerily reminiscent of life during the Soviet era, inequality in Russian cities is often evidenced by the (in)ability to simply go out of one’s home and gather together with fellow citizens.
In collaboration with a group of Moscow-based “urban hacktivists,” Partizaning.org, I developed a concept for working with the new momentum for grassroots-level change in both cities. Operating on the principle that change begins in small movements, with simple communion between strangers, I asked: Could people, barred from meeting outside, claim as public the intimate space of the home? Working in urban districts in which residents feared the loss of their homes to new regimes of luxury real estate development, I organized Sociological Party Marathons. Strangers from different parts of the city met at a predetermined point. Bringing food and drink, these strangers asked to enter the homes of local residents, to sit, have a party, and learn intimate aspects of their relationship with the area. What emerged among participants in these gatherings and subsequent workshops was a new understanding of how people perceive inequality between neighbors. The form of the party-marathon suggested both the fun and freedom of the carnival and the structured exhaustion and euphoria of an athletic race through a city. The concept demanded a great deal of trust between strangers, and courage to make public the most restricted spaces in Russian cities. As one participant who balked at the prospect of ringing a stranger’s doorbell remarked: “this boundary is the most important in a Russian’s life.”