The following article, written by Jacob Dreyer and originally published in The Calvert Journal as "Maximum city: the vast urban planning projects of Soviet-era Russia are being reborn in modern China," analyzes a fascinating phenomenon: the exportation of Soviet urbanism — or rather Stalinist urbanism — shaping Chinese cities today.
As I cycled to work on 20 May this year, the Yan’an Expressway — Shanghai’s crosstown artery, named after the utopian socialist city that was Mao Zedong's 1940s stronghold — was eerily silent, cordoned off for a visit by President Vladimir Putin. We discovered the next day that the upshot of his visit was the signing a $400bn contract with China for the export of gas and petroleum. As President Barack Obama had once promised he would, Putin made a pivot to Asia, albeit on a slightly different axis. From Shanghai, the terms of the deal — which was immensely advantageous to China — made it seem as if Russia was voluntarily becoming a vassal-state of the People’s Republic, making a reality of both the predictions of Vladimir Sorokin’s dystopian fantasy novel Day of the Oprichnik and of Russian scare stories about Chinese immigrants flooding into Siberia.
The irony is that models of society imported from Russia during the Soviet period — as realised in popular culture, legal apparatuses and, of particular interest to the cyclist, in architecture and urban planning — are as influential as ever in China. If, as Chinese philosopher Wang Hui observed in his book The End of Revolution, Socialism was the door through which China passed on its voyage into modernity, then it was Russia that opened that door, by exporting models and expertise that laid the foundation for much of what constitutes modern China.
Perhaps the most tangible of these legacies is the look and feel of the contemporary Chinese city; and since China is a centrally planned economy, this look and feel is remarkably unified. The prime shaping factor for the modern Chinese city was Soviet urbanism — or more precisely, Stalinist urbanism. In 1949, when the Communists came to power, Beijing was a city of half a million people: 95% or more of both the population and built structures in today’s 20 million-person agglomeration emerged from the revolution, and from the Soviet advice that the new government relied on. In his brilliant book Beijing Record, Wang Jun makes clear the scale of this influence: “On 16 September , a group of Soviet experts in municipal administration arrived in Beijing. They were supposed to help the new government in its work to plan the city’s development. In reality, however, they were to have absolute say in everything."
These Soviet town planners and architects, led by M G Barannikov, delivered a report, Proposals on Improving Beijing’s Municipal Administration, which was to largely shape the development of the city to come. They had come to China not only for geopolitical reasons, but, like the Japanese urban theorists who had come in the 1920s and 1930s, and like the western starchitects who come today because of China’s ability to undertake vast projects, to offer planners speed and huge power. The Soviet model city could be realised on Chinese soil, when it could not be in Russia, because there were fewer impediments; Mao was willing to tear down all old buildings, making the Chinese city a tabula rasa. Moreover, Mao combined in one person the radical revolutionary desires of a Lenin with the total power of a Stalin; he both desired to, and was capable of, completely remaking urban society. A “truer, purer” version of the Soviet urban ideology could be materialised in the Chinese urban desert — literally empty fields and illiterate peasants who were being “modernised” — in the historically complex, ideologically overdetermined spaces of Moscow or St Petersburg.
As the Beijing model was replicated all through the country, in rural and agricultural areas that had never known large cities, this vision became ubiquitous: Soviet architectural typologies and the models of Soviet urban planners constituted the first vision of cities ever glimpsed by Chinese peasants in a rapidly modernising society. Indeed, to this day, migrant workers from the countryside are hustled into the sort of large suburban tower blocks that dominate the edges of Russian cities. The ring roads, the tower blocks, the black taxis, the dingy restaurants, the sidewalks lined with empty liquor bottles: the urban templates of contemporary China are identical to those of the Soviet Union, just multiplied. The similarities do not end there: a frequent traveller from Blagoveshchensk to Heihe, or indeed from Beijing to Moscow, can’t help but note the bad teeth and asymmetrical haircuts of the billionaires, the vulgar suburban replications of Versailles, the endless buzzing in the city centre.
Many western observers, with typically patronising myopia, treat the Soviet model of the city — a centrally planned component within a national economic unity — as irrelevant. In fact, this model of urbanism is thriving. The clearest indication of its survival in today’s China is the concept of “tiered” cities, with Shanghai and Beijing being “first tier”, Hangzhou, Chengdu or Tianjin being “second tier” and so forth. This is a long way from what Dutch architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas has termed “delirious” urbanism: the Chinese city is meticulously planned as part of a holistic national grid of transportation networks, communication networks, and commodity distribution networks — the vast bulk of which is either state-owned or state-controlled.
The western tendency to scoff, or to see this state control as evidence of corruption or incoherence, is strange considering the widespread awe expressed at the ominous development of the Chinese economy, and, in particular at the rapid emergence of some of the world’s fastest growing cities like Zhengzhou, Hefei, Shijiazhuang, Changsha. We should not forget that, in some way, all these cities are the mutated children of the Stalinist belle epoque. The ultimate objective of Stalinism — to rapidly expand the economy in order to destroy western hegemony — is being realised as we speak, by people who have been members of a Communist Party all of their lives. Western observers may feel that they are not “real” communists, seeing as they drink fine wines, visit prostitutes and have chauffeurs: these commentators are evidently unfamiliar with the nature of the Chinese society in the zenith years of Maoist radicalism, in which all of these features existed in abundance.
What is more, not only is the prevalence of the Soviet, centrally planned model of urbanism unarguable, it is to be welcomed. Although it would require the overcoming of a great deal of the cynicism inevitably engendered by ideological apparatuses that seek to convince us that our western way of life is the best and only one, the future of the people — the anonymous global masses of workers whose lives play out far from the metropolis — lies in the Soviet-Chinese model of development. This model is disgusting for its relentless materialism — that of its elites as well as of its lowest citizens, but eminently practical for the same reason.
The creation of generic architectural typologies which can be infinitely duplicated, the model of an economic system which puts everyone and everything into a collective aspiration to increased production — this “Chinese” model of urbanism, which has deep roots in the Soviet theorists’ work, is today growing everywhere that Chinese state-owned companies operate (and often in former Soviet states themselves). The Stalinist-Maoist model, which instrumentalises the relationship between people and their environment in order to generate industrial wealth, even at tremendous cost to those people and environments, is alive today and expanding fast. The Soviet city is dead — long live Beijing.
Jacob Dreyer is a Beijing-based writer and theorist of architecture. He is Senior Editor at Lifestyle 品味生活 Magazine and his work has been published in a wide variety of journals in the US, UK and China. His book The Nocturnal Wanderer is due to be published by Eros Press shortly and his writing can be found here.