Moscow: A Global City?

PHOTO by zheltikov / Depositphotos
Nikolai Novichkov, a former advisor to the Russian Minister of Culture, talks about city mythology, sensible audacity, Moscow borscht, spiritual dominance and Moscow’s global role in the modern world

Nikolai Novichkov is a Doctor of Economics, a professor, head of the Expert Council Tourism Development Workgroup of the Government of the Russian Federation, a former advisor to the Minister of Culture, deputy head of Russian Federal Agency for Tourism (Rostourism), deputy head of Perm Krai gubernatorial administration. As an innovative entrepreneurship and cultural policy specialist, he is deeply engaged in urban research.

The “Charter of Living Cities,” which you helped bring to life, says that each city has its own mission. Being a fortress city, a festival city, a museum city and so on. The mission is the primary aspect of a particular city’s appeal. So what do you think is Moscow’s mission?

Moscow’s mission is to be a global city. There are only a handful of these kind of cities in the world – London, New York, maybe Tokyo. These are our competitors. It’s clear why the world needs London; it’s a global financial and educational centre. Moscow, that’s a different story. Actually, the issue is not to do with the city, but the country. Why does the world need Russia?

We have the sixth largest economy in the world, the second largest in Europe. We are the second largest military capacity in the world and we are ranked sixth or seventh in terms of population. Russian is the second most used language online, as hundreds of millions of people across the world use it. So we simply cannot avoid discussing the role of Russia in the global world.

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The Moscow Kremlin

We have a great capital: rich, exciting, full of culture and taste. It hasn't become a financial centre, though. The same goes for education: it could have become an educational hub, although it still has the opportunity to do so. The mission of every global city is the creation and sharing of a purpose for itself. Moscow belongs to Russia. So Moscow’s global role is the concern not just the of city authorities, but of the national leadership.

Moscow shares all aspects of Russian culture with the world, from its cuisine to the Bolshoi Theatre. Moscow is the projector of a certain lifestyle. Moscow never sleeps is not just a catchphrase, it’s the truth. It’s an image of the city, and, I think, a positive one. This city is the place where trends are shaped. Vladimir Putin is the most powerful politician in the world. It’s a fact, and everyone in the world lives with it.

Moscow is a useful tool for creation of an appealing image of our country. We can’t shut in on ourselves, we need to be outward looking.

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Nikolskaya Street in central Moscow with GUM Department Store on the right

Another thing is how the city's population is incorporated in this global model. Who are Muscovites? Are they active agents of this globalisation? Or are they passive consumers? I believe that the mistake of city authorities – not just the current one, but in general – is in treating the citizens as the silent majority. The authorities believe that they know what locals want and they stop at nothing to improve the city. This includes everything from resurfacing the roads to cultural policy. Moscow cultural policy often fails for this very reason: we’ve made everything amazing for you, and you’re ungrateful and unhappy! This is a dead end.

Muscovites are extremely annoyed by the constant repaving of the city's paths. It’s not even about the use of tiles instead of asphalt, it’s about citizens not being asked what they want. The people don’t need to be taken care of, they need to be made into active participants in the city’s life. Of course, that’s not an easy thing to achieve.

At the moment, I get the impression that the city administration has no idea how to go about turning Moscow into a global city. One of the aspects of a global city is its appeal, safety and hospitality. So you come there and feel welcome in this unfamiliar place, everything makes sense, you know what to do, how to do it and you’re not scared of going outside.

People from other Russian cities say that Moscow is inhospitable. That’s not the case, of course. But compared to other global centres, Moscow is not as welcoming.

So what do you think is Moscow’s tourism potential?

Our city is a showcase of the best our country has to offer. A foreigner only needs to come to Moscow to get acquainted with Russia. That will be enough. Take a stroll through the Boulevard Ring and you’ll see the country’s history through several centuries. You can try, see, and discover a lot of things here.

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Novy Arbat Street, central Moscow

I’m not a believer in the concept that Moscow is not Russia and true Russia can only be discovered deep into the provinces. This is simply not true.

Moreover, Moscow has the ideal location, transport-wise. It’s easily accessible from any global capital. Muscovites more or less speak passable English. The quality of service has improved over the last decade, the city has excellent groceries, amazing theatres, inspiring museums. It has a lot to offer.

What does modern Moscow lack?

It lacks creativity in positioning and cautiously aggressive promotion towards overseas markets. If we seek to claim global leadership and cultural domination, we need to act accordingly.

There is also a lack of positive dialogue between the city authorities and its citizens. You can’t make a city appealing if the locals don't believe that it is. Ideally all Muscovites need to be Moscow’s and Russia’s agents in promoting them on a global level. They need to promote the very culture that foreigners come here to take in.

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A view from a Moscow City skyscaper

What else? Moscow doesn’t have enough mid-level hotels, so there’s room to grow there.

You’ve mentioned several times that cities need to focus on branding. Which brand or brands does Moscow need?

Moscow is a brand in itself, with a positive message. It’s important that it’s intertwined with Russia in the minds of the majority of foreigners. Moscow is Russia. That’s enough, essentially. You can further develop this brand through specific Moscow cuisine, through cultural and sporting events, through architecture. Everything needs to carry a positive message.

We’ve been arguing with the city administration for a while now about the subject of Moscow gastronomic brands. Do they exist? I believe so. A quick market analysis yields a couple of dozen of these. We don’t even need to come up with anything new. But they’re invisible! So we need to define them. Take borscht, for example. It’s a Moscow dish - for a foreigner, at least. There’s no point in discussing its history. If it’s become an element of the day-to-day life of a global city, then it becomes a local dish. The same goes for kvass and vodka. Olivier salad was invented by a Frenchman, and yet it’s a Moscow dish.

I have to hand it to the Moscow administration, they’ve come up with the Moskva (Moscow) cake. It’s a step in the right direction, but there are a few things to consider. For example, New York cheesecake is known (and eaten) all over the world. Why? Simple. First of all, it’s delicious. Second, it’s easy to bake. A Mosvka cake is tasty, but it’s not easily made. So it’s tough to make it outside of Moscow. We need the opposite.

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This is a kind of spiritual domination – a specific dish that's recreated all over the world. Take the hamburger, Coca-Cola or the aforementioned cheesecake. There’s your perfect example of global Anglo-Saxon domination. We need to adopt the same approach. And we need not worry about appropriation. Some may say that borscht comes from Ukraine, others that it’s native to Kuban. It’s a Moscow dish to us. And if it’s served in world’s best restaurants, it’s a win for us too.

If I’m understanding correctly, any contemporary city needs its own mythology…

We live in a world of symbolism. How can we exist without mythology? It’s a given for life in a global city. Proper positioning on a global arena, understanding of what messages you send and how they are perceived – all this is directly linked to our reality. For example, an outside observer may judge your dirty car to be a indication of your negligence, even if you only had no time to wash it because you were running late for a meeting. This concept applies to everything.

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Izmailovo Kremlin, Moscow

Overall, Moscow has a positive image. This city has a lot going for it. It’s safe, it has great shops and amazing museums, public transit is reliable, and so on. We need to trumpet these facts, lead by the city authorities. They have both enough experience and resources to do it. Of course, a lot also depends on the federal government and citizens. But only the city administration can get everyone around the meeting table, so to speak.

You’ve mentioned several times that that city of the future should be green, dynamic and quick to respond. What do you think is most important?

All three elements are important. Moscow is lagging behind when it comes to the last one though. We take a lot of time to move around, to coordinate and make decisions, even to gather information. If we want to come out ahead of our global competition, we need to seriously boost our responsiveness.