What is it like to grow up in Moscow?

Young people on a bench

Image by Edwin Gardner, from Partizan Publik

In a couple of weeks I will be speaking at the Moscow Urban Forum, and I am asking for your help in making the most of this exciting opportunity. I want to find out more about everyday life for Moscow’s children. Can you help me discover what it is like to grow up in the neighbourhoods that the majority of Muscovite families live in?

Most families live in areas called microdistricts or microrayons: large apartment block estates built during the post-war Soviet era. The Strelka Institute, who are my hosts and the conference organisers, paint an unflattering picture of microrayons. In a blog post that explains their origins in Nikita Khrushchev’s vision of low-cost, functional homes for the masses, the institute states, “What once was a leader’s dream come true, is now a nightmare.”

Google took me to this fascinating website and set of articles on life in the microrayons, written by the Dutch research outfit Partizan Publik. One post features an interview and neighbourhood tour with three teenage boys, who appear to take pleasure in showing the researchers some of the seedier sides of life in their neighbourhood.

Vitaly and his friends

Image from Partizan Publik

Still, this is only one or two districts, and a handful of young people. I am inviting readers to help me find out more. I am especially interested in what everyday life might be like for children between the ages of about 5 to 11 – in other words, once they are at school, but before their teenage years. Are there things to do and places to go outside the home? How much everyday freedom do pre-teens have, and how easy is it for them to get around?

Also – what are the parks and play areas like? This photo library search suggests a familiar design approach, with brightly coloured steel and plastic – and a sterile, unchallenging ambience – fitted as standard.

Moscow playground

Image from Strelka Institute

On the other hand, this article from the website englishrussia.com points to some darker, more intriguing, and more individualistic design ideas.

Image from englishrussia.com

So: do you know anyone who grew up in a microrayon – in Russia, or in other former Communist states? Can you point me to any articles, research or other content (English language please)? Maybe you grew up in a microrayon yourself? As ever, all contributions would be much appreciated.

Update 1: Monday 19 November 2012: Coincidentally, this weekend’s Guardian had an article by Lucy Ward in its Family section about her experience of living in Moscow with her three young children for two years. There are some interesting observations about the impact of the cold. This was not entirely negative – Lucy says “The freezing winters, indeed, offered perhaps some of our happiest times in Moscow: far from moaning about the cold as they might in England, the children learned to skate, played ice hockey and sledged lethally in the parks.”

Update 2: Tuesday 11 December 2012: I have added a post sharing my reflections on the visit here.

27 responses to “What is it like to grow up in Moscow?

  1. I grew up in Tushino and Kuntsevo – both are kind of panel housing in the outskirts of Moscow/ But it was in nineties)

    • Thanks for this Daria. I’d like to hear more. Maybe you’re thinking things are so different today – especially with digital and mobile technologies. That’s a factor, of course, but I think your experiences would still have relevance.

  2. My son grows up in kuzminki region. What is it like? First of all – a lot of limitations. He can not run across the streents because a car can appear unexpectedly. He can not walk without shoes (he adores it) because it is too dirty and he can cut himselve with some kind of glass. He even can not lay down to the Earth because there are many old women croudling around him and asking him to stand up
    Luckely for my son, we have a great park in our microrayon. It is huge, there is a lake with chickens, few playgrounds crowded with kids and a lot of roads for riding a bycicle. However, we can walk there only in the day-time: evening is a time for kissing (and having sex) coules and companies of drunk men!

    • Thanks for this Eugenia – very revealing. Here in the UK we have the idea that Russia has a big problem with alcohol. Sounds like that may be true. But I am glad you have a good park (at least for daytime use).

  3. I grew up closer to the Moscow center (the paradox is that presumably the center of the big sity is much more friendly then the outskirts…) Also in the 90’s. Not exactly the focus group, but can I be of any help? My 2 year old son is growing here as well now.

  4. I am grow up in Medvedkovo in typical mikrorajon in the end of Moscow. Now my son live in more easy place but now it not really often I see children’s play on street without any adult. So it really hard to compare.

    I am really interested in topic because working with children a lot. Hope to see you and listen in Moscow.

  5. Hi Tim, I grew up in Moscow and now my 4 yo son is growing here as well. I have to admit that Moscow is not the best environment for kids to grow, you can’t let kids go alone to school, and even just to walk in the yard as it is unsafe, loads of strangers and cars driving fast even in the yards. Air pollution, not much sun. I agree with Alina, centre of Moscow is more friendly or civilized and to my point of view feels safer then the outskirts. On the bright side Moscow has loads of great galleries, museums and other places to go to make kids’ life interesting and to broaden their scope, lovely parks. Also there is a tendency to make parent’s life more comfortable, most of eateries have some entertainment for kids, parks have good playgrounds and galleries have kids corners, etc. Generally speaking now it is trendy to have kids and wherever you go you see loads of happy kids and parents enjoying time together.

  6. Hi Tim! This is an example of the DIY playground for children.in a Russian village far awya from Moscow (700 km) http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150249569830682&set=a10150249563975682.347175.795920681&type=3&theater.

    Usually children don’t have any infrastructure for spending their free time not in a harmful way so the only way out is to find a place to play and usually it is dangerous or when they are older it is to drink and smoke, i can judge by myself, the playground that we have they are boring children don’t like to use them and they are available only in summer time but in russia we have more winter.

    Usually playground for kids in microrayon is a place not only for children, it has shifts – for example, in the morning it is for kids, in daytime – for oldwomen to meet for gossiping, in the evening \night – for teens with beer.

    Here there is an example of another DIY playground http://partizaning.org/?p=5006 but officials want to demolish it , the main reason is that it is dangerous for children, but i like the idea that kids usually like the danger and for them it is really boring to use state typical playgrounds so they need something that should somehow answer their needs and some imagination like in this case really works (i don’t think that is is so dangerous), it answers all games that children are playing at these age (5-11). I remember that i didn’t use the state playground but we were playing at construction sites and etc.

    But we also have some activists who are working with pre-teen kids, For example, my friends breakdancers, in 90s they tought by themselves how to dance it using videos from internet and now they are 30 years old and they are teaching small clidren starting from 6-7 years old. In my area (micrirayon) i think it is one of very few opportunities to spend free time in a funny and useful way.
    Here me and my friend Adeola attended the event and shooted the video how they are dancing http://vimeo.com/47705633

    I hope i helped you somehow.

  7. Sergey, Valentina, Maria – thanks for your comments. Maria – thanks for your links too. That DIY playground is amazing – I haven’t seen anything like it.

  8. My son is 5 and we live in Severnoe Butovo. As to playgrounds – the situation is quite well. There are some examples of them here – http://www.my-sosedi.ru/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/butovo1.jpg

    http://sevbutovo.uzaomos.ru/getfile.aspx?DocID=88574. Even some http://static.ngs.ru/news/preview/244c0101714fa326ed28f29bde61be3a0da30d21_750.jpg and http://lazurit-sport.ru/usr/images/news/street_trainers_2.jpg.
    But I’d like to have something like that in the neighbourhood – http://images02.olx.ru/ui/15/94/07/1319448795_263538707_1—.jpg, because it’s great to climb, hang and so on. So – some good sporting playground.
    We also have two parks. One of them is quite like a small forest with paths and walks. It’s good for walking, cicling, skiing in the winter, but it has only one very poor playground. And it isn’t illuminates (all this park). And most of the playgrounds have very poor or no illumanation which is the problem in autumn-winter-spring seasons, when it’s darken early.

  9. Hi Tim. Although I didn’t grow up in Moscow, I believe the state of the playgrounds in my town would have been quite similar to those in the outskirts of Moscow. I must say that I was growing up in the early 90s and hopefully the things are changing for the better (as proven by Maria’s comment of 16 November) but I think there is still a lot of work to be done, especially in the non-Moscow regions (as proven by the other Maria’s comment of 15 November and the scary looking pictures cited in your article).
    I would argue that Russians are a very much indoors nation. It think in part it has to do with the climate and in part with lack of nice parks, playgrounds, outdoor sporting facilities (perhaps the consequence of the harsh environment?).
    When I was growing up there was a standard “playground” in my local “dvor” (a sort of courtyard, there is typically one per every 3 or 4 apartment buildings), but the state of the only few pieces of the play equipment (a sand pit, a swing and a slide) was pretty poor. I think the problem is not only lack of nice playgrounds all together but also lack of maintenance. Nice things are prone to vandalism (anywhere in the world really) plus we also have one of the harshest climates which doesn’t help when it comes to ensuring longevity of the steel and plastic components.
    One very good initiative that no one has mentioned yet is so called “ice towns”. Normally every winter in towns and cities they create these slides, castles and sculptures made out of ice and that is always a great fun for kids. If you copy and paste “ледовый городок” into google, you should be able to find some pictures of what it looks like.
    I hope this info is somehow useful to you. Good luck and thank you. It would be very exciting to see some positive changes in terms of nice outdoor facilities for children.

  10. All – by coicidence, this weekend’s Guardian had an article about a British family’s experience of living in Moscow for 2 years. I have added an update to my post with a link, and an extract.

  11. Maria, Polina – thanks for your comments. Maria – we have some of those ‘outdoor gyms’ in the UK too. They may be good for adults, but I don’t think they would be much fun for children. Polina – thanks for telling me about ‘ice towns’. Some are very beautiful, and I imagine that making them must be a lot of fun.

  12. I grew up in Moscow in Altufievo region, In the 90’s. We had a standard soviet playground. it was not challenging at all. the most attractive was hanging on such called “web” http://vzsar.ru/i/np_materials/vzsar_4001 or playing “touch” on it.
    We were making up many games to entertain ourselves. mostly involving running and hiding around the multi storie building we were living in.
    Also a construction site – “an unfinished cinema theatre” – was a great place of interest. it was more like about climbing there and wondering around, finding some curious objects.

  13. Hi Tim,
    I am a concerned parent and Landscape Architecture graduate student who has a very special interest in children’s environments and related issues. I was following your blog for a while and even referenced your book in my proposal for thesis which will be dedicated to the research of Los Angeles neighborhoods in terms what they offer to children. I was very excited to hear that you would be speaking in Moscow,and that there are events that raise this kind of topics.
    I grew up in town in Eastern Siberia, lived in Moscow and was raising my young kid (from 0 to 3.5 y.o.) in St.Petersburg. That was the time when I became seriously concerned with children’s spaces and lacking opportunities for play.
    When I moved to California I was surprised to see that despite all differences (geographical, cultural etc.) many problems are global. There are the same sad looking playgrounds (standard and sterile), car traffic and parents’ paranoia about safety. There are sure many differences too, positive and negative. For instance, in Russia the liability constraints are not as ridiculous as in the US; middle school age children are still more independent in terms of mobility as they have more opportunities to walk due to Russian cities denser infrastructure (but there is a growing tendency of driving children to places). The negative sides are that concerns about environment and for instance diminishing children’s play opportunities are not discussed as widely as here. My personal opinion is that children in Russia are more exposed to alcohol and drugs, but I am not very familiar with the same issues here.
    I think that lives of children in Russia changed a lot since eighties, and the change is even more dramatic than in UK or US because of all political and economical changes. Although many changes are similar to changes that happened worldwide. When I was growing up I was more independent than my 8-year old son. He lives in California, but I am pretty sure he would not be able to do things I was doing at his age even if he still lived in Russia. I walked to school and other after-school activities on my own, I stayed home on my own a lot, I played unsupervised since age 4.
    Well, it was a very long post. Hope it gave some overview of the situation (current and historic). I will be happy to share more details if there is any interest. I look forward to reading about your Moscow impressions!

  14. Liuba, Katya – thanks for your comments. I played a lot on building sites when I was young, Liuba! Katya – thanks for such a long and informative reply. You reinforce the impression I am getting from others, that many of the cultural and social trends that we have seen in the UK, USA and AUstralia are also happening in Russia: kids being indoors more; lack of policy interest or emphasis on their outdoor play and mobility; growing safety fears. I get the impression that outdoor drinking (by adults and adolescents) is more prevalent in Russia, though I have no figures on this. Your point about liability is a good one – this is an issue here in the UK too, but it is mainly about fear, not reality. Feel free to get in touch with me – or comment here some more, and good luck with your thesis.

  15. I grew up in microrayon in a town next to Moscow.That was great! There were 7 9 storey buildings with around 1000 inhabitants around a big yard so there were allways lots of kids on a playground.We could play there on our own from very early age beause our mothers could see us from the windows.I could see as well who is there playing and join if there were my friends or everybody was playing nice game. When I went to see my granny, living in low-rise villa development with just road and plots of private land with houses on it on 2 sides-it was the opposite – nowhere to play, mum didn’t let me go too far-just on our street and there were only 2-3 kids of my age, all stupid and boring, so I spent all time on my own or with brother – result of low dencity.

    • Thanks for your comment Anna. Your story shows that living in more dense urban areas can work well for children. By contrast, living in less dense rural areas can leave children isolated. I think some parents who move to rural areas because they think their children will have a better life do not take this into account.

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  17. I have just added to my website some links to interviews and feature articles on my visit (all in Russian). They are at the end of my follow-up post here.

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