The Moscow River Age

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story of the Moscow River, written by Yury Grigoryan, Anna Kamyshan and Yulia Tarnavskaya, translated from Russian by Anna Shirokova-Koens, focus on human and urban domination over nature. It complements the homonym Russian pavilion features in the XXII Triennale di Milano Broken Nature. The curators of the national Russian participation, Yury Grigoryan, Anna Kamyshan, Yury Kuznetsov, Taisia Osipova, Sergei Sitar and Elena Uglovskaya, aim is to develop a new attitude that considers nature an independent participant in terrestrial life. This project was coordinated by Bogdan Peric.

An old fisherman sits with his granddaughter at the natural green riverfront in front of the Kremlin. Picture from Meganom’s proposal for the Moscow River redevelopment strategy, 2014.

The Moscow River Age presents a timeline of stories that explore the relationship between humans and the Moscow river spanning over 200 years as it is our recent past and our near future we can easily grasp.
Systematic engineering in the last century drastically altered the destiny of the main waterway of Moscow. Dams and gateways locked its natural flow, channels connected it to the far seas, vast territories within the river basin became water storages. It suffered enormous human intervention. The industrial age is gone, and today we might pretend the exploitation is over: look, the river side turned into a pretty area and you are meant to enjoy your time there. However, in order to pay back our debt to the nature and the river men should not only stop exploiting it but make this relationship mutually beneficial. It means that it has to become a ‘win-win’ type of relationship which both sides could benefit from.
In search of restorative design, we collected many ideas of how it can be treated with a respectful attitude in mind. Friendship and love are central to this approach. The authors of the exhibit items are truly Friends of the Moscow river.
The part of the display the describes the river’s potential future gives some clues about how humans can see the river as their equal from which they take but to whom they also give back.
The narrative is polyphonic: many different voices tell us about the life of the river and the life of those who live near it. What kind of impact do they have on each other?

The first period — 1919-1931 — can be described as the ‘era of freedom’. It was the time when people were closely studying nature, its rhythm and tempo. Floods came in spring, and draughts came in summer. Swimming in the river was a common hygienic activity, and beaches were created even by the Kremlin walls. But once it was decided to build the Moskva-Volga canal, later known as the Moscow canal, this era came to an end.
As the river was enclosed into stone, and its free flow was interrupted by dams and locks, a vast number of people were sent to prison or labour camps. Many of the convicts were forced to build the Moscow canal. By various estimates, from several tens of thousands to a million and a half of people died during its construction.
The canal is something that the inmates and the constrained river had in common. At the same time, its coming-into-being marks the beginning of the new era: the river became a core resource for the city’s economic development.


The second period of the timeline refers to the years when the river was fiercely exploited. However, it was exactly then that the river became the key romantic motive for many projects and literary/artistic works, for the human soul longed for nature in these harsh industrial times.
It was the publication of an essay written by Timofey Raynov, the evangelist of cosmism, which gave way to romanticizing of the river. In his 1947 piece he was advocating that humans should treat inanimate nature — say, the planet, a stone or a river — the same way they would treat a person. These thoughts resonate with the contemporary philosophical thought today, when the Gaia’s hypothesis by James Lovelock is seriously taken into consideration by many scientists in different countries. His reflections were a starting point for changing the attitude towards the river in the future, as far as the exhibition’s narrative is concerned.
Architectural and artistic works which praised the natural state of the river and defended its purification were another example of how people were romanticizing it (see exhibit items 1968, 1969, 1991). The longing for clean river water coincided with the construction of new dams and water storage reservoirs, and massive industrial wastewater discharge into the river. Its embankments became thoroughfares that polluted the water and destroyed the traditional way of life.

The third part of the exhibition covers the Moscow river’s today and tomorrow, from 2014 to 2029. The ecological crisis and the romantic artistic image of the river were reinvented during the 2014 development competition for the best project for renovation of its riverside. The dream of its rehabilitation, of making the river natural again becomes a trigger for many initiatives, whether private, state, public or activist. There are people who arrange artistic actions on the river, people who enjoy an illegal swim, and others are looking for ways to clean the river.
During this period, the name ‘Friends of the Moscow River’ first became known, and their Manifesto, which declared the right to the river, was first spread.

2030 is marked by an important event: it is declared that the Moscow River possesses natural intelligence (NI). This recognition has a strong impact on the attitude of people towards the river. The slogan used in the manifesto of the Friends of the Moscow River — ‘Let’s return our right to the river!’ — is changed into ‘Let’s give the river back its rights!’.
The river becomes a source of inspiration for a lot of movements, from scientific and educational programs (such Water Affection) to radically eco-friendly and near-religious groups (such as The River Movement). In 2045, the river is granted the right to compensation for damage caused to it in the 1930s and gradually returns to its natural course and state.

The fifth section of the ‘The Age of the Moscow river’ exhibition is dedicated to the period of symbiosis. It is in this time that genetic engineering is being widely used as an instrument of research, as people look for better ways of coexistence, trying to find a solution that brings harmony for the river’s natural intellect and themselves.
River silk — a type of fabric derived from river moss — becomes the favorite eco-trend of Moscow fashion mongers. The River radio is the city’s most popular choice. The upland fringe made of membrane and mother-of-pearl embankments of the river turn unto new symbols of the capital. Finally, sturgeons — designed as markers of the river wellbeing — are celebrated in works of art.

The sixth — the last — part of the timeline is also the most ambiguous. It starts in 2091 when an eco-social district of the Drainless Area of the Caspian Sea was formed. Along with other territories, the Moscow river Basin and its inhabitants became a part of this district.
In this way the human-river relationship is switched to a new mode. After years of exploiting the river and subsequent years when people attempted to form a symbiosis with it, nature starts to play the leading role. The quintessence of this change shows in the fact people created an official position of The One Who Thinks About the River. Any resident of the Moscow river Basin can take it and start contemplating the river on a regular basis as a professional.


Yury Grigoryan
Yury Grigoryan, co-founder of Meganom architectural practice. In 1991 Yury graduated from MARCHI Moscow Architectural Institute, where he is currently a professor. From 2011 until 2014 he was the Director of Education at Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design. Besides leading Meganom, Yury regularly gives publics talks and participates in conferences.

Anna Kamyshan
Anna Kamyshan, co-founder of the Moscow River Friends community. Since 2014 she has been leading the Moscow River strategic redevelopment project at Meganom. Anna was trained as an architect, completed a postgraduate programme at the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design (2014) and later a postgraduate programme in Sociology at the University of Manchester (2016). 

Yulia Tarnavskaya
Yulia Tarnavskaya, editor. Previously worked as the editor-in-chief of the Afisha, Bolshoy Gorod and Afisha-Mir magazines. A few large exhibitions, including "Romantic Realism" (2015, Manege art hall, Moscow) and "Mechanics of Miracle" (2014, VDNKh, Moscow) benefited from Yulia's expertise, as she was responsible for their wall texts and captions. She was also the editor of the book that Meganom published to honour the memory of David Sarkisyan, the late director of the Moscow Museum of Architecture.

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