Potemkin Parliamentarism and the Project to Redesign the Russian State Duma

Michal MurawskiLecturer in Critical Area Studies, and Ben Noble, Lecturer in Russian Politics, both from UCL SSEES, describe the story of how an ambitious parliamentary speaker, inspired by a blog post shared on Facebook, attempted to redesign the State Duma building to make it appear more democratic.

Figure 1: Doctored image of the Russian State Duma from Dutch architectural practice OMA’s entry for the 2012 Urban Competition for the Elaboration of the Draft Concept of the Moscow City Agglomeration Development, called by the Russian Federation Council – a visualisation of one of many unrealised schemes for the future of the Russian parliament’s lower chamber. OMA’s prize-winning proposal suggested moving the Duma, the Federation Council, and other state institutions to a proposed new ‘Federal Centre’ in the Moscow agglomeration and turning the Duma building itself into a de-sacralised space for leisure and consumption. Reproduced by permission of OMA.

Russia is rarely associated with democracy. Indeed, the state’s treatment of Alexei Navalny since his return to the country in January 2021 has reinforced impressions that Vladimir Putin heads an increasingly repressive authoritarian regime.

But the country – like most non-democracies and democracies alike – has a national-level legislature, the Federal Assembly. Its lower chamber, the State Duma, sits in a cluster of dilapidated buildings in the heart of Moscow, only a stone’s throw away from the Kremlin. Calls for renovation or a rebuild have increased as the roof continues to leak and voids have been found in the building’s foundations.

This blog post tells the story of how an ambitious parliamentary speaker seized the opportunity to redesign the Duma in an attempt to make the body appear more democratic than it is. And it is the story of how a Facebook post started a chain of events that would inform the speaker’s design vision, drawing on the findings of research carried out by a trendy Dutch architecture practice (XML) into parliamentary buildings.

Dilapidated Duma

The State Duma has, since 1994, occupied a sprawling, haphazard complex in a 1930s post-constructivist building – formerly the headquarters of the all-powerful Soviet State Planning Committee (Gosplan) – in the heart of Moscow.

After nearly three decades following the Duma’s opening, the building’s increasingly bedraggled interiors – the work of veteran architectural grandee Mikhail Posokhin and the enormous Mosproekt-2 design studio which he has headed since 1993 – are still clad in the official style of the era: a hybrid of 1970s Soviet stagnation chic and 1990s restrained bureaucratic bling.

This aesthetic is on display in the Duma’s plenary hall, arranged – according to the typology presented in XML’s book, Parliament – in a ‘classroom’ configuration (see Figure 2). XML’s research also discovered that this layout is ‘particularly common in non-democratic regimes’.

Figure 2: President Vladimr Putin speaking at the Russian State Duma. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The State Duma’s leadership became aware of the book Parliament – and drew on its findings in their project to redesign the plenary chamber, planning to move from a ‘classroom’ to a ‘more democratic’ ‘horseshoe’ configuration.

In other words, parliamentary leaders hoped by means of architectural fiat to create (or, merely, imply) democratic substance through democratic form.

Posokhin’s Parliaments

The current project to renovate the State Duma is part of several decades’ worth of discussions about the home of the Russian parliament. (The upper chamber of parliament – the Federation Council – sits in a separate building from the Duma.) Many of the discussions have been conducted in secret, following shadowy procedures, and have been closely linked to highly personal networks of patronage and protection, which pervade Russian politics.

The figure of Mikhail Posokhin has been closely linked since the 1990s with the project to build a grand, new, purpose-designed home for the Russian parliament. He has produced dozens of concept drawings for ‘Parliamentary Centres’, with several locations in the Russian capital earmarked for this purpose. Indeed, Posokhin was one of three co-laureates of a closed-door 2015 architectural competition for a new Parliamentary Centre in the north-eastern suburbs of Moscow. His design – a monstrous multi-winged hybrid of a Brezhnev-era ministry building, with an inverted pyramid appended to it, each topped by Reichstag-esque glass domes – was ridiculed by Russia’s leading architecture critic Grigory Revzin for being no less than 19 times larger than the Palace of Westminster. In Revzin’s words:

the situation of conducting a competition for the main public building of the country in a closed regime, via the non-transparent procedure of inviting architects to participate, is simply sickening and shameful … it’s like conducting a closed presidential election. Our parliamentarians are revealing their disgracefully low qualifications in mastering the basics of ‘managed democracy’ – even comrade Stalin, designing the Palace of the Soviets, was capable of simulating the procedures of an open international competition.

Incidentally, the entries proposed by Posokhin’s two co-victors both took the form of ludicrous outsized pastiches of the US Capitol building. One of them was the work of the St Petersburg architectural dinosaur Evgeny Gerasimov; the other came from the studio of the Italian architect Lanfranco Cirillo, who had just been granted Russian citizenship and was an obscure practitioner known mostly for being the architect of Vladimir Putin’s alleged ‘Tsar Dacha’ in Gelendzhik – the subject of Navalny’s January 2021 video, ‘Putin’s Palace’, which has been viewed over 110 million times on YouTube, and has triggered a new series of mass anti-government protests in cities throughout the Russian Federation.

Already in 2015, however, the ‘19 Westminsters’ project was abandoned, in part because of its excessive scale and expense. Would the new proposals for the Russian State Duma, directly inspired – as we show here – by XML’s Parliament book, look any different, whether on the level of architectural aesthetics or the procedure by which they were implemented?

The Power of the Book

We can reconstruct an unbroken chain from the publication of Parliament to the State Duma redesign plan.

Following the book’s publication, David Mulder – one of its authors and partner of XML – published a blog post on 7 February 2017 presenting the book’s core ideas for the Hansard Society – a research organisation, focused on the Westminster Parliament.

On reading this, one of the current post’s authors (Noble) posted a link to Mulder’s article on Facebook on 22 February. This Facebook post was, in turn, seen by Ekaterina Schulmann – a Russian political scientist and prominent public intellectual – who then posted a YouTube video on the book on 23 February. After receiving a copy of Parliament from a high-profile benefactor who had seen the 23 February YouTube video, Schulmann then made a second video published on 14 March 2017 (see Figure 3). This second video was seen by a senior official of the State Duma and shared amongst the lower chamber’s leadership.

Figure 3: A screenshot from Ekaterina Schulmann’s 14 March 2017 Facebook video – reproduced under YouTube’s fair use policy and with the permission of Schulmann.

In late 2017, Volodin convened a meeting at which Posokhin presented his designs for the restored Duma chamber, which saw the ‘classroom’-shaped layout replaced by a semi-circular ‘amphitheatre’.

Some of those present gushed over Posokhin’s design, which was described as a ‘bad attempt at a copy and paste’ of the assembly chamber at St Petersburg’s Tauride Palace, the meeting place of the first Tsarist-era State Duma.

Volodin himself, however, was less impressed. Clutching a copy of XML’s Parliament book, Volodin reportedly berated the veteran architect: ‘Can’t you make it look more modern, more democratic, Mikhail Mikhailovich?’

By early 2018, a decision had been made by the parliamentary leadership to redesign the plenary hall in the shape of a ‘forum’, on the basis of the ‘experience of other countries’.

However, the project has since stalled – a victim, it seems, of economic malaise and shifting priorities.

The Intimacy of Power

This short tale has been one of reflexivity – of how research on architectural design and its relationship with democracy can itself become part of the story and influence design choices.

The links in the chain between the publication of Parliament and the Russian State Duma’s redesign choices also speak to what we might call the ‘intimacy’ of authoritarian power in modern-day Russia – that is, of a system in which a Facebook post by a peripheral, foreign actor, amplified by two YouTube videos (filmed by an influential intellectual from the domestic comfort of her kitchen), could end up influencing the choices of senior politicians in Russia.

The fate of the redesign (or rebuild) project remains uncertain. In December 2020, Vladimir Putin voiced support for a new State Duma building. But, in January 2021, Vyacheslav Volodin sounded downbeat. Might this be related to his potential ouster as speaker following elections in September 2021? Only time will tell.

The cover photo is a doctored image of the Russian State Duma from Figure 1.

For more on the unique insights of parliament buildings across Europe, our upcoming conference with the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture, Parliament Buildings: The architecture of power, accountability and democracy in Europe, is taking place 18-19 February 2021, you can sign-up here.

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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