This paper explores patterns of urban growth and urbanization in Russia, linking them to social, economic, political and demographic processes. We also focus on the consequences of Russia’s recent history, a series of extraordinary tragedies overlaying a society undergoing massive, wrenching modernisation and social change. We argue that industrialisation and political command decisions were decisive factors during the Soviet era, and that the post-Soviet era has been a period of adjustment from a disequilibrium to an equilibrium structure.
Central planning gave rise to a system of cities with greater primacy than would have emerged under more decentralised government. Within cities, the absence of markets resulted in massive land misuse that is being rectified only gradually. The Soviet system also meant that substantial cities were created in inhospitable areas and in the past two decades Russia has witnessed net flows toward cities viable in market economies, and away from those that were monuments to a determined command economy.
Because it is so different, Russia may offer few lessons to other countries, beyond the obvious one: ignoring economic incentives and natural comparative advantage comes at a huge price, and many, though not all, cities without a natural economic base cannot thrive. The major exception to this statement appears to be Russia’s scientific research cities, which are not tied to natural amenities or other locational features.
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