The Moscow Times, 22 марта 2002 г. (March 22, 2002)


Commuters lining up for a No.23 tram near Sokol metro stration

Over the years, the Moscow tram - with its warmly lit windows and gentle bell - has been captured in verse, prose and film. Now it has become the object of civic protest, as tram-loving Muscovites fight the city's plans to tear up tracks and clear the way for construction of the Third Ring Road.

"The tram is what turns a settlement into a city," Alexander Morozov, a 25-year-old computer programmer and protest organizer, said with conviction. "As an urban citizen, I am fond of the tram - as children love their toy trains - and I want it to remain in Moscow."

Morozov, a graduate student at Moscow State University, leads a group of some 30 young enthusiasts called the Muscovites for the Tram Committee, who turned from fans into fighters in the late 1990s, as tram tracks increasingly fell victim to ambitious roadwork.

The group's latest effort is directed at saving four kilometers of track along Leningradsky Prospekt that are due to be stripped away by the end of the year. Morozov and his fellow committee members argue that this segment of tram line - stretching from Begovaya metro to a spot just northwest of Sokol metro - does not obstruct construction of the new ring road but that getting rid of it will be a disaster for nearly 1 million Muscovites living in the city's northern and northwestern districts.

Without the No. 23 tram, Morozov said, residents of the Strogino, Shchukino, Tushino and Koptevo neighborhoods will be unable to reach Leningradsky Prospekt, one of the city's main thoroughfares, without a long, round-about metro journey through the city center - bad news not only for commuters and the elderly, but for homeowners concerned about the market value of their apartments.

For the past month, Morozov's group has tried to stir up grassroots protest among passengers by organizing rallies and letter-writing campaigns.

"Every day we distribute about 1,000 leaflets [with form letters] that we order at the printers or photocopy ourselves," Sergei Shmakov, a student at Moscow State University and a committee activist, said proudly. "I distribute my batch in a tram on my way home."

The tactic is somewhat unusual, since such campaigns usually rely on petitions. But, according to Andrei Podrubayev, a tram afficionado and student of the Moscow Aviation Institute, the traditional method is less effective.

"Officials often reject ... petitions, saying that most of the signatures on them are forged," Podrubayev said. "So we urge citizens to write individual letters, which, under the law, must be reviewed by officials and answered within a month. By doing so, we ensure that people will constantly pester the relevant officials."

So far, however, municipal authorities have proved largely indifferent or obstructive.

Neighborhood administrations have twice denied permission for rallies, before finally approving one scheduled for this Saturday afternoon.

Morozov said about 100 letters had been sent to City Hall through the committee, and the Mayor's Office responded, saying the correspondence had been rerouted to the city transportation department. Repeated calls to that department went unanswered this week, but an aide to Deputy Mayor Pyotr Aksyonov said Wednesday that his office had not received any letters in defense of the tram.

Moreover, both city officials and past experience suggest that the tram committee will have a hard time achieving its objective.

A City Hall spokesman said Wednesday that he could not recall a single instance when citizens' letters had changed the Moscow government's plans.

Indeed, two major grassroots efforts in recent years have proved futile despite active protests.

In 2000, residents of the North Butovo district failed to prevent the extension of a high-voltage power line near their apartment buildings, while the Lefortovo neighborhood has been protesting since 1996 against the construction of a tunnel under Lefortovo Park - also part of the Third Ring Road.

Under the road project, municipal authorities have ripped up tram lines near Vagankovskoye cemetery and along Shmitovsky Proyezd, and tracks on Begovaya Ulitsa are scheduled to be dismantled in the second quarter of 2002. In 1999, Morozov and his associates tried to prevent the destruction of tracks on Prospekt Mira - but to no avail.

"People learn of the future dismantling of the tram tracks only from us, and they become very concerned," Shmakov said.

"One visitor of our web site wrote us that she made 1,000 copies of our leaflet and distributed it among her neighbors living near Leningradsky Prospekt."

Muscovites randomly interviewed near Sokol metro station, where the No. 23 tram now stops, were opposed to the planned changes.

"As a pensioner, I am entitled to a free tram, and so are thousands like me," said Tamara Vasilyeva, an elderly woman heading to visit her daughter who lives near the Aerovokzal bus depot.

"After depriving us of a tram, city authorities will most likely introduce Avtoline minivans and make us pay," she added.

Others said they prefer the tram to buses and trolleybuses because it does not get stuck in traffic jams and has frequent stops - a great convenience for those who live between metro stations.

The emergence of initiatives such as Morozov's - full of youthful idealism and candor - indicates that the civic spirit has not been totally trampled upon, said Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Moscow-based Panorama think tank. However, he warned, bureaucrats' method of ignoring such protests rather than putting up an active resistance can pour cold water on activists.

"Today we are living through a period of stagnation and these civic initiatives are just ignored by authorities," Pribylovsky said. "This disorients civic activists and keeps them from maturing as a political force."

Even if Morozov does not get an opportunity to "mature as a political force," he will continue to be a devoted tram fan.

His web site (www.tram.ruz.net) features tram history, maps dating back to 1910, chats and dozens of songs and poems about trams - written by everyone from esteemed poet Osip Mandelstam to pop groups such as Chaif.

Many of the texts invoke a melancholy, nostalgic image of the tram - a trustworthy companion to those who leave home before sunrise. In one lyrical ode, poet Bulat Okudzhava describes the tram as an "adonis of the '20s ... still ready to serve us tirelessly:" "He used to thunder and shine,/ People went to enjoy his beauty./ But then he grew tired and fell behind,/ And he was forgotten."

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