The Urbanization Transition in Russia

Seema Iyer


Urbanization Transition Theory

At the center of urbanization is the city, which is an ancient manifestation of cultural, political, and economic activity. Cities grow due to the positive feedback cycle of an increasing population requiring a variety of employment, social centers, and physical amenities, which in turn require a minimum population for sustainability. In western countries, relatively recent interjectors into this cycle of growth were mass production and the Industrial Revolution which transformed the city from an agricultural outpost to an economic entity in its own right. Classical, monocentric cities arose out of industrial necessity in the 19th century when proximity to both markets and raw materials were essential due to high transportation costs. Today in the developed nations, urbanization is no longer fueled by industrialization and no longer requires the concentration of households with employment centers. Yet, the phenomenon continues in industrialized countries and throughout the world, albeit with resoundingly diverse consequences. As one in a family of transitions, the urbanization transition behaves as a metaphorical petri dish by providing the physical space for the other transitions to grow and mature. Unlike its biological counterpart, however, the space itself is in transition, thereby altering the nature of the other transitions’ progression. Thus, in an effort to build upon the theory of population-environment dynamics, the urbanization transition must be dissected further into the transition of its spatial configuration. To clarify these distinctions, urbanization can be conceptually defined as the conversion of agricultural land for commercial, industrial, or settlement purposes. The spatial configuration of the urbanization can be either centralized, having a well-defined focal point, or decentralized, having multiple focal points or an even distribution of activity. The purpose of this study is to identify a possible temporal hierarchy between the spatial patterns of urban areas and the conditions under which one configuration may transition to another.

The existence of concentrated or diffused urban areas is primarily dependent on population movement. Migration patterns within a country are influenced by mobility via transportation networks and employment opportunities within the economic system, both of which are intricately related to the political infrastructure. Since the US has been politically constant for the past two centuries, the spatial transition among and within urban areas can be used as a barometer for countries experiencing political upheaval. The general trend nationally is of the spread of urban areas from the coastal metropolises of Los Angeles and the Boston-Washington, DC corridor into the less monolithic towns of the south and southwestern heartland. Locally, suburbanization around metropolitan areas has significantly encroached into the agricultural hinterland of each city not only due to the general population increase but also due to an out-migration of households and businesses from the center. This mode of development was facilitated by an extensive transportation network of railways and roadways, which has rendered the cost of mobility negligible. Slightly less obviously, an increased accumulation of national wealth has brought urban amenities such as electricity, communications, and even cultural variety to the rural areas so that differences between the two lifestyles have become more subjective. The decentralization of urban areas in the US, however, is dependent on the historical precedent of the centralized cities. This means that diffusion has not sprouted spontaneously but has occurred because of spatial adjacency to other urban areas.

From Czarist Russia to the Russian Federation

Urbanization in Russia lies in stark contrast to the transitions in the US and the remaining western world. The fundamental difference in the nature of the population movement dictated by the ideological agenda was translated into a different spatial path. In order to understand how such extreme political and economic experimentation could have occurred in Russia, at least a cursory overview of the nation’s history is necessary to provide insights regarding the Russian people and their relationship with their government. Russia’s predecessor citystate, Muscovy, came into existence in the 14th century and was ruled by the despotic Romanov dynasty until 1917. The fact that one family ruled the country for more than 500 years differentiates Russia from most other countries around the world. Unlike its European neighbors who had emerged from the Middle Ages by the 15th century, Russia existed as a feudal state until 1863. Population movement was severely restricted as serfs were indentured to the land for life. Contemporaneous with the abolition of slavery in the US in 1861, the reigning Czar’s decree to eradicate serfdom was not instigated by an uprising of the peasantry but instead was in response to international pressure. Unfortunately, many policies were implemented, similarly to the antebellum Jim Crow laws in the US, to insure that the serfs had very little de facto freedom. Since the peasants were not granted the right to own the land they had been cultivating, many began to flee to the cities due to the lack of opportunities in the rural areas. In order to appease the grumbling landowners, an internal passport system was quickly developed to curb migration. In fact, railroad development was not a national priority during this time specifically to hinder population movement. Russia remained an agrarian society throughout this time, but the inequality between the rural and urban regions became extremely acute.

While the intricate factors that lead to the "Red" Revolution in 1917 are beyond the scope of this paper, the fact that the Marxist-Leninist movement was distinctly urban-oriented is relevant to understanding the nature of the subsequent urbanization that occurred within the newly-formed Soviet Union. The government that eventually usurped power from the Romanovs had a philosophy regarding the 19th century capitalist city that was heavily influenced by the Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and Engels in 1848 decrying the degradation of the proletariat in large, industrial cities. The irony of the situation lay in the fact that Russia was an agrarian society at the time of the Revolution, and urban squalor was not nearly at the level of other European metropolises. Yet, the new leaders believed that industrialization was the wave of the future and would legitimize the new communist state to the rest of the world. The aggressive pursuance of economic development via industrialization was largely responsible for an explosion of urban growth (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Level of urbanization by major world regions based on an urban definition of 20,000 or over. The level of urbanization at the time of the 1917 Revolution was much less than in the rest of Europe but the subsequent rate of increase for the Soviet Union was significantly faster than in any other region.

(Source of data: Lewis, Rowland p. 171)

With the desire to circumvent the urban degradation suffered by European cities, Soviet leaders incorporated the Marxist doctrine of equality into the distribution of urban life and urban land. Policies were designed to promote regional equality by eliminating the distinction between "town and country". As almost all of the urban growth occurred under socialism, the spatial manifestation of Marxist-Leninist ideals created a fundamentally new social geography based on an evenly dispersed population and the development of small- to medium-sized cities. With a centrally planned economy, it was theoretically possible to manipulate populations in accordance with state objectives. In order to redistribute the population, migration from the largest urban areas to under-populated areas was directly or indirectly encouraged through the creation of industrial cities in remote and/or rural areas. Borrowing a tool from economics, the degree to which Soviet policies achieved population dispersal can be determined. The Lorenz curve and the Gini concentration ratio are used in combination to measure the state of inequality using the cumulative percentage of population and the cumulative percentage of some economic indicator (see Figure 2). In a study done by Demko and Fuchs (5, p. 56), a demographic indicator was used over time to determine trends in urban concentration or deconcentration. The Gini index was calculated for the economic regions of the Soviet Union (see Figure 3) using the formula


where M is the mean size of all urban centers C. If G = 0, this implies total dispersion of the urban population in equal-sized cities; if G = 1, this implies total concentration of the urban population into one city.

Figure 2: The Lorenz curve plotted in relation to the line of "equality". Typically, the curve is a discrete function as opposed to continuous, since data is collected as a series of points.

Figure 3: Gini indices of the concentration of urban areas by economic region and total of the Soviet Union.

Source of data: Demko/Fuchs p. 63

The figure shows that in spite of an initial increase in the urban concentration due to industrialization, intervention efforts to diffuse the urban population regionally did affect the index nationally. Urban concentration west of the Urals and specifically in the Northwest (St. Petersburg) dramatically declined, whereas in West and East Siberia the urban concentration increased.

The notion of an optimal city size was widely accepted in the Soviet Union as an essential element of urban policy. Beginning in the 1920s, cities with 50,000-60,000 people were considered ideal because large enough for economic sustainability yet small enough for the fostering of communal allegiances. However, as resources were solely being funneled to the urban areas, people in the rural areas were attracted to them by the mere expectation of better opportunities. In order to hold the cumulative processes of urban growth and high rates of labor turnover in check, Stalin introduced the propiska system in the 1930s, reminiscent of the internal passport issued during the Czarist era, which remained in effect until 1992. As the population continued to grow, redistribution became more and more difficult, and so the urban planners simply increased the acceptable population for a city. By the mid-50s the figures ranged from 150,000-200,000, and by the mid-60s, the figures moved to the 200,000-300,000 range. The only two cities with over a million population in 1917 were Moscow and St. Petersburg, and despite planners’ visions and efforts, the proportion of urban dwellers in cities with more than a million increased greater than in any other city size group (see Figure 4). By 1991, over two dozen cities existed with more than one million inhabitants.

Figure 4: Percent of urban population living in each city size group. Although contrary to the central planners intention, the percentage living in cities of one million or more grew dramatically.

Source of data: Bater, p. 139

As mentioned previously, conversion to an industrialized society was effected by the creation of cities that were locationally in accordance with the precepts of Marxist geography. The employment opportunities within the urban areas were generated by the central government based on their logistical relevance to the national socialist economy, which was practically synonymous with the military economy. The war economy was propagandized for the "unobjectionable" pursuit of the union of the world’s workers but furtively sought to establish the Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe and beyond. The rationale for locating military towns in the remote, hidden areas of the Urals served the dual purpose of promoting national security and dispersing the population. But, paradoxically, many towns within European Russia itself were militarized as well. The distinction between militarization and industrialization is vague due to interconnectedness of the military and civilian economies. For example, in 1990, 100% of all sewing machines, television sets, radios, videocassette recorders, cameras, and chain saws in the country were produced in a defense complex (Gaddy, p. 20). The non-defense single-enterprise town, defined as a city with population 100,000 or more where 30% of the population are employed in one enterprise, became prevalent in the Soviet Union. The economy of scope is a concept that describes the conditions under which one firm will produce two outputs at a lower cost than would two separate firms. Soviet planners employed this concept to the process of planning itself; the agglomerate allocation of publicly owned resources within each city possessed an economy of scope over more discrete allocations. Many towns were placed in areas without regard to the location of factor inputs or potential markets for outputs so that an efficient transportation system was essential for successful economic integration. While a concerted effort was implemented to create extensive road, rail, and waterway networks, the extreme weather conditions east of the Urals rendered large expanses of land accessible only by air. The network for the various modes of transport was developed in series, as opposed to in parallel, which meant that if one link along a travel path broke down, there was no alternative route to continue towards a destination.

The human topography inherited by the Russian Federation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992 was a piecemeal dispersal of isolated urban areas. The economic foundation that united the areas and supported their existence has swiftly collapsed. During the first few years of the transition from a planned to market economy, urban areas have declined due to a net natural decrease of the urban population compounded by a net urban out-migration (Rowland). Disaggregating the data, however, reveals that while some towns are declining or disappearing altogether, others are increasing in population. The decline of cities within 50 miles of Moscow has been referred to as Viennaization, the decline of a city that no longer serves as the capital of an "empire". The majority of declining towns are very small urban centers, particularly noticeable in the string of towns created along the Trans-Siberian Railroad and Baikal-Amur Mainline, which are both in terrible states of disrepair. Disappearing towns are both small in size and relatively newly-formed, which means, relating back to the positive feedback cycle for urban growth, that a sufficient stock of people had not yet accumulated in these cities to overcome the negative feedback of out-migration. As Figure 4 shows, the percentage of urban population has increased since 1992 in cities with populations between 100,000 and 999,999. Within this category are the secret military towns, located primarily in the Urals, which were previously closed to the general public. These cities had a higher standard of living and higher wages both regionally and nationally and employed an extremely educated workforce. Due to the sensitive nature of the missile and nuclear bases around which these cities were built, international funds have been invested into these towns thereby building an economic base and attracting people from the rural areas.


The spatial configuration of urbanization within the city boundary is dependent upon the micro-level interaction over space of housing, employment opportunities, and transportation networks. Prior to 1992, central planners controlled the construction of housing and transit systems and created the jobs, thereby actively configuring the socialist city. A marked difference between capitalistic and socialistic cities lies in the nature and intensity of land use. In the Soviet system, political and bureaucratic power governed the use and quantity of land consumed. As cities expanded, new rings of development were added to the periphery of the existing city. Within each concentric ring, land use reflected the demography, technology, and resources at the time when the ring was developed. For example, except for Moscow’s historic city center, the Kremlin, all urban growth occurred after 1917. A ring of industrial development approximately 5-7 kilometers from the center was built in the 1920s (see Figure 7c). Housing was assigned based on availability, and as the population continued to grow, land for the construction of new settlements was allotted beyond the industrial ring and successive residential rings. In a market city, changing land prices exert pressure simultaneously in all area of the city, which can provide powerful incentives to recycle already developed land in the inner rings when the existing use is not economically optimal. For households, the cost of housing was uniformly low in proportion to household income (2%), and transportation costs were constant regardless of the distance from the urban center. One of the preliminary steps along Russia’s road to a market economy is the privatization of stated-owned goods and services. Of all the economic resources switching over to private ownership, the one acutely altering the landscape within cities is the land market itself. In a market economy, housing prices and transportation costs vary over distance and therefore, constitute the most important factors determining quantity and location of land consumed for housing. In order to anticipate the consequences of introducing demand-driven housing prices into Moscow, the following model of basic residential choice in a city with land markets isolates the effect that distance has on the rent and quantity of housing.

Assumptions for the model (Fujita):

  1. The city is monocentric; it has a single pre-specified center of fixed size called the central business district (CBD). All job opportunities are located in the CBD.
  2. There is a dense, radial transport system. It is free of congestion. Furthermore, the only travel is that of workers commuting between residences and work places.
  3. The land is a featureless plain. All land parcels are identical and ready for residential use.

Let: z = composite consumer good (numeraire)

H = housing quantity (floor space)

Y = income per unit time

r = distance from CBD

R(r) = unit price of floor area at r

T(r) = transport (commuting) cost at r


Then the residential choice of the household can be expressed as the following utility function:

, subject to z + R(r)H = Y - T(r)

where r ³ 0, z > 0, H > 0 (i.e. both z and H are essential).

Further assumptions on the utility function:

  1. well-behaved utility function in terms of strict convexity
  2. increasing transport cost
  3. differentiable where

> 0, > 0, and > 0

Housing bid-rent function

Bid rent is a theoretical concept that describes a household’s ability to pay for land under a fixed utility level. The market rent structure of a city arises from the interaction of many households. Define bid rent as the maximum rent per unit of land that the household can pay for residing at distance r while enjoying a fixed utility level u. Then, mathematically

where  represents the rent per unit of land at r. Solving for z using the equation for the indifference curve yields: , solve for z Þ z = Z(H, u).

Thus, the unconstrained maximization problem becomes:

The solution to this problem yields the optimal floor space H(r, u) which is called the bid-max lot size. Through an application of the envelope theorem, the rate of change of bid rent with respect to r can be calculated as (see Figure 5).


Figure 5: Bid rent decreases with distance Figure 6: Floor space increases with distance


Using economic concepts regarding the nature of the demand for housing, the rate of change of the bid-max lot size with respect to r becomes  (see Figure 6). Roughly, population density is the inverse of the bid-max lot size function, therefore, the population density curve decreases in r similarly to the bid rent function.


For a household to attain a particular utility level, both of the conditions for bid rent and bid-max lot size must be hold true; a household will be equally happy choosing commuting a farther distance to the employment center as long as the rent is cheaper and the living space is greater. The eventual equilibrium for this model occurs when the utility among all residents is equal throughout the city. This means that there is not incentive to move within the city because of the tradeoffs between commuting costs and rent for housing closer or farther from the center. While the initial assumptions may appear too hypothetical for the model to apply to a real life situation, the conditions in Moscow, a representative socialist city, are not too far removed. Since job density continually increases with proximity to the center, Moscow an be characterized as being monocentric (see Figure 7b). The metro system, which is the primary mode used for commuting, can be characterized as a dense, radial transport system. Located in the heartland of European Russia, Moscow’s growth is unencumbered by political or natural boundaries, so that for land use purposes, it can be considered a featureless plain.

 The actual situation in Moscow as of 1992 shows that housing space is greatest in the center, and while a rent gradient does not exist, the population density increases with distance from the center (see Figure 7a). So the spatial configuration transition in Moscow began as a centralized urban area in 1917 but transformed into a decentralized megalopolis by 1992. The key difference between Moscow and decentralized cities in the US (Detroit for example) is the centrally located employment.

Figure 7a: Gross population density in Moscow (1992).


Figure 7b: Job density in Moscow (1992).


Figure 7c: Job density in Moscow (1992).

Source of data (a-c): Bertaud/Renaud, p. 141-145

Other transitions

Certainly many other transitions have generally affected the urbanization transition in Russia, but the demographic and bureaucratic transitions specifically influenced population movement, which is at the root of determining the spatial configuration within and among urban areas. Demographically, the urban population has risen at nearly the same rate as the total population since 1950 (see Figure 8).   Trends in Urban and Rural Population in Russia

Figure 8: Possible trends of urban and total population in Russia projected to 2002. The rate of total population increase has been projected to slow down (log. Total population) because of the current negative rate of annual increase. The low rate of birth seems to be temporal, however, while Russia progresses through its economic transition. The rate of population increase is more likely to continue relatively linearly.

Source of data: WRD

The population movement appears to be shifting both nationally and locally. Aside from the large-scale emigration beyond Russia’s borders, the remaining population seems hesitant to migrate internally due to the physical and psychological dislocation between the different regions within Russia. Additionally, the lack of free-flowing information regarding potential employment opportunities hinders people from risking a long-distance migration for fear of the unknown. As of 1992, the only regions experiencing net in-migration (1-2%) were the southern European Russia and the northern Caucasus. The advantages readily apparent to these areas are the existence of undeveloped land already equipped with a physical infrastructure, access to the Black and Caspian Seas, and a warmer climate. Population shifts in and around the larger cities are also occurring. Since the emergence of property markets in 1992, the price gradient for housing seems to be downward sloping from the center of the city, based on the analysis of initial sales of apartments in Moscow [Bertaud/Renaud]. The trend seems to be conforming to the model, which could imply that the population density curve is rotating, i.e. sloping downward from a peak in the center.

The communist government’s regulatory policies over population movement were directly responsible for creating the vast, decentralized settlements in Russia. Seen in a broader historical context, the control imposed by the Soviet era bureaucracy was very similar to level possessed by the Czarist regime it overthrew. The Russian society has historically passed from one totalitarian leader to another. In fact, the cycle for the bureaucratic transition has passed through extreme peaks and troughs in intensity during this century alone (see Figure 9).

Figure 9: Hypothetical comparison of the bureaucratic transition in Russia and the US. For example, the two low points in Russia’s trend might correspond to the anarchy after the 1917 Revolution and the general lawlessness since 1992. US peaks might correspond to the eras of the New Deal and Great Society.

However, reversion to a authoritarian government would not be surprising even today. Long periods of time of democratic rule in Russia simply do not exist. Even further back into Russia’s history, the Romanov era was preceded by the occupation of Ghengis Khan’s Golden Horde, two centuries of notorious subjugation of the Slavic people.

Implications and recommendations

Returning to transition theory, the trajectories of several, fundamental transitions are simultaneously undergoing rapid changes in Russia. Predictions about the changing spatial configuration of urban areas during this critical stage of the broader transition may help pinpoint policies for stabilizing the other transitions. While a definite conclusion about eventual stasis is naïve at best, some features of the current pattern may suggest characteristics of future urbanization. Firstly, Russia population will remain predominantly urban not only because the built environment already exists but also because they have moved sufficiently far away from their agricultural roots. Also, while out-migration from some areas east of the Urals will exceed any other part of the country, the Siberian region as a whole will remain populated because of the vast amounts of untapped, natural resources that are much sought after by the international world.

A comparison of Russia’s transition to the barometer transition in the US also identifies distinguishing characteristics of possible outcomes. Via two divergent paths, the urban areas in both the US and Russia have decentralized spatially, however, the key difference between the configurations lies in the implementation of Marxist social geography in Russia. Equality based on the concentration of urban areas should have been normalized in some way by the physical geography, which is inherently unequal. Today, agglomerations of artificially created urban areas are not locationally continuous in Russia, and they are even more disconnected due to the insufficient physical infrastructure. Transportation costs are now an enormous factor in determining location for industry, retail, and housing. When this was true in the developing countries, urban areas developed centrally. The pattern of migration over short distances suggests that smaller towns may be collapsing into adjacent or proximate larger towns. Larger does not necessarily imply more populated. Migration will occur to areas with employment opportunities, and the lands west and east of the Urals provide different economic possibilities. European Russia has the geographic advantage over Asian Russia in terms of proximity to potential international trade markets and a well-networked transportation system, but the eastern frontier possesses unfathomable resources for the creative mind. Within the cities experiencing in-migration, housing, employment and commercialization should be intertwined instead of developed into separate rings around the center. For example, the industrial rings around the Kremlin should incorporate more housing so that people can have access to residences closer to the center. Of course, the environmental realities of the area might make the site inappropriate for housing. Therefore, new businesses should be encouraged to locate where the population is densest—the periphery. For cities experiencing out-migration, the "white elephants" of development will not be maintained unless there is an economic incentive to do so.

In order to institutionalize the current democratic and economic reforms, true political authority should be regionalized throughout Russia so that people are enfranchised to create their own destiny. In terms of future research, it would be interesting to watch as regions politically break free from the center and start developing their own vision.