MOSCOW - For years, this has been a city of dust and grit, of asphalt streets as big as runways and vacant lots scraped to the bare earth. But today, the city is battling its grimy, grim image. Moscow wants to bloom.
City officials, determined to spruce up the place, planted acres of lawns and thousands of trees this fall after putting in millions of flowers earlier this year. Citizens who once spent their spare time growing potatoes and vegetables began learning to coax gladiolas and sunflowers out of the polluted soil.
Of course, there have been problems. Sometimes, as fast as flowers are planted, Muscovites dig them up and take them home. Here, people have learned to scavenge for many things, gathering up the odd bits of brick and wood for years to build a little country house. Now, they're after greenery. Even so, progress is noticed.
"Moscow is much cleaner and more beautiful now," says a surprised Valentina Korolkevich, 52, after arriving here for the first time in 10 years. She rocked her 5-month-old grandson, Arseny, in a perambulator in Children's Park No. 1, pleased to be surrounded by grass instead of dirt.
Many Muscovites couldn't have survived the past decade without growing food in plots outside the city. Few have much experience with ornamental gardens. Yet today one of the most popular shows on local television features tours of gardens in expensive country houses.
Would-be horticulturists face formidable challenges. Growing flowers is an expensive luxury. Ten tulip bulbs go for 140 rubles, or about $5 - a steep price in a country where the average salary is $120 a month. The growing season is only a few months long, and even summer can bring a snap frost.
Moscow's environment is a mess. Soils are contaminated with heavy metals and highway salts. The air is loaded with throat-searing pollutants, and roots are exposed to harsh deicing chemicals splashed from the streets. Pollution weakens trees so severely here, city officials say, that they live only about a third as long as they do in the countryside.
Pedestrians trample blithely across gardens, or run their dogs through them. Municipal authorities claim Moscow has more open space than Paris or London, but that space is rapidly shrinking as car owners demand more parking spaces.
Yelena Alexevna Karputina is one of Moscow's pioneering gardeners. She is in charge of the plots in back of her green apartment block just north of central Moscow, where she lives in a fifth-floor walkup. Two years ago, she says, she decided that she was sick of the dirt and the cars, and started to plant flowers. She filled a couple of 9-by-18-foot beds with hardy gladiolas and scraggly sunflowers, using old hula-hoops and a low iron railing to protect the plants from romping dogs and wayward people.
One neighbor pitched in, bringing flowers from her modest house in the country. Most of the people living in her apartment building, though, refused to contribute. Last year, thieves dug out some of her gladiolas. (She suspects they tried to sell them.) "I went up to my apartment and cried and cried," says Karputina, her snapping blue eyes growing misty. "I regard these flowers as human beings. It's my first experience with gardening. That's why I take it so much to heart."
Instead of giving up, Karputina began to lobby the residents of a neighboring building to rip up part of a paved parking area and plant more flowers. Some neighbors have resisted, but Karputina was a world champion gymnast in the late 1960s and still has considerable political influence. She knows Yuri Luzhkov, the city's powerful mayor, and has forged an alliance with neighborhood officials.
Not all of Karputina's neighbors oppose her efforts. Alexander Rakutin, 36, a software designer, works in a small office in the apartment building, and enjoys the colorful flowers when he goes out back for a smoke. "It is very good that there is such beauty around," he says. "It makes my mood much better."
A 1997 United Nations report on Moscow's environment reported that almost 40 percent of residents thought the city needed more green space and flower beds - and called it one of their biggest concerns. The same report said city parklands and open spaces had long ago washed away. The dirt brought in to replace those soils had high concentrations of heavy metals and other toxins.
The main problem, city officials say, is Moscow's budding love affair with the automobile. In Soviet times, few Russians could afford private autos. By 1993, there were about 918,000 cars. But over the past eight years the number of cars has almost tripled, to 2.7 million. Many are older imported vehicles or cheap new Russian models that spew clouds of fumes as they clog the prospects and boulevards. All burn leaded gas. In many neighborhoods, boxy steel sheds have been erected in alleys and courtyards to serve as garages. Vacant lots are turning into parking lots.
"It's a problem for drivers, where to park," Karputina concedes. "On the other hand, the authorities should understand the importance of such green spots."
Despite the obstacles, the greening of Moscow continues. As part of a city initiative called "Moscow Yard," the city planted almost 16 million flowers this year, double what it planted in 1990. It has built 2,500 stone, concrete and wooden flower containers this year, scattered on sidewalks through the city center.
Thousands of city workers and hundreds of private contractors have been busy all summer dumping fresh soil, creating concrete walkways, planting lilacs and grass, and welding together knee-iron fences. "Some yards are completely changed and look quite different after the work we do," said Alexander Kulshun, with a landscaping company called Melange 2000, as a platoon of workers welded together a knee-high steel fence.
A few months ago, Children's Park No. 1 was a dusty, potholed gap in the ranks of apartments and office buildings. Then in May, a landscaping crew trucked in fresh soil, planted gardens and lawns and built an outdoor concert stage. Today, the place is jammed with mothers pushing strollers, lovers making out on the benches and children running through the playground. "Previously, we would come to the park on a weekday and it would be empty," says the park's director, Natalia Takareva.
But plant poaching has left gaping holes in some of the park's flower beds. Most of the thieves, Tarkareva says, are pensioners who want to brighten up their drab apartments but, with an average income of $37 a month, can't afford to. "We explain to the people that if you steal the flower, nobody is going to give us the money for another one," she says.
That hasn't discouraged thefts. So Takareva plans to hire guards. It is, she admits, a little discouraging. "I wouldn't call the whole nation uncultured, but it's a sign we need more cultural, more moral education," she says.
City officials hope that as the city blooms, more Muscovites will stop raiding, poisoning, squashing and paving gardens - and start planting some of their own.
"I think this problem can be solved by making more flower beds and green space, because only beauty can elevate and change the mentality of people," says Vladimir N. Chepournov, chief of the gardening department in Moscow. "We believe that the time will come when people will just admire gardens and won't tear them from the ground."
Karputina agrees that attitudes need to change before Moscow can really bloom.
"I am sure that if people would treat beauty properly, would admire it," she says, "we would turn this place into a kind of paradise."