Mikhail Zolotonosov: Saint Shepetovka

When [the con man] Ostap Bender [in Ilf & Petrov’s Twelve Chairs] paints for the citizens of Vasyuki a mental picture of their future prosperity, his second selling point is architecture: “Hotels and skyscrapers to accommodate the visitors.” In the provincial mindset of the nineteen-twenties, skyscrapers were understood as an obligatory condition for turning a city into a “world center.” It is this archetype that is now being realized in Petersburg in the early twenty-first century.

From the Architectural Firm of Ilf & Petrov

“Dazzling vistas unfolded before the Vasyuki chess enthusiasts. The walls of the room melted away. The rotting walls of the stud farm collapsed and in their place a thirty-storey chess palace towered into the sky. Every hall, every room, and even the lightning-fast lifts were full of people thoughtfully playing chess on malachite-encrusted boards. Marble steps led down to the blue Volga. Oceangoing steamers were moored on the river.”

All we have to do is replace the “thirty-storey chess palace” with a ninety-storey skyscraper [Gazprom’s Okhta Center], the Volga with the Neva (the 400-meter folly just has to stand right on the bank of the Neva, not somewhere in the interior), chess with hydrocarbons, and the “rotting walls of the stud farms” with “hazardous” buildings, slated for demolition in accordance with 150-point lists prepared by city officials, and the entire picture painted by Ostap is restored right down to the last detail. Vasyuki becomes New Moscow, and Petersburg, Saint Shepetovka. [Shepetovka, in western Ukraine, is the birthplace of Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko.]

“Emulation of Shepetovka”

There are mental stereotypes that exist independently of expediency and logic, and it is these stereotypes that guide the reconstruction of Petersburg—in particular, the doctrinaire propagation of skyscrapers. The proposed new building height statute, which fully corresponds to the Saint Shepetovka mindset, is meant to further this project. This is the logic that [Matviyenko’s] “Saint Shepetovka dream team” inhabits. The dream team takes it as an article of faith that it is impossible to develop the city without the total demolition of old buildings and the erection of skyscrapers. The decisive battle for the transformation of decrepit, dilapidated Petersburg into Saint Shepetovka has been scheduled for 2008.

The Powers That Be and the Populace

In Petersburg, the city authorities behave as if they have conquered a foreign people in some kind of war. Hence their violation of federal laws and their own decrees, their treachery, and their continual attempts to deport people beyond the horizon and thus purge the territory they inhabited for new construction. When we consider their true function on the bureaucratic market, it is no surprise that the authorities violate their own normative acts. Any normative act is a potential barrier, and when a client wishes to bypass it this gives bureaucrats another opportunity to collect their famous “status rent.” All the laws that are meant, in theory, to protect the city’s architectural heritage operate in reverse. Uncultured folks call this corruption, but under current conditions the real purport of architectural and construction laws is to encourage business to shell out cash in order to bypass them (over and above payments made to get bureaucrats to do what they are supposed to do in any case). I would not rule out the existence of a tariffs system: so many thousands of dollars for each meter in violation of the height regulation on a sliding scale pegged to districts and historic preservation zones. These, I assume, are the real “Rules for Land Use and Building.” This, I imagine, is how the Mont Blanc apartment complex and other such wonders of the world came into being. Considering these circumstances, the newly proposed height (de)regulation could become a powerful tool in the fight against corruption: at least builders would no longer have to pay bribes for violating the height regulation.

The populace has no role in this game. No one really defends its interests, including the interest it has in preserving the city’s architectural heritage in all its particulars. No self-defense mechanisms have been developed, and this leads, for example, to the absurd rules governing the conduct of public hearings. Bureaucrats need merely to confirm that a hearing was conducted in such-and-such a place on such-and-such a date, but the opinion expressed by the populace at these hearings has no meaning. Popular gubernatorial elections have been abolished. Although it has begun to understand that, under the cover of developing the city and attracting investments, the governor is actually presiding over the thoroughgoing destruction of Petersburg’s cultural legacy, the populace has no way to replace her.

“There were many newcomers who tried to ruin Glupov: some, for a lark; others, in a moment of sorrow, anger or enthusiasm. Ugryum-Burcheev was the first, however, who conceived the idea of ruining the city in earnest” (Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, The Story of One City). In effect, we are the witnesses of this earnest Ugryum-Burcheevesque ruination. Hence the opposition to the governor centers on the reconfiguration of the city, which the opposition sees as the city’s ruin. This, in turn, is linked to the fact that a certain segment of the public dislikes the governor because of her nomenklatura image, her Shepetovka origins, and her past career as a Komsomol and Party functionary, none of which reveals any trace of what we customarily call culture. It is not as if [Matviyenko] has ever tried to manage culture, but managing the process of demolition and construction in Petersburg is tantamount to managing its culture. And Matviyenko’s management style gives us no indication that she loves the city.

When Valentina Matviyenko says “our city,” it grates the ears of native Leningraders. The upshot is that disgust and hatred for our local unelected authorities is coded via building construction and architecture—the areas where the governor has been most active, and whose outcomes have been unambiguously distressing. And the emotional wellsprings of Petersburg’s most socially active citizens (albeit a minority) run quite deep. None of the other political and social issues that might serve as a focal point for popular disgust and hatred is so clear-cut. An additional factor here is the love for their hometown that, for many decades, has been instilled in Petersburgers. It became an axiom that the city—precisely in the form in which it was bequeathed to us, not after its reconstruction as Saint Shepetovka—possesses perennial, universal, world-historical value.

In a recent article, the columnist [and architectural critic] Grigory Revzin analyzed the reasons why new Moscow architecture is criticized. He singled out three features: 1) its overbearing provincialism—that is, its incongruence with trends in contemporary western architecture; 2) its total destruction of the city’s architectural heritage; and 3) its inability to produce an aesthetically significant event in the field of architecture—that is, its artistic impotence. These same charges could be brought to bear in Petersburg, and the blame has to be laid wholly on the governor.

The way that the powers that be view the populace is a whole other story. Historians of physiology note that our generation is witnessing a paradigm shift in conceptions of animal behavior. The view of animals as reactive beings (whose actions are reflex responses to particular stimuli) is being replaced by the idea that animals are active beings (who actively attempt to achieve their goals).

On the contrary, in Russian politics the view that the populace is made up of active beings has been replaced by the notion of a reactive population. For example, alarm over the destruction of the city—inspired by “destructive forces”—is effectively subdued by the radio-broadcast and televised lie that everything is fine, and reinforced by wild joy over the announcement of the latest holiday: an ice cream festival, a plumbing carnival or Fleet Day. Moreover, it is assumed that the populace will forget everything within a month and that therefore there is no need to worry about the redevelopment of the Tauride Garden, the destruction of the historical furnishings in the Russian National Library or the height of the two skyscrapers that have spoiled the view of the Stock Exchange on the Spit of Vasilievsky Island. The authorities are possessed of a simple notion: the population has no socially significant goals that it might want to achieve. That, by the way, is how the majority ticks, and so the authorities feel that they can disregard the minority.

Oversight Bodies – 1

It has been a long time since KGIOP [Committee for the State Oversight, Use, and Preservation of Cultural Heritage Sites] could be seen as a body for the oversight and protection of cultural heritage sites—at least since the moment they lost the court case against Mont Blanc. But that was only the beginning because, in connection with the destruction of New Holland and the opening of a skating rink on Palace Square, the KGIOPniks suddenly forgot what an architectural ensemble was. Apparently, someone swiped the second volume of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia from their library—the volume that contains the article about ensembles in architecture and city planning—and there were no other copies available anywhere. Then, to its joy, KGIOP was altogether stripped of its right to oversee construction compliance in the historical preservation zone.

Rosokhrankultura [Federal Service for Oversight of Legal Compliance in Mass Communications and Cultural Heritage Preservation] has also remained a decorative institution. Its real task is legally preparing world-class architectural landmarks for “dressing”—that is, it functions like the floor in the slaughterhouse where the carcasses of killed animals are skinned. I will give you a brief illustration involving the Lobanov-Rostovsky House. In the magazine Gorod (No. 46, 2007) I wrote that contractors had entirely removed the building’s roof after they received a permit from V.A. Kalinin, the head of Rosokhrankultura’s Northwest Federal District Directorate. Even the building’s most active defenders could not grasp the reality of such a malfeasance (the removal of the building’s roof as winter was coming) and they practically accused me of libeling Kalinin. The magazine’s editors submitted a letter of inquiry, and they soon received an official reply (No. 1/0134, dated 22 January 2008), signed by Mr. Shukhobodsky, the directorate’s acting deputy head: “For conduct of the work you cited—the dismantling of the roof at the Tristar Investment Holdings, Ltd., site—the directorate issued the necessary permit.” The roof was removed on a permit issued by the people who, logically speaking, should have categorically forbidden this. However, the Russian Federation Presidential Property Management Department is involved in this construction project, and who or what is more important—[department head and Kremlin insider] Vladimir Kozhin or the law on historical preservation?

Activists have now sent another letter of inquiry to Kalinin: they have requested that he verify whether a courtyard wing that has popped up above the now-roofless building was legally erected. Take it easy, kind sirs: the Northwest Federal District Directorate of Rosokhrankultura issued all the necessary permits to Tristar in good time. The wing will rise even higher because they will put a roof on it, and then they will mount a metallic cube on top of that—a mini-heating plant with a smokestack that will churn out smoke. (Just such a mini-heating plant with a smokestack churning out smoke already stands atop the Nevsky Palace hotel. There is another such plant on the roof of the new stock exchange building on the Twenty-Sixth Line: when they tear off the 3.7-meter-high siding that now covers it, you will be able to see it from anywhere in the city.)

Things are not so dire, however: this architectural landmark—the Lobanov-Rostovsky House—will be topped off with a high mansard featuring a canted roof and Velux windows. As a consequence of this illegal architectural and construction work, based on a project by Yevgeny Gerasimov and Partners, one of the principal destroyers of Petersburg, the wing will no longer be visible. It is the silly roof and the windows that will stick out like a sore thumb.

Oversight Bodies – 2

There is also the City Planning Council, which Matviyenko recalled during her historic interview on Echo Moscow (7 June 2008). “Interventions into the architectural environment of old Petersburg should be very delicate. But that is a problem for the architectural community. After all, it isn’t the governor or the city government that approves projects.” [Echo Moscow editor-in-chief Alexei] Venediktov: “How’s that?” Matviyenko: “Projects are approved by the City Planning Council. The city’s leading architects have seats on the council. In the past few years [. . .] several city planning mistakes have been made. We’ve recognized them. Fortunately, there haven’t been so many. We recognized them publicly. They’re on the conscience of the architects who designed these buildings, and on the conscience of the people who made these decisions.”

In her commentary, Tatyana Likhanova has already pointed out that the City Planning Council doesn’t issue binding decisions. It issues recommendations, and its members merely act as advisors to the city’s chief architect, the chairman of the Committee on City Planning and Architecture (KGA). He is the member of the city government who has been delegated the authority to make decisions. Concerning Matviyenko’s statement that it is not the city government that approves projects, we might recall at least two decrees on the new stock exchange building signed by Matviyenko (No. 1804, dated 2 November 2004; and No. 523, dated 15 May 2007). Both decrees indicated that a sixteen-storey building was being erected. It is clear that the height of a single floor is at least 3.5 meters—that is, we are talking about an overall height of nearly sixty meters. The governor gave her sanction on two occasions. So how is it possible to say that Matviyenko didn’t personally approve the height of the project—albeit indirectly, via the number of floors approved for construction?

Aside from the legal nuances that make it decorative, the City Planning Council is also a contradictory body by definition. It is like an assembly of wolves that regularly recommends the latest sheep (building) for consumption by the latest wolf (architect)—that is, by someone like themselves, and often one of their own number. All wolves want to eat, and therefore each member of the pack must make the right decisions if he hopes to have his own appetite satisfied in the future. In view of the scandal with the new stock exchange, they have become more circumspect during the summer of 2008. Thus, on June 10, they took a bite out of the architect [Nikolai] Lansere and his project for a densely built housing block on the corner of Moscow Highway and Dunaisky Prospect. (This is a truly special case. Lansere used to work at the Leningrad Scientific Research Institute for Design (LenNIIproekt), but now he works as the head of the design department at Grad-Invest, Inc. Architects who do not work as “free” architects, but are employed by construction firms, where they fulfill every whim of builders for relatively low, dumping-level fees, are hated by the whole pack.) And, on July 11, the council ordered the architect [Yevgeny] Podgornov to make changes to his project for the house at Robespierre Embankment, 32.

In fact, the council has altogether different problems to solve. These were well expressed by the architects [Yevgeny] Gerasimov and [Rafael] Dayanov—both, by the way, council members. In December 2003, the editors of the newspaper Petersburg Real Estate and Construction asked architects and builders to make toasts. Gerasimov: “More good architecture for good money!” Dayanov: “May the entire architectural brotherhood work in a single economic rhythm, and may they not drown each other in pursuit of instant profit in order to satisfy someone’s interests.” This is what really worries the architectural corporation, as represented by the council: they want to avoid dumping, and they want rates for architectural services to be uniform and high. With rare exceptions (like the 400-meter-high “gas chamber”—[i.e., the Gazprom tower]), the preservation of monuments or the beauty of Petersburg does not worry them. It is telling that at first they all yelled quite loudly about the infamous stock exchange building and demanded that its extra floors be dismantled. But then they calmed down and put the brakes on the whole thing: they confined themselves to discussions about taking three and a half meters off the top of the building, which would have no practical effect whatsoever. The council, which is comprised of practicing architects, is on the whole a quite convenient instrument for the authorities because it is a group of people who depend wholly on those authorities. The authorities would not tolerate the presence on the council of independent experts with no personal economic stakes, even on the scanty terms stipulated in Decree No. 1184-r.

A Cynical Know-It-All

I should say a little more about the “conscience of architects.” Recently, the architect Dayanov received me at his studio. In particular, I gave him heck for the monstrous seven-storey courtyard wing he designed on the Eighth Line, which towers five stories above houses number eleven and thirteen.

Rafael Dayanov is a cynical know-it-all in whom cynicism and education have struck a harmonious balance. Dayanov’s response to my criticism was calm and quite simple: “It wasn’t me who sold that lot to the Finns for them to build a hotel.” This is the subtext: naturally, the Finnish hotel chain Sokos, which invested its money in the hotel, is the very model of predatory cynicism. (For example, Sokos has built another—nine-storey—hotel not just anywhere, but in a protected green space—Olympic Park!) And Dayanov didn’t lose his cool: he built what they told him to build. But the authorities also tried their damnedest. On 5 November 2003, Matvienko signed Decree No. 2618-ra, “On the Design and Reconstruction of [said] Building Complex as a Hotel.” Moreover, the decree makes absolutely no mention of any requirements pertaining to the preservation of anything whatsoever or of any restrictions on the height of the new building.

What is more, city authorities soon announced (via Decree No. 67/1-rp (Item No. 2.15), dated 6 July 2004) that a “lacuna” had formed at the site. (The “lacuna” is one of the techniques of regulated destruction.) After a lacuna has been declared, you can just knock down everything in sight: it as if the buildings there have just ceased to exist. Dayanov demolished house eleven, but he considers it his merit that he “hung on” to house thirteen “until the end.” True, the builders demolished the second floor of house thirteen while Dayanov was away on business, but it cannot be ruled out that they also destroyed the first floor. In the end, nothing is left of the houses that once stood on the Eighth Line.

Then, with construction at a standstill, the city government issued Decree No. 903 (dated 21 June 2005), which moved back the completion date of the project—and, in passing, fined the developer to the tune of more than two million dollars. Once again, there was no mention of any restrictions. (By the way, on 1 June 2008, another decree, signed by Matviyenko, was issued: the completion date has again been moved back—to December 2008.) Finally, “for dessert,” KGIOP issued Order No. 8-133 (“On the Introduction of Alterations to Identified Cultural Heritage Sites”) on 30 May 2008. The sites in question were suddenly identified as houses eleven and thirteen (letters A and Zh) on the Eighth Line—that is, the houses that had been destroyed and replaced by reconstructions (albeit with details on the façades, absent before the demolitions, that Dayanov had dug up in the archives). My guess is that the KGIOPniks pretended not to know that houses eleven and thirteen had already been demolished and [that the buildings that now stand in their place] were erected not in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, as indicated in the order, but in 2007–2008.

Under such conditions, should Dayanov have played the morality game and not erected a perfectly legal 23-meter-high courtyard wing (even though it gave birth to an obvious monstrosity)? The city government has set the tone and style of this amoralism. As they spawn their ghastly buildings, the architects merely march in the train of their government.

Morning Mood

The most progressive inhabitants of Saint Shepetovka are the investors. Supported by the city administration, they are the people who are destroying historic Petersburg and building on its ruins the city of the future, the Saint Shepetovka dream city. Aware of the administration’s love of “renovation,” various “gentlemen of fortune” have come bounding into the construction trade from all points east and west. They hope to bite off a piece of the city and shit out clean greenbacks.

Here is a telling example. In 2003, the entrepreneur [Alexei] Redozubov was sold a nearly 2.5-hectare lot in the Tauride Garden—that is, part of a federal landmark. The circumstances of the transaction merit a separate investigation for, as we know, the sale of landmarks became legal only as of January 1 of this year. Redozubov immediately began planning a multi-storey housing and office complex for the lot. You can’t expect him to build fountains!

But it is Mr. Redozubov’s exceptional career that I find more interesting. He enrolled in the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute in 1985. From 1987 to 1989, he served in the army. He began his working life in 1990 (by all appearances, he didn’t finish his education at LPI). “Thanks to his people skills, extensive knowledge, and outstanding business qualities, in less than a year he was appointed the president of the joint venture SZKA ADRA (a manufacturer of saw timber and other wood products). In early 1994 he was appointed the head of foreign currency operations at Kredo Bank in Saint Petersburg. He personally took charge of organizing the work of this department. In August 1994 the government of Leningrad Oblast appointed him to the post of first vice-president of the Sphinx joint venture company, the oblast government’s business agent. He then took the post of board chairman of Sosnovo Timber Enterprise, while simultaneously serving as economic advisor to the governor of Leningrad Oblast. He studied as a correspondence student at the Saint Petersburg Economics and Finance University, from which he graduated with honors in spring 1995.”

What a guy! It is no surprise that they sold him part of the Tauride Garden before such sales were legal. Even [famed Petersburg developer Vasily] Sopromadze hasn’t had such success. What is strange is that they did not sell Redozubov the Summer Garden and the Mikhailovsky Castle along with the Russian Museum, with Saint Isaac’s Cathedral throw in for good measure. It is no less strange that the Tauride Garden hasn’t yet been totally redeveloped.

Another great man of the present age, [Andrei] Rogachev, the indefatigable creator of [the property development companies] Macromir, LEK, [and the discount supermarket chain] Pyaterochka, is another such symbolic figure. We could cite numerous examples of how the Pyaterochka chain has expanded. We could remind the reader how LEK Estate constructed high-rises on the lot set aside for the third segment of the new Russian National Library building. Finally, we might recall that Macromir now not only wants to build a shopping and entertainment complex near the Lomonosovskaya metro station [on the alleged site of former cemetery], but recently built a gigantic glass-covered conglomerate—consisting of a water park, the enormous Rodeo Drive mall, and a cineplex—on a 3.2-hectare lot that used to be part of Murinsky Park. Moreover, Macromir dispatched a letter to KGA stating that it had annexed another seven hectares. That is, Macromir wants to redevelop more than ten hectares in Murinsky Park. Naturally, the accompanying documentation states that not a single tree will suffer, as if there were not a park there, but an empty lot.

The upshot is that it practically impossible to defend Petersburg. The bureaucrats and investors have nothing to gain from it, there are no effective oversight bodies, and the population is securely isolated. All that remains is to recall what a great Russian satirist wrote on a similar occasion:

Customarily, certain measures are taken against idiots so that in their mindless striving they do not overturn everything they come across. But these measures are nearly always applicable only to simple idiots. When power is appended to idiocy, the cause of defending society becomes significantly more complicated. (Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, The Story of One City).

Mikhail Zolotonosov, “The Village of Saint Shepetovka and Its Inhabitants: The [Petersburg] City Government Realizes the Dreams of Ostap Bender and the Nightmares of Saltykov-Shchedrin, Novaya Gazeta 55 (31 July–3 August 2008)

One thought on “Mikhail Zolotonosov: Saint Shepetovka

  1. Unfortunately, these abominations are happening everywhere. Where I live in the USA, development is supposed to be guided by a long-range plan. This plan is intentionally vague so that our council can do whatever they want. It is no surprise that our local banker is on several of the relevant commissions. Some projects are “reviewed” at public meetings which are held in the middle of the workday. Any comments that are received are duly noted as coming from a small group of agitators, then summarily ignored. Others, like our new multimillion dollar city government center, are completed with no public input at all.

    In our case the buildings are only 100 years old. In the case of St. Petersburg you have an historical equivalent to a war crime.

    My dream is to take over such developments, raze them to the ground, and replace them with hundreds of trees.

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