Seven Years Later: How Things Were Done In Submariners Garden

How Things Were Done in Petersburg: The Destruction of Submariners Garden
July 24, 2008
Chtodelat News & The Russian Reader

The current regime presents itself, at home and abroad, as having brought “stability” and prosperity to Russia. Russians, the storyline goes, are enjoying the fruits of their new consumerist society, and thus social conflict, much less outright resistance to the powers that be, is insignificant. Russians are buying into this new “de-ideologized” ideology because it allows them to buy a better life.

Closer to the ground, however, the picture looks different. In fact, all over Russia, workers are struggling to create independent trade unions and improve the conditions of their work; antifascists are battling to stop the scourge of neo-Nazi attacks on the country’s minorities and foreign residents; and human rights activists, opposition activists, and just ordinary folk are working to make the country’s commitment to democracy and law meaningful (to mention only a few, obvious examples). Because the regime has a near-total lock on the media, most of these conflicts are kept out of the public view or presented to the public in a distorting mirror. And, it has to be said, the numbers of resisters nationwide are such that it would be wrong to say that society at large is (for now) gripped by a revolutionary mood.

In Petersburg, the most significant front in this “quiet” or “cold” civil war in the past few years has been the conflict surrounding the rampant architectural redevelopment of the city. The attention of observers both foreign and domestic has been focused on mega-projects such as the planned 400-meter skyscraper that will serve as the centerpiece of Gazprom’s Okhta Center, just across the Neva River from downtown Petersburg, the demolition of the city’s grand, plentiful “architectural heritage,” and the creative, nonviolent resistance mounted by such grassroots groups as Living City. Less attention is paid to efforts to prevent infill construction, which has become a particular plague in the city’s “non-classical” outlying neighborhoods, most of them built during the post-Stalin, pre-perestroika period.

These neighborhoods offer developers an advantage they cannot find in the historic center: “open” space. In reality, this means the tree-filled courtyards, gardens, and parks that Soviet city planners designed into these new estates in order to give citizens the fresh air, greenery, and recreational areas they were so desperately lacking in the densely built environment of the city center.

These “empty” spaces also present another advantage: they already have the infrastructure (gas, water, and sewerage mains, electrical grids and telephone lines, paved roads, and public transportation) that would be expensive to install in the truly undeveloped territories farther away from the center. Developers also do not have to worry about the building height regulations that still, however feebly, hold sway in the inner districts. They are also encouraged by an overheated economy whose main beneficiaries have few other avenues where they can invest their newfound wealth, and by a plentiful supply of cheap labor in the form of immigrants from the impoverished former Soviet republics.

On the administrative side, they are assisted by the “legal nihilism” of which President Medvedev has spoken so eloquently of in recent months, and by the central state’s identification of new housing construction as a national priority. (It matters little that much of the new housing created in Petersburg is functionally and nominally “elite,” meaning that is both unaffordable for most people and, in many cases, principally serves as a financial instrument for local administrations, banks, real estate agents, and buyers. I.e., it is not built as part of a social welfare program.)

In one seemingly insignificant block in the Piskarevka-Polyustrovo micro-district, in the far northeast of the city, all these factors have recently combined to destroy Submariners Garden, a large inner-courtyard grove dedicated to the memory of Soviet and Russian submariners who lost their lives in peacetime. Local residents have known about plans to build a housing complex on the site of the garden and have been resisting them since 2006. Piquancy has added to their struggle by the fact that the project is backed by the FSB, the Federal Security Service, whose officers have, allegedly, been allotted a certain number of apartments in the new buildings.

In May, the conflict went from simmering to hot when construction contractors tried to install a concrete wall around the garden. They were met with furious resistance from residents, who were assisted by local environmental and political activists. In June, further, unsuccessful attempts to install the wall sparked new stand-offs between construction workers, police, neighbors, and activists. This in turn prompted Alexander Vakhmistrov, one of the city’s vice governors and its construction “czar,” to declare a temporary moratorium on all work.

City officials and legislators also tried to calm residents by claiming that their block would be slated for “renovation”—which is what the administration has dubbed its new, ambitious program to replace many of the city’s Khrushchev- and Brezhnev-era residential buildings with new dwellings that will supposedly be built on the same sites as their dilapidated predecessors and will house the people temporarily resettled from those same buildings. The activists and residents of Submariners Garden have mostly rejected this plan, seeing it as an attempt to put a good face on a bad (con) game that never had anything to do with “renovation.”

Despite all these assurances and promises, however, in the early morning of July 21, construction workers, backed by police and “security guards” (i.e. low-level thugs), arrived at Submariners Garden and began clearing trees. Activists and residents sent out a call for help and tried to mount what resistance they could under the circumstances. They were badly outnumbered, however, and in the event, four of them, including their leader, Yelena Malysheva, were arrested. By evening, the “developers” had accomplished what they had set out to do. They had cut down all the trees in the vast, central section of the courtyard and had surrounded it with a concrete barrier.

Activists promised that the fight has not ended, but, in the absence of a solidarity network capable of reacting quickly and in larger numbers to such “fires,” it is difficult to imagine how they and other Petersburgers in similar straits throughout the city can successfully defend their homes and squares. More important, what is lacking is a compelling alternative political practice that would enlist greater numbers of people in the struggle against hegemonic “aggressive development” (Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko’s coinage) and the other predations of oligarchic capital by advocating real grassroots participation in planning and socially oriented development.

Nevertheless, what prevents its emergence most of all are the many micro-practices and everyday discourses through which both the hegemons and the hegemonized persuade themselves and each other that only silly “beautiful souls,” old women, and hysterics worry about old buildings, beautiful panoramas, and humble groves in shabby Soviet-era neighborhoods. Worse, these “losers” are often represented, by politicians and the media, as paid agents of more sinister forces who wish to undermine Russia’s long-sought “stability.” In this case, as in so many others, solidarity with such unattractive types is out of the question. Everyone has more important things to worry about.

Here we present video testimony, in Russian, by some residents of Submariners Garden, Each video is accompanied by a transcript in English.

For a good summary of the day’s events and the conflict in general, see Sergey Chernov’s July 22 article in The St. Petersburg Times (which has been reproduced in full, below).

Submariners Garden, Petrograd, July 21, 2008

[Yekaterina:] Wherever we called, they told us that this was all renovation, although it’s not renovation at all—it’s infill construction. We all were against it. There were public hearings: we all signed [petitions] against this project. There was a vote for [or against] renovation: we signed [petitions?] against this renovation when we learned how it would be carried out. There are two children’s institutions here. They want to build two buildings for the FSB [and] a 150-car parking lot, which we really don’t need here.

They began working around seven-thirty. Who exactly gave them permission? This mainly comes from our governor [Valentina Matviyenko]. That is, she gave them the green light, although there is a law protecting green spaces. There is also a law about human rights in general: [one has the right] to live in one’s neighborhood and have one’s say about what will be [built] there and what won’t. We have been stripped of this right.

We have already filed a suit in the [European Court of Human Rights] in Strasbourg, and we are waiting for our case to be reviewed. What is going on here is total lawlessness: the land was sold, but no one asked us [what we thought about it].

What is at stake here is the value of the land and the value of our infrastructure (our gas mains and electrical cables), which is all ready to use. And the value of our lives: the outer walls in our buildings shake even when a freight train passes by way over there. When a truck passes by below, the outer walls here shake like crazy. We have these huge cracks in the walls, and the ceilings leak in many apartments.

This renovation is not [being done] for us; it’s for someone else. I don’t know what this is. It’s infill construction, ordinary infill construction. We, the residents of Khrushchev-era blocks and five-story houses, are simply being driven out. We have no rights.

My name is Yekaterina. I live literally in the next house over. I have been fighting here for two years. Some people have been fighting for this garden for three years—for this garden, for our green spaces, for our air. The laminated plastics factory periodically sends out fumes. All the children here have allergies. The Avant-Garde plant regularly spits out who knows what. If there is no foliage here, there won’t be any air to breathe. And if there are also going to be 150 cars here or maybe more, then I cannot vouch for what will happen to the health of our children and our own health. I have asthma myself. I cannot breathe the air downtown and I cannot live there.

[Yekaterina:] Our neighborhood has been slated for infill construction. They have slated this place for infill construction, as if it were an empty place. The law on green spaces was passed in 2004. But they slated this little patch—this beautiful, green patch—for infill construction in 2006. Isn’t that a violation [of the law]? It’s a violation. Isn’t it a violation of human rights when we speak out, when we have spoken out against [this project] more than once? They don’t hear us. No one listens to us, no one hears us.

And all the newspapers are silent. We read only articles commissioned [by the authorities or other interested parties]. [We read] that here there is a pitiful bunch of people who have nothing to do with this district. No, we live here. People have lived for forty, fifty years under these trees. How they can ignore this? We plant everything here, we clean the garden up as well as we can, and we have regular volunteer Saturday workdays. Our children ride their bikes here; there’s nowhere else for them to ride. Where should they ride? On the street, on the pavement? Our children play here, parents walk their babies in prams. What kind of demographics will we end up with if our children breathe exhaust fumes and do not see a single green tree their entire childhood?

[Old Woman:] They think they are chopping down trees. They are chopping down our lives. These trees survived the Siege [of Leningrad, during WWII]. Why are trees being felled in the center of the city? Who gave permission to do this?

[Yekaterina:] They included [this neighborhood in the infill construction program] as an empty place, not as a garden, not as a green zone, but as if there were an empty space here. We have a map on which every tree is marked. The city administration has remained totally deaf to our complaints, to our requests. They came and nodded their heads: “Yes, we’ll suspend the project. We’ll put you on the renovation list. Everything’s fine. We’re temporarily suspending construction.”

Now it turns out that [Vice Governor Alexander Vakhimistrov’s] letter ordering a temporary halt in construction was “recalled.” That is, the construction company got the green light to go ahead here. They have already been selling apartments [in the buildings planned for construction on the site of the demolished garden].

[Old Woman:] In Russian, the law is like the shaft on a wagon. They changed their minds [about whether to include our block in the] renovation program three times: first we were in, then we were out. They changed their minds about our park twice: first they included it [in the list of protected green spaces], then they excluded it.

[Yekaterina:] Nevsky Alliance [real estate agency] started selling apartments [in the unbuilt buildings] as soon as the land was sold. In a building that had not been built, apartments have been sold. They have been selling apartments right and left. People have already bought up apartments here.

[Irina Dmitriyevna:] Sixty apartments have been sold in these buildings. Nevsky Alliance is selling them.

[Irina Dmitriyevna:] Only eight percent of these apartments will go to the FSB. The rest are up for sale. That is, when they tell people that the block will be renovated, it’s not true. This is a purely commercial project.

[Yekaterina:] When the head of the local council tried to talk with Sergeyev from the FSB, she got five minutes of pure threats in response.

“You’re standing on the FSB’s land. We’re warning you for the last time. We’ll give you the full treatment if you don’t get your residents off our land.”

I am quoting Mister Sergeyev word for word. All of us were standing nearby.

[Irina Dmitriyevna:] Four people were arrested today: they nabbed them. Moreover, they knew whom to go after. They nabbed our leader, Yelena Malysheva. They [also] nabbed three others. They are active [in our struggle], but not so active as to drag them in.

[Yekaterina:] They weren’t doing anything illegal. One guy was simply standing with us on the sidewalk and was trying to prevent them from beating women. He simply grabbed a policeman by the jacket and was trying to pull him off the women. After that, he was beaten up. Yes, we tried to pull them off, and they tossed us around. They kicked our legs and punched us. They twisted our arms. Six or seven guys dragged [Malysheva] across the asphalt and threw her into the police van. Five men against one woman. She had a heart attack: they took her to the hospital.

[Yekaterina:] Maybe we will win [the garden] back and plant new trees… We still have to live here. No one is going to move us anywhere.

When the project was up for discussion, they showed us this project. The project started right from that little road, as if our houses were not there at all. That is, our houses aren’t taken into consideration in this project at all. No one intends to move us out [to new buildings] or repair [our houses]. Our houses shake as it is, and we don’t know what will happen if they start building here. There is quick clay everywhere. Our gas main also lies on top of this quick clay, unless they end up re-laying it. If they begin building here, we don’t know what will happen. That is the geodesic situation. I suspect we will lose everything.

[Woman:] Seryozha wouldn’t hurt a fly.

[Yekaterina:] He wasn’t doing anything. He was just trying to defend [Malysheva]. [They are] impudent men. Look over there at our beauty. [Points to a falling tree.]

[Yekaterina:] How can we hold on? How can you can hold on when strapping guys beat up women and old ladies?

This is what the deputy head of the [local] administration said. “Hold on a little longer. We’ll help you and get to the bottom of this.”

They are still getting to the bottom of this. When all that is left here is a wasteland, and they start building houses on it, that is when they’ll get to the bottom of it.

[Yekaterina:] They almost cut off his arm with those chainsaws. They were just swinging at him with those saws.

[Yekaterina:] They—the entire mainstream press, the radio stations—officially announced that we had started a riot here. There was no riot. We simply surrounded the construction workers and got them off their equipment. None of us struck a single blow.

Half of them left on their own. They just left everything and turned off the compressor they had been using when they were welding the fence together. Everything was calm and peaceful: there was no riot. The riot began when the police showed up and began beating up the old women who were trying to stop the equipment from getting through. That is when the riot—old women versus the police, if you can call that a riot—began.

[Old Woman:] I said to them, “Who are you fighting? Look at me: I’m eighty-one years old.” He grabs me by the arms and tries to drag me away. All we did was stand in front of the crane so that it couldn’t get by us. How they were tossing us away from that crane, our police!

[Yekaterina:] That’s how our police defend us. People from the FSB arrived; they stood around and observed. Anything happens and they come flying in at the drop of a hat. Last time, when we began to push the fence over, a lot of people got taken down to the precinct. Because last time the fence was illegal however you look at it. [The construction company] was told to take it down, but they didn’t take it down. We tried to push it over: half the green activists were arrested for “unlawful actions.” Putting a fence up without a permit, that’s not unlawful. But pushing it over turns out to be unlawful. That is how the law is interpreted in Russia. Whatever is profitable, whatever is sold, that is legal. But what ordinary citizens, poor citizens, the people, pensioners, ordinary workers and clerks want, that is against the law. Because what they want is not in the financial interests of our powers that be. The regime here is antidemocratic [against the people]. Our authorities are antidemocratic. I have become wholly convinced of this. I don’t believe there is any social safety net, I don’t believe they are worried about demographic growth. What kind of demographic growth will there be if children have nowhere to play?

[Old Woman:] We have no authorities: there is a power vacuum in the city. A total absence of authority. And the power of moneybags. The guy who stole a lot of money, he is the power.

[Ykaterina:] We don’t have democracy; we have oligarchic capitalism. And this is real proof of that. This isn’t a democracy; this is antidemocratic. It’s so antidemocratic. This is visible proof that here, on this lot, oligarchic capitalism has triumphed.

[Old Woman:] Matviyenko promised to make the city green. This is how she is making our city green. Vakhmistrov wrote that there were 16.5 square meters of greenery per person, and by the end of 2008 there would be 20 square meters of greenery per person. Vakhmistrov said this: I still have a copy of the newspaper. Is this how he intends to produce 20 square meters per person?

[Yekaterina:] We gathered 1600 signatures against this. 1600 signatures.

[Old Woman:] They took them to the Smolny [city hall] a few days ago. The police barely let them in. Matviyenko didn’t receive them. [Her assistants] gave her the packet with the signatures. And what did we get in reply? Silence and our trees cut down.

[Yelena Fradkina:] As one of the developers put it, “You’re lumpens.”

[Yekaterina:] They told us this outright: “You’re lumpens. You won’t be able to do anything. We bought this land. Go home, you lumpens, and keep your nose out our business.”

[Other Woman:] “We’ll bury you here, and we’ll build here all the same.”

[Yekaterina:] They will bury us. They will bury us under the ruins of our homes, which will collapse when construction begins.

[Old Woman:] This house is forty-three years old. A prefab building, and forty-three years old. It has not once undergone major renovations. It’s barely standing as it is. What will happen when they begin driving piles in the ground? It’s the same with these five-storey houses. We’ll end up homeless.

[Yekaterina:] Even if they drill them in. The railroad is over there, behind the hospital. When a train passes, my windows shake, the outer wall shakes. What if they begin drilling here? The soil here is quaky. There is quick clay here, quick clay there. There is unstable karstic sand here.

[Yelena Fradkina:] There is vegetation here, greenery, but they don’t understand greenery. The only greenery they understand is dollars. Now that is “greenery,” but this?

[Old Woman:] Vakhmistrov came here. He stood over there and looked at all this. He said, “I don’t see any trees: this is an empty lot.” That’s what Vakhmistrov said right to our faces.

[Yelena Fradkina:] One of their ladies was quoted in the papers (in Novaya Gazeta, I think), one of the developers who has been walking around here. “We could spit on your children, your old people, and your trees. We’re going to build.” What is there to say to that?

[Yekaterina:] The first public hearing was about reconstruction, about resettlement. Infill construction wasn’t discussed at all. When they showed us this project they announced that this was the second hearing. [NB. Russian law requires two public hearings before a construction project can go ahead.] Naturally, we didn’t recognize this second hearing as legitimate. We said that there had been no initial hearing on the project, and nothing was decided during the second hearing. We were categorically against any and all projects. We were totally against any construction in our courtyard. When they tried to palm off this document on us—“Are you for or against renovation? Send us your comments” (they simply circulated this document in our buildings)—we explained to everyone that [the authorities] were trying again to foist infill construction on us under the pretext of renovation. Once again we marked “against” [on the forms], and we went around [to residents] and gathered signatures. We gathered statements from people saying they were against the project. Everyone was against it. But the land had already been sold. So what is the use in our being against this? Who is going to listen to us?

There were constantly these sham members of the public at the hearings, people who aren’t registered in this district, who do not live here. They were just alcoholics who hollered louder than everyone else, “I’m for [the project because] I’ll get resettled.” No one is going to be resettled. The only people who are for the project are the ones whom they tricked by telling them they would get apartments [in exchange for their support]. But for the time being no one is resettling us anywhere, and no one intends to give us apartments. In short, people were simply conned. Even the ones who put down their signatures “for” the project and live on this block, they have simply been conned. Conned in the most elementary way.

They conned us and lied right to our faces. “This [building project] will pay for your resettlement.” “What’s with you? Do you not want your district to be improved?” And many people [fell for this] Or rather, most people didn’t. The majority, the people who have been actively participating [in the protests] [are against the project]… But everyone is at work for the most part, from morning to evening, doing twelve-hour shifts. And so not everyone can take part. Not everyone can actively support [our cause].

So now they simply picked the right moment: half [the neighbors] are at their dachas, half are at work, and it is a Monday. And this is the outcome. The police arrested the kids from the youth organizations [anarchists and National Bolsheviks] who have been supporting us, and their trials are today. They are being tried for these [protest] actions. [They are being tried] for our courtyard, for the fact that they came to the defense of our green spaces and, generally, for defending a normal human life. Their court hearings are today, and that is why they could not come. [The construction company and the authorities] chose the moment, on purpose, so that we wouldn’t be able to do anything. And they will say again that this was an empty spot. The police are standing over there smiling impudently. There you have it.

[Old Woman:] 1600 signatures against renovation. 1600. They didn’t let them into [the Smolny]. A woman came out to meet them at the entrance. She took a look [at the petition] and said, “Okay, maybe. We’ll take it into consideration.” But we haven’t got a response to the documents that were delivered to Matviyenko in the Smolny. We have not heard anything from the Smolny, but meanwhile here they’re already [cutting down the trees]. [The builders] know quite well that they have to break through [our resistance] while no clear decision has been made yet [in the Smolny]. And there [in the Smolny] they are waiting for them to break through. We understood this quite clearly, too. [Matviyenko] and Vakhmistrov are on vacation: how is that? Because [the builders] were told, “If you break through [the residents’ resistance], then you will be in the right here.” And now they have broken through.

They made preparations. They were walking around here for a whole week, surveying everything, and checking everything out. They smiled mockingly at us; they greeted us in this insolent way. And today they are executing all the plans they made over the last week.

Why should they wait for Matviyenko’s decision, for the Smolny? Because they know that the Smolny will decide in their favor all the same, not in ours. Nowadays, the city’s inhabitants are just mud that gums up the works. They’ll knock down our buildings and send us God knows where, beyond the city limits.

Most of the people who live here are native Leningraders. They are quite sharp-tongued and have to be sent away from here.

[Off-screen Voice:] Yeah, there are no New Russians here for sure. Everyone here is a local.

[Old Woman:] Everyone is a local, everyone has worked hard for what they have. And now, in our old age, this is what we get.

When we were young, the war hit us. At least then it was the Germans who attacked us. They were foreigners: we understood who it was that wanted to break us. But we defended Leningrad. Half of our families remained here to lie [in this ground]. The trees stood their ground with us, too.

During the Siege we didn’t cut down trees. People were dying of hunger and cold. They burned furniture, they burned their own books. I lived in wooden houses on Krestovsky Island. Later, we were moved into large buildings, and these houses were leveled and the logs were used for fuel. But not a single tree was touched. Do you have any idea how many trees there are on Krestovsky? They all survived the war, and these trees here also survived the war. But now our new rulers [do things this way], with one flourish of Matviyenko’s pen. If she had come here just once. We asked, “Look at what you’re signing. Why are you doing this?”

Vakhmistrov tells her, “It’s an empty lot.” Okay, people are endlessly asking her to sign things, they are trying to get in to see her. One [TV] channel, then another channel show that there is a park here, that people are struggling [to defend it]. Why does she [act this way]? It was easier to get an audience with the czar than it is to get in to see Matviyenko.

[Old Woman:] First it’s one law, then it’s another. First they put [our garden] on the protected list, then they take it off. First they put us in the renovation program, then they take us off. Then they put us back in. What kind of mockery is this? How long can they mock the people? How many little blazes like this are burning all over the city? Are they waiting until this flows together into one [great blaze]?

The Russian people takes its time getting into the harness, but then it travels quickly. Do they understand this or not? Why are they pushing people to extremes?

Okay, we are old. But we have children and grandchildren. They will come home from work now and see this; they’ll hear our stories. Do they really think the people will be silent forever? The people won’t be silent.

[Vladimir Dmitriyev, deputy in the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly, member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation:] [I was just at Vice Governor Alexander Polukeyev’s office, because Vakhmistrov isn’t here, he’s on vacation. Polukeyev called Roman Filimonov, chairman of the city construction committee, into his office and told him that they had cut down around twenty trees here. [Filimonov] says to me, “Vladimir Yakovlevich, they’re cutting down only old, rotten poplars.”

[Residents:] Go there and look for yourself. Those are birches, maples. . .

[Dmitriyev:] . . . And he says that last week he met with the residents, that he carefully explained everything to them, that people understood everything. . .

[Residents:] Scoundrel.

[Dmitriyev:] . . . true, there were a few individuals who didn’t quite get it.

[Residents:] What a liar. What impudent lies. What an impudent liar. We were promised renovation, but what is that, “renovation”? We were against renovation, we signed a petition against it. 1600 signatures were submitted to Matviyenko in the Smolny.

[Dmitriyev:] I now asked Polukeyev—they went to Pushkin to do an inspection with Matviyenko—I asked him to personally report to her about what is happening here: three people were detained, arrested. . .

[Residents:] Four people. None of them has been released yet. One woman’s heart started acting up, but they are holding her at the police precinct.

[Dmitriyev:] Which precinct?

[Residents:] The 61st Precinct. [The police fought with us.] They dragged her on her back through a puddle. Six guys beat her up and threw her in a police van. We are all witnesses. The boy got a concussion: what do you call that?

The important thing is to stop this somehow: they will destroy our entire courtyard. Can you stop this? Do you have the power to stop this?

[Dmitriyev:] No, of course not.

[Dmitriyev:] [At the moment, it looks as if they have badly] deceived us. Vakhmistrov said, “Include this block in the renovation zone. At the very first session [of the city government?] I’ll raise the issue of”—they’re planning to build not one building, but two buildings for the FSB; for the time being we are talking about two buildings—“We will table this issue then: the administration’s decision to permit construction of these two buildings is declared null and void, and this entire block goes into the renovation zone.”

This is what you were also talking about now. First, there is a search for investors, and then a project proposal. Before a proposal is made, each resident is surveyed and everyone comes to a common denominator. When everything suits everyone, only then do people move from the blueprints to working directly on the lot. And that is what Vakhmistrov [said] to us about this. . . I’ve just come from the Smolny. I sat there for an hour and half waiting for the small cabinet meeting to end.

[Residents:] Stop this before they have cut down all the trees. Can it be stopped?

[Dmitriyev:] I’ll say it again: no one is going to stop this. The highest-ranking official in the city right now is Polukeyev. He said to me, “Vladimir Yakovlevich, you know that this isn’t my issue. It’s Vakhmistrov’s issue, and he is on vacation now. I’m taking care of some of his affairs, but I don’t have a total handle on this issue.”

I said to him, “Then inform Valentina Ivanovna [Matviyenko] right now, when you’re on the bus (they’re going to Pushkin). Lawlessness has broken out again. They’re grabbing people, beating people, and this is happening in plain view.” He said, “Okay, fine.” Then he summoned Filimonov. Filimonov told me that after lunch (he has a meeting now, and people have been called in), right after lunch he will come here himself and have a look.

[Residents:] There is no longer anything to look at. Everything will be chopped down [by the time he gets here].

[Old Woman (looks at the square being destroyed):] Accursed bandits. Bandits. The park stood here for sixty some years. It survived the Siege. And these scumbags. . . A band of thieves.

P.S. A quick glance at the website of the Nevsky Alliance real estate agency confirms many of the fears and arguments of the residents of Submariners Garden. The colored illustration of the future apartment blocks does not include the houses currently on the site. More amazingly, this is how the agency describes the location:

“Compared to other northern districts, the Kalinin District has a quite well-developed social infrastructure. It is characterized by a satisfactory ecological climate [and] a sufficient number of parks and green spaces. The Piskarevka-Polyustrovo micro-district, where the new house is situated [note the use of the present tense: the house has not even been built], is not far from Pioneer Park and Academic [Andrei!] Sakharov Park.”

And, we should add, at 60,400 rubles (1,648.38 euros) per square meter, it’s a steal.

___________

This past winter, Sanoma Independent Media closed the St. Petersburg Times, the city’s only English-language newspaper, which had been published for over twenty years. Sanoma Independent Media also switched off the newspaper’s website, so its invaluable online archives have gone invisible as well. I am thus extremely grateful to reporter Sergey Chernov for providing me with the copy of his July 22, 2008, article on the conflict in Submariners Garden.

Disputed Submariners Garden Hit By Police, Demolition Begins
By Sergey Chernov
STAFF WRITER
The St. Petersburg Times
July 22, 2008 (page 2)

Backed by dozens of policemen and hired guards, a construction company invaded Submariners Garden (Skver Podvodnikov) on Monday to fell trees and install a concrete fence around the perimeter. A number of the area’s defenders were beaten and arrested, according to residents.

Located at the Block 43 Polyustrovo in the north of the city, the garden was named to commemorate Russian submariners who died in non-combat operations after World War II. When visited early afternoon on Monday it had already been partially demolished.

Old women cried as another massive tree trunk fell under the chainsaws and axes of the workers, who were encircled by the policemen and guards. “I planted these trees during the war,” said one. “During WWII, we defended the city, but then it was from foreigners, so it was more clear-cut; it’s worse now,” said another. The defenders said the company’s representatives failed to present any documents showing they had permission to perform the work.

Earlier in the day, four activists who tried to protect the trees, including Yelena Malysheva, leader of the local residents group, were detained by the police and taken to Precinct 61, the residents said, adding that the detainees had also been beaten.

“We tried to stop it, but the police started to beat us,” said local resident Yekaterina, who only gave her first name.

“We were also beaten by some strange men, allegedly from a private security firm. They didn’t identify themselves or show us any papers.” One defender was hospitalized with concussion, while another experienced heart problems, according to the residents.

The latter was also later hospitalized.

“Courageous women have been on watch here every day from morning to evening,” said Yelena Fradkina, a translator and local resident.

“We stopped them before, but today they brought so many men that we couldn’t do anything. Since 8 a.m. we’ve just been standing here, watching [the destruction] and crying.”

Listed in the city’s official register of public parks and green spaces, Submariners Garden, which includes a monument, a memorial oak lane, a playground, and hundreds of trees, has been under threat since 2006, when it became known that developers had plans to build two to four apartment buildings on the site. The apartment buildings have been ordered by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet KGB, according to the construction company, Stroikompleks XXI.

Direct confrontation with the authorities and developers began on May 23, when Stroikompleks XXI attempted to erect a fence around the garden. Since then, residents have been guarding the area and on several occasions have tried to stop the workers, who were escorted by guards and the police. Multiple protests and rallies have been held.

Arrests and beatings were reported on several occasions in June when the company attempted to resume work.

Then, on June 17, Vice Governor Alexander Vakhmistrov asked the company to stop any work in the area “due to heightened social tension.” Last week, the residents were promised by the authorities that no work would be undertaken at least until September, when a “renovation” plan would be put into action, instead of the infill construction attempted by developers.

“They deceived us,” said Vladimir Dmitriyev, a Communist Party deputy in the Legislative Assembly, who arrived at the scene on Monday.

According to Dmitriyev, Vakhmistrov was on vacation while Governor Valentina Matviyenko was scheduled to inspect Pushkin, in the south of the city, in the afternoon. He said his faction would appeal to the Prosecutor’s Office to inquire into the construction company’s “unlawful” activities.

The works in the former garden continued, as this issue went to press, with virtually all the trees cut down and the workers surrounding the area with a concrete fence, according to a telephone report from a local resident.

“Of course, it all comes from Matviyenko. [What happened today] means she gave the go-ahead, despite the law protecting parks and gardens, and in violation of our human rights,” said Yekaterina, adding that the garden was the residents’ only protection from the poisonous smoke emitted by local factories.

The residents also worry that construction will adversely affect their fragile Khrushchev-era houses (many of which were built hastily in 1961), as well as gas and sewage works that were designed to serve only a limited number of buildings.

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Editor’s Note. I have reprinted this post from seven years ago (which was originally published on Chtodelat News, a blog I edited for a little over five years, and cross-posted the same day on this blog) for a few reasons. First, because I think it is the best thing I ever did on a blog, despite myself, and despite the disparaging remarks I will make about it, below.

However, it never got the attention it deserved, neither then nor since, although it tells you everything about the Putin regime in a nutshell and what many perfectly invisible, ordinary Russians thought about the regime and still think about it now.

I suggested to the nominal publishers of Chtodelat News that they reproduce the post in an anthology of their own written work they were compiling for a big show at an important art institution in London, but was told it “didn’t fit the format” of the planned publication. Although, at the time, the vigorous efforts being made by grassroots groups in Petersburg, Moscow, and all over Russia to push back against things like infill construction and “neighborhood revitalization” (but not only these things) were the biggest story in Russia, and should have got a lot more coverage everywhere else, and a lot more solidarity from leftist intellectuals and creatives back here at home.

But it was not until the much sexier, endlessly self-enamored (and virtually nonexistent) “Snow Revolution” of 2011–2012 that the international media big guns started cranking their rusty turrets in the direction of Moscow (although not anywhere else in Russia, really) because the “revolutionaries” feebly taking to the streets to oppose Putin’s return to the Kremlin and faked election results were supposedly “middle class people just like us and our readers.”

As you can gather from the videos shakily shot by me with a crappy camera, the resisters at Submariners Square were not sexy or middle-classy enough to warrant such top-flight coverage, although the story got (more or less biased) coverage from local media, especially then, because stories of corrupt city officials allied with greedy developers versus folks from all walks of life defending Petrograd’s historic built environment, whether tsarist, modernist, Stalinist or post-Stalinist, from the wrecking balls, was the hot button topic in town at the time.

All the Submariners got “internationally,” however, was my half-assed blog post and an excellent article, also reproduced here, by the stalwart chronicler of alternative culture and the political grassroots in Petersburg, veteran reporter and photographer Sergey Chernov, most of whose efforts from that period have been reduced to naught, as I have already mentioned, by Sanoma Independent Media’s decision to turn off the website of the St. Petersburg Times and thus kill off at least ten or fifteen years of the city’s political, social, and culture history for people who do not read Russian.

By republishing this post, I do not want to suggest that the ultimately futile defense of Submariners Garden was a revolutionary or utopian moment, or a historical bifurcation point, where the wrong turn was taken by society at large, because, first, there have been zillions of such turning points over the past twenty-five years, and the wrong turn has been taken, collectively, at nearly all of them, and second, the mood at the time was black as pitch in any case, not upbeat.

Who knew that it would only get blacker? I think I did. If only because if you are the powers that be, you cannot continuously lie to ordinary people and grind them into the dirt time after time without it finally going to your head and making you think you can get away with anything. Which is what is happening right now.

And if you are the “vanguard of the proletariat” (the anti-Putin intelligentsia, whether leftist or liberal) you cannot continually opt out of such little skirmishes because you have a conference in Budapest to prepare for or an article to write for a Marxist journal published in Chapel Hill, because, in the end, you will wind up in a totally different moral and mental universe from that of the “lumpens” whose testimony we see and hear in this post. Not, of course, that all local leftists and liberals took such an escape route then. To their credit, many still have not.

But the most compelling reason for republishing this post is to show the world at large that ordinary Russians (i.e., “Putin’s base”) are well aware of how things are done in their country, are perfectly capable of puzzling out who profits and who gets shafted by this state of affairs, and even, God forbid, of sometimes organizing themselves and putting up a fight without some newfangled twenty-first-century Lenin leading them into the fray.

That is, they are hardly “lumpens.”

What is strange to me is that the powers that be and the so-called intelligentsia (liberal and leftist) either do not know this or pretend not to know it. And yet they chatter endlessly about these mostly fictional creatures, “the folk” (narod), either in their supposed defense or, on the contrary, to blame their fabled benightedness for all their country’s woes.

What is most amazing is that all this chatter and flagrant manipulation is thought, by the powers that be and the intelligentsia, to constitute “politics,” “political discourse,” and “populism” in Russia.

Woe is them.

P.S. According to an acquaintance who went to school in the neighborhood, those FSB residential buildings did finally get built. This is borne out by Wikimapia, which shows two buildings, euphemistically entitled the Family Residential Complex, occupying the spot where Submariners Garden once flourished, which Wikimapia does mention, to its credit. It also correctly identifies the developer as the Leningrad Regional Directorate of the Federal Security Service.

The original text of my introduction and the testimony of the residents have been lightly edited to make them more readable.

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Migrant Construction Workers Demand Back Pay from Baltic Pearl Subcontractor

Baltic Pearl Migrant Construction Workers Demand 780,000 Rubles from Employer
July 20, 2015
Rosbalt

PETERSBURG, JULY 20. Workers building the Baltic Pearl residential complex have demanded back pay from their employer, Trivium Group. As one of the construction workers, foreman Khusrav Kholmirzayev, told Rosbalt, the employees calculated the company has owned thirty workers approximately 780,000 rubles [approx. 12,600 euros] since last year.

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The Baltic Pearl. June 28, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader

According to Kholmirzayev, last year, three crews were employed on the building site, and he supervised thirty men. He added that they worked without having signed labor contracts. Meanwhile, Russian authorities deported several migrants: the workers did not have enough money to pay for work licenses. Kholmirzayev noted that his crew was not paid fully from August to October 2014.

“We had only enough to survive. We stayed because we were promised the remainder would be paid,” he said.

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A makeshift container village, inhabited by migrant construction workers, with the Baltic Pearl in the background. Photo taken on June 28, 2015, by the Russian Reader

In 2015, the workers were not paid for March and April, after which they walked off the construction site. The workers who remained in Petersburg got jobs at other building sites, while Kholmirzayev has been trying to get the money from the previous employer.

“Relatives of the workers call me and say, ‘As foreman, you have to pay the workers.’ My parents have paid many of them,” he noted.

Today, the Trivium Group’s offices at Burtsev Street, 13, were supposed to be picketed by twelve migrant workers, but the protest did not take place. Only Kholmirzayev and Maksim Kulaev, an activist with the Interregional Trade Union Workers Association (ITUWA), showed up for the event. Moreover, the company could not be found at its registered address.

According to Kulaev, because of the crisis, “wage arrears are widespread in the housing sector and construction, especially if migrant workers are involved.”

IMG_8734
Another view of the container village for migrant construction workers, which is situated right next to the Gulf of Finland, where residents of the Baltic Pearl and environs could be observed swimming on June 28, 2015, when this photo was taken.

Rosbalt tried and failed, over the course of the day, to make contact with Trivium Group management over the phone via its listed numbers.

The website of the Petersburg and Leningrad Region Arbritration Court currently lists nine suits which Trivium Group has lost. According to the files viewable on the website, it transpires that Trivium Group has been ordered to play over fifty million rubles [approx. 808,000 euros] to other organizations. The claims have been appealed.

Trivium Group is one of the many companies engaged in erecting the Baltic Pearl complex.

This is the third in a series of posts dealing with Central Asia, Central Asians, immigration, and migrant workers in Russia. The first post in the series, a translation of Sergei Abashin’s essay “Movements and Migrants,” can be read here. The second post, “Why Migrant Children Are Being Expelled from Russian Schools,” can be read here. Translated by the Russian Reader

Why Migrant Children Are Expelled from Russian Schools

“Moscow for Muscovites”: Why Migrant Children Are Expelled from Moscow Schools
Darina Shevchenko
June 18, 2015
Yod

Russia had long made it possible for all children living in the country to get an education. The right of every child to an education was untouchable. Beginning this year, circumstances have changed. The Federal Migration Service (FMS) has obliged schools to expel unregistered children under the threat of stiff fines. Yod has tried to find out why Moscow schools are prepared to teach only children who hold Moscow residence permits.

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Alla, a Ukrainian national, arrived in Moscow last year from the city of Chernivtsi, located in Western Ukraine. Alla says that food prices have greatly increased in her hometown, and it has become hard to find work. In Moscow, she quickly found a manager’s job at a small company, rented a flat, and in spring of this year decided to move her son Alexander to Moscow. She went to School No. 1524 and asked what she needed to do to enroll him in the eighth grade.

Alla was told documents for enrolling in school were now submitted through the District Information Support Services (DISS). At DISS, she was informed that her child could be enrolled in school only if he had a yearlong temporary residence permit for Moscow. Alla and Alexander now have a three-month temporary residence permit. Their landlady has refused to register them for a longer period. At DISS, Alla was told that without this document her son had no right to study in a Russian school.

“Alla’s story is now typical. A family from Ukraine recently turned to us for help. For a whole year, a school had refused to enroll their son in the first grade. First, they needed a resident permit, and then they were denied enrollment due to the fact the child had turned eight, and eight-year-olds are too old to study in the first grade. This child’s parents were forced to return to Ukraine,” says Stasya Denisova from the Civic Assistance Committee.

According to the human rights defender, they now are dealing with a very large number of appeals from migrant and refugee families concerning expulsions and non-admission to schools. The most common reason is that their resident permits have run out. School directors cite Ministry of Education Decree No. 32, dated January 22, 2014. The decree divides children into two categories. Priority for admission to school is given to those who have permanent registration, while those who have temporary registration are admitted in second place.

“There is nothing in the decree about children without registration. Apparently, officials believe this means that such children do not have to be enrolled in school at all,” says Denisova.

Another human rights activist, Bakhrom Ismailov, says this year he has begun receiving many complaints from migrants whose children have been kicked out of school because they lacked documents.

“For a long time, Russia made it possible for all children who were living in the country to get an education. And the right to an education for all children was untouchable. The situation has changed this year. The FMS has obliged schools to expel children without resident permits,” says Ismailov.

“Just this week, I got several phone calls from Central Asian migrants who told me their children were going to be expelled from school because they had no medical insurance. Last year, a law requiring migrants to buy health insurance came into force. Without it, they cannot be employed. But we are talking about adult migrants. I don’t understand why high schools are making this demand on their pupils,” says Gavkhar Jurayeva, head of the Migration and Law Center.

Several teachers in different Moscow schools who wished to remain anonymous confirmed to Yod that at the beginning of the academic year, school principals were told at staff meetings that Moscow was now prepared to teach only children holding Moscow residence permits.

It is not only Moscow schools that now require residence permits.

“Our principal’s granddaughter, who is registered in Moscow, goes to school in the Moscow Region. At the school she attends, they demanded a Moscow Region residence permit from her. They said they were different budgets. Moscow was ready to educate only its own children at its own expense, and the region also educated only its own children at its own expense,” recounts a Moscow schoolteacher.

However, Isaak Kalina, head of the Moscow Education Department, does not agree with this take on the situation and says that stories of migrant children being expelled are myths.

“These stories are examples of journalistic myths. Any child who is legally in Moscow can study in Moscow’s schools,” says Kalina.

In February of this year, Uzbek national Nurbek, who has lived in Russia for ten years, was told by Vera Pankova, principal of School No. 34 in Tver, that his two teenaged sons, who had been pupils at the school since the first grade, would either have to be registered within five days or she would expel them.

“Not once in all these years had anyone at the school asked about my sons’ registration. The boys were good pupils, and they had no problems with their teachers. I also respect Russian law. I have always done all the paperwork for my family promptly,” recounts Nurbek.

The three-year residence permits of Nurbek’s sons had expired this past fall. Nurbek has a Russian residence permit, owns his own home in Tver, and is employed full time. Nurbek also wanted to apply for permanent residence permits for his sons and wife. But he was turned down on the grounds that his wife was unemployed, and the children were inscribed in her passport.

“I explained that my wife stays at home with our youngest son and our daughter. How can she work? And I own my own home and have a job. All the same, the boys were not allowed to get permanent residence,” says Nurbek, outraged.

The FMS also refused to register Nurbek’s sons, explaining that the boys had to exit and re-enter Russia.

“I earn forty to fifty thousand rubles a month [approx. 650 to 800 euros] for the whole family. I cannot afford to buy the children a two-way ticket. I have to set aside money and save up for this,” explains Nurbek.

In February, Nurbek was summoned by the principal, who demanded that he immediately present his sons’ registration. The school gave him five days to do the paperwork.

“The children were expelled the same day. They were required to turn in their textbooks. The school did not even suggest temporarily transferring them to home study. I asked that they be allowed to finish out the school year and promised to secure them their resident permits by this deadline. The principal replied that if she didn’t immediately kick out my children, the FMS would fine the school 400,000 rubles [approx. 6,500 euros]. The kids were very upset. The oldest loves school. He intends to study engineering at university, and then move to Germany. The teachers say he has great aptitude for foreign languages. After finishing school, my younger soon planned to study be a mechanic at vocational college. I have worked so much so that my children would not have to be uneducated street sweepers, and I decided to fight for them,” recounts Nurbek.

He filed a lawsuit against the school and won the case. According to the Civic Assistance Committee’s Stasya Denisova, the court ruled that the expulsion of Nurbek’s children had been illegal, because it violated the federal law “On Education,” the Russian Federal Constitution, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Russia has ratified.

“The demands of the local FMS office to expel children due to a lack of registration also had no legal grounds. The court ruled it was not the school’s business to identify foreign nationals among its pupils and expel them due to a lack of registration,” says Denisova.

According to Nurbek, Principal Pankova came up to him after the trial and said she would challenge the court’s ruling.

“She was very indignant that, I, a migrant, had dared file suit against a Russian school. I tried to convince her I had not wanted to humiliate or insult anyone. I just needed my children to get an education. Then she said, ‘If you have money for lawsuits, you can afford to pay for your children’s education,’” recounts Nurbek.

Pankova told Yod she had no plans to prevent Nurbek’s children from attending school.

“I only ask that they register as soon as possible. No, the FMS is not pressuring me. It just has to be done,” said Pankova.

Nurbek claims that his children have already received a temporary residence permit. They have been registered, a

The Tver Region FMS office accommodated Nurbek only after Civic Assistance Committee lawyers intervened.

“Secondary schools now require registration not only from Central Asian migrant children but also from Russian citizens who have moved to a new town and from refugees. For example, in the Moscow Region town of Noginsk we opened a school for the Syrian refugee children, who are not admitted to Russian schools despite the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We were unable to find common ground with the FMS office in Noginsk. When we arrived to meet them, their staff illegally checked the documents of the human rights defenders,” recalls Olga Nikolayenko, director of the Adaptation and Education Center for Refugee Children.

The FMS was unable to reply to Yod’s request for a comment before this article went to press.

Nikolayenko says she does not understand what the FMS hopes to achieve by forcing schools to expel migrant children for bureaucratic reasons.

“Some migrants will leave Russia due to the fact their children won’t be able to go to school here. But most will remain. Their children will also continue to live here, because things are even worse at home. I don’t think they will have a good attitude towards a country that has deprived them of the opportunity to get an education. World know-how shows that first-generation immigrants are never integrated. But it is easy to integrate the second generation if the host country makes a minimal effort,” says Nikolayenko. “For some reason, our government is trying to make sure that neither the second nor the third generation is integrated. It generates a number of people in this country who are excluded from social processes, and so society cannot tap their potential. These people could get a high school diploma or a higher education and pay taxes. I don’t see any logic in the actions of the schools and the local FMS offices. First and foremost, we are wantonly sabotaging ourselves.”

Ismailov says that observance of immigration law has now been put above the right of children to get an education.

“In the past two years, the requirements for migrants have become tighter and tighter. Pressure has been put on them via minors,” says Ismailov. “Why pressure children? Let the adults be fined and penalized. Children should not be treated so cruelly.”

Nurbek’s friend Abdul-Aziz, from the town of Elektrostal in Moscow Region, is planning to send his children back home to Tajikistan this week. Due to the lack of registration, none of his school-age sons and daughters is admitted to Russian schools.

“They can go to school at home. They will grow up and come to Moscow to work. There is no work in Tajikistan anyway. But if they don’t know Russian and your customs, that will be your own fault,” says Abdul-Aziz.

This is the second in a series of posts dealing with Central Asia, Central Asians, and immigration. The first post in the series, a translation of Sergei Abashin’s essay “Movements and Migrants,” can be read here. Photo, above, courtesy of Yod. Translated by The Russian Reader.

“Forgive Us, Netherlands”: Petersburgers Remember MH17 Victims One Year On

Petersburgers Remember MH17 Victims One Year On
David Frenkel
Special to The Russian Reader
July 18, 2015

Despite heavy rain and hail, several dozen Petersburgers came to the Netherlands Consulate General in the city yesterday, July 17, to lay flowers and paper planes in memory of the victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which crashed near Torez in Donetsk Region, Ukraine, on July 17, 2014, after being shot down, killing all 283 passengers and fifteen crew members on board. Two thirds of the passengers were Dutch nationals. The plane was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

IMG_5820A similar memorial took place in Moscow, where Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov was the only Russian official to bring flowers.

Despite the meager attendance in Petersburg, three regular police cars arrived to complement the usual consulate guards. Police tried to forbid the mourners from leaving the paper planes, printed with the names of the victims, dubbing them “garbage.”

IMG_5850The paper planes were part of an action, sponsored by Open Russia, entitled #PAPERBOEING. Eventually, the mourners got their way and were allowed to leave the planes.

IMG_5883Police also checked documents of an elderly man who came to the memorial wearing a handmade hat with the Dutch phrase “Vergeet ons, Nederland” (“Forgive us, Netherlands”) printed on it. They suspected him of attempting to hold a one-person picket.

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All photographs by and courtesy of David Frenkel

Don’t Mind the View

Vista of Vasilyevsky Island’s Bolshoi Prospect Blocked by Western High-Speed Diameter Pylons
July 9, 2015
Kanoner

The pylons of a bridge currently under construction as part of the central segment of the Western High-Speed Diameter tollway have encroached on the vista of Vasilyevsky Island’s Bolshoi Prospect. People with good eyesight can see them from the First Line, on the far eastern end of the avenue.

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Fishermen say farewell to their view of the Baltic Sea on a warm May day as the Western High-Speed Diameter’s pylons emerge from the murky depths of the Gulf of Finland. Gavan, Vasilyevsky Island, Petrograd, May 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader

Construction of the tollway’s central segment, which links the Ekateringofka River Embankment and Primorsky Prospect, began in 2013. The general contractor is Northern Capital Thoroughfare, Ltd. The length of the segment is approximately twelve kilometers. According to the investment agreement, it it must be delivered in 2016.

The main segment of the highway will pass over the water on a flyover designed by Stroyproyekt Institute JSC. One part of the thoroughfare is a cable bridge spanning the shipping fairway in the mouth of the Neva River. Pylons are now being erected for the bridge. Two of them are exactly aligned with Bolshoi Prospect on Vasilyevsky Island, it turns out. They are clearly visible both from Gavan (the western section of Vasilyevsky) and from the first Lines, and this despite the fact that currently they have been built to a little over half their projected full height.

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Recent Google satellite image showing the emerging cable bridge section of the Western High-Speed Diameter tollway, the mouth of the Neva River, and the southwestern tip of Vasilyevsky Island, including Bolshoi Prospect

Earlier, concerns were voiced that the size of the Western High-Speed Diameter was insufficient, and therefore tall-masted sailing ships would be unable to sail into the Neva under the new cable bridge. But this viewpoint was not heeded.

The emergence of new buildings and facilities in the vistas of historic streets is not a rarity in Petersburg. The sky above the Nicholas Children’s Hospital, at the end of Chapygin Street, has been completely occluded by the high-rises of the Europe City residential complex (developed by LSR). The vista of Poltava Street has now been blocked by the Tsar’s Capital residential complex (LenspetsSMU, developer), and the new residential building Hovard Palace (Hovard SPb, Ltd., developers) is twice as high as the surrounding built environment and has thus emerged above the skyline at the beginning of Socialist Street.

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Artist’s rendering of Tsar’s Capital residential complex, currently under construction near the Moscow Station in downtown Petersburg. Image courtesy of LenSpetsSMU developers

_________________________

Hovard Palace Residential Building Encroaches on Vista of Socialist Street
May 13, 2015
Kanoner

Hovard Palace, a residential building currently under construction at Zagorodny Prospect, 19, has significantly encroached on the vista of Socialist Street. It has also changed the look of neighboring Jambyl Lane.

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Hovard Palace, currently under construction, rises high above the end of Socialist Street. It is clearly visible from the other end of the street, half a kilometer away. Photo by the Russian Reader
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Hovard Palace towers above a a square named in memory of the revered Kazakh traditional folk singer Jambyl Jambayev, situated on a lane bearing his name. Photo by the Russian Reader

To make way for the elite complex, a pre-Revolutionary building originally designed as a block of rented flats for State Bank employees was demolished. The five-storey house was built in 1898–1901 and designed by architect Heinrich Bertels.  After investor Hovard SPb, Ltd., took an interest in the site (according to rumors, the company has personal ties to former Petersburg governor and current Federation council chair Valentina Matviyenko), residents of the dormitory that had been housed in the Bertels building were forcibly evicted to the village of Shushary, outside the Petersburg city limits. [Translator’s Note. The June 2012 linked to here paints a slightly more complicated picture of how the now-demolished building was resettled.]

City hall officials categorized the forced relocation as having public significance. This was preceded by a personal memorandum from Valentina Matviyenko, in which she wrote, “The site has public significance. Work to find a solution.” The memorandum was addressed to three deputy governors.

This “public significance” made it possible for Hovard SPb to avoid complying several provisions of the law. In particular, it was allowed to demolish the building (although the demolition of pre-Revolutionary buildings is expressly forbidden), and construct the new building higher than stipulated by local height zoning regulations. The environmental impact analysis was conducted by Devros, Ltd., which is directly linked to one of Valentina Matviyenko’s people, Alexei Komlev, ex-deputy chair of the city’s Landmarks Use and Preservation Committee (KGIOP). The analysis show that the new building would be visible behind neighboring buildings, but within tolerable limits.

The eight-storey [sic] residential building was designed by Moscow architect Mikhail Belov. Soyuz 55, Ltd., run by Alexander Viktorov, former chief architect of Petersburg, adapted Belov’s design to local conditions [sic].

Hovard Palace
Rendering of Hovard Palace, which the caption, in Russian, says contains nine storeys. Image courtesy of Novostroy-Spb.ru

Now, as the upper floors are being erected, they are clearly visible from the surrounding streets. The building’s impact has been especially acute on the vista of Socialist Street. And from the intersection of Zagorodny Prospect and Socialist Street one can see that the eight-storey building has risen above the cour d’honneur of Simonov House (Zagorodny, 21–23), which forms a small side street.

The look of Jambyl Lane has changed as well. Jambyl Square, containing the monument to Jambyl, looks different, and the bard himself now strums his lute against the backdrop of the new building.

The developer promises to deliver Hovard Palace in the late summer.

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Hovard Palace and environs, July 16, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader

Translated by the Russian Reader

Petersburg Activists Protest Proposed Nuclear Waste Storage Facility

Petersburg Activists Protest Proposed Nuclear Waste Storage Facility
David Frenkel
Special to The Russian Reader
July 16, 2015

Yesterday, July 15, activists protested the proposed construction of Russia’s largest radioactive waste storage facility in Sosnovy Bor, a town eighty kilometers west of Petersburg that also hosts the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant. A second plant, Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant–2, is also currently under construction in the town.

The protest took place outside the Mariinsky Palace, seat of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly.

Garbed in hazmat suits, activists from the Beautiful Petersburg and Beautiful Leningrad Region movements brought a barrel to the steps of the palace. It was one of the 500,000 barrels of nuclear waste slated for burial in Sosnovy Bor.

david-nuke-1“#IOPPOSETHERWBF” (Radioactive Waste Burial Facility)

State Duma deputy Nikolai Kuzmin, Petersburg Legislative Assembly deputies Maxim Reznik and Irina Ivanova, and members of the organizations Green Front, Green World, and Native Shore joined the activists. They signed an appeal asking President Putin to halt construction of the storage facility.

david-nuke-3Petersburg Legislative Assembly Deputy Maxim Reznik signing appeal to president

The protest did not come off without a provocation. A man who identified himself as a journalist from the “president’s creative special forces” accused the activists, including Kuzmin, of “working on behalf of the west” and “receiving foreign grants.”

In June, the Russian Supreme Court approved the placement of the disposal facility in Sosnovy Bor. Opponents of the project have pointed to the fact that, according to Russian federal standards, such facilities should be built at a considerable distance from populated areas, bodies of water, and recreational areas.

Earlier in the day, Rosatom had announced that it would change the concept of the waste storage facility because it was economically unfeasible. It was not yet known what the new project would look like.

As of this writing, over 47,000 signatures have been collected on a petition against the waste facility posted on Change.org.

david-nuke-4The Leningrad Nuclear Plant has been in the news on two other occasions in recent weeks.

In early July, a building supervisor climbed a 110-meter-high construction crane and refused to come down until back wages owed to him and his colleagues were paid.

On July 4, a seventy-ton piece of equipment, a protective tube unit, fell while being lifted at the construction site of Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant–2 and was damaged beyond repair. In addition to increasing costs, the accident is likely to delay the project completion date. The plant was initially to be launched in 2013. Later, the launch date was postponed to late 2015. This latest accident may delay the launch even further.

All photographs by and courtesy of David Frenkel

Sergey Abashin: Movements and Migrants in Central Asia

Movements and Migrants in Central Asia*
Sergey Abashin
STAB (School of Art and Theory Bishkek)

1. Movements

Movements in Central Asia have become large-scale and permanent, involving all social groups, rich and poor, women and men, young and old. They move around their own countries and among countries. Some go for several weeks or months and come back, while others live far from their place of birth for years, only occasionally visiting their homelands. Still others leave forever, breaking all ties. Some travel in search of a new homeland, so to speak. Others go to make money, study or receive medical treatment. Still others go for fun and excitement.

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Immigrant road maintenance workers gaze at the newly completed second stage of the Mariinsky Theater. Kriukov Canal, Petrograd, March 15, 2013. Photo by the Russian Reader

All this movement has come as a surprise to experts and politicians. I still remember the debates in the Soviet Union in the 1980s as to why the people of Central Asia were reluctant to travel outside their region. Even then officials and academics in Moscow, observing the beginnings of the demographic decline in Russia itself, were planning to relocate people from borderlands with an excess labor force to the central regions of the then still-unified country. These plans failed, because few people wanted to leave their homes. Only organized and, in fact, involuntary labor recruitment and military labor brigades partly solved the increased need for labor power. The weak affinity that Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz felt for voluntary mobility was proclaimed, on their part, an inherent and incorrigible attachment to family, community, and the hot climate. However, all these explanations were put to shame only a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when millions of people from the titular Central Asian nations felt an irresistible urge to hit the road, leaving and, sometimes, literally abandoning their homes.

Let us try and make sense of these circumstances, to understand why movement in the region has suddenly become a vital life strategy among a considerable number of people. The answer only seems to be lying on the surface. Yes, of course, the collapse of the Soviet system has led to the dismantling of all previous social and economic policies, which kept the population in place through social programs and investment in sometimes loss-making manufacturing enterprises. An abrupt, almost catastrophic decline in living standards, often accompanied by political turmoil and increased feelings of uncertain life prospects, could not fail to provoke an outflow of those wanting to find new prosperity and new stability outside their former worlds. Unemployment and negligibly small wages and pensions have pushed people into new labor markets in countries where even small incomes, by local standards, are much higher than the incomes Central Asians can expect to earn at home.

The future also looks ambivalent, depending on the forecaster’s optimism and pessimism. Some argue that economic, social, and political degradation in Central Asia will continue, becoming chronic, and the movements, therefore, will not stop but might even become even more intense, prolonged, and irreversible. Others, however, argue that sooner or later the situation will improve, investments and jobs will emerge at home, incomes and quality of life will increase and, consequently, outward migration will gradually dwindle.

This approach to movement as a consequence of degradation simplifies, in my view, the picture of events, distorting our perspective by ignoring and failing to analyze many important causes, factors, processes, and attitudes. If we look more broadly at the context in which human mobility in Central Asia has been growing, the first thing we see is an increase in the scope, range, and frequency of movement throughout the entire post-Soviet space and the world as a whole. Second, we see the unconditional link between mobility and the current stage of capitalism, which is sometimes called globalization, sometimes postindustrialism, and sometimes postmodernism. Viewed from this perspective, the picture of Central Asia appears in a somewhat different light than as a mere reflection of the disastrous state of affairs in the region’s newly independent countries. Spatial flows are not only a compulsory means of survival but also an impetus for distributing and assembling people, capital, information, and skills in new social configurations. The latter have a logic and meanings that do not depend directly on the characteristics of a particular country but are subject to wider trends and patterns.

What additional meanings can be attributed to the movements of people in Central Asia aside from as a reaction to post-Soviet degradation?

I think the situation can be described in terms of the momentum of the connections and mutual dependencies between Central Asia and Russia (and other lands) that developed and strengthened over at least a century and a half of coexistence within a single state. Usually, this kind of relationship is characterized as imperial or, if observers want to emphasize a distinctly unequal exchange, colonial. It is believed that empires inevitably fall, to be replaced by liberated nations. In this simple teleological scheme, which now dominates post-Soviet ideologies, much is not entirely clear, but one of the most controversial questions that many postcolonial critics ask is whether empire has actually disappeared or has adopted new shapes in which nations—i.e., constructs actually generated by empire—perform the old functions of borderlands, still pumping resources into the former metropoles in return for patronage and oversight. If we accept this argument, and there are many grounds for doing so, the massive movement of people from Central Asia to Moscow, Petersburg, and other Russian regions appears to be a post-imperial situation in which the circulation of labor power, money, practices, ideas, and information continues, acquiring new tempos and vectors. This movement establishes a new division of labor between the former “heartlands” and “borderlands,” and their hierarchy and mutual need for each other, even if the rhetoric has been dominated by harsh rejection of the newcomers.

Another implication of the movement of people in Central Asia is also quite obvious, although it is little remarked and little analyzed. The large-scale mobility—a significant (if not the lion’s) share of which consists of rural residents going to work abroad—is tantamount to a rather classic proletarization of a still largely agrarian Central Asian society. Soviet modernization attempted in its own way to organize this process by gradually transforming the locals into an agricultural working class while preserving the private agricultural sector and the corresponding rural practices, attitudes, and outlook in the region as a kind of compensation for semi-forced labor. The collapse of the Soviet Union also entailed the collapse of this transformative model. Consequently, the standard version of capitalist development, involving the ruin of the peasants, their impoverishment and exodus to the cities, where they are transformed into ruthlessly exploited proletarians, was inevitable. In other words, what is perceived as degradation is, in fact, a shift in the socio-economic order, not a return to old ways of life, as it sometimes has seemed, but accession to a completely new stage or form of community.

Proletarization has not been subject to discussion because, in particular, its course and effects have been concealed in a strictly ethnic view of the movement. In the countries of origin, the departed are considered traitors, victims or breadwinners. In the host countries, they are considered threatening outsiders or, again, victims. The emphasis, often cultural and racial, on their departure or arrival is more important than the social essence of movement. However, as soon as we remove our ethnic glasses we сan easily identify the class character of mobility. Its specificity consists only in the fact that the system in which class interaction takes place is not limited to particular countries and even regions but is non-national in scale. This system includes, first of all, the post-Soviet space as the nearest and most comprehensible space, a space that has, as I have already said, a history of a common existence and unequal relations of domination and subjugation between heartlands and borderlands. But mobility has already gone beyond the scope of the post-Soviet, spreading into new spaces of global capitalism and incorporating itself into a truly global order.

The other significance of the movement in Central Asia I would like to discuss is the mastery and appropriation of global space, infrastructures, and communication and transportation technologies. Let me explain this with a very simple example. Once upon a time, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Russian imperial officials built a railroad that linked Central Asia with Russia’s central regions. The railway was built in no small measure to transport troops in the event of local uprisings and conflicts with other world powers, as well as for resettling Russian peasants, who were to colonize the new imperial lands. The railroad was also built to export the region’s cotton to the Ivanovo textile mills and import grain back to Turkestan, where the arable land was to be busy growing cotton. However, whatever objectives Petersburg officials pursued by allocating funds for the railroad’s construction, the end result was new transport infrastructure that made it possible to move large quantities of people and goods quickly, a means that had been available to different groups of people in different historical periods, and could be used for purposes that the said officials could not even imagine. Consequently, a hundred years later, the railway has become one of the main means of transporting millions of people of Central Asia to Russia and all over the world. This shift of functions and tasks might be dubbed mastery of new technologies and appropriation of completely new mechanisms for interacting with space, mechanisms which themselves define the impetuses and trajectories of movement. If we add highways and air travel to the railroads, we find ourselves with a huge network of possibilities that people transform into an element of their everyday practices and plans. The ease with which one can reach the other end of the world in a short time and gain access to new goods itself compels people to travel.

Here I would add the mastery of technologies for obtaining information about the world and communicating at great distances. They help create and maintain images and networks of acquaintances, which are also included in processes of movement and ensure its stability, direction, and reversibility. In a broader sense, I would also include here not only phones, internet, cars, and planes but also knowledge of languages, mastery of global systems of food and clothing, of finding and gaining employment, and so on. The penetration and expansion of such technologies and infrastructures in Central Asia and training oneself in the habits of using them shapes the demand for mobility as a distinct need and, sometimes, as a pleasure.

Finally, I want to use the notion of the migration of peoples for interpreting current movements. Despite the risks of drawing analogies between quite different historical periods, I think it vital to point out the temporal depth, continuity, and cyclical nature of movements, on the one hand, and, on the other, the gradual tectonic shifts in the spread of cultures, languages, and even genetic characteristics, shifts that may not always be visible from the perspective of several decades. I think we must keep sight of this prospect, too, because it is here that new mixtures and hybridizations happen, new cultural types and preferences are constructed, and new communities and identities are shaped. Marriages between locals and newcomers, children of newcomers who are born and grow up in the new land and speak the local language, shifts (back and forth) in musical and culinary tastes that are suggested by the newcomers and turn into new fashions, etc., are the individual and ephemeral symptoms of such transformations. They coalesce to form global trends that become visible after some time and only at a remove from the chaos of the present. The non-obvious nature of this tectonic shift and the uncertainty of its impact do not mean, however, that we do not sense, sometimes as vague and irrational fears and anxieties, the inevitability of this process by which completely new cultural forms emerge and acquire their own force and logic.

2. Migrants

I deliberately did not use the terms migration and migrants in the first part of my text, although in their original sense they are synonyms of movement and people in movement. However, the primarily recent negative usage of the word migrant in Russia, the destination of most Central Asians, has caused me to regard it as a discrete category, which indicates the particular circumstances in which people in movement find themselves. We can easily notice that the word is used selectively in the public debate and generally does not cover all types of movement, for which additional features and criteria are introduced. Why and how do certain people in movement end up in the exceptional circumstances of migrants?

The paradox of the present age is that the more massive and rapid the movement of people has become, the more societies and countries have established legal, political, social, and cultural obstacles and rules, including in the realm of ideology and ideas, for regulating and directing mobility. Having become an important feature of (post)modernity, movement has not changed the social order, which has remained hierarchical and antagonistic. But movement imparts to these hierarchies and antagonisms another, migratory dimension, which has become an important element in the allocation of status, wealth, and opportunity. More precisely, there are many such dimensions, and I will try to spell them out, based on the classification of the causes of increased mobility that I have proposed above. In particular, I mentioned post-imperialism, capitalization and proletarization, the appropriation of global space, and the migration of peoples.

The most obvious is the post-imperial or post-colonial conjuncture. The former distinctions between heartlands and borderlands, which in the past had a tangible and geographically measurable value, have been preserved, having forfeited, however, their sense of spatiality. The parts of the formerly united empire, fused over many decades and centuries, continue to need each other, even after the collapse of the unified state, in terms of resources, finances, labor power, military assistance, technologies, and ideas to maintain their existence and legitimacy. As before, mutual dependence has its own imbalances, which after the Soviet Union’s demise have not only not decreased but also in many ways have even increased. In the past, common imperial Russian and Soviet citizenship certainly served as tools of colonization and Russification, but aside from subordination, they contributed other modernizing and emancipatory consequences and effects. As the residents of the modernized and emancipated regions have flocked to the heartlands, depriving them of a common citizenship and, generally, of a stable legal status has been the new strategy for dominating the borderlands and its inhabitants. Earlier educational and Kulturträger aspirations have finally yielded to cold calculation: utopianism has become an unnecessary expense.

The status and label of the illegal (nelegal) has replaced the former terms aboriginal (tuzemets) and ethnic (natsmen) as the new tool of colonization. Illegality, which in its various shapes accompanies the majority of immigrants from Central Asia throughout their journey to Russia and other countries, is simultaneously a means of overexploitation and replacing distance (which in the past separated the residents of the heartlands from the populace of the borderlands, generating informal relations of “senior” and “junior”) with a new means of distancing. While reproaching the arriving hordes for illegality, Russia does everything possible to maintain this gray zone, which is a prerequisite of postcolonial welfare and subjugation and brings only material and symbolic benefits. Of course, the possibility of becoming a citizen and occupying a top position in the new circumstances remains for the illegal immigrant, just as once upon a time the aboriginal and ethnic could become a tsarist general or a member of the Central Committee, but this career requires stupendous effort, the overcoming of numerous obstacles, and repeated demonstrations of loyalty.

The proletarization of rural dwellers is accomplished not just as a movement from countryside to city but also as a movement from one country to another. This generates not only the possibility of doubly exploiting migrants as workers and, at the same time, as disenfranchised foreigners, but also impedes the formation of a pronounced class identity and class resistance among the new proletarians. Moreover, self-recognition as a working class occurs neither in the country of origin nor the host country.

In Russia, where migrants work and generate surplus value, they are considered guest workers and slaves who are not an electoral force, allegedly hinder the development of the local economy, skew the labor market by working for low wages, and increase crime rates. That is, they generate lots of so-called problems and threats. Even local leftist parties are not willing to recognize them as their own constituency, whose rights and class mobilization should be their concern. In Central Asia itself, where the migrants return with the money they have earned, they do not perceive themselves and are not perceived by others as a proletariat. Rather, they function as a kind of middle class who have successfully completed a business deal somewhere abroad. At home, the guest workers carefully maintain and reproduce all the attributes of prestige characteristic of the rural rich, community members, and supporters of a “traditional” lifestyle, albeit in contrived form. This method of joining the capitalist world prevents immigrants from Central Asia from recognizing their interests as proletarians and fighting for them, which only aggravates their oppressed position in their new circumstances.

Here I want to clarify an important point. Movement itself is not only proletarian in its import. The people involved in it also include businessmen, who attempt to preserve and capitalize their savings abroad; urban educated youth, hoping to enter the cohort of white collar workers; and cultural producers and academics, who are looking for freedom of inspiration and recognition in other countries, and so on. But these groups of Central Asians are often overlooked amidst the public phobias, are not identified as guest workers, and even occupy quite high-status positions in the new society. However, many of them are also under constant threat of ending up living their lives according to a proletarian logic. Subjugation, which cannot be reduced merely to proletarization but has a wider context, assigns people to different categories, leaving them very little choice in determining their own legal, professional, and social trajectories, eventually pushing them into the niche of disenfranchised workers, from which it is difficult to extract themselves.

Another factor associated with access to the infrastructures and technologies of mobility also generates its own limitations and hierarchies. The latter include abilities, skills, and psychological capacities, as well as, I intend to emphasize, the availability of the necessary financial means and connections for implementing this access. An important condition is the availability and number of intermediaries between the individual and the means of mobility.

The hierarchy begins to take shape the moment the decision is made who is personally capable of setting out on the long, distant journey. This decision predetermines who will be the breadwinner, and who, the dependent; who, by taking on heightened risks, will receive more of the symbolic and moral bonuses, and how roles and statuses will be allocated in the future within the family and the community. Depending on the availability of funds and skills, the emigrant chooses between strategies of searching for happiness individually or, more often, of joining a network. Within the network, each person is assigned a certain place, and strict limitations are imposed on all manifestations of independence. The network mediates between the individual and technologies. It gives him or her money for their first steps. It protects and insures them. It explains where they should go and what they should do. The societal network, which guides the individual down the beaten path, provides guarantees and confirms the usual order of relations, and reproduces its own forms of domination and subjugation among elders and youngsters, men and women, pioneers and followers, wise guys and foot soldiers. The technologies and infrastructures of globalization are for many people, paradoxically, a means of reproducing and even reinforcing so-called traditional collective practices and beliefs.

I want to note also that networks, by defining what each of its members should do and how they should do it, exacerbate the stigmatization of these people as illegal immigrants and guest workers. When he or she joins a network, the individual immediately ends up in a social niche already freighted with a given set of obligations and rights, symbols and identities. The Central Asian whom an older relative or acquaintance puts on a plane, then transports to a place of work and so on, is doomed to be a migrant, as no other roads remain open to him or her.

And, finally, the migration of peoples. I have spoken about the fact that this process leads to the invention and cultivation of new hybrid cultural forms and types. And yet the fabrication and materialization of these forms and types happens via alignment with a hierarchy, through assignment to specific superior or inferior positions in social classifications, through application of a whole set of rules and techniques for recognition and exclusion. In particular, in these processes, references to culture, religion, and race, alone or in various combinations, are turned into a necessary attribute for identifying migrants as a discrete category of people in movement.

Migrants are persons necessarily endowed with the signs of aliens. Their physical appearance, faith and religious practices, and cultural habits must be alien. Central Asians with Caucasoid and Mongoloid features are termed “blacks” (chornye). The Central Asian cultures, which experienced a large-scale modernization with the Russian Empire and Soviet Union for nearly a century and a half, are described as almost archaic and “traditionalist.” Central Asian Islam, which has just been recreated after an atheistic era and bears the stamp of eclecticism and internal inconsistency, already figures as a potential, homogenous “threat” both to Christians and atheists. The discursive racialization, and cultural and religious stigmatization to which a significant number of people traveling between countries are exposed is a condition for entering the new situation of constant movement. New generalizing identities and derogatory nicknames legitimize, albeit negatively, the redistribution of space currently underway. At the same time, endowment of legal, professional or class status is made dependent on cultural and biological characteristics. Despite the apparent relativization of culture in movement, the essentialization of these characteristics has only been amplified and has moved from the level of individual countries and regions to the global level.

I want to conclude my short essay on movement and migrants in Central Asia not with a series of conclusions but with something like an inquiry. The new era has opened up many new opportunities for people, but at the same time it has generated new types of dependence and subjugation. How will these opportunities be used? Have we recognized all the risks? I think that when answering these questions we must choose a particular point of view that opens onto a wider temporal and spatial context, that does not focus on details, whatever feelings of pride or resentment they might cause, and that would not be attached to a particular ethnic loyalty and affiliation. Depending on how this works out or whether it works out at all, we can hope for the emergence of a new dialogue about the new era, a dialogue that for the time being we sorely lack.

* My research was conducted with support from a grant by the Russian Humanities Academic Fund (“Problems of Intercultural Interaction between Migrants from Central Asia and Russian Society,” No. 11-01-00045а).

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Sergey Abashin is British Petroleum Professor of Migration Studies at the European University in Saint Petersburg. His most recent book is Sovetskii kishlak: Mezhdu kolonializmom i modernizatsiei [The Soviet Central Asian village: between colonialism and modernization], Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2015.

This essay was originally printed, in Russian, in STAB Almanac No. 1: Regain the Future, edited by Georgy Mamedov and Oksana Shatalova. Published by the School of Theory and Activism Bishkek (STAB) in 2014, the almanac can be accessed in full (in Russian) here. This is the first in a series of new posts dealing with Central Asia, Central Asians, and immigration. Translated by the Russian Reader