“This is Russia. This is the Russia that Americans are so scared of.”
In the background of this photo, you can make out the Galeria Shopping Center, located in downtown Petersburg. It’s gigantic, covering the land once occupied by five or six graceful tenement buildings and a cultural center and cinema. They were demolished in the mid 1990s, not to make way for the shopping mall, but so a new train station could be built there, jeek by jowl with the existing Moscow Station, because federal and regional officials wanted to build a high-speed train line between Petersburg and Moscow. Millions of dollars were allocated for the project, but ultimately, the train line was never built nor was the new station erected. No one knows what happened to the millions of dollars allocated for the project. They simply vanished into thin air.
The site of the former-future high-speed train station sat vacant for many years behind a tall, ugly construction-site fence. No one could figure out what do to with all that wasteland, which was in the very heart of the city, not in some forgotten outskirts. However, before the money had vanished, and the project was abandoned, construction workers had managed not only to demolish all the tenement buildings on the site but had also dug a foundation pit. Over the long years, this pit filled up with water. Some time after Google Maps had become all the rage, I took a look at our neighborhood via satellite, as it were, and discovered to my great surprise it now had a small lake in it. It was the foundation pit of the former-future high-speed train station, filled to the brim with water.
Good times came to Petersburg in the 2000s, when the country was flush with cash, generated by high oil prices, a flat tax rate of 13%, and runaway corruption. It was then the city’s mothers and fathers (I’m not being ironic: most of Petersburg’s “revival” was presided over by Governor Valentina Matviyenko, a former Communist Youth League functionary who had converted to the gospel of what she herself called “aggressive development”) decided that Petersburg, one of the world’s most beautiful, haunting, enchanting cities, should be extensively redeveloped, despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, into a mecca of consumerism that would give pride of place to cars and new highways, since cars had become the new status symbol among the city’s rich and poor alike. They also decided that, since other big cities in the world had lots of high-rise buildings, their city, which did not have almost any high-rise buildings, should have lots of them, too.
Basically, they decided to demolish as much of the inner and outer city as they could get away with—and they could get away with a lot, because they had nearly unlimited political power and lots of the country’s money at their disposal—and redevelop it with high-rise apartment buildings, superhighways, big box stores, and shopping and entertainment centers, each one uglier and bigger than the last. Thanks to their efforts, in a mere fifteen years or so they have gone a long way toward turning a Unesco World Heritage Site into an impossible, unsightly mess.
But let’s get back to our miniature inner-city lake. Finally, developers came up with a plan to convert the site into a giant shopping mall. Even better, the architects who designed the mall were clearly inspired by Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect and a leading Nazi Party member, to turn a rather oversized mall into a celebration of kitsch faux-neoclassicism, precisely the sort of thing Speer had championed in his projects. This, indeed, was a bit ironic, because Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, had survived a 900-day siege by the German army during the Second World War. Considered the longest and most destructive siege in history, it killed at least 800,000 civilians, that is, it killed the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of the people who now enjoy visiting this mall, with its distinctly neo-fascist aesthetic.
Along the sides of the street running down towards the photographer from the Albert Speer Memorial Shopping Center, you see lots of shiny new, fairly expensive cars, parked bumper to bumper. In fact, the Albert Speer has a huge underground car park where you can park your car relatively inexpensively (our neighbor lady, a sensible woman, does it), but most Petersburg car owners actually think parking their cars wherever they want—especially either right next to their residential buildings or, worse, in the tiny, labyrinthine, incredibly charming inner courtyards of these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings—is their legal right. It isn’t, but they don’t know it or don’t want to know it. I know they think this way because many Petersburg car owners have told me so.
To my mind, the precipitous rise in personal car ownership in Petersburg has done more to degrade the city’s beauty than all the underinspired colossal high-rises put together, because the city was purposely designed by its original builders, beginning with Peter the Great, to have a good number of intersecting and radiating, awe-inspiring, long and clear sightlines or “perspectives.” Hence, many of the city’s longest avenues are called “prospects,” such as Nevsky Prospect (the title of one of Nikolai Gogol’s best stories) and Moskovsky Prospect. Nowadays, however, you gaze down these “perspectives” only to see traffic jams and hectares of other visual pollution in the shape of signs, billboards, banners, and marquees. It’s not a pretty sight.
On the right of the picture, somewhere near the middle, you should be able to spot a small shop sign with the letters “AM” emblazoned on it. It’s one of the dozens of liquor stores that have popped up in our neighborhood after the Kremlin introduced its countersanctions against US and EU sanctions, which were instituted in response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine. The US and EU sanctions targeted individuals and companies closely allied with the regime. Putin’s countersanctions, in a manner that has come to seem typical of how the Russian president for life’s mind works, were targeted against Russian consumers by banning the import of most western produce into the country. An exception was made for western alcoholic beverages, especially wines and beers, and this meant it was suddenly profitable again to get into the liquor business. The upshot has been that you can exit our house, walk in any direction, even putting on a blindfold if you like, and you will find yourself in a liquor store in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.
Last summer, I tried painting a little verbal and photographic sketch of the effect this massive re-alcoholization has had on our neighborhood, along with other, mostly negative trends in the use and abuse of commercial space in the city.
Finally, there is one other thing you should know about all those new, mostly oversized cars parked on the street. Since the average monthly salary in Russia barely crawls above 600 or 700 euros a month, even in a seemingly wealthy city like Petersburg, most of those gas-guzzling, air-polluting status symbols were bought with borrowed money.
Just the other day, in fact, I translated and posted a tiny article, originally published in the business daily Kommersant, about how people in the Voronezh Region currently owed banks approximately two billion euros in outstanding loans. In 2015, the region’s estimated population was around 2,300,000, so, theoretically, each resident of Voronezh Region now owes the banks 870 euros, which I am sure is more than most people there earn in two or three months. Of course, not every single resident of Voronezh Region has taken out a loan, so the real damage incurred by real individual borrowers is a lot worse.
I could be wrong, but I think what I have just written gives you a rough idea of how you go about reading photographs of today’s Russian cities, their visible aspect in general, turning a snapshot into something meaningful, rather than assuming its meaning is obvious, right there on the surface. You don’t just tweet a photo of a new football stadium or fancy restaurant or street jammed with expensive cars and make that stand for progress, when progress, whether political, economic or social, really has not occurred yet in Russia, despite all the money that has been sloshing around here the last fifteen years. Instead, you talk about the real economic, political, and social relations, which are often quite oppressive, murky, and criminal, that have produced the visible reality you want to highlight.
Doing anything less is tantamount to engaging in boosterism, whataboutism, Russian Worldism, and crypto-Putinism, but certainly not in journalism. That so many journalists, western and Russian, have abandoned real journalism for one or all of the isms I have listed is the really scary thing. TRR
Photograph by the Russian Reader