This Is Russia

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“This is Russia. This is the Russia that Americans are so scared of.”

In the background of this photo, you can make out the Galereya shopping mall, 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 Mall, 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

 

 

 

Being a Farmer in Karelia Is Not Easy

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Karelian Farmer Mikhail Zenzin. His placard reads, “For the government’s rotten work a rotten harvest from a grateful farmer.” Photo courtesy of Gleb Yarovoi/7X7

Farmer Brings Rotten Berries to Picket Outside Karelia’s Government House
Gleb Yarovoi
7X7
September 6, 2017

On September 6, Mikhail Zenzin, a farmer from Karelia’s Onega District, held a solo picket outside the Karelian government house in Petrozavodsk, the republic’s capital. The man arrived at the building carrying a box of rotten berries and a placard that read, “For the government’s rotten work a rotten harvest from a grateful farmer,” our correspondent reported from the site of the picket.

Several minutes later, a young woman emerged from government house to talk to Zenzin. She invited him to the reception room of the region’s head, where he was able to make an appointment to meet with the head in October 2017. Officials did not accept Zenzin’s gift of berries, and the farmer was forced to discard them.

According to Zenzin, being a farmer in Karelia is no easy task. He says he sees only interference from the state, but would like to receive help. Since spring 2017, he has tried on several occasions to obtain a permit to sell his produce in Petrozavodsk, but so far he has been unsuccessful.

“Karelia needs a farmer’s market. The one held in October is trivial. People grow a lot of produce, but we cannot sell it outside, since the issue of street trading has not been settled yet. There was a decree in April of this year that allocated three plots in Petrozavodsk for the sale of produce, but they had to be purchased through an auction. All over the world, farmers transport their produce to town and sell it freely. In May, I wrote to Artur Parfenchikov, acting head of Karelia, and asked him how farmers were supposed to sell their produce, but I got no reply from him. Instead, I got the run-around from the Agriculture Ministry, who wrote to me that I should contact the retail chains and ask to sell my produce on their premises. I tried to meet with Parfenchikov during office hours. I called his reception office, where I was told the head received the general public once a quarter, and so I was turned down. If I had known he would refuse to debate the issue, I would have brought my berries to Petrozavodsk long ago and dumped them on the steps of government house,” said Zenzin.

This was not Zenzin’s first protest. For several years, he held similar pickets outside Karelian government house and the Karelian Nature Ministry. In the spring of 2013, he held a picket outside the Karelian Natural Resources and Environment Ministry because Ladva Forest Holding, Ltd., had begun clear-cutting a thirteen-acre land plot that had been transferred to the farmer in perpetuity.

In 2014, Zenzin held a solo picket outside government house and went on a hunger strike. As the farmer told the Forest Website, for several years he had been unable  to farm and develop nature tourism in the vicinity of the village of Ladva-Vetka, because the tenant of the area’s forest reserves, Ladva Forest Holding, Ltd., had damaged the road by which Zenzin reached his own plot.

Zenzin doused himself with water in sub-zero temperatures outside the Karelian Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, thus symbolizing how the republic had put small business on ice. A month later, Zenzin, who lives in Ladva-Vetka, was once again outside government house, but this time he had a noose around his neck and a placard that read, “With a man like this running the republic, Karelian small business can only put its head in a noose.” In 2015, Zenzin stood in the way of logging equipment and prevented loggers from cutting down the forest.

According to Zenzin, the issue was resolved in 2016 after Oleg Telnov, ex-deputy head of Karelia, personally intervened.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up

“Extremism” Case against Adygean Environmentalist Valery Brinikh Dropped

Defense lawyer Andrei Sabinin (left) and environmentalist Valery Brinikh. Photo courtesy of Agora

Adygean Court Drops “Extremism” Case against Environmentalist Valery Brinikh 
Agora
August 7, 2017

Maykop City Court today dropped the “extremism” criminal case against well-known local environmentalist Valery Brinikh, director of the Institute for Regional Biological Research. Brinikh was on trial for, allegedly, having insulted the dignity of the Adgyean people by writing and publishing an article entitled “The Silence of the Lambs.” The court dropped the case for want of criminal culpability.

He was explained his right to exoneration. This news from courtroom was reported by Alexander Popkov, an attorney with the Agora International Human Rights Group, who represented Brinikh along with attorney Andrei Sabinin.

“Today in court, the state prosecutor filed a motion to drop the charges of incitement of hatred against Brinikkh and drop the criminal case for want of criminal culpability in his actions,” said Popkov. “The judge retired to chambers before he announced the decision to terminate the criminal case. The ultimate argument in favor of this decision was a forensic examination carried out by the FSB Criminalistics Institute, which found no traces of “extremism” in the environmentalist’s article. A total of four expert opinions and three forensic examinations had been ordered in the case, and only one of them supported the charges. The case lasted almost three years.

According to police investigators, in the fall of 2014, Valery Brinikh, director of the Institute for Regional Biological Research, and ex-director of the Caucasus Nature Reserve (1999-2001) и the Daur Nature Reserve (1993-1999), had produced “extremist” matter, an original article entitled “The Silence of the Lambs.” The article dealt with the environmental mental problems caused by one company’s hog-breeding facility in Adygea’s Teuchezhsk District. The company was founded by Vyacheslav Derev, representative of Karachay-Cherkessia in the Federation Council.

Vyacheslav Derev. Photo courtesy of the Federation Council of the Russian Federal Assembly

The investigators claimed that Brinikh subsequently conveyed this matter to unidentified persons for dissemination on the internet. The environmentalist’s article was published on a local website. The defense did not agree with the prosecution’s argument, saying it was absurd, a violation of freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

On December 14, 2014, Maykop City Court ruled the article “The Silence of the Lambs” “extremist” matter. In March 2015, the Adygea Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision.

ADV-TV, published on YouTube on August 7, 2017. On August 7, 2017, Maykop City Court dropped the “extremism” criminal case against well-known local environmentalist Valery Brinikh, director of the Institute for Regional Biological Research. Brinikh was on trial for, allegedly, having insulted the dignity of the Adgyean people by writing and publishing an article entitled “The Silence of the Lambs. The court dropped the case for want of criminal culpability. Brinikh was defended in court by attorney Andrei Sabinin and attorney Alexander Popkov, with the Agora International Human Rights Group.

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Valery Brinikh poses for a photograph outside the Maykop City Court. Courtesy of Valery Brinikh

Court Refuses to Rule Biologist “Extremist”for Criticizing Hog Breeders
Although Article Containing the Criticisms Remains on List of “Extremist” Matter
Anastasia Kornya
Vedomosti
August 8, 2017

On Monday, Maykop City Court terminated the “extremist” criminal case (Russian Criminal Code Article 282) against Valery Brinikh, director of the Institute for Regional Biological Research. He was on trial for the article “The Silence of the Lambs,” about the environmental damaged caused by the Kievo-Zhuraki Agro-Industrial Complex. The news was reported Alexander Popkov, an attorney with the Agora International Human Rights Group, one of Brinikh’s defense attorneys.

The charges had been filed in December 2014. According to police investigators, the article contained a negative assessment of ethnic Adyghes. Ultimately, however, the prosecutor’s officer dropped the charges. The decisive argument was a forensic examination, conducted by the FSB Criminalistics Institute, which found no evidence of “extremism.” The article contains criticism of the republic’s authorities, “but criticism of persons engaged in political activity is the norm in a civic, democratic society,” the report concludes.

Investigators cited the conclusions of Sergei Fedyayev, an analyst at the Interior Ministry’s Criminalistics Center for Krasnodar Territory. Fedyayev argued that the negative connotations of the word “sheep” extended to the word “lamb,” as used in the article. On the basis of the report written by this same analyst and at the request of the republic’s prosecutor’s office, in December 2014, the Maykop City Court ruled that Brinikh’s article was “extremist” matter. Thus, Brinikh has been cleared of “extremist” charges, but his articles is still listed in the database of extremist matter.

Popkov argues that the ruling is a precedent. He cannot remember similar cases. Theoretically, one of the parties could petition the court to exclude the article from the list of extremist matter, but his client has not yet decided whether he will pursue this. The Adygea Prosecutor’s Office did not respond promptly to our request for a reaction to the ruling.

From a legal point of view, the case is not absurd, argues a source in law enforcement. The author of a text considered “extremist” may not be an “extremist” himself. In this case, the decisive role is played by the intent in his actions to incite hatred. It might well transpire that the individual had no sinister intent whatsoever, but after the text he authored has been published, it lives its own life.

Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Center, knows of cases when matter has been excluded from the official list of “extremist” matter, but not due to the acquittal of suspected “extremists.” That happens all to rarely. However, the case in Maykop is a good illustration of the poor quality of such judicial rulings, he notes. In approximately half of cases, matter is ruled extremist using a simplified procedure. Authors are usually not involved in the case, and so no dispute as such arises. Recently, the Prosecutor General’s Office tightened the procedure for applying to the courts with such requests. Now they can be made only by regional prosecutors and only after they have vetted the request with the Prosecutor General’s Office. Verkhovsky acknowledges that such measures have indeed worked, but they have not solved the problem of rubber-stamp court decisions on “extremist” matter, he argues.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade AK and Comrade Uvarova for the heads-up. See all my previous postings on the Brinikh case.

We’re Celebrating the 1917 Revolution by Staging a Counterrevolution

Overview of the Moscow renovation program’s showroom, opened yesterday, July 6, 2017, by Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Photo courtesy of Sergei Vedyashkin/Moskva News Agency & Meduza

Authorities Plan to Divide Moscow into Private and Public Areas
Anna Trunina
RBC
June 26, 2017

Moscow’s renovation program provides for the complete redevelopment of residential building courtyards. The mayor’s office argues that these spaces should not be passages, so for the first they will delineated into private [privatnye] and public spaces.

By autumn, the Moscow authorities expect to adopt new regional urban planning norms that will divide residential districts into private and public areas for the first time. The mayor’s office has proposed rejecting the idea of communicating courtywards, Marat Khusnullin, Moscow’s deputy mayor for urban policy and construction, said in an “interview” published on the mayor’s official website.

According to Khusnullin, the renovation program not only consists in updating the city’s housing stock but also in creating a “full-fledged integrated urban environment,” in redeveloping and landscape the courtyards.

“The concrete jungles, as Moscow’s bedroom communities were rightly dubbed, were erected over decades. Now they must become a thing of the past,” Khusnullin argues.

According to preliminary calculations by the authorities, says Khusnullin, after neighborhoods are replanned and space is freed up by the demolition of five-story houses in Moscow, the number of parking spots will double. The project for public spaces will not be uniform, but will be unique in each of Moscow’s districts. The standards of comfort and improvement will be identical, however.

The space in the renovated neighborhoods, Khusnullin notes, will be divided into residential and public areas.

“For example, when they go into their courtywards, residents will enter a zone of a peace and comfort where there will be minimum of strangers and cars. Naturally, the entrances to the shops on the first floors will be located on the streetside. There will be no walk-through yards [prokhodnye dvory]. We will provide convenient pedestrian walkways from residential buildings to subway stations and bus stops, so that residents won’t have to blaze their own trails through lawns,” claims Khusnullin.

“Five-Storey Russia: An RBC Major Investigation of Renovation,” Published June 22, 2017 on RBC’s YouTube Channel

Khusnullin says that development and construction in Moscow during the Soviet era was “very uneven and disorganized.” It was this that caused the emergence of “strange, unused spaces” within neighborhoods.

City authorities also plan to increase the number of green spaces in the districts.

“Our proposal is to construct gardens, lay down paths, and set up benches on the same sites. But this in no way means all the old trees will be cut down. There will be more greenery. Planners have been tasked with taking care of the existing green areas while finding places for the additional planting of trees and shrubbery,” says Khusnullin.

Currently, the law bill on renovation has passed its third and final reading in the State Duma. Subsequently, the Moscow mayor’s office summed up the votes of Muscovites, which showed that 90% of the buildings initially slated for the program would be demolished and rebuilt.

Translated by the Russian Reader. See Leonid Bershidsky, “Why Putin Is Tearing Down My Childhood Home,” Bloomberg, May 4, 2017, for an excellent, brief explanation of the whys and wherefores of Moscow’s urban planning counter-revolution.

Grassroots Recycling as a Threat to Russian National Security and International Football

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Football fans! You might want to know that this past Saturday, the monthly neighborhood collections of recyclables, organized by the Razdelnyi Sbor environmental movement, an entirely volunteer-run organization, were cancelled, apparently by the police or higher powers, in four of Petersburg’s districts (Central, Admiralty, Krasnoye Selo, and Kalinin), allegedly, because they were a “security threat” to the ongoing FIFA Confederations Cup.

Ironically, this same grassroots movement, which poses such a (non-)threat to national security in neighborhoods many kilometers away from the brand-new stadium on Krestovsky Island where some of the cup’s matches are being played, including the final—a stadium that was built at the cost of unbelievable cost overruns (i.e., kickbacks) and completion delays, precarious migrant labor (including slave laborers shipped in from North Korea, one of whom was killed in an accident on the site), and the demolition of the old Kirov Stadium, a nationally listed architectural landmark designed by the great constructivist architect Alexander Nikolsky—made a deal with cup organizers and FIFA to collect and process recyclable waste at the stadium after matches.

Meaning that, at the stadium itself, this same grassroots movement was seen not as a threat, but as a cynical means of showing fans that FIFA and the Russian government were all about “international best practices.”

This is a ridiculous, telltale story that someone other than lowly unread me and my crap blog should be reporting.

By the way, under normal circumstances, readers of my Facebook news feed would have got a message from Razdelnyi Sbor about Saturday’s collection points, a message I cut and paste and disseminate faithfully every month, because I want everyone I know to go the one-day collection points in their neighborhood with their recyclables, and because my partner and I go to our neighborhood spot in the Central District every month ourselves.

Last year, I even bought a Razdelnyi Sbor t-shirt, to support the cause and occasionally serve as a living, breathing, walking, talking advertisement for it.

I guess I’ll have to think hard about whether I want to wear the t-shirt again. I don’t understand how you can serve the authorities at their Big Event while letting down the ordinary people who support you in their neighborhoods with their volunteer labor and their recycling month in and month out.

A friend of mine was arguing on Facebook just yesterday that VK, the homegrown Russian social media where Razdelnyi Sbor has its community page, was where it was at, as opposed to snobby Facebook. But in the relevant recent posts on Razdelnyi Sbor’s VK page about the cancelled collections you won’t find word one criticizing the authorities for acting in such a brutal, stupid way towards a completely beneficial grassroots campaign. I would imagine the page’s moderators hastily scrubbed any such complaints, if there were any. I’m sure there were some.

This is the real Russia, about which I almost never read anything in the western media and, sometimes, in the Russian media, either. It’s a country where recycling enthusiasts (just like cycling enthusiasts, for that matter) are imagined as a threat to national security and as “agents of the west,” except in the one instance where they can make the authoritarian state’s Big Event seem more PC to foreign football fans, dishing out big euros for tickets, merchandise, food and drinks, and rooms. TRR

A huge thanks to Comrade Darya A. for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Razdelnyi Sbor’s website

Read more on this topic:

Petersburg’s Largest Communal Apartment

Life in One of Russia’s Largest Communal Apartments
Yulia Paskevich
Gorod 812
March 23, 2017

Apartment No. 2 at Detskaya Street, 2, on Vasilyevsky Island, is Petersburg’s largest communal apartment. At any rate, its tenants think so. City officials cannot say for sure how large the apartment is. According to certain documents, its total area is 1,010.7 square meters; according to other documents, the figure is 1,247.7 square meters. All we know for certain is that is contains 34 rooms and 40 common areas. Gorod 812 visited the apartment, concluding it was not the sort of communal apartment where one would want to live.

Art Around the Corner
During my first visit to the apartment, I was horrified. The odors gave me a headache, and I could not understand how people could live in such conditions. I then made a repeat visit, and I discovered the apartment had another, civil half. It left me with a murky impression. The apartment dwellers would tell me things were good, but they would not open their doors, although most of the people I encountered were decent and pleasant.

The apartment probably holds the record not only for sheer size but also for utter neglect. Visitors are usually shown the floor, which is caving in, the rotten wiring hanging overhead, and the crumbling walls. They are usually asked not to take off their coats and shoes at the entrance, as is the custom in most Russian homes, because the stroll down the hundred-meter-long hallway is cold and dirty. Some residents agree to speak with reporters only off the record. They do not want workmates to find out where they live.

The building the apartment occupies was erected in 1958, and is now surrounded by so-called elite residential estates. The Erarta Contemporary Art Museum is nearby. It is not a big hit among the residents.

The building’s first story was originally an outpatient medical clinic. In 1983, the clinic acquired a new building, and its old digs were remodeled as a dormitory for medical staff from the nearby Pokrovskaya Hospital and Children’s Infectious Disease Hospital No. 3. The numbers of doctors’ surgeries are still attached to the doors of some of the rooms in the apartment. There is not a single, thick load-bearing wall inside the apartment. The entire space has been divided by partitions, so voices and noises carry.

“When a neighbor in the next room sneezes, you say ‘Gesundheit’ aloud,” remarks Elena Pogor. “He thanks you.”

Nadezhda Khondakova, an employee at a medical center, took up residence on Detskaya Street in 1989, when three to four people lived to a room.

“I was born and raised in Karelia,” she says. “After graduating from medical college, I was assigned to the children’s hospital and got a place in the dormitory. The room had always been neglected. It was temporary housing, so no one paid much attention to maintenance. Besides, renovations were not carried out there right away.”

Outwardly, the apartment has seemingly been divided in two. The right half is cleaner and brighter, while the floor is sinking in the left half.

“As a technician said, the heating main runs under this half of the apartment,” Khondakova explains. “Every three years, we install a new floor, but they all rot.”

Communal Legends
On March 1, 2005, the dormitory was officially designated an apartment, giving residents the right to privatize their rooms. But little has changed. The entry doors are still unlocked, so anyone can get into the apartment. Previously, homeless people would venture into the apartment to warm up or wash up, sleeping right in the kitchen. Residents try and avoid letting not only children into the hallway but cats as well. Who knows what might happen to them.

In 2011, the apartment was declared unfit for habitation. Two years later, Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko signed an eviction and resettlement notice. At the time of the signing, 27 families (62 people) officially resided in the apartment.

Old-timers recall the queues for the showers and toilets. There were two of each, and people started queuing for them at five in the morning. They also remember showdowns in the kitchen and rats. They lived modestly. If you ran out of something, you could borrow it from a neighbor without asking.

“You would leave detergent in the kitchen and someone would use half the bottle,” recalls Tatyana Pogor. “Spoons were stolen, people had their trousers swiped from the clotheslines. Half a chicken once vanished from the oven. That was unpleasant, but they left a note saying whether they found it tasty or not. Once, there was a knock-down-drag-out fight over the shower.”

When ten families had received authorizations for new apartments, the housing authority ceased issuing the authorizations.

“The apartments were issued chaotically,” says Khondakova. “It was not only people whose housing was subsidized who were affected. My neighbor Tatyana privatized her room and was resettled in a one-room apartment. I’ve been in the queue for separate apartment for twenty years, and I’ve never been offered anything.”

The residents tell me about about a drunken neighbor lady who was moved into a one-room apartment in the Moscow District, about a women who did not want to move out, and a family who happily took up a new life in the Petersburg suburb of Pushkin.

The activists argue the apartment should be resettled completely and everyone should be moved into separate accommodations.

“It’s not the district that issues us apartments. The city has been handling the resettlement,” Khondakova underscores. “We know where residential buildings are being built: Parnas, Veterans Avenue, and Shushary [in the far north and far south of the city, respectively.] But we have not said we want to live only on Vasilyevsky Island.”

After the ten families departed, the residents who were left behind divvied up the remaining space among themselves, including around 40 common spaces, such as washrooms, hallways, and the laundry room. Tatyana Lobunova’s 24-square-meter room includes 40 square meters of hallway and kitchen space, for which she pays the city’s housing authority 4,000 rubles a month [approx. 63 euros]. Khondakova pays rates between 7,000 and 8,000 rubles a month. However, a table in the apartment’s kitchen is littered with bills left unpaid by debtors. Some residents demonstratively refuse to pay the maintenance and cleaning fees for their rooms.

The Residents
Residents are reluctant to let visitors into their rooms. As you gaze at the dilapidated kitchen and toilets, you imagine this shambles reigns throughout the apartment. But you would be wrong. The residents’ own rooms are clean and tidy. Many of them have equipped their rooms with small kitchens and cook food there. The doors to the different rooms vary as well. Residents sequestered behind more expensive doors do not want to chat with reporters, while the activists who demand total eviction and resettlement live in the part of the apartment where the floor caves in.

The author of a petition on Change.Org to resettle the apartment, a petition that has gathered nearly 18,000 signatures, has lived in the apartment six years. An actress at the Ne-Kabuki Theater, Tatyana Lobunova bought her room from builders. They had purchased the room for a song, plastered the walls, and resold it. Lobunova had lived in a communal apartment before. She grew up in a nine-family apartment on Konnogvardeiskaya Boulevard, in the city’s downtown. So the idea of living in a communal apartment did not intimidate her.

The cosmetic repairs in her room quickly crumbled. The new wooden window turned black and rotted, a crevice emerged under the wet wallpaper on the outside wall, and the room smelled moldy. A sofa was tossed out by way of combating cockroaches. Now the room is chockablock with cockroach traps. When I asked her whether she was really unaware of the investment she was making, she shrugs.

“I had to live on Vasilyevsky Island,” she explains. “A family theater means working nonstop. I get four hours of sleep a day. If I lived a ways from the theater, I would probably get no more than two hours of sleep a day.”

Lobunova stores letters from various officials in a folder. She produces one from the presidential administration, who advised tenants to exercise their right to turn to the local authorities to redress their grievances.

Currently, the number of proprietors who actually live in the apartment is not so great. People prefer to let their rooms for eight to twelve thousand rubles a month. It is hard to tell one renter from the next. There are people knocking about, and the heck with it.

A native of Pskov Region, Elena Pogor has lived in Petersburg around six years. Initially, she and her husband rented a room, but then friends suggested they live in the apartment at Detskaya, 2, up money to buy her own apartment or room.

“In Dedovichi, where I grew up, there are no jobs at all,” she explains. “The wages there run from seven to ten thousand rubles a month. You can earn twelve to fifteen thousand rubles a month at the regional power plant. We consider the people who work there wealthy.”

The room where she and her husband live is in the better-maintained part of the apartment.

“It all depends on people and upbringing,” argues Pogor. “We have made friends with the neighbor lady Roza and her daughter. They’re good, tidy people. It’s a shame the repairs were started and not finished. On the one hand, I could not care less. I’m not planning to stay here long in any case, but I want to live decently.”

A Potential Squat 
The Vasilyevsky Island District Administration has its own plans for the apartment. In 2015–2016, an overhaul of the common property was undertaken. Workers showed up, removed the toilets, stripped off the tiles, poured cement floors in the bathrooms, and left. Tenants had to parquet the floor in the hallway themselves. The district administration has dubbed this exercise “works toward eliminating the apartment’s hazardous condition.”

The district administration told us that the “paperwork affirming the elimination of the hazardous conditions [was] currently being vetted.”

Eliminating the apartment’s hazardous status would facilitate its being sold as real estate. The question is, who would buy it and for how much. There is little hope the city’s communal apartment resettlement program would come to the rescue. It has being going sluggishly in the district: in 2016, it resettled a mere forty apartments there. So there is virtually no chance a huge communal apartment will up and vanish by itself. For the time being, the only prospect is that, as conditions worsen, the rent will grow cheaper.

Then the apartment will undergo its latest metamorphosis and turn into a squat.

For Your Information
Communal apartments will celebrate their one hundredth anniversary in the summer of 2018. There are 78,534 communal apartments in Petersburg, housing 250,027 families. 4,816 such apartments were resettled in the city during 2016.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of Yulia Pashkevich/Gorod 812

Urban Renewal as the Road to Serfdom

Tatiana Nalitch
Facebook
April 9, 2017

Friends,

It recently transpired that a good many quite progressive consumers and producers of the news haven’t entirely understood that the so-called law bill on renovation (No. 120505-7), which the press has dubbed the “five-storey apartment building law” doesn’t exactly deal with five-storey apartment buildings.

It deals with everything. With any residential building (brick, pre-engineered, and prefab) containing any number of storeys (three, five, nine, seventeen, etc.). If the law is passed, then later it will also be applied to any city, not just to Moscow.

This is what it’s about. If a city feels like grabbing the block where your building is located (a quiet spot with a leafy-green courtyard, five to seven minutes from the subway, in walking distance of shops, a stadium, playgrounds, a school, a kindergarten, an outpatient medical clinic), it will do it. You will be supplied with one option: an apartment of the same size, wherevever they want to send you. If you’re not okay with that, the court will evict you.

Read the draft law bill, please. It’s on the State Duma’s website.

If you have questions, the website zanashdom.ru and the Facebook group Muscovites against Demolition are there to help you.

The picture, above, summarizes the contents of the bill. [See the translation of the diagram,  below.*]

Tell your friends about it. This is really serious.

UPDATE. Today, April 10, the Federation Council proposed applying the Moscow law bill to the entire country.

*What does resettlement under the new law threaten?

Old Law

New Law
Only dilapidated and hazardous buildings are demolished. Any residential building in an urban renewal block can be demolished (even if it’s a brick building and nine- or twelve-stories high.) The law does not describe what residential buildings can be demolished.
Residents are informed a year before resettlement. You have two months to think it over, after which you are evicted by court order, which cannot be appealed.
You choose from three types of apartments. You take the first apartment you are shown.
Possible monetary compensation. No monetary compensation possible.
You get an apartment of equal value in exchange. You are given a comparable apartment (an apartment of the same size).
Apartment near a park, in a quiet, familiar neighborhood.

Seventeen-story concrete building in an industrial district with violations of safety and sanitary rules and regulations. (They are permitted under the new law.)

The Bottom Line

  • You pay for renovations and moving costs.
  • If you sell within five years, you are obliged to pay a 13% tax.
  • Population density will increase by two or three times.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade AK for the heads-up