Totally Wired

DSCN5713A view of Kolokolnaya Street, in downtown Petersburg, crisscrossed by telecom cables. Photo by the Russian Reader

Telecom Operators Taking Their Time Clearing Nevsky Prospect of Wires
Zhanna Zhuravlyova
Delovoi Peterburg
May 15, 2018

Clear Sky, a program designed to move underground the thick network of wires stretching over Nevsky Prospect, has been launched. The results so far have not been promising. Only three out of dozen and a half telecom operators have gone underground.

The first three telecom operators have removed their fiber-optic cables from Nevsky Prospect and moved them underground into conduits built as part of the city’s Clear Sky program. These trailblazers were Prometei, Obit, and Centrex Smolny, a wholly owned affiliate of city hall’s IT and Communications Committee (KIS), which acted as the project’s general contractor, according to Centrex Smolny’s director Felix Kasatkin.

According to Kasatkin, another three or four operators are ready to move their overhead lines, currently stretched between poles and buildings, underground in May. There are around a dozen and a half telecom providers whose lines crisscross the space immediately above the Nevsky. According to market insiders, the cost of dismantling the old lines and rerouting them to the access points into the underground conduits could range from ₽100,000 to ₽2 million. The cost depends on how many times the cables cross Nevsky, and how close they are situated to the necessary access points.

It is utterly impossible to force operators to remove the lines. The overhead lines may be ugly, but they are completely legal.

A Multi-Channel Story
The problem of overhead lines on the Nevsky surfaced in 2012, when Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko voiced his outrage over the large number of lines, which disfigured the city’s main thoroughfare, in his opinion. The solution appeared obvious: move all the telecom operators into Rostelecom’s underground conduits. Many of them, however, resented the prospect, complaining about the state telecom operator’s rates, the speed with which it performed work, and its frequent refusals to configure networks.

That was when an alternative and somewhat extravagant solution was advanced: putting the telecom lines in Vodokanal’s water main conduits. A design was drafted, but never implemented.

The final solution seemed simpler. The city would build its own infrastructure within Rostelecom’s conduit, offering to rent the space to telecom operators. The idea was that they would be more open to this proposal than to collaborating with Rostelecom, with whom they were in constant competition.

Built for Free
Ultimately, ten underground conduits were built under the Nevsky, and collective access fiber-optic cables were inserted in them. Ownership of the conduits is currently being transferred to Centrex Smolny, and telecom operators are encouraged to lease the fiber-optic cables.

Kasatkin emphasizes the rates for leasing the cables are as low as possible, since they include only servicing charges. There is no need to recoup the costs of constructing the conduits, since they were built at the city’s expense. Despite our best efforts, we were unable to find the relevant government purchase order for performance of this work, nor could Centrex Smolny could not provide us with specific information on on the matter.

According to Rustelecom, around twelve kilometers of conduits were constructed for the Clear Sky project. The cost of laying one kilometer of conduit is around ₽100,000, says Yuri Bryukvin, head of Rustelecom. So, along with the cost of materials and incidental expenses, the total costs could have amounted to ₽1.5 million. KIS chair Denis Chamara reported ₽30 million were spent on the project.

Broken Telephone
Telecom operators who have received Centrex Smolny’s offer say the cost of leasing one kilometer of fiber-optic cable is approximately ₽500 a month. One conduit can contain eight, sixteen or more fiber-optic cables.

All the telecoms who operate in the city centere have fiber-optic cables that cross the Nevsky five or six times, explains Vladislav Romanenko, commercial director of Comlink Telecom. In this case, a telecom would pay up to ₽50,000 a month to lease fiber-optic cables.

Andrei Sukhodolsky, director general of Smart Telecom, whose lines also hang over the Nevsky, says the company has not yet been made an offer by Centrex Smolny.

“I have definitely not received official proposals in writing,” Sukhodolsky claims. “Theoretically, we would agree to move our lines if we could understand the costs.”

“The cost of the lease you quote is quite decent, but we have not received a commercial offer to lease fiber-optic cables,” says Romanenko. “Currently, we are considering laying our own cable in Rostelecom’s conduits.”

ER Telecom told us they were working to move their communications lines, but they did not specify where they were moving them.

The initial list of streets that should have been cleared of unnecessary wires under the Clear Sky project featured a dozen streets, including Bolshaya Morskaya Street, Moskovsky Prospect, and Izmailovsky Project. So far the KIS has no specific plans to go beyond the Nevsky. And, perhaps, the issue will no longer be relevant after the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Market insiders point to Moscow as a positive example. The city moved its cables underground with no hitches and in much greater numbers. In Tatarstan, the authorities have obliged building owners to dismantle all structures that have not been vetted by the city on pain of paying a hefty fine.

“So the building owners dismantled the telecom lines on their own,” our source at Comfortel told us.

Our source at the KIS was at pains to emphasize that operators removed the lines “voluntarily and at their own behest.”

*********************

The overhead lines on the Nevsky usually contain eight to sixteen fiber-optic cables, which means the price of leasing a single conduit for moving lines underground could be as much as ₽8,000 a month. Then it would make sense to take advantage of Centrex Smolny’s offer. But of an operator is running a large number of cables, he would find it more profitable to lease a conduit from Rostelecom. We have already moved our cables to Rostelecom’s conduits without waiting for the offer from Centrex Smolny. It’s odd certain operators postponed the move to May, since construction work is not carried out by telecom operators only when the temperature dips below –15°C.
—Dmitry Petrov, director general, Comfortel

We have been preparing for the move for three years or so. In one spot, where our cables cross the Nevsky, we took advantage of Centrex Smolny’s offcer. The terms for leasing the fibers really are good. Centrex Smolny is clearly not making any money on this project, but they are probably not losing any money, either. The important thing about the project is the telecom operators are not commercially entangled with Centrex Smolny, while many telecoms have long, complicated relationships with Rostelecom: for example, when a lot of illegal fiber-optic cables were laid in the conduits, something that is still a matter of controversy.
—Аndrei Guk, director general, Obit

Translated by the Russian Reader

Russia’s Trash Flashpoint

Landfills Become a Problem for the Kremlin
Environmental Protests Move from Local to Federal Level
Yelena Mukhametshina and Yekaterina Bryzgalova
Vedomosti
April 1, 2018

guseva“Volokolamsk right now. Protest rally against the Yadrovo Landfill.” Screenshot of Olya Guseva’s Twitter page. Courtesy of Meduza

According to various estimates, 6,500 to 7,000 people attended this past Sunday’s protest rally in Volokololamsk against the Yadrovo Landfill. This was more than the number of people who attended the rallies on March 3 (approx. 5,000) and March 29 (6,000). (Volokolamsk’s official population is less than 21,000.)

Among the demands made at Sunday’s rally were the closure of the Yadrovo Landfill, the declaration of an emergency, the resignations of Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov and Andrei Vikharev, acting head of Volokolamsk District, and the release of activist Artyom Lyubimov, who was detained by police a day before the rally.

Protesters at the rally held up placards addressed to President Putin, including ones  bearing the message, “Putin, Help!”

On March 21, a strong release of landfill gas took place in Volokolamsk, causing schoolchildren to say they felt sick. Fifty-seven children were hospitalized in the Volokolamsk Central Hospital. Subsequently, Governor Vorobyov fired the head of Volokolamsk District.

Volokolamsk has not been the only town in Moscow Region protesting landfills. During the past year, people have taken to the streets in such towns as Balashikha (after the local Kupchino Landfill was closed there on direct orders from the president, the garbage that used to be transported to the landfill was redirected to Yadrovo), Kolomna, Klin, Sergiev Posad, Tuchkov, and Serpukhov.

A former federal official explained why garbage has recently become a hot-button issue.

“New laws were passed obliging the regions to adopt local waste handling schemes and select regional contractors. A market is emerging. There are different disposal strategies: incineration versus separate collection of recyclables. Different strategies require building different processing facilities, and the stakeholders backing the different strategies are also different, from the federal to the municipal level,” he said.

The stakeholders are in conflict with each other and with the regions. This is especially true of Moscow and Russia’s other major cities, he claimed.

Last week, it transpired that Tver Region Governor Igor Rudenya had warned all heads of municipalities in his region that if the regional authorities found garbage from other regions in local landfills, the municipal heads responsible for this would have problems with law enforcement and Governor Rudenya’s administration.

“You will not import garbage from other Russian regions for any amount of money at all,” said Governor Rudenya, as quoted by Tverigrad.ru.

The president’s retinue is to blame for the flare-up in Volokolamsk. When they were getting ready for his annual Direct Line program, they insisted on underscoring the subject of landfills by way of speeding up the construction of processing facilities. It was then the president ordered the closure of the landfill in Balashikha, argues a source close to the Kremlin.

“The landfill was closed. The garbage from there was shipped to nearby landfills, and the flow of garbage to these landfills increased manifold. First it was necessary to put the infrastructure in place, and then close the landfills,” he said.

Environmental protests by people concerned with specific issues are a considerable risk to the system’s stability, and the regime is very concerned about them, saif another source close to the Kremlin.

“The president pays great attention to the environment. Last year, he personally telephoned activists in Chelyabinsk to show he supported them. This is quite important, especially in circumstances when environmental measures are given short shrift to save money.”

Last year was officially the Year of the Environment in Russia. During the presidential campaign, Putin held meetings in Krasnoyarsk on improving the ecological situation and  reducing the emission of pollutants into the atmosphere.

Political scientist Andrei Kolyadin argues the issue of landfills cannot be solved quickly. Several years would be needed to do that.

“This abscess has long been ripening, and now it threatens people’s lives. As the risks to people’s live increase, the risks to the regime increase as well.”

A final decision on the future of Governor Vorobyov, who faces elections in the autumn, has not yet been made, said Kolyadin.

“If the protests balloon, he could be made their scapegoat. He has been doing his best to wiggle his way out of the subject politically, but he has not been able to do this economically. If the elections are handled by the authorities, he will not have complications, but if they are run more or less honestly, the districts in which anti-landfill protests have been taking place will not turn out to vote for him.”

Political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov argues such protests ordinarily wane quickly. In this case, however, the boiling point has not yet been reached. Various grievances, such as Governor Vorobyov’s less-than-happy appointment of a new head of Volokolamsk District, have been building up.

“I get the feeling there will be a new wave [of protests] that will help solve the problems that have accumulated. People feel they are in the right, and it gives them a strong impetus to protest,” he said.

Given current conditions, in which protests have been de facto banned, any socio-economic protest takes on political overtones, Vinogradov concludes.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Ekaterina Nenasheva: Fire Safety at Russian Shopping Malls

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Ekaterina Nenasheva
Facebook
March 28, 2018

#KemerevoIsNotAlone #InsecurePlacesList #OkhotnyRyadShoppingCenter

What should you look for in terms of fire safety at a shopping center? I decided to call the Emergencies Ministry and find out everything firsthand.

“What, I’m supposed to reread you the whole booklet?”

The man on the other end of the line, whom I had reached after a couple of transfers, was not very happy to hear from me.

“What’s your district? You need to talk to your own fire inspector.”

I waited again to be transferred.

“You realize we now have these temporary reprieves for small businesses. It’s now impossible for us to carry out a normal fire inspection. We need a court order. We can, of, course, call a facility and find out what’s happening there. But beyond that . . .”

The fire inspector told me it was absolutely normal and legal to ask a shopping mall’s security guards and employees about their fire safety system. If doors are locked, why is that? How do they work? What would happen during a fire? If shopping mall staff and, especially, security guards had the least bit of training, they would easily be able to answer any and all questions.

The guys and I headed to Okhotny Ryad Shopping Mall in Moscow. We immediately located the evacuation plan, which made it easier to find the emergency exits. The funny thing about the emergency exits at Okhotny Ryad is the plan says they exist, but in reality the doors are marked “Staff Entrance” and “Keycard Access Only.” Naturally, all of these doors are locked. All of them.

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“We don’t have any exits,” said a guard, “only entrances from the outside.”

“I don’t know anything. Go ask that policeman over yonder,” replied another guard.

“What have I got to do with it?” the policeman wondered, laughing.

“Look, we have emergency exits in every shop. Got it?” replied a third guard, who had a mustache.

“Can we go and take a look at them?”

“No, you can’t. You know what? If something happens, we’ll save you. Got it?”

We could not understand how we would be rescued by guards who still did not know how the emergeny exits in their shopping mall worked. We went to pull on the other doors on the upper floors. We found ourselves outside the restrooms. A female cashier explained she did not know what exactly was beyond the door, but you could only get through it with a magnetic key. If there were a fire, she would exit the shopping mall via the regular entrance to the mall.

“What’s the big deal? You grab your stuff quickly and take off.”

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Wherever we went, a mustached guy in a gray blazer would come running. He sweated and was out of breath. He had obviously hurried. He would stand off to one side and stare at us.

“Did you forget something? Well, what? What do you want?”

After asking his questions, the man would turn around and slowly walk away from us.

“Everything works here. Everything. The doors operate on magnetic keys, but in a fire they open automatically.”

“How does that happen?”

We were nearly chasing him in an attempt to continue the conversation.

“The guards line up in the corridors, and the emergency . . . begins.”

The dude swallowed half his words.

“Who the heck are you guys? Should I really be talking to you?”

Irriated, the mustached Mr. Suit vanished. Now we were certain the guards would save us.

So, what conclusions can we draw?

1. Shopping mall staff and security are obliged to know how the emergency exits function, and how the fire safety system is organized. It is our right to ask them about it. The staff at Okhotny Ryad Shopping Mall are completely ignorant about the building’s layout, where the exits are, and how they work. Meaning that the guards, who are supposed to save us, have had no training whatsoever and have not even bothered to take a glance at how the building is laid out. Can we trust such people in an emergency? No.

2. The doors in the shopping mall are kept firmly locked. Neither staff nor security know  how they work. Can we trust a safety system like this? No.

3. The evacuation plan does not always synch with reality. Where the plan says there are exits, there are always signs saying, “Staff only.” The signs pointing to the emergency exits are confusing and could lead you into a dead end. This is scary. Given a system of signage like this, would you be able to escape if a fire slightly less ferocious than the one in Kemerovo broke out? No.

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The Okhotny Ryad Shopping Mall is a prime candidate for the #InsecurePlacesList. In addition, we encountered another problem: a total ignorance of fire safety rules on the part of mall employees. Therefore, I demand employees fix the problem. I will no longer be patronizing the Okhotny Ryad Shopping Mall. Sure, it’s a local fix, but I will #boycott the mall. I also plan to relate our adventures to the Emergencies Ministry.

Do you go to Okhotny Ryad often? How do things stand in terms of fire safety at the shopping mall you frequent?

I am still proposing we do inspections of shopping centers right away. Sure, we are not professionals, but it’s enough to reach out to to mall employees and find out whether they know the rules. If they don’t, it is a clear violation of the law.

1. Go to your local shopping malls. Look and see what is going on with the emergency exits. Study the evacuation plan. Ask security guards and mall management about their arrangements. Record your findings by snapping pictures and making videos.

2. Write up the results of your spot checks and post them on social media. Identify and tag the shopping malls in your posts and tag the posts with the hashtags #KemerovoIsNotAlone, #InsecurePlacesList, and anything else you can think of.

3. Don’t hesitate to call the Emergencies Ministry and report violations, rude behavior, etc. It all helps.

After launching spot checks like this and expanding the list, we can think about filing class-action complaints against the shopping malls and continuing to publicize the issue on social media.

I regard posts about insecure places, like shopping malls, in which fire safety rules do not function, as an elementary tool of self-defense and a means of protecting my friends and loved ones.

Currently, any and all information and all spot checks are truly important. Unfortunately, no one else will do this work for us. So join us!

You can also post your findings on the Facebook group page Act!

P.S. Dmitry Gudkov and his Open Elections team are organizing training sessions for people who want to learn how to conduct fire safety inspections professionally.

Translated by the Russian Reader. All photos courtesy of Ekaterina Nenasheva

Samara Culling Cats and Dogs in Run-Up to 2018 World Cup

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According to “‘Putin Loves Only His Own Dogs’: Animals Are Being Killed For the World Cup’s Sake,” an article by Dmitry Volchek, published yesterday, February 17, 2018, on the Radio Svoboda website, authorities in Samara, one of the host cities of the 2018 World Cup, have been paying to have homeless cats and dogs hunted down and killed in the city and the surrounding area.

Here is an excerpt from the article.

“As I understand it, there is fascism in Russia,” says Irina Yevdokimova. “Fascists run the country. It’s unequivocal to me. Problems are solved only by murder. We do not ask for much. We ask only that things be done as they are done abroad, so there is not this bloody mess.”

Samara will host World Cup matches in late June, and the municipal services have been tasked with exterminating homeless animals so that, god forbid, no fan is bitten by a dog. Cats do not attack football players and their fans, but money has been allocated from the budget to kill cats as well. Samara has decided to spend ₽9 million [approx. €128,600] solving the problem, while Togliatti will spend ₽2 million [approx. €28,000].

“A cull is taking place here in Samara Region and Togliatti,” says Yevdokimova. “The cheapest way is to up and shoot the animals, but often as not family pets are killed because they have adapted to interacting with people. There is Sergei Madyankin’s firm, which has been doing the cull. The authorities find it quite advantageous to collaborate with them. They charge ₽500 [approx. €7] for a dead animal. They shoot it, retrieve it, and drive away: quick and cheap.”

You can read the entire article (in Russian) on the Radio Svoboda website. I simply don’t have the heart or stomach to translate the rest of it. TRR

Photo courtesy of Newsweek

The Subtle Art of Vanganizing

Human languages are amazing things. In English, for example, it is relatively easy to change a word’s part of speech simply by using it as a different part of speech. So, we can wonder (verb) when I will publish something really worthy of wonder (noun) on this blog.

Since Russian, on the other hand, is a so-called synthetic language (i.e., a language whose nouns, verbs, adjectives, and pronoun are fully declined and conjugated) you have to do a bit of prestidigitation to turn, say, a noun into a verb. The easiest (though by no means the only) way to do this is to add the verbalizing suffix -ovat’ to the noun or other part of speech in question.

One of my favorite such newfangled verbs is vangovat’, which means “to predict, to prophesy.” It has a heavily ironic connotation, since it was formed from the familiarized Christian name of the blind Bulgarian mystic and clairvoyant Vangelia Gushterova, née Dimitrova (1911–1996), more popularly known as Baba Vanga or Grandmother Vanga.

Despite having passed away over twenty years ago, Baba Vanga and her prophecies are still extraordinarily popular amongst Russians who go in for a what an old friend once referred to as “spooky knowledge,” while she is an object of ridicule amongst sane Russians. I have no evidence to prove it, but I take it that it was a member of the latter group who coined the verb vangovat’, which we will translate as “to vanganize.”

I thought of the verb this morning as I was perusing the electronic edition of one of Russia’s most respectable newspapers, the liberal business daily Vedomosti. Today’s edition features a gallery of photos of the stadiums in major Russian cities that will host the 2018 World Cup later this year.

An innocent enough feature, you would think, before I realized that Vedomosti‘s caption writer might have engaged in some full-blown vanganizing, to wit:

default-1d86“The arena in St. Petersburg is meant for 67,000 spectators. Here, the Russian team will play one match in the group stage and will get through the semifinals.” Photo courtesy of Yevgeny Yegorov/Vedomosti

But maybe not. The original caption (“Арена в Петербурге рассчитана на 67 000 зрителей. Здесь сборная России сыграет один из матчей группового этапа и пройдет полуфинал”) could also be translated as follows: “The arena in St. Petersburg is designed for 67,000 spectators. Here, the Russian team will play one match in the group stage, and the semifinals will take place.” That is, with or (probably) without the Russian team.

Whatever the case, the so-called Zenit Arena, situated on the western tip of Krestovsky Island, has been like a bad Baba Vanga prophecy from the very start. First of all, to make way for its eventual construction, the old Kirov Stadium, a lovely immense thing designed by the great constructivist architect Alexander Nikolsky, a grand oval open to the sky, the sea, the sun, and all the elements, and surrounded by a beautiful park, was demolished in 2006. Quite illegally, I might add, because it was a federally listed historical and architectural landmark.

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The Kirov Stadium in the summer of 2006, when it briefly served as the site of a sparsely attended alterglobalist counterforum, organized in response to a G8 summit, hosted by President Putin in the far south of the city, in the newly restored Constantine Palace in the suburb of Strelna. Enclosing the alterglobalists in the already condemned Kirov Stadium was a brilliant move on the part of local authorities, who thus invisibilized the entire event and made it nearly inaccessible to the general public. Although a subway station has been planned for the new stadium, it was not in operation in 2006 and probably will not be online in time for the World Cup, either. Photo by the Russian Reader

Since then, the project to construct the new stadium has been a raucous debacle, involving endless delays and extreme cost overruns; the employment of North Korean slave laborers, one of whom was killed on the job; the multiple firings and hirings of general contractors and subcontractors; and numerous revelations of newly discovered structural defects.

The construction of Zenit Arena has also been part of the general uglification and rampant redevelopment of the so-called Islands, a series of parklands situated on several smallish islands in Petersburg’s far north. It now seems that city officials and developers thought all those parks and all that greenspace were taking up too much valuable potential real estate and pumping too much oxygen into the atmosphere, because in recent years they have gone after the Islands and their environs with a vengeance.

Zenit Arena, the Western High-Speed Diameter (ZSD), and Gazprom’s Lakhta Center skyscraper are merely the most visible aspects of this mad greedfest, its crowning jewels.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGazprom’s Lakhta Centre skyscraper, under construction, as seen in April 2017 from another site of urban planning greed and madness, a nearly 500-hectare “reclaimed” island plopped in the Neva Bay immediately west of Vasilyevsky Island. The new island, which remains nameless, will eventually be built up with high-rise apartment blocks. Local residents vigorously protested the land reclamation project in the planning stages, but the authorities roundly ignored them. Photo by the Russian Reader

Getting back to my original topic, I think the Vedomosti captioner might have been taking the piss out of readers, after all. Here is another photo and caption in the series:

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“The stadium in Yekaterinburg is a cultural heritage site. Part of the historical façade has remained after the reconstruction.” Photo courtesy of Sport Engineering Federal Unitary Enterprise

When I slipped this photograph onto my desktop, the filename caught my eye: “default-1huy.jpg.” I took this to mean that someone at Vedomosti was not terribly impressed with Yekaterinburg’s blatantly criminal attempt at “historical preservation” and decided to tag it with one of the most powerful cursewords in a language positively crawling with them. But since this a family-oriented, Christian-values website, I will let the experts explain the particulars.

Like the Sochi Olympics, I vanganize that the 2018 World Cup will be an unmitigated disaster for any and all locals who do not manage to escape the vicinity of the venues in time. I would also vanganize that the World Cup has already been a disaster for cities such as Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, which had venerable, heritage-listed stadiums put to death for the purpose, but I don’t think you can vanganize retroactively. TRR

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 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

 

 

 

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