Valery Dymshits: Petersburg as Mistletoe

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Valery Dymshits
Facebook
October 26, 2017

In May 2016, the Akhmatova Museum hosted an event entitled Debates on Europe, featuring all sorts of outstanding people. I don’t know why, but I was invited, too. We were asked to talk about Petersburg and its place in Europe. I was also part of a special panel, entitled “How Do We See History? How Do We Deal with the Past?” I spoke my mind honestly. Today, I came across the two talks on my computer and thought I mostly agree with myself, so why not post them. So I am posting them. This is the first one, about Petersburg.

The City as Mistletoe
I probably will not be saying anything new if I note that Petersburg was originally built as the world’s largest cargo cult site. Peter the Great and his heirs firmly believed that by reproducing certain forms—and only the forms!—of European architecture and town planning, they would create a great country, a country that would rival or surpass Europe’s best countries.

When I went to Amsterdam, I was amazed by Petersburg’s resemblance to it. (Yet Amsterdam does not look at all like Petersburg, just as children resemble their parents, not vice versa.) In Amsterdam, I noticed that most of the buildings in the historic center had been built in the mid seventeenth century: the dates they were built were displayed on the façades. The entirety of Amsterdam’s huge historic center had been developed literally over twenty to thirty years. It was then I understood Peter the Great’s choice. It was not just the case that Amsterdam was among the magnificent, rich cities of Europe, but unlike Paris and other cities, it had been built not over the course of centuries, but in a few decades. Peter the Great realized that if he built another Amsterdam, so to speak, there was a chance of not only creating a hotbed of European civilization in Russia but also of living to see the project completed. This, of course, is a pure manifestation of the cargo cult.

An airplane hewn from the trunk of a palm tree may never fly, but it can be the pride and joy of an ethnographic museum’s collection. Russia did not become Europe, but Petersburg and its environs came to be a wonderful artwork, a huge artifact. I mean the Petersburg of the palaces and parks, cathedrals and embankments.

But there is another Petersburg, the one were we live. This is the city of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, built after the launch of Emperor Alexander II’s great reforms. It is the city of huge tenement houses, lush façades, and endless courtyards. This Petersburg was not a frozen magic crystal nor a miraculous receptacle supposed to attract the spirits of Europe with its outward shapes. It was a city of banks and factories, shops and slums: a normal city. We love it no less than we love the city of palaces. The loading cranes in the port and factory smokestacks dominate the city’s skyline as much as its domes and spires do.

But this city, in turn, woud not have emerged if the the first city had not been built. (And it was certainly built on the bones of its builders: animist religions involve human sacrifice.) A cargo cult is a religion and, as such, is no worse than any other religion. A religion’s truth is defined by the fanaticism of its adherents. The Russian cargo cult fashioned a great, artifact-like city. Like a colony of honey fungus inhabiting an old stump, another city sprang up from the first city, and this second city was real.

In fact, the Slavophile critics of Petersburg and the Petersburg period of Russian history were right when they argued that substantial homegrown grounds were needed to really build a great country, not empty, borrowed shapes. But by the time this criticism had become widespread, from the Populists on the left to the Black Hundreds on the right, it had already lost its main justification. Petersburg had become a natural, organic phenomenon, something that had sprung from the culture, not from the soil. As second nature, culture is no worse than nature per se.

Petersburg resembles mistletoe, a parasitic plant that grows on the branches of other trees. Mistletoe is quite beautiful. Since antiquity, it has been a symbol of life, and it was used as an amulet. The Romans and the Celts believed in mistletoe’s miraculous powers. It was a symbol of peace among the Scandinavians. It was hung on the outside of houses as a token travelers would be provided shelter there. If enemies happened to meet under a tree on which mistletoe grew, they were bound to lay down their weapons and not fight anymore that day. Mistletoe protected houses from thunder and lightning, from witches and maleficent spirits.

I would argue it is productive to compare Petersburg with mistletoe, with a beautiful, sacred, safeguarding parasite. We know that people do not quarrel under the mistletoe, but kiss and make up. Petersburg did not make Russia Europe, but the city has become a place where Russia can meet and talk with Europe. This is more or less understood by everyone, by the Russian regime and by its opponents.

Every country, region, and city tries to develop by relying on its own resources. Our resource is distilled culture, cut off from all soil. Let us imagine the Hermitage Museum is a typical mineral deposit, something like an oil well. It differs from other major museums since it is not a cultural feature of a major country and major city, as the Louvre is a a cultural feature of France and Paris. On the contrary, to a certain extent Petersburg is a feature of the Hermitage. I am not speaking of tourists. They have places to go besides Petersburg. I am arguing that, having emerged as the shrine of a cargo cult, Petersburg gradually turned into a condensed expression of European cultural know-how, projected onto a wasteland. The know-how was all the more important, since European cultural shapes have been purged, in Petersburg, of all ethnic specificity. It is a generalized Europe.

The question of how to fill these shapes is open. It is open to everyone: to Europeans, Russians, and Petersburgers alike.

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader. I would like to thank Valery Dymshits for his kind permission to let me translate his essay and publish it here.

Quarenghi in the Concrete Jungle

Quarenghi in the Four Fools District
Natalia Vvedenskaya
Gradozaschitnyi Peterburg
October 13, 2017

I have lived nearly all my life in a neighborhood built in the mid 1980s and nicknamed by locals the “four fools district” in honor of the street names: Mentors Avenue, Shock Workers Avenue, Pacesetters Avenue, and Enthusiasts Avenue. The neighborhood is populated with late-Soviet cookie-cutter buildings: a block of 16- and 14-storey residential buildings, a supermarket, school, and kindergarten, following by another block of identical residential buildings, a post office, medical clinic, an identical supermarket, and identical school.

But sometimes you encounter remnants of the previous civilization among the gigantic prefab Lego sets.

“Zhernovka, a Forgotten Eighteenth-Century Suburban Manor on the Okhta River” was the title of an article published by Nikolai Lansere. The article actually reopened the landmark to architecture lovers. You could write an article about Zhernovka with the exact same title now, nearly a hundred years later, because the estate, which has miraculously survived on the border of an industrial park and high-rise housing district, has been abandoned and forgotten once again.

The renowned architect Giacomo Quarenghi eretcted the manor’s main building in the 1790s. It was built for Gavrila Donaurov, an official in the chancellery of Emperor Paul I. Quarenghi also built an entrance gate and pavilion-cum-pier on the banks of the Okhta, which have not survived. The estate was surrounded by a landscape park.

In the mid nineteenth century, the estate was taken over by the Bezobrazov family, and so it is also referred to as the Bezobrazov Dacha.

Zhernov’s plight after 1917 was tragic and typical. First, it served as a club for workers, then a warehouse, and then a cowshed. The interiors were destroyed to make way for a dormitory, after which “the building’s architecture was disfigured by a reconstruction that was not completed.” The landscape park disappeared after the war.

In 1973, Zhernovka was transferred to Orgprimtvyordsplav, a Soviet enterprise that worked with restorers for ten years to revive the building. Extensions were demolished, the pond was dredged, new trees were planted, and two main rooms, the parlor and a bedroom, were restored.

In 2014, the Soviet company’s successor, Kermet, Ltd., ceded its rights to the estate. Since then, the building has been managed by the Agency for the Management and Use of Historical and Cultural Landmarks (AUIPIK), which has been trying to find a new owner for it, so far unsuccessfully.

However, if you compare Zhernovka with a nearby eighteenth-century landmark on the Okhta, the Utkin Dacha, Zhernovka looks halfways decent. Although the building is not in use, it is guarded and heated, and work has been underway to reinforce the foundations.

By the way, the park is open to visitors in the afternoons. You just have to push open the impressive gate with the coded lock on it.

You can find a detailed history of the estate on the Walks around Petersburg website (in Russian).

My excursion was arranged by Open City, a project for familiarizing Petersburgers with the city’s cultural heritage and opening the doors of historical and cultural landmarks, many of which are inaccessible to the general public for various reasons.

The editors of GP thank Open City for the chance to visit the estate. They also thank tour guide and Okhta landmarks researcher Natalia Stolbova.

Translated by the Russian Reader

 

I’ve Come to Wish You an Unhappy Birthday Because You’re Evil and You Lie

Petersburgers Congratulated Putin on His Birthday by Blocking Liteiny Avenue
Timofei Tumashevich
Activatica
October 7, 2017

An unauthorized [sic] rally of Alexei Navalny’s supporters in Petersburg turned out to be an unexpectedly serious, well-attended event. Most supporters of the unregistered candidate for the Russian presidency had expected the rally to be poorly attended. A few days before the rally, workers were replacing gravel on the Field of Mars, the announced venue for the rally. On Palace Square, a massive motorcycle rally, featuring the pro-regime motorcycle club Night Wolves, drew hundreds of bikers.

73b04ddf8a04872203eefc05a3524576.jpgMotorcycle rally on Palace Square, October 7, 2017

In addition, on October 7, an “event whose purpose [was] to inform people about society’s complicated attitude towards the homeless, orphans, and HIV-infected people” had been authorized for the Field of Mars. A few days earlier, on October 3, police had confiscated stickers promoting the rally at Navalny’s campaign office in Petersburg and detained local campaign coordinator Polina Kostyleva.

Most of all, however, activists were amused to hear announcements, broadcast through a loudspeaker, inviting people to a free screening of the patriotic blockbuster Crimea at the nearby Rodina cinema. The oppositionists greeted the announcements with laughter.

59244c58db9ad21d59070115135ee25e.jpgNavalny supporter holding the Russian flag and sporting a humorous “Navalny 2018” t-shirt on the Field of Mars in Petersburg, October 7, 2017.

def0c7749142b0d58dfe7b8faa21ee7d.jpgNavalny supporters and anti-Putin protesters milling about on the Field of Mars, Petersburg, October 7, 2017.

At 6:15 p.m., the people gathered on the Field of Mars chanted “Putin is a thief,” “Navalny,” “Freedom,” and even “Happy birthday!,” as the protest was timed to coincide wwith President Putin’s sixty-fifth birthday. On the Field of Mars itself, the protesters encountered no resistance from the numerous police officers on hand. They merely asked photographers to climb down from the walls of the memorial surrounding the eternal flame. Seemingly spontaneously, the crowd headed in the direction of Pestel Street. When the column of marchers spread out, it was obvious that no fewer than two or three thousand people were involved in the unauthorized [sic] march.

Otherwise, it would be hard to explain how the rally attendees easily managed to stop traffic on Pestel and, subsequently, on Liteiny Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares in downtown Petersburg. The marchers chanted, “Down with the tsar!,” “Free Navalny!,” “We are the power here!,” “This is our city!,” and even “St. Isaac’s Cathedral is a museum!” An Interior Ministry press release would later claim that 1,800 protesters made it to Liteiny Avenue.

e4d6a553148ee96544cc0351818d185c.jpgProtesters abandoning the Field of Mars, where on June 12, 2017, around a thousand of their comrades were arrested for standing in place.

a946aaca63a568d52be8a8445b51dac4.jpgAnti-Putin protesters marching down Pestel Street, Petersburg, October 7, 2017

Police commenced to detain people roughly only at the intersection with Nekrasov Street. Police officers formed up in a line. Among the detaineed were well-known former political prisoner Ildar Dadin and photo journalist David Frenkel. Marina Bukina, an activist with the Detainees Support Group, was struck on the head by police. It has been reported that she suffered a concussion and had to have stitches. She was taken to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Polina Kostyleva, Navalny’s campaign manager in Petersburg, was once again detained by police. Georgy Alrubov, an employee of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, reported his own arrest on Twitter. A number of bloggers have reported that Alrubov arrived on the Field of Mars only after most of the other protesters had left.

3ad7563e56f3afd1978de1845b1d9d7e.jpgPolice forming a line on Liteiny Avenue

230bedd31bb91e0acc010a06eb1ec73f.jpgReporter David Frenkel during his arrest by police. He was later released from the paddy wagon.

Nevertheless, the police line on Liteiny was unable to shut down the protest march completely. Activists bypassed the roadblock by taking side streets and regrouped on Insurrection Square on the plaza near the entrance to the Galereya shopping center.  Several hundred people made it there. At approximately 8:05 p.m., announcements were made inside the shopping center that it was closing immediately due to “technical difficulties.” A mob of shoppers flooded out of the shopping center and mixed with the protesters.

bfe608b4e6bc970293ab9737c6235142.jpgProtester outside Galereya shopping center: “No to Moscow Fascism. Putin, go away! We’re going in a different direction.”

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Protesters, press, and police confront each other on Ligovsky Avenue, outside the Galereya shopping center and Moscow Station. Petersburg, October 7, 2017

Maxim Reznik, an MP in the city’s Legislative Assembly, was on hand for the rally.

“I gather that people headed spontaneously from the Field of Mars to Insurrection Square. This is the main problem, in fact. The regime itself has done everything it can to let the situation get out of control. Since they don’t allow people  to assemble and arrest the organizers, people will take to the streets where they will,” the MP told Activatica.

Reznik personally witnessed the most serious incident outside Galereya. An unknown provocateur threw a beer bottle at a police officer. Subsequently, a fight broke out between people in civilian clothing. Protesters suggested the provocation was incited by plainclothes policemen. [That is certainly how it appeared on Radio Svoboda’s live stream coverage of the eventTRR.]

1544a6490e22855fbbbef43e3a120d7e.jpgFight outside Galereya shopping center between person unknown, some of whom were probably plainclothes policeman.

Around 10 p.m, a group of protesters decided to assemble again, this time on Palace Square, where the concert portion of the motorcycle rally had wrapped up. Around a hundred people came to the square. There was a discussion on certain Telegram channels whether they should spend the night there.

At least forty people were detained during the protests in Petersburg. Two workers in Navalny’s Petersburg campaign office who were detained at the protest have been fined 40,000 rubles each [approx. 585 euros].

Interfax reports that a woman who lived on Kolokolnaya Street, in downtown Petersburg, died waiting for an ambulance due to the fact that Navalny supporters partially blocked traffic on several central streets. [In a post published yesterday on Facebook, reporter David Frenkel explained why this report sounds implausible—TRR.]

2bfdfaf4cc84c0fb9fd7d67013fd82dd.jpgProtester holds photo of President Putin aloft outside Galereya shopping center. In Russian tradition, the black ribbon indicates the person in the picture has just died.

Alexei Navalny’s supporters held rallies in eighty Russian cities on October 7. Navalny himself was arrested in early October and sentenced to twenty days in jail for urging people to attending an unauthorized [sic] rally and meeting in Nizhny Novgorod.

Protesters outside Galereya shopping center shouting slogans and waving flyers that read, “Navalny 2018.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. All photos courtesy of Timofei Tumashevich/Activatica

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

 

 

 

Voices of Russians, Unsorted into Boxes

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Two Russians walking down a sunny street in central Petersburg, 17 September 2017. Do we know what they’re thinking? Unless we talk to them and get to know a good deal about them and their lives, of course we won’t know what they’re thinking. And there are 144 million other Russians like them. Each an individual, not a statistic, they are complete mysteries, like people anywhere else in the world, unless we spend a lot of time in their company, talking to some of them, and living lives much like they live. Photograph by the Russian Reader

Contrary to what Samuel Greene wonders in his recent blog post, namely, “Can we learn to listen to the voices of Russians without first sorting them into boxes that reflect our own insecurities more than their complex realities?”, most “Russia experts” are only interested in listening to other “Russian experts” (especially the ones they agree with) and otherwise promoting themselves as “Russia experts,” a term I define broadly, because it includes, I think, not only the usual suspects, but the relatively small cliques of activists, journalists, writers, scholars, and artists who try very hard to control the discourse about Russia to their own advantage.

I think the best thing I’ve ever done on a blog is this long piece. I won’t say anything more about it here. You can either read it or not read it. But you might notice, if you do read it, that it is chockablock with raw Russian voices, unsorted into any boxes, although I don’t hide my own views in the piece in any way.

But when the group of activist artists whose name the blog on which the piece was first published bore had the chance to do a big show at a super famous contemporary art institution in London, my request to include this piece in a journal of texts by the art group’s authors (which, supposedly, included me at the time) that would accompany the show, I was flatly turned down by the group’s leader, who explained this text didn’t “fit the format” of the publication they were planning.

Not only that but I was later disinvited from attending the show with the group by this same leader.

After you’ve had several dozen experiences like that, you realize the vast majority of “Russian experts” are in the business for their own professional advancement, not to give anyone a clearer picture of the real Russia, which, I’ve discovered over the years, interests almost no one, least of all the tiny cliques of “Russia experts” in academia, art, and journalism.

People like the ones depicted and heard in my blog post from nine years ago actually frighten most “Russia experts.”

And yet there they are, real Russians, willing to fight the regime tooth and nail, and perfectly clear about the regime’s true nature.

At least half of the world’s “Russia experts” don’t understand even a tenth of what these “simple” Russians understand.

So what do we need “Russia experts” for? TRR