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

 

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

 

 

 

Barnaul: Living under the Threat of Demolition

Living under the Threat of Demolition
Andrei Bespalov
Takie Dela
September 20, 2017

Around 200 residential buildings have been deemed unfit for habitation in Barnaul. But people have gone on living in them for many years. 

Four years ago, in July 2013, an apartment building collapsed in broad daylight. A 64-year-old woman and 60-year-old man died under the rubble. The other residents were “only” deprived of their papers and property, left without a roof over their heads. The neighboring houses are still standing, although they are much more dilapidated.

Currently, Barnaul, the capital of Altai Territory, has officially deemed around 200 apartment houses dilapidated or unfit for habitation. No one can tell you the exact number of buildings that could collapse at any minute. It would be a huge exaggeration to say that officials at the mayor’s office are worried about preventing another tragedy.

In 2013, the ruins of the house on Emilia Alexeyeva Street were hurriedly demolished, and now the local boys play football on the empty lot. A criminal investigation into “official negligence” was opened, but quickly closed.

“We were unable to find anyone at fault or evidence of a crime,” Yevgeny Dolgayev, head of the investigative department in the Russian Investigative Committee’s Altai Territory office said at the time.

Пустырь на месте рухнувшего дома в 2013 годуEmpty lot where the house collapsed in 2013. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

But people live in their collapsing houses, afraid of the spreading cracks in the walls and accustomed to picking up chunks of façade that have crumbled and fell to the ground. Residents of the dilapidated buildings see no way out of their circumstances.

Quite Tolerable
A huge number of houses have been condemned in Barnaul’s Potok microdistrict. They are primarily two-storey buildings, with one or two staircases, built after 1945 in the 1950s, mainly by Japanese POWs. The city grew rapidly in the postwar years. It was built quickly as well, and the builders did not especially bother to observe construction standards.

People have fought for years to have their homes declared dilapidated. Those who have succeeded are far and few between.

As late as last year, the residential building at Timurovskya Street, 44, was in excellent condition, according to inspectors. This year, on the contrary, it was declared 86% dilapidated.

You would imagine the building should be demolished, its residents moved out, and a tragedy avoided, but that means looking for funding and building new housing.

It is much simpler to feign, year after year, that these houses and people do not exist. However, sometimes, the so-called populace is made vague promises so they will stop pestering officials for a while.

At first glance, nothing has changed on Timurovskaya Street over the last four years. The dilapidated houses with missing chunks of plaster that has fallen off still stand where they stood then. They are not ruins. But if you look a little closer you will notice the foundation has crumbled in one part of the house, while the brickwork has disintegrated in another, and a crack runs from the sidewall through the entire building.

“That’s nothing! The juicy parts are inside,” says an elderly man who looks like a local. We introduce ourselves. Alexei Oleynik is 76 years old, a retired electrician who worked for nearly fifty years in the trade. He was allocated a flat at Timurovskaya, 44, in the early 1970s when his son was born.

Алексей ОлейникRetired electrician Alexei Oleynik. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

It really is “juicier” inside the building.  A piece of fiberboard has been glued to the ceiling in the entryway.

“The ceiling beams here collapsed in winter,” explains Oleynik. “Workers cleaning the snow from the roof were careless and caused the accident.”

According to Oleynik, they were not all that much to blame: the ceiling beams had rotted long ago. The management got a dressing-down from city bosses and sent over other workers, who patched up the hole with fiberboard and left the site with a clean conscience.

Oleynik’s neighbor Olga Pautova is indignant.

“Well, of course, it’s no one’s fault! The heating system had burst in the attic again. The ceiling beams sagged for three months or so, gradually swelling, until they collapsed. People from the management company and city hall would come and look at this bubble. They would say, ‘What can we do? You all don’t have it bad. It’s much worse in other buildings.’ That was really comforting, of course.”

Pautova bought a flat in the building ten years earlier. The house had seemed quite tolerable. But soon it crumbled right before her eyes. First, there were small cracks, then the cracks became more serious.

“I have no light in either room,” says Pautova. “The wiring short-circuited and burnt out. It was a good thing I was home. I turned off the power and called an electrician. He went up into the attic. He said there were moisture and leaks everywhere up there, so it was pointless to install new wiring. It would also short-circuit and burn, and it would be a good thing if that was all that happened. A year and a half ago, large chunks of the ceiling collapsed in the living room, right on the sofa, where my brother, who was visiting me at the time, had been sleeping. It’s a good thing it didn’t happen at night. My brother had already got up.”

Ольга ПаутоваOlga Pautova. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

“I patched up the hole. It didn’t last for long. The ceiling collapsed again. The management company offered to cover the hole with a piece of fiberboard, as they had in the entryway. I rejected their offer. It’s utter rubbish. I have been up in the attic. Everything up there really has rotted. The ceiling beams have been fastened to something with wire. There’s still a hole in the living room ceiling. Rubbish and leaks are constantly pouring through it. I sweep and wash it all up every day, but what is the point? There are mushrooms [sic] growing there,” says Olga.

As a rule, old residential buildings have a single-pipe heating system installed in the attic rather than the basement. The pipes are old and rusty, and they burst often, leaving the ceiling sagging in five minutes and flooding the flats with boiling water. It is a good thing if someone is at home. They can run up to the attic and switch off the water.

Will It Collapse or Not?
People are eager to discuss the topic of when the house will collapse. They say the building at Emilia Alexeyeva Street, 33 (a mere two minutes’ walk from their house) looked better, but it collapsed anyway.

A year ago, the residents of Timurovskaya Street, 44, chipped in and commissioned a private inspection of their building, hoping it would be declared dilapidated and they could count on resettlement. They got the results of the inspection back quickly, but they were just the opposite of what they had hoped for. According to residents, the inspector hastily examined the house and issued a finding it was in “excellent” condition.

Olga Pautova decided to fight till the bitter end and paid Tercet, a design and engineering company, for another inspection out of her own pocket. Their analyst took three months carrying out his inspection. He measured the size of the crack running through the entire building and recorded its growth. According to his calculation, the house was 86% dilapidated. 65% dilapidation is enough for a house to be deemed dilapidated and unfit for habitation.

Дом № 44 по улице ТимуровскойTimurovskaya Street, 44. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

According to Pautova, the municipal interdepartmental commission for housing assessment, at which the outcome of Tercet’s inspection were presented, was dead set against granting Timurovskaya, 44, the status of dilapidated building. However, Tercet’s analyst had fight in him.

“According to my calculations,” he insisted, “it is dangerous to live in this building. I’ve done my job. It’s up to you to react to the outcome of my evaluation, to declare the house dilapidated or not. But you will be responsible for what happens.”

The commission’s members had no desire to take on that kind of responsibility, and in June of this year the house was declared dilapidated. Residents have been receiving “letters of happiness,” signed by Barnaul’s Deputy Mayor Alexander Alexeyenko, in which he demands the house should be demolished no later than June 21, 2018.

Galina Buloychik is skeptical about the news from the mayor’s office.

“I don’t believe they will demolish the house and issue us new flats. It’s useless. The house will collapse with me in it, and that will be the end of it. That is what is meant to be,” says the 69-year-old woman, who shares a flat with two of her children and her grandchildren.

“I do give a damn,” says her daughter Anna, interrupting. “I have children, and the building is crumbling right before our eyes. You always hear a creaking sound, as if the house were not standing still. My brother installed a PVC window. It would close at first, just like it should have, but now have a look. You cannot close the sash. That means the building has sagged, but somehow crookedly. Don’t pay any mind to the fact the walls in the rooms are even. We covered them with gypsum plasterboard, as if we were doing real repairs. But there is a nightmare underneath them. I saw you taking a picture of the crack that runs from the sidewall of the house. It’s hidden beanth the plasterboard, as if it weren’t there.”

When we were saying goodbye, a photo fell from a chest of drawers. I picked it up and put it back.

“That was me when I was young,” Buloychik explained. “Was I beautiful?”

“You were.”

“Really?”

The Sky in Diamonds
House No. 38, also on Timurovskaya Street, is even famous in a way. In April, the roof beams collapsed and you could see the sky through the hole that formed, as if the building had its own planetarium. Reporters came, TV channels shot footage, the city bosses made calls, all to gaze through the hole. It was also patched up with fiberboard, but not in one piece. Several overlapping pieces were used. When it rains, you do not leave your flat and go into the stairwell without an umbrella.

But to get such minimal care the house’s tenants had to bow and scrape to the management company and city officials. They could have done nothing at all. So, the verdict of the officials in the mayor’s office was that the collapse of the roof beams in the stairwell occurred, most likely, not because the house was dilapidated, but due to repairs: the beams in the attic were being replaced. Since, at the time, the building had not been officially deemed dilapidated, it was the responsibility of residents who owned their flats to fix the problem or the management company’s, seeing as how residents pay them for the building’s maintenance. Only how much money can you make off a two-storey house inhabited primarily by pensioners? Besides, the companies responsible for the maintenance in their building change so rapidly you don’t have time to remember what they are called.

Svetlana Balchis, a resident of Timurovskaya, 38, recounts the accident.

“I got a call at work. I came running home. Horror of horrors! The stairway was piled up to the railings with chunks of slate, broken brick, mangled boards, slag, and shingles. I live on the second floor, and I barely made my way through the wreckage. My youngest daughter was supposed to come home from school at the time. I nearly lost my mind until I got home.”

Fortunately, her daughter arrived home later. Subsequently, Balchis learned that shortly before the beams collapsed, two young mothers had agreed to take their toddlers out for a walk together. One of them, Balchis’s next-door neighbor, was held up at home for five minutes or so. If she had left earlier, the ceiling would have fallen on her and her toddler in his stroller.

Жилец одного из домов в БарнаулеResident of a house in Barnaul. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

“Before that, I don’t know many times we called the management company and the mayor’s office: the roof leaked as if there were no roof. In winter, it was still okay, but the snow began to melt in February. There was a lot of it on the roofs: it had been a quite snowy winter. The day before, the Emergencies Ministry guys had done a drive-through inspection, and they ordered the management companies to clean the snow off the roofs right away. The workers fell through the roof! Everything up there had rotted, after all. We have been fighting to get it fixed since 2001,” recounts Balchis.

Balchis has lived in the building since birth. She was brought there from the maternity hospital in 1959. She grew up there, then had three kids, two of whom are grown-ups and live on their own. It was her father who was allocated the flat as an employee of  Central Heating and Power Plant No. 2, which, in the 1950s, built several houses for employees. Balchis says it was a fine house as long as the power plant’s own maintenance office took care of it. The dilapidation began when the building was turned over to the city.

“Do you know how the furniture in our flat stands? At an angle to the floor. That’s the only way to keep the doors shut, because the floor slopes, although it used to be as even as could be. If we put something under one edge, the doors don’t jam. It doesn’t last for long, though, and then we have to put something else under it, something bigger,” says Balchis.

Some tenants of Timurovskaya, 38, decided to replace their old windows with PVC windows. Measurers came to have a look.

“You don’t need to replace your windows,” they said. “If we touch the wall now, it will collapse.”

Elena Romanova has joined the conversation.

“Until the roof started to collapse, and the boiler rusted, it was tolerable. But, in the winter, boiling water poured into the basement, sent off steam, and the walls would freeze. All that needed to be done was change the boiler valve. But we were told they didn’t have the money to do it. So the foundation burst. The building literally came unravelled. I have a crack in the wall in my hallway. I could run my hand through it. They covered it with plasterboard, but what’s the use?” she says.

“I have the same trouble,” says Balchis.  “Between my flat and the neighbor’s flat you could suddenly hear everything perfectly. I removed the rug from the wall, and there I found a crack as wide as the palm of my hand.”

It’s Your Problem, So You Demolish It 
The tenats of Timurovskaya, 38, also received notifications their building had been deemed dilapidated and should, therefore, be resettled. But hardly anyone believes it will happen. They doubt they will get new housing a year from now. They say that other buildings that received similar letters have been waiting years for demolition.

“The building next door has also been declared dilapidated, but hasn’t been resettled. And in that one, too, and that one, and that one. The tenants in that building way over then have been evicted, but I don’t where they went, since they were not allocated flats and are waiting for them,” Balchis says as she points in different directions.

“But we must do it ourselves!” says Romanova. “We have to find a developer ourselves who would buy the land plot under the house.”

Дом № 38 по улице ТимуровскойTimurovskaya Street, 38. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

It is true that, in the letter from the mayor’s offices, it says in black and white, “Dear Housing Owner Elena Pavlovna! In accordance with Article 32, Paragraph 10, of the Russian Federal Housing Code, we demand that the dilapidated house be demolished before June 21, 2018.”

“Meaning, the city demands that I demolish my own building. Should I make my own arrangements with a construction company? Hire an excavator? Where should I move all my neighbors? If they sent a letter like that, it’s pointless to expect help from the mayor’s office,” Romanova argues.

No one here counts on help from the federal program for overhauling apartment buildings, either. They do not believe such happiness will shine on them. Several years, when the federal program had just been launched, the tenants of Timurovskaya, 38, were told they had been slotted into the program for 2018.  That is, they should have only a year left to wait. Recently, however, they decided to check up on the program’s progress. They called the mayor’s office and were told they had been rescheduled for 2025. The overhaul of Timurovskaya, 44, had also been postponed (to 2022), although right after the collapse of Emilia Alexeyeva, 33, the mayor’s office had promised to resettle the tenants of the building next door, Emilia Alexeyeva, 31, and the tenants of Timurovskaya, 44.

Take the Old Woman Outside at Least Once in a While
Every weekend, Lydia Kostomarova is a hostage. The building is empty: all her neighbors are at their dachas, everyone in Timurovskaya, 38. Kostomarova is ninety. She lives alone. She has been living in the building since it was built in 1957.

“I haven’t complained to anyone my whole life or asked for help. My husband died when he was forty-eight: cancer consumed. I have loved only one man in my life. Then Mom passed away. She lay paralyzed on that bed over there for seven years. She forgot how to talk. I bought her an alphabet and taught her to talk again using letters and pictures.

Лидия КостомароваLydia Kostomarova. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

“I looked after her, worked, and raised the kids. It was tolerable: it was all part of life. But then I had an accident. I went to the shop when the ground was covered in black ice. I fell and broke my hip in three places. The doctors said I couldn’t have an operation, because my heart couldn’t take it. Lord, why, oh why did you not take me away then? Now I am shut in here. I haven’t been outside for two years. But I can’t die just yet. I cannot afford it. Of course, I had been saving up for my funeral, but I spent it all on a caregiver. I paid her five thousand rubles a week. That’s more than my pension. Now I’m saving up again. Renovations? No, I’m not going to repair anything. What’s the point? The ceiling leaks, but you can’t patch it up anymore. The tank in the toilet should be changed. It’s quite old. They don’t make them like that anymore. It’s the kind that hangs on the wall over the toilet. A repairman came to look at it and said to install a new toilet he would have to pound holes in the floor and ceiling, but since the house was old, it couldn’t withstand it and would collapse.”

Kostomarova walks around the flat very slowly, leaning on her walker. Although it is painful, she walks. I ask whether the local social workers come to visit her. Maybe they bring groceries and help with the cleaning?

“Good Lord, what good am I to the social workers? Although no, that’s not true. They inquired about me once. They called from the medical clinic. They said, ‘Get a chest X-ray done, grandma.'”

“Are you making fun of me?” I said to them. “How can I go to the hospital when I can’t leave my flat and get downstairs from the second floor? And what will I take to get to this X-ray of yours?

“They were stubborn. They told me they wouldn’t give me orthopedic shoes if I didn’t do it. But it was so very painful to walk. Did I really need those shoes? Oh, those shoes came at a hefty price. I had to rent a special Italian device to get downstairs. It cost me two and half thousand rubles. But they did give me the shoes. Then I would daydream all the time about renting the device again so I could at least putter around the entryway, touch the flowers and the earth. But where would I get the money?”

“But when that building collapsed, why didn’t you move to your daughter’s place? She lives nearby. You really are like a hostage here.”

“How can I put it to you? It’s hard with her. She’s already sixty-eight, and she gets angry with me all the time, saying I love my son more. She’s stupid. How could I love him more? They’re both my kids. I’m just not used to people helping me. I’ve always counted only on myself. Dad was shot in 1938. Mom, my sister, and I lived in a bathhouse after we were kicked out of our house. Then we built a byre. Things got better and we didn’t starve. I raised kids. I used to ask the Lord to take me away, but now I think that no, I have to wait until my daughter’s house is resettled. They have it worse than we do. It’s like a barracks over there. Nine-storey buildings have been plopped down on either side, and their house is like an eyesore. When they give them new housing, I’ll die in peace. But for now I’ll go on living, because I have to. I also have grandchildren. They work in Moscow and Petersburg as managers? Did I get that right? I’m hanging in there. What else can I do if the Lord won’t take me. Look what cucumbers have grown on the balcony? I love the earth so much, and flowers, but you see I’ve been locked up inside four walls.”

I left. Kostomarova was already out on the balcony, standing and smiling amid the lush thickets of her cucumbers. It was a mere three meters, no more, from the front garden under her windows, with its luxurious golden balls of gladioli, to Kostomarova’s flat. Three meters to happiness. You would imagine social services could have helped. All she needed to get downstairs was that same Italian wheelchair. They could take the old woman outside at least once in a while.

Двор в БарнаулеA yard in Barnaul. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

An old woman in a colorful flannel dressing gown calls to me.

“Did you go see Kostomarova? The whole neighborhood knows you. You want to help resettle us? Oh, you’re so young and naive. Here is what I have to say to you. Those guys from the mayor’s office are only waiting for everything here to fall to pieces. You saw that building over there collapsed? The people who died there were young: a man and woman who were in their early sixties. They had years ahead of them. It’s terrible to remember how the children crawled in the ruins and howled. I think that if all our buildings, these ones here, built after the war, were to collapse the same day, and we all died under the ruins, those guys from the mayor’s office would only rejoice. The excavators would have the bricks and us cleaned up in a jiffy, and they could build nine-storey buildings to their heart’s content. People are moving to the city: they need a place to live. But we are a burden to them: we old people and our old houses. What is my name? I don’t want to tell you. I don’t need the trouble. But I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Every time we get together, everyone says in unison, ‘If we and our houses vanished, they would be so glad.'”

Blame It on the Snow
According to official data, 319 residential buildings have been declared dilapidated in Altai Territory, 183 of them in Barnaul. All of them are subject to demolition, since they are unfit for habitation. Most of these buildings are in the Potok and VRZ districts, the old city center, and Soviet Army Street. There are also many dilapidated houses in Biysk and Rubtsovsk.

In 2017, there were particularly many emergencies in February and March, when a lot of snow had amassed on the roofs, snow packed down by above-freezing temperatures. The old housing stock cracked at the seams. In Barnaul, the roof of the two-storey building on Telephone Street, 30, collapsed under the weight of snow. In Biysk, part of the wall of Leningrad Street, 22, collapsed, while part of the wall and facade of Socialist Street, 34, collapsed. These are only a few examples of the houses that were destroyed.

“After we got the letters, we called the mayor’s office,” says Svetlana Balchis. “We were told that if Putin extended the program, they would begin resettling.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

Putin’s Heartlands Are in Your Heads

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A snapshot of Putin’s real heartlands. Zagorodny Prospect, central Petersburg, September 10, 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader

During Russia’s oil-fueled boom, Rashid Tamayev saw steady pay raises at his auto factory job, helping keep his family in relative comfort—and making him a loyal supporter of President Vladimir Putin. But since a plunge in oil prices three years ago, Tamayev has lost faith in the president. Last spring he and dozens of others at the Ulyanovsk Automobile Plant lodged an appeal with the Kremlin when they were fired after pointing out safety problems. They got no answer. “Putin has forgotten about ordinary people,” Tamayev says as he watches workers from the factory leave after their shifts. “We used to live well.”
Henry Meyer, “There’s Trouble Brewing in Putin’s Heartland,” Bloomberg Businessweek, September 13, 2017

I don’t know who concocted the myth of Putin’s base of support among the working class in Russia’s heartlands, but it’s a convenient way of not reporting facts staring you right in the face but that you chose not to think over.

The myth is based on the big-city/intellectual worker prejudice that the working class, i.e., people who, allegedly, work with their hands, not their heads, especially members of the working class who live in little towns and the smaller cities (as described in the article, cited above) are congenitally less intelligent and more easily gulled than their big-city slicker cousins.

But where do you have to go in Russia to find the people, whole classes and stratas, who have benefited the most, materially and otherwise, from the eighteen years of Putin’s rule? (It’s eighteeen years, not seventeen, as Bloomberg Businessweek mistakenly writes in the article.) Moscow and Petersburg. That is where you shall find Putin’s real base of support and his real heartland.

Because the unfortunate worker described in Henry Meyer’s article made a slightly better living during the years the oil price was high was not due to anything clever Putin and his successive governments did. Whether the unfortunate worker and his comrades nominally voted for Putin and United Russia or not during those years does not matter a whit, because the fix has been in at the voting stations and outside them all these eighteen years. If you do not believe me, look at what has happened to real opposition candidates who have managed to slip through the Kremlin’s obstacle course and win the occasional election.

Have you ever heard of Galina Shirshina, a young woman from the liberal Yabloko party who, in 2013, was elected mayor of Petrozavodsk, a city of approximately 260,000 people in northwest Russia, by popular vote? Do you know how long she lasted in office? Do you know how she got booted out of office in 2015 and who was behind her dismissal?

What do you do with the half-baked base/heartland argument in cases like this? And this is just one instance. I could give dozens of other examples off the top of my head, and even more if I did a little research.

Opinion polls, the beloved crutch of so-called Russia experts and reporters who write about Russian politics, are also unreliable, for many of the same reasons. One of those reasons is that respondents want to give pollsters the right answer, meaning, the answer they think the regime wants them to give, because they identify pollsters (correctly!) with a schizophrenic, brutal regime that alternately faux-coddles them and then whacks them over the head in different ways, alternately claims it has improved their living standards and then engages in so much mega-corruption that any sustainable, broad-based improvement of the country’s quality of life will always be impossible as long as the regime is in power. Poll respondents thus do not identify pollsters with unbiased academic research, with “sociology,” or some such nonsense, and do not tell them what they really think. In turn, the pollsters want to ask only questions that produce right answers, not find out what people really think.

Besides, all these eighteen years, the instability generator has been turned up to eleven, despite the regime’s loud claims urbi et orbi it has been establishing stability the likes of which the world has never seen.

A side effect of this turbulent instability has been that sometimes people actually do not know what they think or think things that are blatantly contradictory. Hence, there probably really are some number of Russians who have reapplied the old good tsar/bad boyars myth to the supposed confrontation between the well-meaning Putin and his hapless or hopelessly corrupt underlings. This myth has been reinforced by endless dressing-downs at cabinet meetings, pointedly rebroadcast on all the main evening news programs, and the occasional arrest and prosecution of a high government official for bribery or something of the sort.

Incidentally, the other thing that struck me about this article is how much time Bloomberg has been spending lately mansplaining Russia to its readers in a terribly charitable way recently, especially via the often dubiously argued op-ed columns of Leonid Bershidsky, supposedly a Russian dissident journalist in exile somewhere in Europe. I have no explanation for this overly friendly approach to a regime that has done nothing to deserve it.

In any case, Putin has no base in the nonexistent Russian heartlands. He does, however, have a considerable base in his hometown of Petersburg and the capital, Moscow. In Russia’s two largest cities, huge numbers of officials, big businessmen, and certain strata of the intelligentsia have benefited considerably from Putin’s rule, and have in turn supported it with their loyalty, although their support may be souring a bit as the regime has turned more oppressive with each passing month since Putin’s 2012 re-election.

(I write “oppressive” rather than “conservative,” which is another term that has no place in debates about the different sham ideologies Putinism has apparently embraced or flirted with over the years. These ideologies, from neoliberalism to Eurasianism to conservatism to Russian Orthodoxy, are only mummers, meant to alternately distract the public and observers from what has been really going on, and, when they are not distracted, to intimidate them into shutting up, often by creating the false impression that they are what the masses, the heartlands, the working classes or ordinary people really want, even though the latter are all fictions fashioned from whole cloth or, when they are not, the actual working masses and regular joes really do not want anything of the sort.)

Finally, there is very little evidence that trouble is brewing in Putin’s nonexistent non-heartland or anywhere else in Russia, if only because the numbers of flagrant trouble-brewers are clearly much smaller compared to the much larger numbers of Russians who, at best, are undecided as to whether they want to save their country or let Putin install himself as tsar next year and, I fear, plunge the country into a self-destructive nightmare from which it will never recover.

Putin is going to have to turn the instability generator up to twelve or even thirteen, because he will somehow have to justify his presence on the throne for what will surely be the rest of his life. This means another wave of more crackdowns on renegade individuals (that is, individuals made to look like renegades or “extremists”) and more wholesale legislative assaults on civic and personal liberties.

Tyrants usually do not justify their endless, stultifying reigns by abdicating the throne and re-instituting grassroots social democracy. They only do that if they are pushed, but right now almost no one in Russia is pushing. TRR

Another End of an Era: Pinta Shot Bar to Close in Central Petersburg

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Pinta Shot Bar on Stremyannaya Street in Central Petersburg

In the last ten or fifteen some years, signs of the city’s extinction have been coming hot and heavy, tumbling into view one after another. A few more years, and there will be nothing left of the late-Soviet and perestroika-era Leningrad/post-perestroika Petersburg where we misspent so many years of our youth and felt perfectly at home, despite the fact the ex-capital of All the Russias could never be described as homely. TRR

* * * * *

One of Petersburg’s Oldest Shot Bars to Close on Stremyannaya Street
Bumaga
June 27, 2017

One of Petersburg’s oldest shot bars [ryumochnaya], located at 22 Stremyannaya Street, is closing. [Known officially as Pinta or “The Pint,”] it has been in operation for over thirty years.

Sources at the bar confirmed the bar’s impending closure to us, but refrained from revealing the rationale behind the decision. According to unconfirmed reports, the establishment has been purchased by a third party. It will close on Sunday.

Urban legend has it the shot bar on Stremyannaya was frequented during different periods by writers Sergei Dovlatov and Joseph Brodsky, and rock musician Mike Naumenko, since it was near the popular so-called Saigon Café. Historian Lev Lurye told Bumaga that Brodsky and Dovlatov were unlikely to have visited the bar. It opened in the mid 1980s, after both had emigrated from the Soviet Union.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Ksenia Astafieva for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Foursquare and Ksenia N.

Less than Perfect: Petersburg’s Perfect Cup Chain Closes

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The marquee of an Ideal Cup coffee house in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Photo courtesy of The Village Petersburg

Petersburg’s Oldest Chain of Coffee Houses Closes 
Olga Zarubina
RBC
July 25, 2017

 

The Perfect Cup, Petersburg’s oldest coffee house chain, has closed its last outlet, on Kamennoostrovsky Avenue. According to the sign on the door, the premises are undergoing repairs.

RBC Petersburg has learned that a coffee house in the Coffeeshop Company chain will open in its place once renovations have been completed. A Coffeeshop Company spokesman told us the opening was scheduled for September 2017.

We were unable to contact a spokesperson for The Perfect Cup. The company’s website is down. The chain’s page on the VK social network has not been updated since July 10, 2017.

The Perfect Cup (Idealnaya Chashka) coffee house chain was founded in Petersburg and modeled after the US chain Starbucks. In 2005, Scandinavian investment fund Trigon Capital bought 85% of the shares of Idealnaya Chashka, Ltd., from company founder Anna Matveyeva, but in 2011 the shares were returned to their original owner. In 2012, the chained numbered twelve outlets, but later it was reduced to three.

RBC Petersburg had previously written that The Ideal Cup changed owners in the spring of 2016. The new owners were three private investors, including Yevgeny Mikhiyenko, manager of Travelers Coffee LLC.

According to Novosibirsk news agency NGS.Novosti, the purchase cost the investors between three and four million rubles, since one of the terms of the deal was an obligation to pay off The Perfect Cup’s debts within two years. The debts exceeded the amount paid for the company by several times.

However, The Perfect Cup’s problems did not end there. In 2016, Idealnaya Chashka, Ltd. was a defendant in eleven lawsuits, totaling 6.7 million rubles. In February 2017, a bankruptcy suit against The Perfect Cup chain was filed in commercial court. The suit was never heard.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Dmitri Evmenov for the heads-up

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.