(Don’t) Pay Your Rates

DSCN4253A Petersburg housing services worker risking life and limb to clear snow off the roof of a tenement building in the city’s downtown. Photo by the Russian Reader

Russians Are Increasingly Not Paying for Their Flats
Growing Debts for Housing Services and Utilities Reflect Obvious Social Ills
Pavel Aptekar
Vedomosti
February 21, 2018

The increase in housing and utilities rates, occuring alongside a protracted downslide in personal income, has produced an abrupt upturn in debts for housing services and utilities, and collections of arrears in court, especially among low-income segments of the Russian populace.

The Russian Supreme Court has published statistics on the collection of debts for housing services and utilities. In 2014, 2.1 million such cases were ajudicated by the courts. In 2017, the figure was 5.4 million cases, and the total amount of recoverable debt had doubled, from ₽60 billion to ₽120 billion—taking into account, however, the debts of legal entities that paid for heating irregularly. Nevertheless, these figures reflect both an alarming trend—utilities payments have increasingly become a burden for disadvantaged parts of the populace—and the unwillingness of the rich to pay the bills for flats they have purchased as investments.

Generally, the collection of payments for utilities and housing services proceeds calmly. According to the Institute for Urban Economics, 95–97% of apartment residents pay their bills on time, but an individual’s timeliness in paying their bills depends on their income, as well as the climate and budget priorities of the Russian region where they live. According to Rosstat, household expenses on utilities and housing services per family member rose between 2014 and 2016 from ₽1,511 to ₽1,816, i.e., by 20.2%. The share of total household expenses spent on utilities and housing services rose during the same period from 10.3% to 11.3%.

For the sake of budget savings, many regions have reduced subsidies on housing and utilities, which has seriously increased the amount of money spent on these services by local populations, says economist Natalya Zubarevich. For example, housing and utilities account for 25.8% of paid services in Kursk Region, while in neighboring Oryol Region the figure is 41.1%. In Khabarovsk Territory, housing and utitilies expenses make up 26.7% of the cost of all services, while in Amur Region, which has a comparable climate, the figure is 45.8%.

In 2016, housing and utilities expenses accounted for 15.2% of all expenses among the ten percent of Russian families with the lowest incomes, and 14.8% of all expenses among the ten percent of families who were less poor. People who have to scrimp on everything are often forced not to pay for housing and utilities simply in order to survive. However, according to Mikhail Men, Minister for Construction and Housing, some of the arrears are owed by the proprietors of apartments bought as investments, who do not want to pay the bills for vacant flats.

According to Rosstat, the total amount of money owed by the Russian populace for housing and utilities in 2014 was ₽111 billion; in 2015, it was ₽135.8 billion. Subsequently, the debts have grown more quickly. In October 2016, Andrei Chibis, Deputy Minister for Construction and Housing, informed TASS News Agency they had reached ₽270 billion, and in July 2017, Men cited the figure of ₽645 billion [approx. €9.2 billion].

This increase reflects an obvious social ill. Housing and utitilies fees are billed by private companies, who turn not only to the courts to collect unpaid bills but also to the services of illegal debt collectors. Such circumstances could engender serious conflicts, especially in small towns with poor populations.

Translated by the Russian Reader. See my numerous previous posts on the problem of debt in Russia.

Hygge Сafe & Hotel

DSCN3604.jpgHygge Cafe & Hotel is located at 14D Nekrasov Street, in the heart of Petersburg’s Central District. You can reserve a room there through Booking.com. Photo by the Russian Reader

How are the following two stories, as summarized in business daily Delovoi Petersburg′s morning newsletter to subscribers and regular readers, and the photograph, above, which I shot during yesterday’s snowstorm, connected? I would argue they are profoundly connected, but I will leave it up to you to think the connections through. If you have any bright ideas, feel free to voice them in the comments section.

Who is responsible for the warplane downed in Syria. A Russian SU-25 has again been shot down. The pilot catapulted and, as transpired later, he engaged in combat with the enemy and blew himself up with a grenade, meaning he acted completely like a real war hero. But the hitch is there is no war on, so to speak. The airplane was downed after the the terrorists had been officially defeated. What is more, it was downed in a demilitarized zone.

 

 

We Will Stop at Nothing to Make Sure You Have Fun

fullsizeoutput_976A migrant maintenance worker fixes a rooftop on Kolomenskaya Street in downtown Petersburg, September 25, 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader

Immigrant Janitors to Be Evicted from Tenement Houses for World Cup
Maria Tirskaya
Delovoi Peterburg
January 15, 2018

The scandal caused by plans to evict students from dormitories in order to house the Russian National Guardsmen and policemen who will provide security at this summer’s World Cup matches in Petersburg has taken an unexpected turn. Accommodations for the law enforcement officers have now been found in city-owned tenement houses.

In November 2017, it transpired that the Russian Federal Education and Science Ministry and the Russia 2018 World Cup Organizing Committee had recommended to major universities in several cities where matches would take place to evict out-of-town students from their dormitories before the football tournament kicked off. The plan was the rooms thus freed would house the regular policemen and Russian National Guardsmen who would be policing the sporting events. To this end, universities in Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Saransk, and Yekaterinburg were forced to amend their curricula and examination timetables so students would be able to take their exams and clear out of their dormitories before the World Cup began. A scandal ensued. The Russian Student Union asked Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to prevent the forcible eviction of students.

Petersburg officials have come up with another way to find temporary housing for police and the Russian National Guard during the World Cup.

The city’s Housing Committee has drafted a municipal government decree that would provide housing to “legal entities performing tasks related to the provision of enhanced security measures during the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Petersburg” in commercial housing stock under lease agreements. The draft decree has been published on the Housing Committee’s website.

In other words, the Housing Committee plans to house law enforcement officers in tenement houses owned by the city.  The first tenement house designed to accommodate out-of-town janitorial and maintenance workers was opened in 2010. Currently, the city’s State Housing Fund owns seventeen tenement houses, which are located both in the city’s central and outlying districts. The cost of renting a single bend in these houses ranges from 2,900 rubles [approx. 42 euros] to 4,600 rubles [approx. 66 euros] a month. We can assume the most popular spots will be in the tenement house at 22 Karpovka Embankment on the Petrograd Side, since it is located closest to the stadium on Krestovsky Island, where all World Cup matches hosted by Petersburg are schedule to be played.

The Housing Committee declined to comment on its undertaking.

Earlier, it was reported most of the events relating to the 2018 World Cup would be policed by Russian National Guard units. They would be responsible for the personal safety of players, coaches, and referees, and monitoring stadiums, fan zones, training pitches, and areas around the stadiums, including the transport infrastructure sites that will handle the movement of fans.

In 2017, during the FIFA Confederations Cup, which took place from May 26 to July 2, and was considered a rehearsal for the World Cup, security in Petersburg was ensured by over 15,500 officers and servicemen from units of the Russian National Guard’s Northwestern District.

The World Cup will take place in Russia from June 14 to July 15 of this year. The matches will be played in Moscow, Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Sochi, Samara, Nizhny Novgorod, Kaliningrad, Volgograd, Kazan, Rostov, and Saransk.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Offside: Number of Migrant Workers in Petersburg to Be Reduced Ahead of World Cup

DSCN2000A migrant worker shovels snow and ice in central Petersburg, December 21, 2017

Offside: Number of Migrant Workers in Petersburg to be Reduced Ahead of World Cup
Yelena Dombrova and Marina Vasilyeva
Delovoi Peterburg
January 11, 2018

Petersburg is preparing for the World Cup by tightening the residence rules for migrant workers. New federal laws could prevent restoring the flow of migrant workers, without whom the city’s economy is still unable to manage.

This year might prove critical for migrant laborers working in Petersburg. The flow of workers from other countries, which had picked up again last year after devaluation of the ruble, will be subject this year to legal restrictions, including restrictions occasioned by the World Cup.

Petersburg is one of the Russian cities where, from May 25 to July 25, 2018, the registration of foreigners at place of stay or place of residence will be executed within twenty-four hours from the date of arrival, rather than within seven days, as now. Such measures are stipulated by Presidential Decree No. 202, dated May 9, 2017, says Olga Duchenko, senior lawyer in the corporate and arbitration department at the firm Kachkin and Partners. People who violate the law in Petersburg will face fines between 5,000 rubles and 7,000 rubles [between 70 and 100 euros, approximately]. Foreigners can also be expelled from Russia.

The World Cup will be held in Russia between June 14 and July 15 of this year. The matches will be played at twelve stadiums in eleven Russian cities, including Petersburg. Our city will host matches between Morocco and Iran (June 15), Russia and Egypt (June 19), Brazil and Costa Rica (June 22), and Argentina and Nigeria (June 26). In addition, the city will host a second round match, a semi-finals match, and the third-place match.

This year, a number of laws on the registration of migrant workers will be tightened. The Russian parliament is thus currently discussing a law bill, now at the amendments stage, that would toughen criminal liability for fictitious registration of a foreigner or stateless person, says Duchenko. At the preliminary review stage are changes to the law on immigrant registration that would permit employers to cancel the registration of dismissed migrant workers.

The Recovery Will Become More Difficult
The number of migrant workers in Petersburg grew last year Thus, Petrostat, which relies on place of stay and place of residence registration data, has reported on the first nine months of 2017. 22,300 migrant workers from the CIS countries registered in Petersburg during this period, which is 71.5% more than during the same period the previous year. 10,300 migrant workers left the city, which is 20% fewer than the previous year.

Influx of Migrant Workers from CIS Countries to Petersburg, January–September 2017 

migration flows graphic-dp
The list of countries is as follows: Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine. Courtesy of Petrostat and Delovoi Peterburg

This year’s figures could prove to be exactly the opposite. Russia has already reduced the quota for temporary registrations issued by nearly 20% compared with 2017. Only 90,400 permits are planned for 2018. The reduction has affected the Northwestern Federal District as well.  The quota for obtaining temporary residence permits in 2018 will be 6,600 permits, as opposed to 9,300 permits in 2017. This is the most noticeable decline in recent years. In 2016, the quota was 10,000 permits; in 2015, it was 11,100 permits.

Nevertheless, a shortage of workers in Petersburg and Leningrad Region is not anticipated [sic].

“The overall number of migrant workers never exceeded five percent in the Losevo Group of Companies,” says Valeriya Ivanova, a development specialist with Losevo. “They are most employed at the dairy and on the farms as unskilled workers in accordance with immigration law.”

Ivanova stresses the group’s main production facility is located in Leningrad Region, far from Petersburg. Therefore, Losevo’s management is keen on employing local residents, i.e., the residents of the town of Svetogorsk and the village of Losevo, in the region’s Vyborg District.

Fire Them Just in Case
Changes to quotas could prove more palpable in the Petersburg labor market. Now, according to Russian Federal Government Decree No. 1467, as of January 1, 2018, employers can hire no more than 15% foreigners to work in retail alcohol and tobacco shops, and no more than 28% in companies engaged in passenger and freight transportation. As of January 1, migrant workers are forbidden to work in street trading and produce markets altogether. The proprietor, in possession of a license, should be the only person behind the counter.

“On the other hand, the quota for migrant workers in agriculture has been raised to fifty percent of jobs,” notes Chermen Dzotov, founder of the legal firm Dzotov and Partners.

Yuri Ragulin, owner of a chain of trading pavilions, is indignant.

“What is this? Tolerance or something? The fact is that, historically, Azeris have worked in the vegetable trade, for example. Why clamp down on this? What does it do for us? People have been in the business for eleven generations, they know what they’re doing. What I don’t understand is how I’m going to go out tomorrow and sell vegetables by myself.”

Ragulin believes that quotas in the retail trade will cause many people to go underground, leading to an increase in expenses, including bribes, and this will be reflected in the prices of goods.

“As for the World Cup, first, it lasts a month, and second, I have no clue why my shop at the train station in Zelenogorsk, for example, should be affected by the World Cup,” Ragulin concludes.

Petersburg human rights activists who deal with migrant workers note that many city policemen know how to say “Pay me 5,000 rubles” in Uzbek.

Ashot Efendiyev, owner of Monolith LLC, says that hiring foreigners to work behind the counter of a shop, market stall or kiosk has already been forbidden since May 2013.

“We don’t do it, because it’s simple dangerous. The fines run as high as 800,000 rubles [approx. 12,000 euros],” says Efendiyev. “The ban deals specifically with retail trade work behind a counter. If a person has a license, he can be hired for other work. So we have employed foreign electricians and stevedores. But now I’ve fired them just in case.”

Our sources in private universities that enroll foreigners say document checks of migrant workers have become more frequent. Paid enrollment is one way migrant workers from the near abroad use to stay in Russia legally.

“I think everyone will be expelled now, and our center will soon be shut down altogether,” says a female employee at one such university.

She says their students have always attended classes irregularly, but document checks began in the last several months, and the university administration has started expelling students who have missed several lectures in a row.

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader

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.

IMG_2019

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:

default-1huy

“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

Maria Eismont: Moscow’s Municipal District Opposition

DSCN0811
Like other municipal district councils in Russia’s major cities, Petersburg’s Vladimirsky Municipal District Council has a meeting space and offices, and enough money to publish a newspaper and fund very minor improvements in the neighborhood, but it has virtually no political power and survives only at the mercy of city hall and the city’s legislative assembly. Photo by the Russian Reader

How Things Are Going for the Municipal District Opposition
New politicians searching for a new agenda
Maria Eismont
Vedomosti
November 23, 2017

Sergei Sokolov was the only opposition member in the previous sitting of Moscow’s Konkovo Municipal District Council.

“I could not beat pro-regime council members when things were put to a vote, but I still managed to discourage them from doing things the neighborhood did not need,” says Sokolov, recalling his preceding five-year term on the municipal district council.

In September 2017, a team of Konkovo activists, led by Sokolov, won neighborhood elections, taking eight of the fifteen seats on the municipal district council. Sokolov was named head of the district, since Konkovo’s charter stipulates a simple majority of votes by council members to elect a district head, unlike other municipal districts. In other neighborhoods where the opposition won majorities on councils, their candidates for district heads ran into problems, since they needed the backing of two thirds of council members to win the posts, but they came up short on votes.

For the first time in many years, independent candidates won majorities in several Moscow municipal districts. In several instances, they won overwhelming majorities, but the question of whether grassroots self-government is possible in Moscow remains open.

The fact that Moscow’s municipal council members have scanty means at their disposal and insufficient powers was well known before and during the campaign. Yet now the new democratic politicians, who have taken power at the lowest level of Russia’s political totem pole, must show themselves and their voters that this is, in fact, the beginning of big and important changes in Russia.

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin, now head of the Krasnoselsky Municipal District, has already gone public with the new council’s first legislative undertaking. They have suggested eliminating the current system of so-called golden parachutes for outgoing municipal district council members and municipal district heads.

Konkovo’s independent council members have gone further. Within ten days of taking office, Sokolov sent the Moscow City Duma a request for 19 million rubles [approx. 275,000 euros] in additional funds for Konkovo’s budget, paid for with an increase in the allocation of personal income tax revenues.

“There are no rational explanations for the inexplicably low, discriminatory amount of personal income tax revenues allocated to the Konkovo Municipal District’s budget,” Sokolov wrote.

Council members have proposed spending the money on neighborhood improvements, accessible legal aid for low-income people, and a Southwest Moscow History Museum.

Last week, Konkovo council members came out with a legislative initiative to amend the Moscow City Law “On the Budget’s Structure and the Budgetary Process in the City of Moscow,” proposing to set the amount of allocations to municipal district budgets from personal income tax revenues at five percent. (It is currently set at 0.96%.) Economist Vladimir Milov helped draft the bill.

“I had been thinking about this initiative for a long time, and our team was organized for this purpose,” says Sokolov.

There are traces of picture frames that once held photographs of the president and prime minister on the wall in Sokolov’s office. They have been replaced by a hand-drawn portrait of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

“I have no illusions about the bill. United Russia still has a majority in the Moscow City Duma,” says Sokolov. “I don’t yet know how we are going to lobby the bill, but we will  be employing our usual methods: media outreach, rallies, and similar public things.”

It is difficult to imagine the circumstances in which Moscow city officials would meet the opposition municipal districts halfway, voluntarily giving up some of their money and authority. But it seems extremely important the reform of local self-government continues to be discussed and elaborated.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Valery Dymshits: Petersburg as Mistletoe

fullsizeoutput_92e

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.