Yegor Galkin: “You Look Out and See Everything Is Ugly”

“You Look Out and See Everything Is Ugly”: How a Barnaul Resident Took Charge of the City’s Grassroots Urban Activist Group
Alexandra Romantsova
Takie Dela
October 17, 2019

In a series of monologues entitled “Close to the Heart,” Takie Dela hands the microphone to residents of Russia’s regions whose personal involvement and willingness to act are gradually changing their local communities. The star of our second installment is Barnaul resident Yegor Galkin, head of Spire, a local grassroots group.

How do I want my city to look? How can I change the space in which I live? Five years ago, a schoolboy from Barnaul sought answers to these questions, learned about the work of Spire, and became interested in urban planning.

galkinYegor Galkin. Photo courtesy of Mr. Galkin and Takie Dela

Spire, a grassroots group, emerged in 2013 amid the popularization of urban planning in Russia. Its founder, Sergei Ustinov, is a well-known big data expert: he created a nation-wide map of road accidents in Russia. In 2013, the group established its presence on social networks and started doing walks in the city and making photographs. I joined the project in 2014, which was when we launched a map of grassroots proposals in Barnaul. This has been our group’s main focus.

We developed a large interactive map of Barnaul where any resident could leave his or her proposal for beautifying and improving the city. Any user could vote these proposals up or down. Based on the results of the voting, we would send requests to the authorities. We wanted to interact directly with Barnaul city hall and the government of the Altai Territory, but we were ignored. We had over 500 proposals, for which 3,000 votes were cast on our website. Those were huge numbers for Barnaul. After a while, some of the proposals were implemented. This was due to our written requests, but also because some of them were too obvious to ignore.

We still are not in a direct dialogue with officials. Instead, we have learned how to work through the media: they hear us and react. If we have found an irregularity, they try to fix it. For example, the city had a contract for erecting fences, but they were not erected, although they existed on paper. After we wrote about this, the fences went up the next day. I am against fences, but an irregularity is an irregularity.

Our work can be divided into several categories: planning (like the map of grassroots proposals), fighting for green areas, work on the city’s master plan, and daily work by experts, including environmentalists and urban activists. They find irregularities in the city’s improvement and road repair projects, check them against the official paperwork, and publish their findings. This is all done for free: we have no funding. Our desire to change the city and our initiative drive everything we do.

When urbanism first came to Russia,  people didn’t know what it was and how it could improve their lives. When they went to Europe, people sensed things could be different in Russia. We quickly found a common language with people like this. We would tell them what we could do in Barnaul to make life more comfortable, such as introducing dedicated bus and bike lanes and improving public transport.

At first, many people had a hostile reaction to these ideas. They said we needed to expand roads to accommodate more cars. Every group that tackles urban problems is confronted with this reaction. When we started talking about public spaces, however, we found lots of new allies.

Everything always begins with the individual: how would I like to see the city? Personal comfort is important. That was why it captivated me. I began studying the subject, reading a lot and looking at different proposals and projects. Now it is a scholarly interest because I am studying political science. Urban planning and urban reform are impossible without politics. I am curious about the evolution of cities, demographic processes, and gentrification’s impact on urban development. I’m a grassroots urban activist and I want the city to be better.

We have been fighting for Barnaul’s green areas. In 2015, we did our first big project about city parks, which dealt with their current state. While everyone in Moscow knew what was happening in the city’s parks, people in Barnaul didn’t know anything. In 2016, we did the project again, this time in cooperation with a local news website and professional photographers. We made a video using quadcopters. And we spelled out the problem: nobody was taking care of the parks. Some of them had been subjected to deforestation, while others were so badly neglected it was dangerous to go there.

Barnaul has a population of 700,000, and there used to be six city parks. Now there is one official park that is still open. The other parks lost their official status and no one has been managing them. This is a big problem for Barnaul. We are surrounded by old-growth forests, but there are few green spaces in the city itself.

The bulk of the people who subscribe to our group’s social media pages signed on when we raised these issues. People voiced their support and willingness to engage in joint action. Half of Emerald Park was logged, sparking a lively protest over the fact that the city’s green areas were neglected. Whereas there had been no reaction from the authorities in 2015–2016, the issue has finally been raised at the regional level in 2019. Recently, we had a round table at the Altai Territory Legislative Assembly on the topic of green areas in the city.

We raise the hot-button issues in Barnaul. If they are written about, people know about them, and city officials have to react. Our experts are so good that when city hall officials hear their names they freak out. All of the publications posted on our social media pages are read by the prosecutor’s office and the investigative agencies. If there are irregularities, they conduct inquiries.

We have now been trying to establish relations with the district councils. We are getting ready to present our draft project for a park area, a project we did in keeping with all the canons of urban planning. We did surveys of the area in summer, autumn, winter, and spring, as well as research on how people navigate parks. The project for this park will soon be open to feedback from any and all residents of Barnaul. I think it will be interesting and beneficial. I don’t recall that a grassroots undertaking like this has ever been implemented in the regions.

Judging by polls, people want to see quality. The canons of urbanism and notions of proper improvements to amenities can be captured in the phrase “quality infrastructure,” meaning infrastructure that is sound, convenient, comfortable, and safe. People have the same idea: they want to live in a safe and pleasant green space. There is popular demand for quality urban improvements.

An important thought for all grassroots groups is that you need to do what you do and do it well. If you see a problem you need to make sense of it and talk about it. You have to recruit experts and not be afraid of communicating with the authorities, of building a dialogue with regional parliamentarians, city councilors, and district councilors so everyone has a stake in solving the problem. You have to voice your proposals and, most importantly, spark the interest of groups that can impact decision-making. Merchants, authorities, city councilors, political parties: you need to interact with everyone. An urban activist is a person who thrives on interaction and dialogue.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Atlantic City

There could hardly be a place in Petersburg more dispiriting than the far west end of Savushkin Street (of troll factory fame), but the sheer dreadfulness of the post-Soviet new estates, business centers, and shopping malls that have sprung up there and all around the city’s outskirts is exacerbated by the tendency of their developers to burden them with impossibly escapist and chirpy monikers. So, I emerged from the new Begovaya subway station last Sunday to find myself (briefly) in Atlantic City. {TRR}

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atlantic city-2

Photos by the Russian Reader

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The Gated Community

DSCN9429Courtyard gate in Petersburg’s Central District. Photo by the Russian Reader

Behind a Fence
Dmitry Ratnikov
Delovoi Peterburg
September 27, 2018

Remember the golden days when you could walk into any courtyard in central Petersburg and get a taste of the city’s flip side, or simply shorten your way from one alley to another by taking the backstreets? Yes, you would find yourself in the midst of unsightly façades, graffitti, and smells. But these things have not gone away, while navigating the city on foot has been made more complicated by endless gates and intercoms.

After the terrorist siege of the school in Beslan, large numbers of educational institutions suddenly fenced off their grounds, as if the cause of the tragedy had been the absence of a fence. Consequently, the numerous footpaths in the bedroom communities which ordinary folk had used for decades to shorten their way from subway to home, for example, vanished.

It was not only schools that hid themselves behind bars. Nearly all state institutions did the same thing. The Russian National Library is a vivid example of this. Its old building on Moscow Avenue can be freely approached, while its new building on Warsaw Street is protected by a metal fence that cuts off the library’s paved footpaths. I would urge the library’s director, Alexander Vershinin, to remove the fence. No one is planning to steal your books. It’s stupid.

ratnikov-warsawkaRussian National Library building on Warsaw Street in Petersburg. Photo by Dmitry Ratnikov. Courtesy of Kanoner

Fenced lawns have been proliferating at an incredible rate in the yards and on the streets. The lawns are not protected from wayward drivers, but from planned footpaths. People find it convenient to walk directly from a traffic light to a store, but thanks to thoughtless officials, they have all instantly become potential lawbreakers, because planners designed a path with a ninety-degree angle.

And what do you make of the fences around gardens and parks? One would imagine these are places of public access, but no, entrance is strictly limited. Why is a fence now being erected around the park of the Orlov-Denisov Estate in Kolomyagi? People got along fine without it. Why was the grille around the Upper Garden in Krasnoye Selo restored? Why is the garden outside Vladimir Cathedral nearly always closed to parishioners?

“To keep drunks from staggering around there,” a female attendant at the cathedral once told me.

The argument is absurd. What is the percentage of drunks amongst those who would enjoying sitting on a bench in the cathedral garden? It’s tiny.

gate-2Courtyard gate in Petersburg’s Central District. Photo by the Russian Reader

There are other cases when public green spaces are completely fenced off from the public. You cannot enter Edward Hill Square, for example. The question begs itself. Why did Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko endow the square with that name when there was an intercom on the gate? You cannot get into the little garden on the corner of Kirillovskaya and Moiseyenko Streets, or the little square at 6 Svechnoy Alley. How do local officials respond to these problems? They either postpone making a decision for years, as happened in Svechnoy Alley, or they make a great show of opening the gate during an official inspection, as happened on Moiseyenko Street.

There are also positive examples, however. The unauthorized DIY fences at 3–5 Troitsky Avenue have recently been dismantled.

A scandal has, allegedly, erupted in the new, densely populated area between Kushelev Road and Laboratory Avenue. The local property owners association voiced the desire to erect a fence around the perimeter of its grounds, thus cutting off the way to the local school. Ultimately, the locals report, they would have had to take their children more than a kilometer around the fence instead of walking a few hundred meters in a straight line, as they do now. Residents wrote things like “If they put it up, I’ll cut it down at night with an angle grinder” on the local internet forum.  This is not to mention the stupidity of the planned fence. It is no problem to gain access to the courtyard due to the huge numbers of residents going back and forth through the gate every thirty seconds, if not more frequently.

kushelev-laboratoryA satellite view of the new estate between Kushelev Road and Laboratory Avenue, in the north of Petersburg. Courtesy of Google Maps

In southwest Petersburg, a petition is making the rounds to close the entire courtyard of a new residential complex to cars. But what does that mean now that many developers are themselves advertising such monstrous car-free courtyards? You wonder why I have used the word “monstrous”? Because developers should solve the parking problems in their new estates, not the municipal government. If developers build a hundred flats, they should provide a hundred free parking spots. Due to the fact that Seven Suns Development erected a huge “anthill” on Krylenko Street, featuring a “car-free courtyard,” all the lawns and clumps of land in the vicinity have been turned into a single hefty parking lot that has made it difficult to drive down the street to boot. Why should the city permit a commercial firm to generate a problem from scratch that the city will have to solve, for example, by spending public monies on parking barriers?

seven suns krylenkoAn artist’s rendering of the “anthill” on Krylenko Street. Courtesy of Kanoner

And what kind of fences do we build at our summer cottages? Instead of pretty, cozy hedgerows, many of us prefer sheets of corrugated steel without a single break in them.

Given our maniacal, senseless desire to hide from the world around us, what will become of us? Are we headed towards the city-state depicted in Zamyatin’s novel We?

Dmitry Ratnikov is editor of Kanoner, an online newspaper that indefatigably reports on developments in architecture, city planning, and historical preservation in Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader

Vladimir Mayakovsky, “Zigzags in the Evening”

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Vladimir Mayakovsky
Zigzags in the Evening

The windows shattered the city’s colossal hell
Into minuscule light-sucking hellets
The cars cavorted like rust-colored devils
Horns exploding in the ear like rockets

And under the sign for herring from Kerch
An oldster, run over, groped for his glasses
And wept when amid the evening’s lurch
A tram threw up its pupils at a dash

While in the holes of skyscrapers where ore blazed
And tunnels were piled by the iron of trains
The aeroplane yelled crashing into the place
Where the injured sun’s eye drained

And finally balling up the blankets of gaslights
Loved out the night was drunken and a mess
While somewhere beyond the suns of streets
Hobbled the moon flabby and utterly useless

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrades Stas and Lena for the heads-up. Originally published in the Futurist anthology Milk of Mares (Moscow: Gileya, 1914), the poem was later republished in a slightly different rendering, featuring punctuation marks, as “The City’s Colossal Hell.”

 

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

 

Stanislav Dorochenkov: Afterword to the Pamphlet of 1942

Afterword to the Pamphlet of 1942
A film by Stanislav Dorochenkov, 2012
28’46”
Featuring Maxim Egorov, O.A. Belobrova, Lydia Smirnova
Camera: Boris Belay
Editing: Claire Beuneux
Directed by Stanislav Dorochenkov
Re:voir Films Paris

In 2010’s stifling heat in St. Petersburg, the regime and the mafia orchestrate the destruction of the city’s heritage for the sake of the nouveaux riche’s luxury. The attempt to remember helps me. I present a little known text by someone who defended this city, Dmitry Likhachev. Several times, he saved it alone by opposing the collective decisions of the Communist Party, thus rebutting an old Russian saying that I would translate roughly as “One man cannot fight an army.”

One can.

I see the phrase “Death will more likely be afraid of us than we of it,” engraved on one of the three stelae at the Piskaryov Memorial Cemetery, placed over the endless mass graves where the millions who died during the Siege of Leningrad lie.

With my Éclair camera, I walk the city during the White Nights to rediscover the  magnificent light of transparent twilight that transforms Petersburg into “the most fantastic city in the world.” The texts of the Russian chronicles (The Hypatian Chronicle, The Laurentian Chronicle, and The Lay of Igor’s Campaign) appear before me, following a broadcast inspired by Likhachev. I become aware of the ancient words, the most accurate account of the disaster of human forgetfulness.

Source: Dérives.tv

Annotation translated, from the French, by Comrade Koganzon and the Russian Reader

Farewell to Matyora

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Experts Predict the Closure of All Rural Hospitals by 2023 
Ilya Nemchenko
RBC
December 9, 2016

If the number of social welfare institutions continues to decrease at the same pace, there will be no hospitals in rural areas within seven years. Experts argue that all rural schools and medical clinics could be closed within seventeen to twenty years.

Due to “optimization” processes, over the past twenty years, rural areas have lost much of their social infrastucture, experts at the Center for Economic and Political Reform (CEPR) have concluded. In report entitled “Russia, Land of Dying Villages,” they note the numbers of hospitals, schools, and clinics in rural areas will continue to decline in the coming years. RCB has a copy of the report.

Based on Rosstat’s data, the CEPR has calculated that, over the past fifteen to twenty years, the number of rural schools had shrunk by nearly 1.7 times (from 45,100 in 2000 to 25,900 in 2014), the number of rural hospitals by four times (from 4,300 to 1,060), and the number of rural clinics by 2.7 times (from 8,400 to 3,060).

The upshot is that all rural hospitals could close in seven years, while all rural schools and clinics could close in seventeen to twenty years, claims the report.

“It is clear that this is not possible and that all ‘optimizations’ have their limits. However, there are fears that social welfare institutions will continue to close in the countryside in the coming years, albeit at a much less impressive pace,” write the report’s authors.

The optimization of schools and hospitals is often justified by decreases in population, although it is socio-economic problems that facilitate flight to the cities. The experts argue the government has deliberately pursued a policy of depopulating rural areas and has deprived the countryside of its “last hope for the future.” They call the current circumstances a vicious circle. Optimization of social welfare facilities has proceeded at a much faster rate than rural depopulation and the abandonment of villages.

According to the report, the rural population has been in constant decline over the past twenty years. This has happened due both to migration outflows and the fact that the death rate has exceeded the birth rate. The number of deserted villages increased by more than six thousand from 2002 to 2010, to 19,500. Moreover, less than one hundred people live in more than half of all rural settlements.

The experts note that while the number of depopulated villages has continued to grow in Central Russia and the north, rural areas have been developing vigorously in the south. In 2016, the North Caucasus Federal District had the largest population in terms of percentages (50.9%), while the Northwest Federal District had the lowest (15.8%).

The study underscores that the main causes of depopulation in the countryside are social and economic problems. The standard of living is low in rural areas, while unemployment is relatively high, and this has spurred a growth in the crime rate. The experts note that prices in rural areas are high, so country dwellers spend more money on food than city dwellers do.

Population outflow has also been due to the poor quality of utilities and housing. According to the CEPR, only 57% of rural housing stock is supplied with running water, while only 33% of houses have hot water. The condition of the water mains in the countrsyide has constantly grown worse: only 54.7% of residents are supplied with safe drinking water. The experts note that only 5% of villagers have sewers. (This figure has not changed since 1995.) However, the provision of natural gas is relatively better. According to Rosstat, approximately 75% of the rural housing stock is supplied with pipeline or liquefied gas.

The CEPR’s researchers write that the government policy has concentrated capital, jobs, and people in the large cities, while attempts to maintain the rural population have failed, because there are no conditions for developing the villages. The experts believe that comprehensive socio-economic reforms are needed to solve the problem. Otherwise, the number of deserted villages will have increased by the time of the next census.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader

See some of my previous posts on life in the Russian countryside: