How Things Were Done in Petersburg: The Destruction of Submariners Garden
July 24, 2008
Chtodelat News & The Russian Reader
The current regime presents itself, at home and abroad, as having brought “stability” and prosperity to Russia. Russians, the storyline goes, are enjoying the fruits of their new consumerist society, and thus social conflict, much less outright resistance to the powers that be, is insignificant. Russians are buying into this new “de-ideologized” ideology because it allows them to buy a better life.
Closer to the ground, however, the picture looks different. In fact, all over Russia, workers are struggling to create independent trade unions and improve the conditions of their work; antifascists are battling to stop the scourge of neo-Nazi attacks on the country’s minorities and foreign residents; and human rights activists, opposition activists, and just ordinary folk are working to make the country’s commitment to democracy and law meaningful (to mention only a few, obvious examples). Because the regime has a near-total lock on the media, most of these conflicts are kept out of the public view or presented to the public in a distorting mirror. And, it has to be said, the numbers of resisters nationwide are such that it would be wrong to say that society at large is (for now) gripped by a revolutionary mood.
In Petersburg, the most significant front in this “quiet” or “cold” civil war in the past few years has been the conflict surrounding the rampant architectural redevelopment of the city. The attention of observers both foreign and domestic has been focused on mega-projects such as the planned 400-meter skyscraper that will serve as the centerpiece of Gazprom’s Okhta Center, just across the Neva River from downtown Petersburg, the demolition of the city’s grand, plentiful “architectural heritage,” and the creative, nonviolent resistance mounted by such grassroots groups as Living City. Less attention is paid to efforts to prevent infill construction, which has become a particular plague in the city’s “non-classical” outlying neighborhoods, most of them built during the post-Stalin, pre-perestroika period.
These neighborhoods offer developers an advantage they cannot find in the historic center: “open” space. In reality, this means the tree-filled courtyards, gardens, and parks that Soviet city planners designed into these new estates in order to give citizens the fresh air, greenery, and recreational areas they were so desperately lacking in the densely built environment of the city center.
These “empty” spaces also present another advantage: they already have the infrastructure (gas, water, and sewerage mains, electrical grids and telephone lines, paved roads, and public transportation) that would be expensive to install in the truly undeveloped territories farther away from the center. Developers also do not have to worry about the building height regulations that still, however feebly, hold sway in the inner districts. They are also encouraged by an overheated economy whose main beneficiaries have few other avenues where they can invest their newfound wealth, and by a plentiful supply of cheap labor in the form of immigrants from the impoverished former Soviet republics.
On the administrative side, they are assisted by the “legal nihilism” of which President Medvedev has spoken so eloquently of in recent months, and by the central state’s identification of new housing construction as a national priority. (It matters little that much of the new housing created in Petersburg is functionally and nominally “elite,” meaning that is both unaffordable for most people and, in many cases, principally serves as a financial instrument for local administrations, banks, real estate agents, and buyers. I.e., it is not built as part of a social welfare program.)
In one seemingly insignificant block in the Piskarevka-Polyustrovo micro-district, in the far northeast of the city, all these factors have recently combined to destroy Submariners Garden, a large inner-courtyard grove dedicated to the memory of Soviet and Russian submariners who lost their lives in peacetime. Local residents have known about plans to build a housing complex on the site of the garden and have been resisting them since 2006. Piquancy has added to their struggle by the fact that the project is backed by the FSB, the Federal Security Service, whose officers have, allegedly, been allotted a certain number of apartments in the new buildings.
In May, the conflict went from simmering to hot when construction contractors tried to install a concrete wall around the garden. They were met with furious resistance from residents, who were assisted by local environmental and political activists. In June, further, unsuccessful attempts to install the wall sparked new stand-offs between construction workers, police, neighbors, and activists. This in turn prompted Alexander Vakhmistrov, one of the city’s vice governors and its construction “czar,” to declare a temporary moratorium on all work.
City officials and legislators also tried to calm residents by claiming that their block would be slated for “renovation”—which is what the administration has dubbed its new, ambitious program to replace many of the city’s Khrushchev- and Brezhnev-era residential buildings with new dwellings that will supposedly be built on the same sites as their dilapidated predecessors and will house the people temporarily resettled from those same buildings. The activists and residents of Submariners Garden have mostly rejected this plan, seeing it as an attempt to put a good face on a bad (con) game that never had anything to do with “renovation.”
Despite all these assurances and promises, however, in the early morning of July 21, construction workers, backed by police and “security guards” (i.e. low-level thugs), arrived at Submariners Garden and began clearing trees. Activists and residents sent out a call for help and tried to mount what resistance they could under the circumstances. They were badly outnumbered, however, and in the event, four of them, including their leader, Yelena Malysheva, were arrested. By evening, the “developers” had accomplished what they had set out to do. They had cut down all the trees in the vast, central section of the courtyard and had surrounded it with a concrete barrier.
Activists promised that the fight has not ended, but, in the absence of a solidarity network capable of reacting quickly and in larger numbers to such “fires,” it is difficult to imagine how they and other Petersburgers in similar straits throughout the city can successfully defend their homes and squares. More important, what is lacking is a compelling alternative political practice that would enlist greater numbers of people in the struggle against hegemonic “aggressive development” (Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko’s coinage) and the other predations of oligarchic capital by advocating real grassroots participation in planning and socially oriented development.
Nevertheless, what prevents its emergence most of all are the many micro-practices and everyday discourses through which both the hegemons and the hegemonized persuade themselves and each other that only silly “beautiful souls,” old women, and hysterics worry about old buildings, beautiful panoramas, and humble groves in shabby Soviet-era neighborhoods. Worse, these “losers” are often represented, by politicians and the media, as paid agents of more sinister forces who wish to undermine Russia’s long-sought “stability.” In this case, as in so many others, solidarity with such unattractive types is out of the question. Everyone has more important things to worry about.
Here we present video testimony, in Russian, by some residents of Submariners Garden, Each video is accompanied by a transcript in English.
For a good summary of the day’s events and the conflict in general, see Sergey Chernov’s July 22 article in The St. Petersburg Times (which has been reproduced in full, below).
Submariners Garden, Petrograd, July 21, 2008
[Yekaterina:] Wherever we called, they told us that this was all renovation, although it’s not renovation at all—it’s infill construction. We all were against it. There were public hearings: we all signed [petitions] against this project. There was a vote for [or against] renovation: we signed [petitions?] against this renovation when we learned how it would be carried out. There are two children’s institutions here. They want to build two buildings for the FSB [and] a 150-car parking lot, which we really don’t need here.
They began working around seven-thirty. Who exactly gave them permission? This mainly comes from our governor [Valentina Matviyenko]. That is, she gave them the green light, although there is a law protecting green spaces. There is also a law about human rights in general: [one has the right] to live in one’s neighborhood and have one’s say about what will be [built] there and what won’t. We have been stripped of this right.
We have already filed a suit in the [European Court of Human Rights] in Strasbourg, and we are waiting for our case to be reviewed. What is going on here is total lawlessness: the land was sold, but no one asked us [what we thought about it].
What is at stake here is the value of the land and the value of our infrastructure (our gas mains and electrical cables), which is all ready to use. And the value of our lives: the outer walls in our buildings shake even when a freight train passes by way over there. When a truck passes by below, the outer walls here shake like crazy. We have these huge cracks in the walls, and the ceilings leak in many apartments.
This renovation is not [being done] for us; it’s for someone else. I don’t know what this is. It’s infill construction, ordinary infill construction. We, the residents of Khrushchev-era blocks and five-story houses, are simply being driven out. We have no rights.
My name is Yekaterina. I live literally in the next house over. I have been fighting here for two years. Some people have been fighting for this garden for three years—for this garden, for our green spaces, for our air. The laminated plastics factory periodically sends out fumes. All the children here have allergies. The Avant-Garde plant regularly spits out who knows what. If there is no foliage here, there won’t be any air to breathe. And if there are also going to be 150 cars here or maybe more, then I cannot vouch for what will happen to the health of our children and our own health. I have asthma myself. I cannot breathe the air downtown and I cannot live there.
[Yekaterina:] Our neighborhood has been slated for infill construction. They have slated this place for infill construction, as if it were an empty place. The law on green spaces was passed in 2004. But they slated this little patch—this beautiful, green patch—for infill construction in 2006. Isn’t that a violation [of the law]? It’s a violation. Isn’t it a violation of human rights when we speak out, when we have spoken out against [this project] more than once? They don’t hear us. No one listens to us, no one hears us.
And all the newspapers are silent. We read only articles commissioned [by the authorities or other interested parties]. [We read] that here there is a pitiful bunch of people who have nothing to do with this district. No, we live here. People have lived for forty, fifty years under these trees. How they can ignore this? We plant everything here, we clean the garden up as well as we can, and we have regular volunteer Saturday workdays. Our children ride their bikes here; there’s nowhere else for them to ride. Where should they ride? On the street, on the pavement? Our children play here, parents walk their babies in prams. What kind of demographics will we end up with if our children breathe exhaust fumes and do not see a single green tree their entire childhood?
[Old Woman:] They think they are chopping down trees. They are chopping down our lives. These trees survived the Siege [of Leningrad, during WWII]. Why are trees being felled in the center of the city? Who gave permission to do this?
[Yekaterina:] They included [this neighborhood in the infill construction program] as an empty place, not as a garden, not as a green zone, but as if there were an empty space here. We have a map on which every tree is marked. The city administration has remained totally deaf to our complaints, to our requests. They came and nodded their heads: “Yes, we’ll suspend the project. We’ll put you on the renovation list. Everything’s fine. We’re temporarily suspending construction.”
Now it turns out that [Vice Governor Alexander Vakhimistrov’s] letter ordering a temporary halt in construction was “recalled.” That is, the construction company got the green light to go ahead here. They have already been selling apartments [in the buildings planned for construction on the site of the demolished garden].
[Old Woman:] In Russian, the law is like the shaft on a wagon. They changed their minds [about whether to include our block in the] renovation program three times: first we were in, then we were out. They changed their minds about our park twice: first they included it [in the list of protected green spaces], then they excluded it.
[Yekaterina:] Nevsky Alliance [real estate agency] started selling apartments [in the unbuilt buildings] as soon as the land was sold. In a building that had not been built, apartments have been sold. They have been selling apartments right and left. People have already bought up apartments here.
[Irina Dmitriyevna:] Sixty apartments have been sold in these buildings. Nevsky Alliance is selling them.
[Irina Dmitriyevna:] Only eight percent of these apartments will go to the FSB. The rest are up for sale. That is, when they tell people that the block will be renovated, it’s not true. This is a purely commercial project.
[Yekaterina:] When the head of the local council tried to talk with Sergeyev from the FSB, she got five minutes of pure threats in response.
“You’re standing on the FSB’s land. We’re warning you for the last time. We’ll give you the full treatment if you don’t get your residents off our land.”
I am quoting Mister Sergeyev word for word. All of us were standing nearby.
[Irina Dmitriyevna:] Four people were arrested today: they nabbed them. Moreover, they knew whom to go after. They nabbed our leader, Yelena Malysheva. They [also] nabbed three others. They are active [in our struggle], but not so active as to drag them in.
[Yekaterina:] They weren’t doing anything illegal. One guy was simply standing with us on the sidewalk and was trying to prevent them from beating women. He simply grabbed a policeman by the jacket and was trying to pull him off the women. After that, he was beaten up. Yes, we tried to pull them off, and they tossed us around. They kicked our legs and punched us. They twisted our arms. Six or seven guys dragged [Malysheva] across the asphalt and threw her into the police van. Five men against one woman. She had a heart attack: they took her to the hospital.
[Yekaterina:] Maybe we will win [the garden] back and plant new trees… We still have to live here. No one is going to move us anywhere.
When the project was up for discussion, they showed us this project. The project started right from that little road, as if our houses were not there at all. That is, our houses aren’t taken into consideration in this project at all. No one intends to move us out [to new buildings] or repair [our houses]. Our houses shake as it is, and we don’t know what will happen if they start building here. There is quick clay everywhere. Our gas main also lies on top of this quick clay, unless they end up re-laying it. If they begin building here, we don’t know what will happen. That is the geodesic situation. I suspect we will lose everything.
[Woman:] Seryozha wouldn’t hurt a fly.
[Yekaterina:] He wasn’t doing anything. He was just trying to defend [Malysheva]. [They are] impudent men. Look over there at our beauty. [Points to a falling tree.]
[Yekaterina:] How can we hold on? How can you can hold on when strapping guys beat up women and old ladies?
This is what the deputy head of the [local] administration said. “Hold on a little longer. We’ll help you and get to the bottom of this.”
They are still getting to the bottom of this. When all that is left here is a wasteland, and they start building houses on it, that is when they’ll get to the bottom of it.
[Yekaterina:] They almost cut off his arm with those chainsaws. They were just swinging at him with those saws.
[Yekaterina:] They—the entire mainstream press, the radio stations—officially announced that we had started a riot here. There was no riot. We simply surrounded the construction workers and got them off their equipment. None of us struck a single blow.
Half of them left on their own. They just left everything and turned off the compressor they had been using when they were welding the fence together. Everything was calm and peaceful: there was no riot. The riot began when the police showed up and began beating up the old women who were trying to stop the equipment from getting through. That is when the riot—old women versus the police, if you can call that a riot—began.
[Old Woman:] I said to them, “Who are you fighting? Look at me: I’m eighty-one years old.” He grabs me by the arms and tries to drag me away. All we did was stand in front of the crane so that it couldn’t get by us. How they were tossing us away from that crane, our police!
[Yekaterina:] That’s how our police defend us. People from the FSB arrived; they stood around and observed. Anything happens and they come flying in at the drop of a hat. Last time, when we began to push the fence over, a lot of people got taken down to the precinct. Because last time the fence was illegal however you look at it. [The construction company] was told to take it down, but they didn’t take it down. We tried to push it over: half the green activists were arrested for “unlawful actions.” Putting a fence up without a permit, that’s not unlawful. But pushing it over turns out to be unlawful. That is how the law is interpreted in Russia. Whatever is profitable, whatever is sold, that is legal. But what ordinary citizens, poor citizens, the people, pensioners, ordinary workers and clerks want, that is against the law. Because what they want is not in the financial interests of our powers that be. The regime here is antidemocratic [against the people]. Our authorities are antidemocratic. I have become wholly convinced of this. I don’t believe there is any social safety net, I don’t believe they are worried about demographic growth. What kind of demographic growth will there be if children have nowhere to play?
[Old Woman:] We have no authorities: there is a power vacuum in the city. A total absence of authority. And the power of moneybags. The guy who stole a lot of money, he is the power.
[Ykaterina:] We don’t have democracy; we have oligarchic capitalism. And this is real proof of that. This isn’t a democracy; this is antidemocratic. It’s so antidemocratic. This is visible proof that here, on this lot, oligarchic capitalism has triumphed.
[Old Woman:] Matviyenko promised to make the city green. This is how she is making our city green. Vakhmistrov wrote that there were 16.5 square meters of greenery per person, and by the end of 2008 there would be 20 square meters of greenery per person. Vakhmistrov said this: I still have a copy of the newspaper. Is this how he intends to produce 20 square meters per person?
[Yekaterina:] We gathered 1600 signatures against this. 1600 signatures.
[Old Woman:] They took them to the Smolny [city hall] a few days ago. The police barely let them in. Matviyenko didn’t receive them. [Her assistants] gave her the packet with the signatures. And what did we get in reply? Silence and our trees cut down.
[Yelena Fradkina:] As one of the developers put it, “You’re lumpens.”
[Yekaterina:] They told us this outright: “You’re lumpens. You won’t be able to do anything. We bought this land. Go home, you lumpens, and keep your nose out our business.”
[Other Woman:] “We’ll bury you here, and we’ll build here all the same.”
[Yekaterina:] They will bury us. They will bury us under the ruins of our homes, which will collapse when construction begins.
[Old Woman:] This house is forty-three years old. A prefab building, and forty-three years old. It has not once undergone major renovations. It’s barely standing as it is. What will happen when they begin driving piles in the ground? It’s the same with these five-storey houses. We’ll end up homeless.
[Yekaterina:] Even if they drill them in. The railroad is over there, behind the hospital. When a train passes, my windows shake, the outer wall shakes. What if they begin drilling here? The soil here is quaky. There is quick clay here, quick clay there. There is unstable karstic sand here.
[Yelena Fradkina:] There is vegetation here, greenery, but they don’t understand greenery. The only greenery they understand is dollars. Now that is “greenery,” but this?
[Old Woman:] Vakhmistrov came here. He stood over there and looked at all this. He said, “I don’t see any trees: this is an empty lot.” That’s what Vakhmistrov said right to our faces.
[Yelena Fradkina:] One of their ladies was quoted in the papers (in Novaya Gazeta, I think), one of the developers who has been walking around here. “We could spit on your children, your old people, and your trees. We’re going to build.” What is there to say to that?
[Yekaterina:] The first public hearing was about reconstruction, about resettlement. Infill construction wasn’t discussed at all. When they showed us this project they announced that this was the second hearing. [NB. Russian law requires two public hearings before a construction project can go ahead.] Naturally, we didn’t recognize this second hearing as legitimate. We said that there had been no initial hearing on the project, and nothing was decided during the second hearing. We were categorically against any and all projects. We were totally against any construction in our courtyard. When they tried to palm off this document on us—“Are you for or against renovation? Send us your comments” (they simply circulated this document in our buildings)—we explained to everyone that [the authorities] were trying again to foist infill construction on us under the pretext of renovation. Once again we marked “against” [on the forms], and we went around [to residents] and gathered signatures. We gathered statements from people saying they were against the project. Everyone was against it. But the land had already been sold. So what is the use in our being against this? Who is going to listen to us?
There were constantly these sham members of the public at the hearings, people who aren’t registered in this district, who do not live here. They were just alcoholics who hollered louder than everyone else, “I’m for [the project because] I’ll get resettled.” No one is going to be resettled. The only people who are for the project are the ones whom they tricked by telling them they would get apartments [in exchange for their support]. But for the time being no one is resettling us anywhere, and no one intends to give us apartments. In short, people were simply conned. Even the ones who put down their signatures “for” the project and live on this block, they have simply been conned. Conned in the most elementary way.
They conned us and lied right to our faces. “This [building project] will pay for your resettlement.” “What’s with you? Do you not want your district to be improved?” And many people [fell for this] Or rather, most people didn’t. The majority, the people who have been actively participating [in the protests] [are against the project]… But everyone is at work for the most part, from morning to evening, doing twelve-hour shifts. And so not everyone can take part. Not everyone can actively support [our cause].
So now they simply picked the right moment: half [the neighbors] are at their dachas, half are at work, and it is a Monday. And this is the outcome. The police arrested the kids from the youth organizations [anarchists and National Bolsheviks] who have been supporting us, and their trials are today. They are being tried for these [protest] actions. [They are being tried] for our courtyard, for the fact that they came to the defense of our green spaces and, generally, for defending a normal human life. Their court hearings are today, and that is why they could not come. [The construction company and the authorities] chose the moment, on purpose, so that we wouldn’t be able to do anything. And they will say again that this was an empty spot. The police are standing over there smiling impudently. There you have it.
[Old Woman:] 1600 signatures against renovation. 1600. They didn’t let them into [the Smolny]. A woman came out to meet them at the entrance. She took a look [at the petition] and said, “Okay, maybe. We’ll take it into consideration.” But we haven’t got a response to the documents that were delivered to Matviyenko in the Smolny. We have not heard anything from the Smolny, but meanwhile here they’re already [cutting down the trees]. [The builders] know quite well that they have to break through [our resistance] while no clear decision has been made yet [in the Smolny]. And there [in the Smolny] they are waiting for them to break through. We understood this quite clearly, too. [Matviyenko] and Vakhmistrov are on vacation: how is that? Because [the builders] were told, “If you break through [the residents’ resistance], then you will be in the right here.” And now they have broken through.
They made preparations. They were walking around here for a whole week, surveying everything, and checking everything out. They smiled mockingly at us; they greeted us in this insolent way. And today they are executing all the plans they made over the last week.
Why should they wait for Matviyenko’s decision, for the Smolny? Because they know that the Smolny will decide in their favor all the same, not in ours. Nowadays, the city’s inhabitants are just mud that gums up the works. They’ll knock down our buildings and send us God knows where, beyond the city limits.
Most of the people who live here are native Leningraders. They are quite sharp-tongued and have to be sent away from here.
[Off-screen Voice:] Yeah, there are no New Russians here for sure. Everyone here is a local.
[Old Woman:] Everyone is a local, everyone has worked hard for what they have. And now, in our old age, this is what we get.
When we were young, the war hit us. At least then it was the Germans who attacked us. They were foreigners: we understood who it was that wanted to break us. But we defended Leningrad. Half of our families remained here to lie [in this ground]. The trees stood their ground with us, too.
During the Siege we didn’t cut down trees. People were dying of hunger and cold. They burned furniture, they burned their own books. I lived in wooden houses on Krestovsky Island. Later, we were moved into large buildings, and these houses were leveled and the logs were used for fuel. But not a single tree was touched. Do you have any idea how many trees there are on Krestovsky? They all survived the war, and these trees here also survived the war. But now our new rulers [do things this way], with one flourish of Matviyenko’s pen. If she had come here just once. We asked, “Look at what you’re signing. Why are you doing this?”
Vakhmistrov tells her, “It’s an empty lot.” Okay, people are endlessly asking her to sign things, they are trying to get in to see her. One [TV] channel, then another channel show that there is a park here, that people are struggling [to defend it]. Why does she [act this way]? It was easier to get an audience with the czar than it is to get in to see Matviyenko.
[Old Woman:] First it’s one law, then it’s another. First they put [our garden] on the protected list, then they take it off. First they put us in the renovation program, then they take us off. Then they put us back in. What kind of mockery is this? How long can they mock the people? How many little blazes like this are burning all over the city? Are they waiting until this flows together into one [great blaze]?
The Russian people takes its time getting into the harness, but then it travels quickly. Do they understand this or not? Why are they pushing people to extremes?
Okay, we are old. But we have children and grandchildren. They will come home from work now and see this; they’ll hear our stories. Do they really think the people will be silent forever? The people won’t be silent.
[Vladimir Dmitriyev, deputy in the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly, member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation:] [I was just at Vice Governor Alexander Polukeyev’s office, because Vakhmistrov isn’t here, he’s on vacation. Polukeyev called Roman Filimonov, chairman of the city construction committee, into his office and told him that they had cut down around twenty trees here. [Filimonov] says to me, “Vladimir Yakovlevich, they’re cutting down only old, rotten poplars.”
[Residents:] Go there and look for yourself. Those are birches, maples. . .
[Dmitriyev:] . . . And he says that last week he met with the residents, that he carefully explained everything to them, that people understood everything. . .
[Dmitriyev:] . . . true, there were a few individuals who didn’t quite get it.
[Residents:] What a liar. What impudent lies. What an impudent liar. We were promised renovation, but what is that, “renovation”? We were against renovation, we signed a petition against it. 1600 signatures were submitted to Matviyenko in the Smolny.
[Dmitriyev:] I now asked Polukeyev—they went to Pushkin to do an inspection with Matviyenko—I asked him to personally report to her about what is happening here: three people were detained, arrested. . .
[Residents:] Four people. None of them has been released yet. One woman’s heart started acting up, but they are holding her at the police precinct.
[Dmitriyev:] Which precinct?
[Residents:] The 61st Precinct. [The police fought with us.] They dragged her on her back through a puddle. Six guys beat her up and threw her in a police van. We are all witnesses. The boy got a concussion: what do you call that?
The important thing is to stop this somehow: they will destroy our entire courtyard. Can you stop this? Do you have the power to stop this?
[Dmitriyev:] No, of course not.
[Dmitriyev:] [At the moment, it looks as if they have badly] deceived us. Vakhmistrov said, “Include this block in the renovation zone. At the very first session [of the city government?] I’ll raise the issue of”—they’re planning to build not one building, but two buildings for the FSB; for the time being we are talking about two buildings—“We will table this issue then: the administration’s decision to permit construction of these two buildings is declared null and void, and this entire block goes into the renovation zone.”
This is what you were also talking about now. First, there is a search for investors, and then a project proposal. Before a proposal is made, each resident is surveyed and everyone comes to a common denominator. When everything suits everyone, only then do people move from the blueprints to working directly on the lot. And that is what Vakhmistrov [said] to us about this. . . I’ve just come from the Smolny. I sat there for an hour and half waiting for the small cabinet meeting to end.
[Residents:] Stop this before they have cut down all the trees. Can it be stopped?
[Dmitriyev:] I’ll say it again: no one is going to stop this. The highest-ranking official in the city right now is Polukeyev. He said to me, “Vladimir Yakovlevich, you know that this isn’t my issue. It’s Vakhmistrov’s issue, and he is on vacation now. I’m taking care of some of his affairs, but I don’t have a total handle on this issue.”
I said to him, “Then inform Valentina Ivanovna [Matviyenko] right now, when you’re on the bus (they’re going to Pushkin). Lawlessness has broken out again. They’re grabbing people, beating people, and this is happening in plain view.” He said, “Okay, fine.” Then he summoned Filimonov. Filimonov told me that after lunch (he has a meeting now, and people have been called in), right after lunch he will come here himself and have a look.
[Residents:] There is no longer anything to look at. Everything will be chopped down [by the time he gets here].
[Old Woman (looks at the square being destroyed):] Accursed bandits. Bandits. The park stood here for sixty some years. It survived the Siege. And these scumbags. . . A band of thieves.
P.S. A quick glance at the website of the Nevsky Alliance real estate agency confirms many of the fears and arguments of the residents of Submariners Garden. The colored illustration of the future apartment blocks does not include the houses currently on the site. More amazingly, this is how the agency describes the location:
“Compared to other northern districts, the Kalinin District has a quite well-developed social infrastructure. It is characterized by a satisfactory ecological climate [and] a sufficient number of parks and green spaces. The Piskarevka-Polyustrovo micro-district, where the new house is situated [note the use of the present tense: the house has not even been built], is not far from Pioneer Park and Academic [Andrei!] Sakharov Park.”
And, we should add, at 60,400 rubles (1,648.38 euros) per square meter, it’s a steal.
This past winter, Sanoma Independent Media closed the St. Petersburg Times, the city’s only English-language newspaper, which had been published for over twenty years. Sanoma Independent Media also switched off the newspaper’s website, so its invaluable online archives have gone invisible as well. I am thus extremely grateful to reporter Sergey Chernov for providing me with the copy of his July 22, 2008, article on the conflict in Submariners Garden.
Disputed Submariners Garden Hit By Police, Demolition Begins
By Sergey Chernov
The St. Petersburg Times
July 22, 2008 (page 2)
Backed by dozens of policemen and hired guards, a construction company invaded Submariners Garden (Skver Podvodnikov) on Monday to fell trees and install a concrete fence around the perimeter. A number of the area’s defenders were beaten and arrested, according to residents.
Located at the Block 43 Polyustrovo in the north of the city, the garden was named to commemorate Russian submariners who died in non-combat operations after World War II. When visited early afternoon on Monday it had already been partially demolished.
Old women cried as another massive tree trunk fell under the chainsaws and axes of the workers, who were encircled by the policemen and guards. “I planted these trees during the war,” said one. “During WWII, we defended the city, but then it was from foreigners, so it was more clear-cut; it’s worse now,” said another. The defenders said the company’s representatives failed to present any documents showing they had permission to perform the work.
Earlier in the day, four activists who tried to protect the trees, including Yelena Malysheva, leader of the local residents group, were detained by the police and taken to Precinct 61, the residents said, adding that the detainees had also been beaten.
“We tried to stop it, but the police started to beat us,” said local resident Yekaterina, who only gave her first name.
“We were also beaten by some strange men, allegedly from a private security firm. They didn’t identify themselves or show us any papers.” One defender was hospitalized with concussion, while another experienced heart problems, according to the residents.
The latter was also later hospitalized.
“Courageous women have been on watch here every day from morning to evening,” said Yelena Fradkina, a translator and local resident.
“We stopped them before, but today they brought so many men that we couldn’t do anything. Since 8 a.m. we’ve just been standing here, watching [the destruction] and crying.”
Listed in the city’s official register of public parks and green spaces, Submariners Garden, which includes a monument, a memorial oak lane, a playground, and hundreds of trees, has been under threat since 2006, when it became known that developers had plans to build two to four apartment buildings on the site. The apartment buildings have been ordered by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet KGB, according to the construction company, Stroikompleks XXI.
Direct confrontation with the authorities and developers began on May 23, when Stroikompleks XXI attempted to erect a fence around the garden. Since then, residents have been guarding the area and on several occasions have tried to stop the workers, who were escorted by guards and the police. Multiple protests and rallies have been held.
Arrests and beatings were reported on several occasions in June when the company attempted to resume work.
Then, on June 17, Vice Governor Alexander Vakhmistrov asked the company to stop any work in the area “due to heightened social tension.” Last week, the residents were promised by the authorities that no work would be undertaken at least until September, when a “renovation” plan would be put into action, instead of the infill construction attempted by developers.
“They deceived us,” said Vladimir Dmitriyev, a Communist Party deputy in the Legislative Assembly, who arrived at the scene on Monday.
According to Dmitriyev, Vakhmistrov was on vacation while Governor Valentina Matviyenko was scheduled to inspect Pushkin, in the south of the city, in the afternoon. He said his faction would appeal to the Prosecutor’s Office to inquire into the construction company’s “unlawful” activities.
The works in the former garden continued, as this issue went to press, with virtually all the trees cut down and the workers surrounding the area with a concrete fence, according to a telephone report from a local resident.
“Of course, it all comes from Matviyenko. [What happened today] means she gave the go-ahead, despite the law protecting parks and gardens, and in violation of our human rights,” said Yekaterina, adding that the garden was the residents’ only protection from the poisonous smoke emitted by local factories.
The residents also worry that construction will adversely affect their fragile Khrushchev-era houses (many of which were built hastily in 1961), as well as gas and sewage works that were designed to serve only a limited number of buildings.
Editor’s Note. I have reprinted this post from seven years ago (which was originally published on Chtodelat News, a blog I edited for a little over five years, and cross-posted the same day on this blog) for a few reasons. First, because I think it is the best thing I ever did on a blog, despite myself, and despite the disparaging remarks I will make about it, below.
However, it never got the attention it deserved, neither then nor since, although it tells you everything about the Putin regime in a nutshell and what many perfectly invisible, ordinary Russians thought about the regime and still think about it now.
I suggested to the nominal publishers of Chtodelat News that they reproduce the post in an anthology of their own written work they were compiling for a big show at an important art institution in London, but was told it “didn’t fit the format” of the planned publication. Although, at the time, the vigorous efforts being made by grassroots groups in Petersburg, Moscow, and all over Russia to push back against things like infill construction and “neighborhood revitalization” (but not only these things) were the biggest story in Russia, and should have got a lot more coverage everywhere else, and a lot more solidarity from leftist intellectuals and creatives back here at home.
But it was not until the much sexier, endlessly self-enamored (and virtually nonexistent) “Snow Revolution” of 2011–2012 that the international media big guns started cranking their rusty turrets in the direction of Moscow (although not anywhere else in Russia, really) because the “revolutionaries” feebly taking to the streets to oppose Putin’s return to the Kremlin and faked election results were supposedly “middle class people just like us and our readers.”
As you can gather from the videos shakily shot by me with a crappy camera, the resisters at Submariners Square were not sexy or middle-classy enough to warrant such top-flight coverage, although the story got (more or less biased) coverage from local media, especially then, because stories of corrupt city officials allied with greedy developers versus folks from all walks of life defending Petrograd’s historic built environment, whether tsarist, modernist, Stalinist or post-Stalinist, from the wrecking balls, was the hot button topic in town at the time.
All the Submariners got “internationally,” however, was my half-assed blog post and an excellent article, also reproduced here, by the stalwart chronicler of alternative culture and the political grassroots in Petersburg, veteran reporter and photographer Sergey Chernov, most of whose efforts from that period have been reduced to naught, as I have already mentioned, by Sanoma Independent Media’s decision to turn off the website of the St. Petersburg Times and thus kill off at least ten or fifteen years of the city’s political, social, and culture history for people who do not read Russian.
By republishing this post, I do not want to suggest that the ultimately futile defense of Submariners Garden was a revolutionary or utopian moment, or a historical bifurcation point, where the wrong turn was taken by society at large, because, first, there have been zillions of such turning points over the past twenty-five years, and the wrong turn has been taken, collectively, at nearly all of them, and second, the mood at the time was black as pitch in any case, not upbeat.
Who knew that it would only get blacker? I think I did. If only because if you are the powers that be, you cannot continuously lie to ordinary people and grind them into the dirt time after time without it finally going to your head and making you think you can get away with anything. Which is what is happening right now.
And if you are the “vanguard of the proletariat” (the anti-Putin intelligentsia, whether leftist or liberal) you cannot continually opt out of such little skirmishes because you have a conference in Budapest to prepare for or an article to write for a Marxist journal published in Chapel Hill, because, in the end, you will wind up in a totally different moral and mental universe from that of the “lumpens” whose testimony we see and hear in this post. Not, of course, that all local leftists and liberals took such an escape route then. To their credit, many still have not.
But the most compelling reason for republishing this post is to show the world at large that ordinary Russians (i.e., “Putin’s base”) are well aware of how things are done in their country, are perfectly capable of puzzling out who profits and who gets shafted by this state of affairs, and even, God forbid, of sometimes organizing themselves and putting up a fight without some newfangled twenty-first-century Lenin leading them into the fray.
That is, they are hardly “lumpens.”
What is strange to me is that the powers that be and the so-called intelligentsia (liberal and leftist) either do not know this or pretend not to know it. And yet they chatter endlessly about these mostly fictional creatures, “the folk” (narod), either in their supposed defense or, on the contrary, to blame their fabled benightedness for all their country’s woes.
What is most amazing is that all this chatter and flagrant manipulation is thought, by the powers that be and the intelligentsia, to constitute “politics,” “political discourse,” and “populism” in Russia.
Woe is them.
P.S. According to an acquaintance who went to school in the neighborhood, those FSB residential buildings did finally get built. This is borne out by Wikimapia, which shows two buildings, euphemistically entitled the Family Residential Complex, occupying the spot where Submariners Garden once flourished, which Wikimapia does mention, to its credit. It also correctly identifies the developer as the Leningrad Regional Directorate of the Federal Security Service.
The original text of my introduction and the testimony of the residents have been lightly edited to make them more readable.