Stanislava Novgorodtseva: Portraits of Angry Muscovites

“The Regime Has No Feedback from the Populace”: What Are People Saying Who Support the Candidates Barred from the Moscow City Duma Elections?
Photographer Stanislava Novgorodtseva took photos of angry Muscovites, trying to find out what it was they wanted
July 27, 2019

3a28b76117eb6539c85008b98b8c8159Viktor, 21, student and programmer. “Ideally, I would like to see all the candidates who were illegally barred put on the ballot and the Moscow City Duma dissolved, respectively. That would make sense to all of us.”

mikhailMikhail, 23, web developer. “I came here to support Ilya Yashin, a candidate in Borough No. 45, which includes the Krasnoselsky and Meshchansky Districts. He is currently detained by the police. My big hope is that at least one election in this country is legitimate.”

vadimVadim, 61, retired doctor. “I wanted to hear the barred candidates speak and support them, and defend our rights, which have been violated. A criminal offense has been committed and we must get to the bottom of it.”

ilyaIlya, 21, artist. “First of all, I would like to stop the lawlessness directed at the populace, the continuing poverty, arrests, and prison sentences. We need to see justice done and hold fair elections so the so-called government stops pushing us around. Because a country is not a bunch of people but a nation.”

klaraKlara, 75, retired engineer and metallurgist. “We came specially to defend our candidate, Yulia Galyamina. She is a decent person, she lectures at two universities. What were the police’s grounds for searching her home? A huge number of people have supported her, but she has been barred from running.”

marinaMarina, 56, psychology lecturer. “We basically cannot change anything at the moment. We are merely showing them we exist because it is impossible to change anything now. But everything will change after a while. When they see we are here, they take us into account.”

Yulia, 42, chief accountant. “I am here to get the candidates who met the legal requirements onto the ballot. We want to see an end to the manipulations, violations, and planting of drugs on people. We just want the laws to be obeyed. I want to be able to go to court and defend my rights.”

Andrei, 43, technical consultant. “It is the only thing left to us: we cannot do anything else. If we stay at home and ‘strike,’ we could die and no one would care. People have to take to the streets around the world. Otherwise, if you are not seen you are not heard. The prosecutor’s offices, courts, and police do not do their jobs. All the state agencies send formal replies or do not respond at all when you complain to them.”

Vera, 56, oil geologist. “We have a problem with infill construction, but our candidate, Elena Rusakova, has been barred from running. We are absolutely certain the signatures [on the petitions supporting Rusakov’s candidacy], are genuine: we signed them ourselves and helped her collect them. We have come to voice our protest.”

Natalya, 62, manager. “We lived in a nice green neighborhood. I was apolitical, but suddenly we were surrounded by construction sites, fences, sidewalks, and paving stones. They have been expropriating green spaces and cutting down trees. Candidates willing to fight against this are barred from holding political office. My mom is 94 years old. She survived the Siege of Leningrad. She does not leave the house anymore, but she told me I definitely had to come to this rally. Otherwise, she said, my children would live in a police state.”

Alexander, 44, activist: “I filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights because my building has slated for [Moscow Mayor Sobyanin’s massive residential building] renovation. That is one of the reasons I came. But Sobyanin and his stooges in the Moscow City Duma are bad guys not only because of the renovation program. They have been robbing and disfiguring the city. We came out to show the authorities what we think, although we have been accused of wanting violent regime change. This is not true.”

Anatoly, 48, programmer: “I came to the rally as part of a social experiment. I am not much interested in showdowns over who gets on the city council. I have more grudges against the current regime than everyone else here combined, but people are fighting for cosmetic changes. Even if [independent] candidates get on the ballot, I don’t believe improvements will follow. The regime has no feedback from the populace, but I don’t think protest rallies can solve the problem.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Seven Years Later: How Things Were Done In Submariners Garden

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. . .

[Residents:] Scoundrel.

[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.

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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
STAFF WRITER
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.

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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.

Hive Minded: The Ghettoization of Suburban Moscow

“The residents of new buildings are forced to look at the windows of neighboring buildings and not see the light of day”
Olga Trakhanova and Olga Shamina
July 6, 2015
Bolshoi Gorod

Recently, residents of several new areas of Moscow and satellite cities have been protesting against excessively dense development. Residents of Krasnogorsk, Khimki, and Reutov, among other suburbs, are dissatisfied. The complaints are one and the same. High-rise residential buildings are built too close to each other, the necessary infrastructure is not constructed, and roads and public transport cannot withstand the rapid population growth. More and more often the word “ghetto” is invoked. According to experts, this is the likely future of these areas.

We asked residents of Moscow suburbs who are unhappy with excessively dense development to tell us why they do not like living in their towns. Here, for example, you can see how houses are being built in Reutov. Here are photos of dense development in the Pavshino Floodplain.

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Yevgeny Sosedov, Resident of Krasnogorsk, chairman of the Moscow branch of the All-Russia Society for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Landmarks (VOOPIK)

I live in the Krasnogorsk District of Moscow Region. I was born and raised in the village of Arkhangelskoye, but for the last fourteen years I have lived in Krasnogorsk.

I am dissatisfied with the town planning policies of the regional and municipal authorities, which have a negative effect on the quality of life. Practically speaking, in the last few years we have had to live on a giant construction site. The city and the district are being thoughtlessly built over with high-rises (up to forty-five storeys high). All town-planning standards have been violated; green spaces, forests, parks, cultural heritage protection zones, and nature reserves have been destroyed. Just next to my house, two gigantic shopping centers have been built, and several hectares of a historic park were cut down to make way for them. A third shopping center has been built literally ten meters from my windows, blocking the entire view and depriving the residents of our building of sleep during the five years it was being built. To top it off, intolerable conditions for navigating the city have been created: pedestrian paths have been cut off or dug up, parks are cluttered, and there are no sidewalks along highways and roads.

Infrastructural problems have been snowballing. There is no transportation infrastructure. The existing roads cannot cope with the flow of vehicles. There are traffic jams nearly round the clock in the district. To get to work on weekdays, residents have to leave at five or six in the morning.

During rush hour it is almost impossible to get onto commuter trains. People jam into them at a run. These problems are not being solved, they are only getting worse. For example, the Mortongrad Ilinskoye-Usovo development project, approved by the governor, presupposes delivering another fifty thousand people to the already overburdened Krasnogorskaya train platform.

High-rises are being built in the most problematic traffic spots without obliging investors to reconstruct roads and build interchanges. For example, the Moscow Region Urban Planning Committee, chaired by the governor, has approved the construction of the nine 32-storey towers of the Tetris residential complex in Pavshino at the most problematic spot in terms of traffic. This is in addition to the already-existing Youth residential complex, being built by the same firm, and the 45-storey towers of the Krost complex, which was built without any permits at all. (The development plan still has not been submitted.)

The situation is identical with all other infrastructure. Moscow Region is the leader in terms of families waiting in queues for spots in kindergartens. There are huge problems with health care facilities. There are only two functioning clinics in Krasnogorsk, one of which was built in the nineteenth century. And yet, the population increases by several tens of thousands of people annually, and this whole burden is placed on the existing infrastructure. The biggest infrastructural problem in store for us in the coming years is the drinking water supply and sewerage.

One of the main problems associated with real estate development is the rapid deterioration of the environment, which has extremely detrimental effects on the populace’s health and quality of life: the destruction and clear-cutting of thousands of hectares of forests, the shallowing of bodies of water and sources of drinking water, and the redevelopment of agricultural land and nature reserves.

Something must be said about the quality of the new construction. Moscow Region is a leader in terms of putting so-called new substandard housing on line, housing which starts to fall apart as soon as it is put into service, and huge amounts of money are subsequently spent on its maintenance.

None of these housing projects is provided with places of employment. 80–90% of the population of Moscow Region towns near Moscow travel back and forth to work in Moscow every day.

Huge estates of high-rises, built in the middle of fields according to obsolete designs and without the necessary infrastructure and places of employment, will inevitably turn into ghettoes.

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Olga FilatovaResident of Reutov

The town of Reutov is divided into South and North Reutov. There is new construction in both parts. However, North Reutov is adjacent to the subway, and so, apparently, it is being developed more recklessly.

When flats in South Reutov were being presold, the future tenants asked the developer what would be built near their home. The construction company told them there would be a square, shops, and other infrastructure. Instead, however, dozens of residential buildings were built.

A new neighborhood is being built next to us. One of the buildings there has 645 flats. If three people end up living in each flat—and there are several such buildings—what will happen to our town in the next five years? Property prices will fall, and consequently it will be harder and harder to unload a flat in such a “marvelous” place.

While not all the buildings are inhabited, the town is already overcrowded. Population density in Reutov is nearly one and a half times greater than in Singapore.

Because of the dense development, the town’s ecology is deteriorating. All trees are cut down on construction sites. Consequently, South Reutov is almost bereft of greenery. And the residents of news buildings are forced to look at the windows of neighboring buildings and not see the light of day.

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Elena NosovaResident of Khimki

We, the residents of the Novokurkino District of Khimki, are suffering from the illegal new construction of the PIK Group, a catastrophic lack of infrastructure, the corruption of the local administration, and the inaction of officials and law enforcement agencies. Our district is rapidly turning into a ghetto. We are being deprived of the right to live in humane conditions. We have been trying to put up a fight, but we have remained unheard.

For several months, the district’s residents have been trying to halt the illegal construction of multi-storey residential buildings that the PIK Group has launched on the site of planned infrastructure. Due to excess housing density, the district of Novokurkino, which has a population of 40,000 and includes three microdistricts, is experiencing a catastrophic shortage of infrastructure.

PIK Group has been developing Novokurkino for ten years. The district development plan was approved in 2005; the latest revisions for the sixth and seventh microdistricts were officially approved and went through the compulsory procedure of public hearings way back in 2011. During this time, PIK has built and settled all the residential buildings in the sixth and seventh microdistricts and has begun construction of the next microdistrict, the eighth, but the infrastructure sites stipulated by the plan have not been completed. The construction of schools, kindergartens, and medical clinics has been unacceptably slow, and residents have been unsuccessfully complaining about the situation for several years.

At this point, although 100% of the housing has been built in the sixth and seventh microdistricts, only about 60% of the kindergartens, 50% of the schools, 30% of the medical clinics, and 18% of the parking lots have been built as planned. In the seventh microdistrict, construction of a school, a clinic, a multi-storey car park, and a sports center has not even been started. Consequently, the capacity of kindergartens, schools, and clinics in Khimki and the nearest district of Moscow has been stretched to critical limits. The situation with parking remains catastrophic and continues to worsen.

Despite these circumstances, the developer, PIK Group, has begun building new high-rise residential buildings on the site of the planned infrastructure sites with the permission of local authorities. On the site where, according to the district plan, there should be have been the only sports center in the district, equipped with a parking lot, they have begun building five residential buildings. The building permits were issued on the basis of a city land development plan that was at odds with the district development plan. The Khimki prosecutor’s office confirmed the illegality of the city land development plan, and it was canceled. However, the building permits have still not been withdrawn. Taking advantage of the inaction of the authorities, the developer began construction work, violating all the building codes in the process. At present, the foundation pits of the first buildings have been dug, and piles are being driven into the ground. There is a hoarding on the site advertising that flat are for sale, and pre-booking of spots is underway.

For two and a half weeks, residents who were against the ensuing construction blocked it on their own by parking their cars opposite the driveway to the site, thus preventing construction equipment from entering. However, after almost three weeks of our blocking the construction, the PIK Group moved about twenty well-built young men into workers’ sheds who set about illegally towing away the cars, damaging two of them in the process. The total damage came to about 600,000 rubles [approx. 9,500 euros]. Moreover, the district beat cop was present. He signed the towing tickets, which is not one of his duties, not to mention the fact that the drivers of the cars had not violated any parking rules. Next, PIK fenced off the driveway onto the construction site with concrete blocks, seizing half of the road in the process, meaning they left only one lane for travel. The road is very busy, because it leads to the school. Now all residents, especially children, are also suffering substantial discomfort from this as well.

In addition, permits are being sought for residential construction on two more plots of land, which had originally been zoned for parking lots and a shopping mall with a parking lot.

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All photos courtesy of tuteyshaya.livejournal.com

“A Home for Every Russian”

The other day, a comrade on a leftist email discussion list to which I subscribe sent the list a link to this recent article, published on the website Russian Insider. Russian Insider is a pro-Putin propaganda website whose goal is to further thicken the already briar thicket-thick wool in the heads of many western leftists and any other fellow travelers in the website’s radius as to the realities of what is going in and around Russia and its current regime.

The argument made in the article is well summarized by its headline and subheading: “A Home for Every Russian: How Putin Delivers on the Russian Dream. Russia is in the throws [sic] of a housing boom that is transforming the country and hugely increasing its sense of well-being but which has gone completely unreported in the West.”

The bulk of the article consists of incoherent razzle-dazzle with numbers, whose only purpose is to show that the journalist has done his groundwork, seemingly.

(Another comrade on the email discussion list discovered that the journalist is quite a dicey character himself. This is in keeping with the utter cynicism and recklessness of the Putinist propaganda and “soft power” campaign of the past ten years, especially after the lid blew off a year ago. The Putinist spin-doctors will literally hire anyone without a conscience, especially if they are agile on the keyboard and unencumbered by the need to check in with “fact-based reality” from time to time.)

But all that actually incoherent number crunching is only meant to reinforce the nearly orgiastic joy that will be experienced by many western comrades (longing for the “good old days” they still have not made sense of, really) when they reach the article’s money shot, in its penultimate paragraph:

The fact that the emphasis on house building in Russia remains on cheap affordable homes incidentally confirms something else. This is that the Western image of “Putin’s Russia” as ruled by a “corrupt kleptocracy” selfishly focused on its own interests has to be wrong. The emphasis on cheap affordable housing for the wider population on the contrary shows that Russia, as its constitution says, is very much a “social state”. 

This is such utter rubbish that I felt compelled to respond. What follows is an edited version of my original response to the mailing list.

__________

The first thing you should know about the so-called housing boom in Russia is that it has been made possible largely by incredibly cheap, disempowered, heavily abused migrant labor from Central Asia. This labor has often verged on slave labor. It is almost totally non-unionized and dirt cheap and utterly expendable.

As in “If you don’t like the conditions, non-Slavic laborer [my euphemism: this isn’t the local ‘term of art’], fuck off, because we’ll find another ten ‘blacks’ [a term of extreme racial abuse in Russian, although there are much worse epithets] to take your place.”

And the local police and federal migration service have been taking a cut from the cutthroat developers and taking caring of things if the Tajiks or Uzbeks get uppity. Such as deporting them back to Central Asia lickety-split.

And the neo-Nazis and skinheads were also, until recently (maybe they are still doing it) coming in to bust heads and slice a few hundred or thousand throats just in case someone had missed the point.

And the laborers have lived in subhuman conditions, such as this shack I photographed four years ago at a site where yet another “elite” block of flats was under construction.

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All this stuff has been documented and heavily reported, mind you, but not on fly-by-night Putinist sites like New Cold War (which, it almost goes without saying, picked up and reprinted Russia Insider’s “scoop” on the incredible socialist housing boom in neoliberal capitalist Russia) and Russian Insider, which have sprung up only yesterday just to muddy the waters, and nothing more.

The second thing you should know about the so-called housing boom in Russia is that it has been mostly fueled either by “funny money,” ill-gotten gains, mortgages that have usually come with stiff interest rates, even during the recent “good times,” when the economy was flush with easy (but extremely unequally distributed) oil-and-gas money. (According to an August 5, 2014, article published on the website Global Property Guide, “every fourth property (24.6%) was bought on a mortgage in 2013, according to the Federal Service for State Registrations.”) Sometimes, these were dollar- or euro-denominated loans, which people are now finding hard to pay back because the Russian economy has flatlined.

Or they have been financed by co-investor buy-in schemes, in which a large percentage of an apartment’s price or even the whole price is paid up front before the foundation pit has even been dug, and the construction and zoning permits secured from bribed public officials.

Many of these co-op schemes have gone south when the ruthless developers split with the money. The co-op members have been left holding empty bags and staring at unbuilt or partly built apartment blocks. There have been huge numbers of such sad stories over the past ten years, stories that been heavily documented in the Russian and even the western media. Not so strangely, the authorities have usually been very reluctant to help these people get their money back or their apartments built.

There is a special term for these people in Russian, obmanutye dol’shchiki, which can be translated as “hoodwinked investors.” It is a term that literally everyone in the world who speaks Russian knows, except maybe those Old Believer villagers in Oregon.

Do the “militants” at New Cold War and Russia Insider, so desperate to recreate the Comintern, even speak Russian?

At Friday’s May Day festivities in Petersburg, there were whole columns of “hoodwinked investors” and people now staring down the barrels of once-advantageous foreign currency-denominated home loans among the marchers on Nevsky Prospect.

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“Where are our apartments? The hoodwinked investors of the Okhta Modern Residential Complex.” Photo courtesy of paperpaper.ru

 

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“We demand an end to the genocide [sic] of foreign-currency-denominated loan borrowers.” Many of the marchers are wearing black t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “I’m not the slave of a foreign currency-denominated mortgage.” Photo courtesy of alliruk.livejournal.com

 

The third thing you should know about the housing boom is that, especially in the big cities like Moscow and Petersburg (which are the only places where there have been real housing booms, for the most part), is that it has been realized at devastating expense to the existing built environment, for example, in the older, pre-Revolutionary districts of the cities, which should be heritage listed, and sometimes are, but that has not stopped rapacious developers and their allies in local governments from gutting them in the name of progress (i.e., quick profit).

This has especially been the case in Petersburg, ALL of whose central districts and large parts of its suburbs are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the current housing boom (i.e., the precipitate of easy money, criminal greed, and absence of rule of law and normal planning standards) has also impinged badly on the post-war Soviet new estates, which Soviet planners had the wisdom to equip with lots of green space, parks, leafy courtyards, and lots of other great amenities, like schools and kindergartens.

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The building of a kindergarten attended by a friend in the late 1970s, now lying in ruins in Petersburg’s Nevskaya Zastava district, July 2011. Photograph by the Russian Reader

 

All this “empty space” has been a favorite target of the utterly ruthless developers in their quest to squeeze more and more real estate into less and less space. If you had been really interested in what has been going in Russia (and urban Ukraine, by the way) over the past ten years, you would know that one of the biggest grassroots social movements to have emerged was the movement against reckless infill construction both in the inner cities and the Soviet new estates.

You can probably say lots of bad things about radical leftist figurehead Sergei Udaltsov (now doing jail time for “planning a riot” on May 6, 2012) and his Left Front, but there are no doubt tons of ordinary Muscovites who were glad to have them and other partisan (including liberals and other leftists) and non-partisan activists on hand when they were fighting off the ruthless developers trying to destroy their eminently livable, superiorly planned Soviet or pre-Soviet neighborhoods.

The allegation made in the article about the superior quality of the new houses versus the bad old Soviet apartment blocks is also quite hilarious. A friend of mine lives next to a tower of such recently built “elite” flats in southern Petersburg. She told me there had been a rash of burglaries in this building, because the walls had been built so thin the crooks could literally punch their way through them from one flat to the next, and grab whatever loot they liked. And this was in, I repeat, an “elite” block of flats. (“Elite” has been the buzzword among the cutthroat developers over the past couple decades.)

In my own experience, substandard architectural and infrastructural quality has been the rule in the housing boom, because the point has been to throw up as many square meters as possible, as if Russia were still the old Soviet Union, where high figures like this were touted every years a sign of the progress toward communism. But that made some kind of sense back then, because those figures represented real people moving from crowded and often horribly squalid communal flats and barracks into individual flats with indoor plumbing and all the mod cons.

Providing every citizen with a decent home was a problem the Soviet Union never did solve right up to the day of its bitter collapse, but at least it made a much more honest attempt than the current regime, which has never even set itself this goal. Or, rather, it has at times pretended to have set itself this goal, but only as part of the array of populist tactics and NLP it uses to disguise what it has really been up to.

Nowadays, on the contrary, the point has been to do everything as cheaply as possible in terms of labor inputs and environmental impacts, while front-loading as much of the profit onto the preliminary financing stages, which is also when the high-percentage bribes and cutbacks get passed around to compliant and interested officials. This often means that buildings just do not get built at all, because the developers and financiers “go bust” (that money landed somewhere offshore, in Cyprus, for example) before they get built.

When has an out-of-control housing boom ever been a sign of good social or economic policy or, for that matter, of a “social state”? Remember that much of this housing, when it does get built (and lots has been built, especially in “the two capitals,” as Moscow and Petersburg are called nowadays), is not built for anyone to live in, but as investment vehicles for richer Russians with too much cash on their hands and not enough good ways to launder or invest it. Or, at best, it is built to be sold as rental properties, thus sending the rents sky high in Moscow long ago.

They have been going that way in Petersburg for a long time as well, because owners want to milk the rental market for as much as it can bear, and because the demand has been huge.

Petersburg and Moscow, after all, are basically the only cities in Russia where younger, ambitious, and heavily encashed Russians want to live or to move, because the rural areas have been left to rot, and many of the bigger “heartland” cities and towns have been de-industrialized beyond their breaking points.

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In 1975, when my wife’s family moved into a three-room apartment in a newly built block of flats in one of Leningrad’s central districts, the apartment was FREE. As in my wife’s family didn’t have to pay a kopeck for it. Not a single kopeck. Similarly, my wife got a terrific free education at a specialized grammar and high school and, later, at Leningrad State University. Her family did not pay a kopeck for any of this, either. It was all FREE.

She also had plenty of free (state-subsidized) opportunities to pursue a career in sports (something she ultimately chose not to do) and explore her passion for biology at a very high level while still a teenager, including going on real scientific field expeditions to the Crimea.

Even more insanely, when my wife got ill as a child and young woman, the medical care she got was also free.

I could go on with this pinko drivel, but you get the picture.

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A bust of Lenin stares out at an ugly new “elite” block of flats, erected right across the street from the wooden house where Lenin and his comrades founded the Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class, in 1895. In recent years, this outer district of Petersburg, Nevskaya Zastava, has been targeted for “renovation” by the new capitalist powers that be. Photograph by the Russian Reader

 

This system was called, rightly or wrongly, socialism. I am not actually a fan of the Soviet Union for a large number of what I think are serious, almost damning reasons, which I will not go into here, but as western leftists, let us at least acknowledge that there are monumental differences between “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc in terms of economic and social policy, and the freewheeling reign of pirates, highwaymen, extortionists, murderers, thugs, and Chicago School boys we have witnessed in the “post-Soviet space” over the last nearly quarter of a century.

After 1991, my wife’s family privatized their flat for free, as did millions of other Russians around the same time.

In 2000, they sold it for around 25,000 dollars. That was the going rate then. At today’s going rate, the same flat would probably sell for around 250,000 dollars.

There is a fairly substantial class of people, although they are a distinct minority, who could afford to buy my wife’s family’s old flat cash on the barrel head, but the vast majority of people living in Petersburg would not be able to do this, unless they had their own, similarly priced, privatized flats that they could sell to generate the cash necessary to trade up (or down, for that matter) to another flat. There are still quite a few people in the big cities who have this important asset, which is a legacy from the Soviet era. One could say that it made life livable to a great extent for many of these people in the lean years.

But it also generated, eventually, a real estate market, which did not exist (or at least exist in this way) in Soviet times. And this real estate market has been as cutthroat as they come. In the 1990s, when I worked for a Big Issue-style newspaper called Na Dne (The Depths), we did a special project where we advertised all over the city asking homeless people to come in and tell us their stories. (These stories were eventually published as an anthology in Russian and English.) What we discovered was that easily over half these people had been swindled out of their flats and their rooms in communal flats, to which they had been legally entitled, by so-called black realtors, many of whom were able to launder their ill-gotten gains and then resell them on the emerging “legal” estate market.

That was how they had become homeless.

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“Citizens! Given our indifference, this side of life is the most dangerous. Over 4,000 homeless people die on the streets of Petersburg annually. Find out how to help at Homeless.Ru.”

 

As for the homes touted by Russian Insider as proof that “Putin delivers,” they are not handed out for free, as most of them would have been under socialism. (In the late Soviet period, there were also co-op houses paid and, to some extent, built by their future inhabitants, but that is another, quite interesting story.) No, they are sold for the going rate, just as in other capitalist countries.

In September 2014, the going rate in Petersburg per square meter in newly built residential buildings was about 94,000 rubles, while the average price per meter in the four historic central districts (Central, Petrograd, Vasilyevsky Island, and Admiralty) hovered between 120,000 and 160,000 rubles, according to real estate website bsn.ru.

At the then-current exchange rate, this translated into a price range between 2,600 and 4,500 dollars per square meter.

An acquaintance of mine who does IT work and has been trying to organize an independent IT workers union in Petersburg, wrote on his Facebook page the other day that, according to Headhunter.ru, the average (not the median) monthly wage in the city was now 35,000 rubles. At current exchange rates, this comes to around 680 dollars a month.

He also included a screenshot of the Yandex jobs site. It shows that the average monthly wage for the fifty-five thousand some vacancies the site was then currently listing as vacant, in Petersburg, is 33,000 rubles per month, or 640 dollars.

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Screenshot from Yandex Work page. Courtesy of Comrade AN

I should add that before the “crisis” set in, that is, during the “boom times,” the average wage in the city was somewhat better, but only marginally so.

So who could afford and can afford all the homes “delivered” by the international left’s new kewpie doll, Vladimir Putin?

A) The wildly and mostly illegally rich, including oligarchs, sub-oligarchs, and corrupt government officials, who need some place (lots of places, actually, if you think about the distorting effect they have had on the real estate markets in London and New York, for example) to park their loads of cash.

B) Honest, hardworking people with average or higher than average salaries who, of course, would have take out loans, sometimes very big loans, to afford these homes.

Except for the special occasions, as when, once a year, around the Victory Day holiday or the holiday commemorating the end of the Leningrad Siege, the government loudly hands out a few free flats, usually built in the middle of nowhere, to WWII veterans or Siege survivors, these homes are not “delivered” by Putin or his minions in any sense.

These homes are sold for big bucks, often to folks who cannot really afford them in terms of their actually meager salaries (see the screenshot, above). These homes are used to hide ill-gotten assets, money that could be used productively elsewhere, e.g., in the real economy, in increasing social benefits for the poor and disadvantaged, and in building the real infrastructure Russia and all other countries will need for a planet-friendly, twenty-first century economy.

These homes are built mostly cheap and poorly, and with no consideration as to their environmental impact and aesthetic effect on the existing built environment.

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A soul- and landscape-destroying newly built block of flats near the Parnas subway station in northern Petersburg, March 2013. Photographed by the Russian Reader

 

They are mostly built by disempowered migrant workers from Central Asia who are a) non-unionized, b) underpaid, c) often cheated out of their wages entirely), and d) constantly hassled and shaken down by police, immigration officials, and skinheads.

I think it might be useful to close these notes with a few recent reminders of what the Putin regime has really represented in terms of social, economic, housing, and urban planning policy:

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P.S. A comrade recommended the book on the subject of housing policy in the new Russia, described below. Someone who has studied the subject in depth, apparently, rather than dishonestly fantasized in print on behalf of the Putin regime over the course of an hour, has written it. It seems like a good place to start an honest exploration of housing policy in today’s Russia.

But then again, as the last year has made painfully obvious to me, many leftists are responding to traumas and phantom pains, not to actual economic and political realities, so why would they bother with a book like this or the millions of column inches dealing with these issues printed in magazines and newspapers over the past fifteen years?

In Housing the New Russia, Jane R. Zavisca examines Russia’s attempts to transition from a socialist vision of housing, in which the government promised a separate, state-owned apartment for every family, to a market-based and mortgage-dependent model of home ownership. In 1992, the post-Soviet Russian government signed an agreement with the United States to create the Russian housing market. The vision of an American-style market guided housing policy over the next two decades. Privatization gave socialist housing to existing occupants, creating a nation of homeowners overnight. New financial institutions, modeled on the American mortgage system, laid the foundation for a market. Next the state tried to stimulate mortgages—and reverse the declining birth rate, another major concern—by subsidizing loans for young families.

Imported housing institutions, however, failed to resonate with local conceptions of ownership, property, and rights. Most Russians reject mortgages, which they call “debt bondage,” as an unjust “overpayment” for a good they consider to be a basic right. Instead of stimulating homeownership, privatization, combined with high prices and limited credit, created a system of “property without markets.” Frustrated aspirations and unjustified inequality led most Russians to call for a government-controlled housing market. Under the Soviet system, residents retained lifelong tenancy rights, perceiving the apartments they inhabited as their own. In the wake of privatization, young Russians can no longer count on the state to provide their house, nor can they afford to buy a home with wages, forcing many to live with extended family well into adulthood. Zavisca shows that the contradictions of housing policy are a significant factor in Russia’s falling birth rates and the apparent failure of its pronatalist policies. These consequences further stack the deck against the likelihood that an affordable housing market will take off in the near future.