Welcome to St. Petersburg!

DSCN5677Two Russian National Guardsmen shake down a non-Russian and his friend (off camera) in the run-up to this summer’s FIFA World Cup. Photo by the Russian Reader

I remember when the G8 summit was held in Petersburg in July 2006. I will leave aside the counter-summit (aka the Russian Social Forum), held in then-already-doomed Kirov Stadium, that is, in a part of the city so far off the beaten path you had to want to be there very badly to get there, and the excellent job the Russian security services did making sure that social and political activists from other parts of the world’s largest country could not make it to Petersburg, much less to the forum.

I bring the summit up only because, the social forum aside, the city was pullulating with so many cops, riot cops (OMON), and Interior Ministry troops it was impossible not to notice them and realize how absurd and wasteful the security overkill was, especially since the summit per se was held in the newly refurbished Constantine Palace in the southern Petersburg suburb of Strelna, a site at least fifteen kilometers away from the central city and most of its inhabitants, and thus easily secured by a few hundred guards, policemen, and special forces troops.

Back in those halcyon days, I had a job that kept me moving round the city from morning to night, and so I would happen upon clusters of utterly idle cops, riot cops, and special forces troop in the oddest places on a regular basis while the summit was on. I remember how I once walked into an otherwise obscure, out-of-the-way courtyard late in the evening and found it chockablock with Russia police officers of some sort, possibly imported for the occasion from the other side of the country. They seemed almost ashamed to be hiding in that courtyard, protecting nobody at all from utterly nonexistent threats, and chainsmoking to kill the time.

Our beleaguered city’s next opportunity to shine in the international limelight will be during the 2018 FIFA World Cup, held in Petersburg and several other Russian cities from June 14 to July 15.

I was reminded by a tiny incident I witnessed earlier today of the Russian police state horrorshow literally everyone in the city with their heads screwed on straight expects during the month the World Cup is in town.

By the way, all locals with an ounce of sense in their brains are planning to be somewhere else, if only at their dachas in the countryside, during that month.

When I exited my building earlier today I immediately spotted two Russian National Guard officers hassling two young men of “non-Slavic appearance.” The officers were conducting their shakedown squarely in front of the gateway that accesses the yard of the building next to ours, the only courtyyard left on our street connecting it with the street running parallel to it.

Once upon a time not so long ago, central Petersburg was chockablock with interconnecting, walkthrough courtyards, and natives in the know could cover long distances in the inner city navigating this extensive network of courtyards without having to emerge onto the actual streets.

But when the new era of “capitalism” and “democracy” dawned, and Petersburgers privatized their flats and turned their courtyards into impromptu car parks, many of them gated, locked, and otherwise blocked off their courtyards, a move that in many cases was probably illegally, although no has ever gotten in trouble, so far as I know, for establishing their own little gated communities this way.

The guardsmen were reading the swarthy troublemakers the usual bored riot act about their having the wrong paperwork when I squeezed my way around them. One of them said they would have to take the swarthy men down to the precinct and write them up, which probably meant they would hold them there long enough to make their serious intentions plain before “fining” (bribing) them and letting them go.

The preparations for the 2018 World Cup have already been a debacle for Petersburg and many of the other host cities, as well as segments of the local populace that the authorities want to go away during the festivities, including university students, dogs and cats, antifascists tortured and framed as “terrorists,” and migrant workers.

I thus took the shakedown I witnessed as a sign of things to come: the full force of the utterly lawless, mendacious, and violent Russian law enforcement machine would be unleashed against migrant workers, people who look funny or out of place, and even completely ordinary, unprepossessing local residents while the World Cup was underway.

So, my message to you out there in the wide world is take a thought for us back here in the Motherland and keep your TV turned off during the World Cup. The “beautiful game” need not be played and enjoyed at such a high human cost to the World Cup’s Russian host cities, but since ultraviolence and the gleeful trampling of human rights are the only ways the current Russian regime knows how to handle mega events like the World Cup and the Winter Olympics, not to mention the country’s day-to-day governance, show a minimum of solidarity with us here in the line of fire and don’t watch any of the matches on TV. It won’t cost you a thing, but the world’s TV executives and advertisers will notice.

I won’t even bother appealing to the jetsetters who are planning to travel to Russia for the World Cup. You are beyond the pale in any case, since you choose to live your lives in such a thoughtless, wreckless way. My only hope for you is that, at some point during your expensive, wasteful trip, Russia’s real reality will burst through the carefully packaged and securitized experience the Russian authorities have planned for you, and you realize you paid Satan a lot of money to watch a few bloody football matches in person. // TRR

The Subtle Art of Vanganizing

Human languages are amazing things. In English, for example, it is relatively easy to change a word’s part of speech simply by using it as a different part of speech. So, we can wonder (verb) when I will publish something really worthy of wonder (noun) on this blog.

Since Russian, on the other hand, is a so-called synthetic language (i.e., a language whose nouns, verbs, adjectives, and pronoun are fully declined and conjugated) you have to do a bit of prestidigitation to turn, say, a noun into a verb. The easiest (though by no means the only) way to do this is to add the verbalizing suffix -ovat’ to the noun or other part of speech in question.

One of my favorite such newfangled verbs is vangovat’, which means “to predict, to prophesy.” It has a heavily ironic connotation, since it was formed from the familiarized Christian name of the blind Bulgarian mystic and clairvoyant Vangelia Gushterova, née Dimitrova (1911–1996), more popularly known as Baba Vanga or Grandmother Vanga.

Despite having passed away over twenty years ago, Baba Vanga and her prophecies are still extraordinarily popular amongst Russians who go in for a what an old friend once referred to as “spooky knowledge,” while she is an object of ridicule amongst sane Russians. I have no evidence to prove it, but I take it that it was a member of the latter group who coined the verb vangovat’, which we will translate as “to vanganize.”

I thought of the verb this morning as I was perusing the electronic edition of one of Russia’s most respectable newspapers, the liberal business daily Vedomosti. Today’s edition features a gallery of photos of the stadiums in major Russian cities that will host the 2018 World Cup later this year.

An innocent enough feature, you would think, before I realized that Vedomosti‘s caption writer might have engaged in some full-blown vanganizing, to wit:

default-1d86“The arena in St. Petersburg is meant for 67,000 spectators. Here, the Russian team will play one match in the group stage and will get through the semifinals.” Photo courtesy of Yevgeny Yegorov/Vedomosti

But maybe not. The original caption (“Арена в Петербурге рассчитана на 67 000 зрителей. Здесь сборная России сыграет один из матчей группового этапа и пройдет полуфинал”) could also be translated as follows: “The arena in St. Petersburg is designed for 67,000 spectators. Here, the Russian team will play one match in the group stage, and the semifinals will take place.” That is, with or (probably) without the Russian team.

Whatever the case, the so-called Zenit Arena, situated on the western tip of Krestovsky Island, has been like a bad Baba Vanga prophecy from the very start. First of all, to make way for its eventual construction, the old Kirov Stadium, a lovely immense thing designed by the great constructivist architect Alexander Nikolsky, a grand oval open to the sky, the sea, the sun, and all the elements, and surrounded by a beautiful park, was demolished in 2006. Quite illegally, I might add, because it was a federally listed historical and architectural landmark.

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The Kirov Stadium in the summer of 2006, when it briefly served as the site of a sparsely attended alterglobalist counterforum, organized in response to a G8 summit, hosted by President Putin in the far south of the city, in the newly restored Constantine Palace in the suburb of Strelna. Enclosing the alterglobalists in the already condemned Kirov Stadium was a brilliant move on the part of local authorities, who thus invisibilized the entire event and made it nearly inaccessible to the general public. Although a subway station has been planned for the new stadium, it was not in operation in 2006 and probably will not be online in time for the World Cup, either. Photo by the Russian Reader

Since then, the project to construct the new stadium has been a raucous debacle, involving endless delays and extreme cost overruns; the employment of North Korean slave laborers, one of whom was killed on the job; the multiple firings and hirings of general contractors and subcontractors; and numerous revelations of newly discovered structural defects.

The construction of Zenit Arena has also been part of the general uglification and rampant redevelopment of the so-called Islands, a series of parklands situated on several smallish islands in Petersburg’s far north. It now seems that city officials and developers thought all those parks and all that greenspace were taking up too much valuable potential real estate and pumping too much oxygen into the atmosphere, because in recent years they have gone after the Islands and their environs with a vengeance.

Zenit Arena, the Western High-Speed Diameter (ZSD), and Gazprom’s Lakhta Center skyscraper are merely the most visible aspects of this mad greedfest, its crowning jewels.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGazprom’s Lakhta Centre skyscraper, under construction, as seen in April 2017 from another site of urban planning greed and madness, a nearly 500-hectare “reclaimed” island plopped in the Neva Bay immediately west of Vasilyevsky Island. The new island, which remains nameless, will eventually be built up with high-rise apartment blocks. Local residents vigorously protested the land reclamation project in the planning stages, but the authorities roundly ignored them. Photo by the Russian Reader

Getting back to my original topic, I think the Vedomosti captioner might have been taking the piss out of readers, after all. Here is another photo and caption in the series:

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“The stadium in Yekaterinburg is a cultural heritage site. Part of the historical façade has remained after the reconstruction.” Photo courtesy of Sport Engineering Federal Unitary Enterprise

When I slipped this photograph onto my desktop, the filename caught my eye: “default-1huy.jpg.” I took this to mean that someone at Vedomosti was not terribly impressed with Yekaterinburg’s blatantly criminal attempt at “historical preservation” and decided to tag it with one of the most powerful cursewords in a language positively crawling with them. But since this a family-oriented, Christian-values website, I will let the experts explain the particulars.

Like the Sochi Olympics, I vanganize that the 2018 World Cup will be an unmitigated disaster for any and all locals who do not manage to escape the vicinity of the venues in time. I would also vanganize that the World Cup has already been a disaster for cities such as Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, which had venerable, heritage-listed stadiums put to death for the purpose, but I don’t think you can vanganize retroactively. TRR

Grassroots Recycling as a Threat to Russian National Security and International Football

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Football fans! You might want to know that this past Saturday, the monthly neighborhood collections of recyclables, organized by the Razdelnyi Sbor environmental movement, an entirely volunteer-run organization, were cancelled, apparently by the police or higher powers, in four of Petersburg’s districts (Central, Admiralty, Krasnoye Selo, and Kalinin), allegedly, because they were a “security threat” to the ongoing FIFA Confederations Cup.

Ironically, this same grassroots movement, which poses such a (non-)threat to national security in neighborhoods many kilometers away from the brand-new stadium on Krestovsky Island where some of the cup’s matches are being played, including the final—a stadium that was built at the cost of unbelievable cost overruns (i.e., kickbacks) and completion delays, precarious migrant labor (including slave laborers shipped in from North Korea, one of whom was killed in an accident on the site), and the demolition of the old Kirov Stadium, a nationally listed architectural landmark designed by the great constructivist architect Alexander Nikolsky—made a deal with cup organizers and FIFA to collect and process recyclable waste at the stadium after matches.

Meaning that, at the stadium itself, this same grassroots movement was seen not as a threat, but as a cynical means of showing fans that FIFA and the Russian government were all about “international best practices.”

This is a ridiculous, telltale story that someone other than lowly unread me and my crap blog should be reporting.

By the way, under normal circumstances, readers of my Facebook news feed would have got a message from Razdelnyi Sbor about Saturday’s collection points, a message I cut and paste and disseminate faithfully every month, because I want everyone I know to go the one-day collection points in their neighborhood with their recyclables, and because my partner and I go to our neighborhood spot in the Central District every month ourselves.

Last year, I even bought a Razdelnyi Sbor t-shirt, to support the cause and occasionally serve as a living, breathing, walking, talking advertisement for it.

I guess I’ll have to think hard about whether I want to wear the t-shirt again. I don’t understand how you can serve the authorities at their Big Event while letting down the ordinary people who support you in their neighborhoods with their volunteer labor and their recycling month in and month out.

A friend of mine was arguing on Facebook just yesterday that VK, the homegrown Russian social media where Razdelnyi Sbor has its community page, was where it was at, as opposed to snobby Facebook. But in the relevant recent posts on Razdelnyi Sbor’s VK page about the cancelled collections you won’t find word one criticizing the authorities for acting in such a brutal, stupid way towards a completely beneficial grassroots campaign. I would imagine the page’s moderators hastily scrubbed any such complaints, if there were any. I’m sure there were some.

This is the real Russia, about which I almost never read anything in the western media and, sometimes, in the Russian media, either. It’s a country where recycling enthusiasts (just like cycling enthusiasts, for that matter) are imagined as a threat to national security and as “agents of the west,” except in the one instance where they can make the authoritarian state’s Big Event seem more PC to foreign football fans, dishing out big euros for tickets, merchandise, food and drinks, and rooms. TRR

A huge thanks to Comrade Darya A. for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Razdelnyi Sbor’s website

Read more on this topic:

Fußball über alles

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The new football stadium on Petersburg’s Krestovsky Island, still unfinished after years of delays and rampant cost overruns. In the foreground is a monument to former city boss Sergei Kirov, murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1934. Photo courtesy of Pyotr Kovalyov/Delovoy Peterburg

Schools, Kindergarten, and Hospitals Sacrificed to the Stadium
Antonina Asanova
Fontanka.ru
August 15, 2016

The Smolny [Petersburg city hall] will finance construction of the football stadium on Krestovsky Island twice over. The advances of 2.6 billion rubles that have not been returned by VTB Bank and Transstroy will be issued to new contractor Metrostroy. Schools and kindergartens will have to wait.

To finish the stadium on Krestovsky, the Smolny is ready to sacrifice the completion dates of three dozen facilities, including kindergartens, schools, and hospitals. 2.6 billion rubles, earmarked for social infrastructure, will be “redeployed” to Petersburg’s construction project of the century. City hall is counting on recouping the reinvested funds later, and figures it can afford not to hurry with the construction of public facilities.

The Construction Committee has prepared a draft decree on reallocating its 2016 budget. By law, the agency can redirect up to 10% of the funds in its targeted investment program, i.e., 2.8 billion rubles, a committee spokesperson said on the record.

Off the record, sources at the Smolny have explained that the stadium’s former general contractor, Inzhtransstroy-SPb, has not run through the 3.6 billion rubles it received as an advance. The company can still deliver part of the construction work and purchased materials before August 25, a month after its contract with the city was terminated. But if the city does not succeed in offsetting the entire sum, it will have to try and collect the money either from the contractor or VTB Bank, which issued the guarantee for completion of the work.

Experience shows it is not worth counting on the good will of companies when it comes to giving back money. The Construction Committee is still in the midst of suing VTB for the return of funds issued under contracts for the construction of indoor ice rinks, which were terminated over a year ago.

A strategy of protracted litigation does not suit the Smolny at all. Completing the stadium before year’s end is a matter of honor to the city government. So the Construction Committee has decided to redeploy part of the funds allocated for new kindergartens and schools to Petersburg’s main construction project. Only facilities whose completion was planned for this year have not been touched.

The city’s calculation is simple. Construction of public facilities will be slowed down a bit for the time being. But when the stadium is delivered at the end of the year, and the monies that were advanced are returned to the budget, the long-awaited construction projects will again be accelerated to a proper speed.

Health clinics and hospitals will be most affected by the budget cuts. The Construction Committee has decided to withdraw nearly a billion rubles from construction of these facilities.

Expenditures on one of the city’s most protracted construction projects, a perinatal center at Maternity Hospital No. 9 on 47 Ordzhonikidze Street, have been reduced by a quarter billion rubles. Doctors were preparing to nurse premature and sick newborns in the facility, and spoke of modern operating rooms and a modern intensive care unit. The building, in fact, was supposed to be delivered at the end of 2015. But now the contractor, Stroykomplekt, owned by former Baltstroy top manager Dmitry Torchinsky and Alexei Torchinsky, has a new deadline: the end of 2017.

People in the suburb of Kolpino will also have to wait for the opening of the new surgical wing at Hospital No. 33. Only one million rubles has been left in this year’s budget for its completion, while 155 million rubles will be transferred to erecting the football stadium. However, the construction site on Pavlovskaya Street has already been idle for a year. The Construction Committee terminated its contract with the previous contractor, but has not yet found a new contractor.

The residents of Kolpino will not have to wait alone, however. Among the facilities where construction will be slowed down are health clinics in Strelna and Krasnoye Selo, an ambulance substation in Metallostroy, and a childen’s tuberculosis sanatorium in Ushkovo.

Funds for new school construction will not be slashed so drastically: only by half a billion rubles. Contractor ETS will have to slow down construction of a school in New Okhta, a massive housing complex on the far side of the Ring Road, near Murino. This year, financing of the construction project will be cut by 230 million rubles. New Okhta is being vigorously developed. Over the past three years, developer LSR Group has completed twenty-four residential buildings into which the city has been moving people on the affordable housing waiting list. But there are still no schools in the district. Parents have to shuttle their children over the Ring Road to the neighborhoods of Grazhdanka, built long ago.

Residents of the housing project on Badayev Street will also have to be patient. The city has stripped their future school of 90 million rubles in financing.

Finally, kindergartens will hardly suffer at all: funding of their construction will be reduced only by 310 million rubles. The biggest loser, to the tune of 130 million rubles, is the future kindergarten in the Golden Bay residential complex, near Tricentennial Park. Its completion has been postponed for a year, until the end of 2017.

The Smolny is even ready to cut funding for construction of a site directly linked to the new stadium: the waterfront near the Novokrestovskaya subway station, currently under construction. The contractor, Leokam, will have its funding for making improvements to the waterfront cut by nearly 240 million rubles. Apparently, the company will have to catch up next year. Under the terms of its contract, it has to deliver the works before the end of 2017.

The site of the new stadium was previously occupied by the Kirov Stadium, a federally listed architectural landmark, built by constructivist architect Nikolsky in
The site of the new stadium was previously occupied by the Kirov Stadium, a federally listed architectural landmark. Designed by world-famous constructivist architect Alexander Nikolsky and opened in 1950, it was unceremoniously demolished in 2006. Photo courtesy of Kommersant.

However, what matters is that the stadium on Krestovsky Island will be delivered before the end of this year, and cost estimates of its construction will not increase, formally speaking.

A total of 42 billion rubles [approx. 582 million euros] have been allocated on the stadium, Petersburg’s principal protracted construction project.

Translated by the Russian Reader