Dostoevsky Is Our Brand

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This is the proposed design for an addition to the Dostoevsky Museum on Kuznechny Alley in Petersburg’s Central District.

Whatever you want to say about the architecture, the worst thing is that the addition would kill the green space and double-exit courtyard between the existing museum, on the right, and the Engineering and Economics Institute (Engecon), on the left.

Unfortunately, the city’s urban planning council approved the proposed design during a recent meeting.

The addition is a legacy, in part, of the late Anton Gubankov, head of the city’s culture committee under Governor Valentina Matviyenko. Mr. Gubankov read a couple of books by Richard Florida and decided the city needed a brand. He thought that brand should be Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Shame on the Dostoevsky Museum for going along with this exercise in rebranding. It’s a complete mockery of everything Dostoevsky stood for, good and bad, and what is left of the city he loved. {TRR}

Image courtesy of Krasimir Vranski’s Facebook page

 

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Russia’s Bright Future (Putin 4.0)

Member of HRC Describes Putin’s New Term: Everything under the Sun Will Be Banned
Alexei Obukhov
Moskovsky Komsomolets
October 10, 2017

Pavel Chikov argues Russia will become isolated internationally, and federalism and regional economies will be jettisoned.

Pavel Chikov, member of the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council, has forecast what politics in Russia will be like if Vladimir Putin is re-elected to another term. According to Chikov, the situation in the country will deteriorate rapidly, and more and more areas of public life will be off limits.

1a1bb3f8a345889fc79a754c4ae35c6dPavel Chikov. Photo courtesy of Facebook/MK

Foreign mass media will be the first to be banned. This has been borne out, says the human rights activist, by the threat to shutter Radio Svoboda, which the media outlet received from the Justice Ministry last Monday.

Following the media, “the political arena will be mopped up: the current persecution of Alexei Navalny’s employees and Open Russia’s employees is a harbinger of this.”

In Chikov’s opinion, the country will also be stripped of religious freedom, as witnessed by “the huge criminal cases against and expulsion from the country” of members of various non-traditional religious movements, from Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have been declared “extremist” banned in the Russian Federation, to supporters of non-mainstream Buddhist and Muslim groups.

These measures, writes the human rights activist on his Telegram channel, will be paralleled by Russia’s renunciation of its international commitments. It will exit the Council of Europe and end its cooperation with the European Court of Human Rights. (Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the Federation Council, said yesterday this was a probable scenario.) Russian’s relations with many European countries, from the Baltic states to Germany, will deteriorate, and their embassies will be closed. Restrictions will be placed on Russian nationals traveling outside the country, and the practice of stripping refugees and asylum seekers of their Russian citizenship and confiscating their property will be broadened.

Meanwhile, Russia will succeed in isolating its segment of the Internet and instituting a Chinese-style firewall to censor content.

Finally, Chikov writes, the country’s economy and domestic politics will deteriorate. The regions will lose the last remnants of their autonomy (Chikhov cites Vladimir Vasilyev’s  recent appointment as acting head of Dagestan, although the United Russia MP has no experience in the republic), and the assets the regions have left will be placed under the control of Putin’s inner circle.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Vasily Zharkov for the heads-up

This Is Russia

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“This is Russia. This is the Russia that Americans are so scared of.”

In the background of this photo, you can make out the Galeria Shopping Center, located in downtown Petersburg. It’s gigantic, covering the land once occupied by five or six graceful tenement buildings and a cultural center and cinema. They were demolished in the mid 1990s, not to make way for the shopping mall, but so a new train station could be built there, jeek by jowl with the existing Moscow Station, because federal and regional officials wanted to build a high-speed train line between Petersburg and Moscow. Millions of dollars were allocated for the project, but ultimately, the train line was never built nor was the new station erected. No one knows what happened to the millions of dollars allocated for the project. They simply vanished into thin air.

The site of the former-future high-speed train station sat vacant for many years behind a tall, ugly construction-site fence. No one could figure out what do to with all that wasteland, which was in the very heart of the city, not in some forgotten outskirts. However, before the money had vanished, and the project was abandoned, construction workers had managed not only to demolish all the tenement buildings on the site but had also dug a foundation pit. Over the long years, this pit filled up with water. Some time after Google Maps had become all the rage, I took a look at our neighborhood via satellite, as it were, and discovered to my great surprise it now had a small lake in it. It was the foundation pit of the former-future high-speed train station, filled to the brim with water.

Good times came to Petersburg in the 2000s, when the country was flush with cash, generated by high oil prices, a flat tax rate of 13%, and runaway corruption. It was then the city’s mothers and fathers (I’m not being ironic: most of Petersburg’s “revival” was presided over by Governor Valentina Matviyenko, a former Communist Youth League functionary who had converted to the gospel of what she herself called “aggressive development”) decided that Petersburg, one of the world’s most beautiful, haunting, enchanting cities, should be extensively redeveloped, despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, into a mecca of consumerism that would give pride of place to cars and new highways, since cars had become the new status symbol among the city’s rich and poor alike. They also decided that, since other big cities in the world had lots of high-rise buildings, their city, which did not have almost any high-rise buildings, should have lots of them, too.

Basically, they decided to demolish as much of the inner and outer city as they could get away with—and they could get away with a lot, because they had nearly unlimited political power and lots of the country’s money at their disposal—and redevelop it with high-rise apartment buildings, superhighways, big box stores, and shopping and entertainment centers, each one uglier and bigger than the last. Thanks to their efforts, in a mere fifteen years or so they have gone a long way toward turning a Unesco World Heritage Site into an impossible, unsightly mess.

But let’s get back to our miniature inner-city lake. Finally, developers came up with a plan to convert the site into a giant shopping mall. Even better, the architects who designed the mall were clearly inspired by Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect and a leading Nazi Party member, to turn a rather oversized mall into a celebration of kitsch faux-neoclassicism, precisely the sort of thing Speer had championed in his projects. This, indeed, was a bit ironic, because Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, had survived a 900-day siege by the German army during the Second World War. Considered the longest and most destructive siege in history, it killed at least 800,000 civilians, that is, it killed the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of the people who now enjoy visiting this mall, with its distinctly neo-fascist aesthetic.

Along the sides of the street running down towards the photographer from the Albert Speer Memorial Shopping Center, you see lots of shiny new, fairly expensive cars, parked bumper to bumper. In fact, the Albert Speer has a huge underground car park where you can park your car relatively inexpensively (our neighbor lady, a sensible woman, does it), but most Petersburg car owners actually think parking their cars wherever they want—especially either right next to their residential buildings or, worse, in the tiny, labyrinthine, incredibly charming inner courtyards of these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings—is their legal right. It isn’t, but they don’t know it or don’t want to know it. I know they think this way because many Petersburg car owners have told me so.

To my mind, the precipitous rise in personal car ownership in Petersburg has done more to degrade the city’s beauty than all the underinspired colossal high-rises put together, because the city was purposely designed by its original builders, beginning with Peter the Great, to have a good number of intersecting and radiating, awe-inspiring, long and clear sightlines or “perspectives.” Hence, many of the city’s longest avenues are called “prospects,” such as Nevsky Prospect (the title of one of Nikolai Gogol’s best stories) and Moskovsky Prospect. Nowadays, however, you gaze down these “perspectives” only to see traffic jams and hectares of other visual pollution in the shape of signs, billboards, banners, and marquees. It’s not a pretty sight.

On the right of the picture, somewhere near the middle, you should be able to spot a small shop sign with the letters “AM” emblazoned on it. It’s one of the dozens of liquor stores that have popped up in our neighborhood after the Kremlin introduced its countersanctions against US and EU sanctions, which were instituted in response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine. The US and EU sanctions targeted individuals and companies closely allied with the regime. Putin’s countersanctions, in a manner that has come to seem typical of how the Russian president for life’s mind works, were targeted against Russian consumers by banning the import of most western produce into the country. An exception was made for western alcoholic beverages, especially wines and beers, and this meant it was suddenly profitable again to get into the liquor business. The upshot has been that you can exit our house, walk in any direction, even putting on a blindfold if you like, and you will find yourself in a liquor store in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.

Last summer, I tried painting a little verbal and photographic sketch of the effect this massive re-alcoholization has had on our neighborhood, along with other, mostly negative trends in the use and abuse of commercial space in the city.

Finally, there is one other thing you should know about all those new, mostly oversized cars parked on the street. Since the average monthly salary in Russia barely crawls above 600 or 700 euros a month, even in a seemingly wealthy city like Petersburg, most of those gas-guzzling, air-polluting status symbols were bought with borrowed money.

Just the other day, in fact, I translated and posted a tiny article, originally published in the business daily Kommersant, about how people in the Voronezh Region currently owed banks approximately two billion euros in outstanding loans. In 2015, the region’s estimated population was around 2,300,000, so, theoretically, each resident of Voronezh Region now owes the banks 870 euros, which I am sure is more than most people there earn in two or three months. Of course, not every single resident of Voronezh Region has taken out a loan, so the real damage incurred by real individual borrowers is a lot worse.

I could be wrong, but I think what I have just written gives you a rough idea of how you go about reading photographs of today’s Russian cities, their visible aspect in general, turning a snapshot into something meaningful, rather than assuming its meaning is obvious, right there on the surface. You don’t just tweet a photo of a new football stadium or fancy restaurant or street jammed with expensive cars and make that stand for progress, when progress, whether political, economic or social, really has not occurred yet in Russia, despite all the money that has been sloshing around here the last fifteen years. Instead, you talk about the real economic, political, and social relations, which are often quite oppressive, murky, and criminal, that have produced the visible reality you want to highlight.

Doing anything less is tantamount to engaging in boosterism, whataboutism, Russian Worldism, and crypto-Putinism, but certainly not in journalism. That so many journalists, western and Russian, have abandoned real journalism for one or all of the isms I have listed is the really scary thing. TRR

Photograph by the Russian Reader

 

 

 

Translation Exercise

Since none of what follows, which I’ve excerpted from RBC’s Facebook newsfeed just seconds ago, makes any sense in Russian, I’m translating it by way of beefing up my “transsense” (Zaum) chops. You never know when they’ll come in handy. Truth be told, they come in handy way too often. TRR

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В Совете Федерации планируют создать комиссию, которая займется мониторингом враждебной активности иностранных государств.

Таким образом Совет Федерации хочет «продемонстрировать не просто лояльность президенту, но и свою вписанность в патриотические тренды», говорит политолог.

 

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RBC

16 mins

The Federation Council plans to form a commission to monitor the hostile actions of foreign states.

The Federation Council thus wants “to display not just its loyalty to the president but also its conformity with patriotic trends,” says a political scientist.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Federation Council Decides to Combat Hostile Actions

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Translation and second photo by the Russian Reader

Has Petersburg City Hall Made a Shambles of New Hospital Construction?

Part of the old facilities at the Botkin Infectious Diseases Hospital in Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Dima Tsyrencshikov/The Village
Part of the old facilities at the Botkin Infectious Diseases Hospital in Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Dima Tsyrencshikov/The Village

Petersburg Municipal Hospital and Clinic Construction Program on the Skids
Svetlana Zobova
Delovoi Peterburg
February 3, 2017

Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko has botched ex-Governor Valentina Matviyenko’s ambitious program of building 32 healthcare facilities at a cost of upwards of 30 billion rubles. The city lacks a force that could consolidate physicians and builders to campaign against construction delays.

DP has audited all the municipal healthcare facilities that have been built, are under currently construction or are in the planning stages. The circumstances surrounding them are far from ideal. In each specific case, we can speak of certain objective causes as to why a particular clinic has not been completed or is not yet treating patients. But if we look at the issue as a whole, it becomes clear our city has no system for overseeing and managing the sector. Accountability is split between two committees whose specialists, to put it mildly, are not very happy with each other.

Both doctors and builders tell obscene jokes about each other behind each other’s backs and complain of their opponents’ extreme incompetence and their unwillingness to compromise. They cannot work together to finish nearly any of the projects. But no one is ready for a showdown that could reverse the situation and establish new, functioning rules of the game.

The few examples when new hospitals and clinics have been successfully opened either conceal sad stories of protracted construction delays or were overseen by federal officials, and the degree of oversight and accountability were thus on a completely different level. Aside from federal facilities, this study did not take into account facilities that merely underwent renovations, only those that were slated for complete makeovers or new facilities.

DP received quite detailed replies from the city’s Construction Committee and Healthcare Committee about the causes of the delays at dozens of facilities and the complications with bringing operating facilities online. However, there was no answer as to why these processes have been implemented so poorly, with so much anguish and pain.

Good Intentions

To equip the city with the three dozen modern medical facilities it so badly needed, the Matviyenko administration allocated around 30 billion rubles. However, under the current administration, construction companies have been paid less than 10 billion rubles from the budget, completing only a few facilities in fits and starts. Our sources in the Health Committee say the sector’s underfunding has been due to delays in construction.

In some cases, the quality of their work has caught the eye of the prosecutor’s office, while in other cases, expensive medical equipment has been ruined due to mistakes and miscalculations. Deadline overruns have been ubiquitous. It would be wrong to say that the only cause has been poor work on the part of builders and designers. The city authorities have kept on awarding new contracts even to those contractors who have attempted to turn over blatantly shoddy facilities to doctors and brazenly lied.

DP discussed the problem with a dozen head physicians and their deputies, as well as well as contractors and city officials. We got the impression Petersburg has not become Russia’s northern healthcare capital less because of the economic crisis and a lack of financing, and more because of bureaucracy and the complete absence of a genuinely efficient system for managing municipal construction projects. In several instances, it is obvious that if city officials had done nothing at all, it would have been much better, as was the case, for example, with the closure of the maternity hospital on Vavilovykh Street.

Petersburg’s Hospitals

When she departed from Petersburg, Valentina Matviyenko left a legacy of numerous ambitious construction projects, including healthcare facilities. She had planned for the construction or reconstruction of 32 medical facilities by 2016, including new hospital wings, outpatient clinics for children and adults, dentistry clinics, ambulance stations, and specialized early treatment and prevention centers (as per Petersburg Government Decree No. 149, dated 10 February 2011).

As of late 2016, city authorities had built and opened only six facilities on the list. Another four facilities have been built, but their directors, the Construction Committee, and contractors have been bogged down in fierce arguments as to the quality of the construction. The other projected facilities have either been frozen or not assigned a contractor, and their designs are now outdated.

Initially, Governor Poltavchenko seemed inclined to keep improving healthcare in Petersburg. In 2012, he added several dozen future facilities to Matviyenko’s list. Design and construction work on the facilities was to have been completed in 2013–2014.

For example, the new governor promised to rebuild the morgue at the Bureau of Forensic Medicine, design a hospice, build several antenatal clinics, design new wings for the Kashchenko Mental Hospital, and build a TB prevention and treatment clinic in Kolpino.

A little later, Matviyenko and Poltavchenko’s plans were drafted as a program for the healthcare sector. The document originally promised that city officials would arrange for the construction or reconstruction of 29 ambulance stations and medical facilities capable of taking in 36,000 patients a day by 2015.

In reality, the healthcare facilities construction program has been the most disastrous line item in the city’s targeted investment program for several years running.  In 2016, none of the medical facilities under construction used 100% of the funds allocated to them in the budget. Certain facilities did not touch literally any of the funds allocated to them.

The prosecutor’s office and the Audit Chamber have highlighted construction delays. The city’s vice-governors for construction policy and Construction Committee chairs have come and gone, but federal officials are still asking the same questions.

At our request, the Construction Committee listed all the medical facilities that have been either built or constructed in the last ten years. According to the officials there, from 2009 to 2011, the three years before Poltavchenko took office, eleven major facilities were brought online. After he arrived in the governor’s office, from 2012 to 2016, another eleven facilities were completed, according to officials, although two are still closed, and the others opened considerably later than they were completed.

The city’s Health Committee provided us with different information. Officials there calculated that 28 facilities had been completed between 2006 and 2016, although Poltavchenko’s program had stipulated either renovating or building 63 facilities from scratch. The difference in figures is due to the fact that officials from the two committees used different timespans. In reality, both lists show outright that the city has got worse at building medical facilities since Poltavchenko’s team came on board.

As health professionals who were well versed in the issues told us, city officials would always ask contractors the same questions during regular on-site debriefings. Why is the facility not under construction?  You’ve been working here for five years, but you’re still at stage one. How much of your advance have you gone through? Who produced such a bad design?

Subordinates would be reprimanded, and contractors would be fined and have their contracts torn up, but nothing would change. Construction completion dates would be postponed, and cost estimates would be increased.

By 2016, the list of construction projects had been greatly reduced. Currently, the target invested program lists 14 medical facilities, almost all of them projects from the Matviyenko period that have been subjected to protracted delays.

The construction sector professionals we surveyed estimated that, on average, one and half years are needed to design a large medical facility, while it would take another three years to build the facility.  A small ambulance station could be built in a year. In Petersburg, however, actual times to completion are many times longer. It takes five to 15 years to build many facilities.

The Causes Are Plain to See

The Smolny believes that the virtual breakdown of its grand social policy plans has been due to insufficient funding. Thus, in 2017, Petersburg’s most renowned delay-plagued construction project, the Zenit Arena, gobbled up nearly a billion rubles. But this is fibbing, for, in reality, line items for financing the building of facilities that have obviously been abandoned were simply stricken from the budget, because no one was spending any money on them.

In addition, according to the city hall officials we talked to, careless contractors are to blame for construction delays and poorly designed projects, and for not calculating their risks. As you might guess, in this way of seeing the world, officials bear no blame for the fact they are surrounded by bunglers and swindlers.

But there is a more complex view of the issue. A source at one of the city’s largest hospitals told us that the ceremonial communiques and press releases issued by city officials belie the serious friction between the Construction Committee and the Healthcare Committee, as well as between the relevant vice-governors. For while hospitals and clinics are still under construction, the Construction Committee’s budget is replenished. They even purchase medical equipment. But when hospitals start treating patients, the money for that is allocated via the Healthcare Committee. This does not mean, of course, that the Construction Committee deliberately delays building projects. Of course, they want to get delay-plagued facilities off their hands as quickly as possible. But Construction Committee staffers bear no personal accountability for missed deadlines and the poor quality of construction.

A senior official, who has worked in the Healthcare Committee since the Matviyenko administration, says during the past four or five years he and Vice-Governor Olga Kazanskaya have had to wage a “quite serious fight” with the construction bloc in the Smolny. Describing the state of affairs in the Construction Committee, the official spoke of confusion and complained about the frequent change of leadership.

A telling example occurred when we asked Igor Albin, vice-governor for construction, to explain why the Botkin Infectious Diseases Hospital, whichas far back as 2015 he had publicly promised would soon reopen, was still not treating patients. However, he gave us no explanation, shifting the blame for the situation on Healthcare Committee staffers. In turn, they said it was the Construction Committee who was responsible for construction at the Botkin. Off the record [sic], they told us about a long list of defects and unfinished work to which contractors wanted doctors to turn a blind eye, making them sign off on the facility even though it was unfinished. Of course, a dispute like this could go on indefinitely until someone takes responsibility for the entire project.

No Accountability

Our source in the medical community, who spoke out about the construction community in a somewhat biased way, argued that no one except medical professionals had any interest in bringing facilities online. As a consequence, officials failed to make purchase requests for equipment, did not calculate the costs of logistics, and fined the medical facilities.

“There is way too much politicking and money at each stage. Everything is bureaucratized and corrupt in the extreme. What matters is that everything looks right on paper,” said our source.

He was surprised that, under Poltavchenko, the Construction Committee did not “tremble” for failing to execute the annual budget. Under Matviyenko, he claimed, failing to spend funds allocated under the yearly budget was considered an extremely grave offense for officials to commit.

Another senior medical administrator sees the root of the trouble not in corruption per se, but, rather, in the overall “muddle” and the fact that “the system doesn’t function.”

“Every staffer needs to know his function and the consequences that await him in case of failure. Step left, step right, and you can step on a land mine and blow up. Now, though, there is basically no accountability for mistakes, and no one feels personally to blame.”

The Construction Committee has no specific department or expert responsible for medical facilities. A personal curator is usually appointed to oversee each of them. A considerable part of the work is overseen by the Fund for Capital Construction and Reconstruction, which is controlled by the committee. Its longtime head was Andrei Molotkov. It was Molotkov who was criticized by Igor Albin for the numerous missed deadlines and unscrupulous contractors. Ultimately, in April 2016, Molotkov resigned his post, a job that is still vacant.

The Healthcare Committee employs one senior professional builder, Igor Gonchar, head of the Office for Medical Facilities Development. However, he deals with repairing and rebuilding the facilities his committee oversees. Since 2014, the Healthcare Committee has also been tasked with designing healthcare facilities. It was a seemingly reasonable step, meant to reduce the risk of drafting projects that were not suitable for physicians and had to be redone on the fly. In the last three years, however, the Healthcare Committee has not spent nearly 40% of the money allocated to it for design, i.e., 158 million of the 250 million rubles allocated in its budget for survey and design work.

Gonchar gave detailed answers to our questions, explaining that, out of eight planned facilities, the design work had been completed for six of them. Problems had arisen around a large project, estimated to cost 100 million rubles: new wings for Children’s Hospital No. 1. Due to the fact that, last year, changes were made to the law on historic preservation, the specs for facilities adjacent to historic Pozhelayev Park had to be redrafted. Similar difficulties have arisen with another problematic facility, the Dunes Children’s Rehabilitation Center. However, the difficulties having to do with historic preservation were in that case aggravated by the bankruptcy of the design subcontractor, Oboronmedstroy.

A view of the new campus of the Botkin Infectious Diseases Hospital in Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Dima Tsyrencshikov/The Village
A view of the new campus of the Botkin Infectious Diseases Hospital in Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Dima Tsyrencshikov/The Village

Sabotage

One of the most unpleasant consequences of delaying when medical facilities are brought on line is the premature purchase of expensive medical equipment. For when a senior official says a hospital or clinic is about to open, his underlings will willy-nilly have to purchase CT scanners and MRI machines. But then no one is responsible for the fact they have to spend several years in a warehouse, where they are not only of no use to patients but also run through their warranties and sometimes even are damaged due to improper storage conditions.

According to medical professionals, premature equipment purchases are also part of a cynical calculation by officials. They can report the city has already purchased everything a hospital in the midst of construction needs and demand its administrators move into a poorly constructed building.

“In my opinion, the people running the city are not very interested in healthcare, because it involves more political questions,” says Lev Averbakh, executive director of CORIS Assistance LLC (Saint Petersburg) [a private ambulance company]. “I think there no political will for it. No one says, ‘Let’s finish them!’ as with the stadium, for example. Besides, they have begun reducing the number of hospital beds available while changing the regulations. Under the new rules, not as many beds are needed in Petersburg as were required under the old rules.”

Another professional from the field of private medicine argues that Olga Kazanskaya, now the ex-vice-governor for social policy, and Healthcare Committee Chair Valery Kolabutin lack medical training.

Sergei Furmanchuk, co-founder of Hosser [a Petersburg-based company specializing in the design and construction of medical facilities], argues that problems arise when design work is done by people who have never done design work, and they do the construction work as well. He believes that each case has to be examined individually. However, it has to be acknowledged that having a lot of experience and even medical training, unfortunately, is no guarantee of impeccable work, as, for example, in the case of Rosstroyinvest and the Botkin Hospital, Petrokom or Oboronmedstroy, which is currently undergoing bankruptcy proceedings, abandoning several large healthcare facilities unfinished.

Translated by the Russian Reader

P.S. This article, its author, and Delovoy Peterburg obviously have a heavy axe to grind more against one faction of Petersburg city hall (still referred to as “the Smolny,” the headquarters of the Bolsheviks during the 1917 October Revolution). Normally, I would not translate and post this kind of potential journalistic hit job, although it does describe an urgent problem—the collapse of Russia’s post-socialist free healthcare system—more or less objectively, a problem I have touched on elsewhere in my translations of less dodgy printed matter.

But the author does signally fail to point out the role of Putin’s infamous “power vertical” in encouraging the lack of accountability among local officials, whether in Petersburg or Vladivostok.

Petersburg’s current governor, Georgy Poltavchenko, was first appointed outright by President Putin after the latter “upmoted” the city’s previous governor, Valentina Matviyenko, to the Federation Council, which she now chairs, after she had become deeply unpopular for, among other things, trying to ram Gazprom’s infamous Okhta Center skyscraper down the throat of Petersburgers, and flagrantly failing to clean snow from streets and rooftops during one particularly snowy winter, leading to massive residential property damage and a cityscape described by many locals as resembling what the city looked like during the 900-day WWII Nazi Siege.

Poltavchenko was later “freely” “re-elected” to the governorship in an election marked, as usual, by irregularities, running against a field of sock puppets that had been preemptively purged of any real competition.

From the get-go he has seemed more concerned with the matters spiritual and ecclesiastical than really running the city, which has looked especially dingy this winter, when it has become apparent that the previous street maintenance and cleaning system has collapsed altogether, possibly for a lack of poorly paid Central Asian migrant workers to keep it “affordable.”

Is is fair, though, to blame all local failings on the almighty power vertical? Probably not, and that is why I devote so much of this blog to Russians doing it for themselves at the grassroots, often against daunting odds and in the face of outright police repression. But their efforts won’t make a dent in all the issues they are tackling until the country becomes a real federation and power is devolved maximally to the regions, cities, towns, and neighorhoods.

In this light, it amounts to cynical mockery to repeatedly refer to President Putin as a “strong leader,” as the new Fascist Pig in the Poke did during his campaign and now after he has occupied the White Pride House in Washington, DC. Putin is not a strong leader in any sense, but his weakness has been especially apparent in the myriad ways his regime has disempowered Russians at all levels, making it increasingly difficult for them not only to solve but also even discuss the problems that concern them most.

Finally, I should point out that the original article in Russian features a map of the city marked with all the hospitals and other medical facilities built, currently under construction or abandoned under the municipal program described, above, as well as a table with more detailed information about each of these real, abandoned or planned facilities. I was not able to include the map or table in this translation. TRR

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.

___________

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.

Don’t Mind the View

Vista of Vasilyevsky Island’s Bolshoi Prospect Blocked by Western High-Speed Diameter Pylons
July 9, 2015
Kanoner

The pylons of a bridge currently under construction as part of the central segment of the Western High-Speed Diameter tollway have encroached on the vista of Vasilyevsky Island’s Bolshoi Prospect. People with good eyesight can see them from the First Line, on the far eastern end of the avenue.

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Fishermen say farewell to their view of the Baltic Sea on a warm May day as the Western High-Speed Diameter’s pylons emerge from the murky depths of the Gulf of Finland. Gavan, Vasilyevsky Island, Petrograd, May 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader

Construction of the tollway’s central segment, which links the Ekateringofka River Embankment and Primorsky Prospect, began in 2013. The general contractor is Northern Capital Thoroughfare, Ltd. The length of the segment is approximately twelve kilometers. According to the investment agreement, it it must be delivered in 2016.

The main segment of the highway will pass over the water on a flyover designed by Stroyproyekt Institute JSC. One part of the thoroughfare is a cable bridge spanning the shipping fairway in the mouth of the Neva River. Pylons are now being erected for the bridge. Two of them are exactly aligned with Bolshoi Prospect on Vasilyevsky Island, it turns out. They are clearly visible both from Gavan (the western section of Vasilyevsky) and from the first Lines, and this despite the fact that currently they have been built to a little over half their projected full height.

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Recent Google satellite image showing the emerging cable bridge section of the Western High-Speed Diameter tollway, the mouth of the Neva River, and the southwestern tip of Vasilyevsky Island, including Bolshoi Prospect

Earlier, concerns were voiced that the size of the Western High-Speed Diameter was insufficient, and therefore tall-masted sailing ships would be unable to sail into the Neva under the new cable bridge. But this viewpoint was not heeded.

The emergence of new buildings and facilities in the vistas of historic streets is not a rarity in Petersburg. The sky above the Nicholas Children’s Hospital, at the end of Chapygin Street, has been completely occluded by the high-rises of the Europe City residential complex (developed by LSR). The vista of Poltava Street has now been blocked by the Tsar’s Capital residential complex (LenspetsSMU, developer), and the new residential building Hovard Palace (Hovard SPb, Ltd., developers) is twice as high as the surrounding built environment and has thus emerged above the skyline at the beginning of Socialist Street.

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Artist’s rendering of Tsar’s Capital residential complex, currently under construction near the Moscow Station in downtown Petersburg. Image courtesy of LenSpetsSMU developers

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Hovard Palace Residential Building Encroaches on Vista of Socialist Street
May 13, 2015
Kanoner

Hovard Palace, a residential building currently under construction at Zagorodny Prospect, 19, has significantly encroached on the vista of Socialist Street. It has also changed the look of neighboring Jambyl Lane.

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Hovard Palace, currently under construction, rises high above the end of Socialist Street. It is clearly visible from the other end of the street, half a kilometer away. Photo by the Russian Reader
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Hovard Palace towers above a a square named in memory of the revered Kazakh traditional folk singer Jambyl Jambayev, situated on a lane bearing his name. Photo by the Russian Reader

To make way for the elite complex, a pre-Revolutionary building originally designed as a block of rented flats for State Bank employees was demolished. The five-storey house was built in 1898–1901 and designed by architect Heinrich Bertels.  After investor Hovard SPb, Ltd., took an interest in the site (according to rumors, the company has personal ties to former Petersburg governor and current Federation council chair Valentina Matviyenko), residents of the dormitory that had been housed in the Bertels building were forcibly evicted to the village of Shushary, outside the Petersburg city limits. [Translator’s Note. The June 2012 linked to here paints a slightly more complicated picture of how the now-demolished building was resettled.]

City hall officials categorized the forced relocation as having public significance. This was preceded by a personal memorandum from Valentina Matviyenko, in which she wrote, “The site has public significance. Work to find a solution.” The memorandum was addressed to three deputy governors.

This “public significance” made it possible for Hovard SPb to avoid complying several provisions of the law. In particular, it was allowed to demolish the building (although the demolition of pre-Revolutionary buildings is expressly forbidden), and construct the new building higher than stipulated by local height zoning regulations. The environmental impact analysis was conducted by Devros, Ltd., which is directly linked to one of Valentina Matviyenko’s people, Alexei Komlev, ex-deputy chair of the city’s Landmarks Use and Preservation Committee (KGIOP). The analysis show that the new building would be visible behind neighboring buildings, but within tolerable limits.

The eight-storey [sic] residential building was designed by Moscow architect Mikhail Belov. Soyuz 55, Ltd., run by Alexander Viktorov, former chief architect of Petersburg, adapted Belov’s design to local conditions [sic].

Hovard Palace
Rendering of Hovard Palace, which the caption, in Russian, says contains nine storeys. Image courtesy of Novostroy-Spb.ru

Now, as the upper floors are being erected, they are clearly visible from the surrounding streets. The building’s impact has been especially acute on the vista of Socialist Street. And from the intersection of Zagorodny Prospect and Socialist Street one can see that the eight-storey building has risen above the cour d’honneur of Simonov House (Zagorodny, 21–23), which forms a small side street.

The look of Jambyl Lane has changed as well. Jambyl Square, containing the monument to Jambyl, looks different, and the bard himself now strums his lute against the backdrop of the new building.

The developer promises to deliver Hovard Palace in the late summer.

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Hovard Palace and environs, July 16, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader

Translated by the Russian Reader