Saint Petersburg versus Gazputinburg

"They Killed Kenny! Is Peter Next?"

"They Killed Kenny! Is Peter Next?"

We have decided to translate and post the following long article by Petersburg journalist and Yabloko Party activist Boris Vyshnevsky on the Gazprom skyscraper controversy not because we agree with his politics (except when it comes to resisting the skyscraper and the overall savage “redevelopment” being visited on the city), but because it is simply the most detailed and complete account of the whole ugly story out there. We will soon be posting on the recent (successful!) demonstration to defend Petersburg that Vyshnevsky describes at the end of the article. In the meantime, check out the second half of our most recent post on the topic to find out what you can do to aid the people of Petersburg.

Saint Petersburg versus Gazputinburg

A living city gathers its forces for the struggle with a dead city

In the mid-eighties, in what was then still known as Leningrad, a civic resistance movement emerged: people joined forces to defend two historic landmarks – the poet Delvig’s house and the Angleterre hotel, both of them threatened with demolition. The person responsible for city cultural policy then was Valentina Matvienko, deputy chair of the Leningrad Executive Committee.

This story is being repeated today: a multitude of people has united in defense of historical Petersburg, which is now menaced by the administration of Governor Valentina Matvienko. The symbol of this threat that hangs over the city like an ominous shadow is the Okhta Center skyscraper, a project of the Gazprom Corporation. On September 22, 2009, the city government passed a resolution permitting the building to attain a height of 403 meters, despite the fact that the maximum height allowed on this plot by the city’s Land Use and Development Rules is 100 meters.

“Access Denied”

A merry irony of fate has led wits to label the Gazprom tower “Error 403.” Error 403 is the HTTP status code for “forbidden” (or “access denied”) – and the height of the planned tower is also 403 (meters).

The events in Saint Petersburg – where the authorities have shown their contempt for the law, public opinion, and professional architects, for everyone who is protesting the planned construction of the “Gazscraper” – are making their impact felt far beyond Russia’s Northern Capital.

It is not merely the fact that the Gazprom tower will disfigure Petersburg forever. (Perhaps our descendants will raise money for its demolition, just as Parisians are doing now in order to rid Montparnasse of an ugly skyscraper.) What matters most is the extreme cynicism with which this project has been promoted, thus sending the message to all those members of intelligentsia who protest the project – Ph.D.s and academicians, writers and poets, engineers and doctors, teachers and journalists – that they are nothing but dust under the feet of the authorities. Their opinion means nothing when set against the will of the new gentry and the financial interests of officials. The authorities have no intention – ever or under any circumstances – of consulting with these pitiable little people on any matter.

“My dream is to hand over a fully functioning, completely different Petersburg in 2011,” says Valentina Matvienko, whose second (appointed) term as governor ends in 2011.

We couldn’t have said it any better. The authorities need a “different Petersburg”: the current Petersburg doesn’t suit them. It is no accident that “This Is Our City!” has in the past couple years become the principal slogan of the broad Petersburg opposition. It is no wonder that this slogan arouses rabid hatred in Sonly [Petersburg city hall], which is inhabited by people for whom our city was and remains something alien, wherever they themselves might have been born.

The Miller-Matvienko Pact

The story of the Gazscraper began four years ago, with the signing of the “Miller-Matvienko pact.” In November 2005, Gazprom board chairman Alexei Miller and Governor Valentina Matvienko met and agreed that the Sibneft company would shift its registration from Omsk to Petersburg, and that it would begin paying taxes on its profits into the city’s budget. Matvienko announced, “Petersburg is prepared to offer the company the most favorable terms for basing itself in the city.” It soon became clear what she meant by “favorable terms.”

In March 2006, Smolny introduced a bill to the Legislative Assembly entitled  “On the Saint Petersburg Earmarked Funds Program for the Construction of an Administrative and Business Center in the Krasnogvardeisky District of Saint Petersburg.” The Legislative Assembly passed this bill into law. The assembly’s tiny opposition (Mikhail Amosov and Natalia Yevdokimova, from the Yabloko Party, and independent Sergei Gulyaev) termed the bill a “budgetary bribe” and voted against it. [Translator’s note. During the elections to the Legislative Assembly that soon followed this episode, the city’s elections commission struck Yabloko candidates from the ballot, thus making it impossible for them to return their seats. Many observers saw this as Smolny’s revenge for Yabloko’s opposition to funding the Gazprom skyscraper project.]

According to the terms of the earmarked funds program, Sibneft (which in May 2006 re-registered in Petersburg and changed its name to Gazprom Neft) would have received a 60 billion-ruble subvention from the city budget from 2007 to 2016 (which would have amounted to six billion rubles annually) in order to construct a business center that would become the company’s property.

Skipping ahead, we should note that in 2007, on the heels of public protests, Smolny was forced to alter this financing scheme. The earmarked funds program was amended: 51% of investment in the construction project would now be put up by Gazprom Neft, with the city providing the other 49% from taxes paid to its budget by the company.

In October 2008, Smolny tried to quell public discontent by slashing financing for Okhta Center from the city budget altogether. Nevertheless, a few simple calculations show that the Gazscraper will still be built with the money of ordinary taxpayers. Gazprom will be able to raise the 60 billion rubles it needs for the project through the tax breaks it gets in Petersburg. Moreover, the city will have to dish out approximately 140 billion rubles (!) from its own budget in order to clean up the transportation collapse that construction of the tower will cause in the Okhta neighborhood.

In summer 2006, the plan to build a skyscraper per se (then, only 300-meters-high) was first made public. Alexei Miller joyously announced, “It will be the symbol of a modern, twenty-first-century Saint Petersburg and its architectural dominant.” It will indeed dominate the skyline: the tower will be two and half times higher than the belfry of the Peter-and-Paul Cathedral and three times higher than Saint Isaac’s Cathedral.

In autumn 2006, the Petersburg administration announced a competition for an “architectural concept” for the building. The British firm RMJM won the competition. This was when Petersburgers were first treated to the sight of a tower that resembled either a corncob or a dildo crowned with a spire. When they learned that one of the conditions set by Smolny and Gazprom for the competition was a tower at least 300 meters high (then still known as Gazprom City), two of the world’s most well-known architects, Norman Foster and Kisho Kurokawa, resigned the competition jury in protest. Moreover, RMJM’s competition entry stipulated a height of 396 meters.

The project was immediately opposed by an impressive roster of nationally and internationally known Petersburg cultural figures: Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky, filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, writer Daniil Granin, rock musician Yuri Shevchuk, and actor Oleg Basilashvili. They have been joined by Alexander Gorodnitsky and Alexander Dolsky, Boris Grebenshchikov and Alla Osipenko, Yuri Mamin and Alexander Kushner, Sergei Yursky and Natalia Tenyakova, Yuri Schmidt and Andrei Bitov, Diana Arbenina and Nina Katerli, and many others.

The Petersburg Architects Union has also categorically opposed the project. In an open letter to the governor, it declared that construction of the tower “[would] inevitably violate the harmony of Petersburg’s [architectural] dominants, which has formed over the course of centuries. It [would] cause irreparable damage to the city’s fragile silhouette, rendering all its verticals almost toy-like. It [would] mark a complete rupture with Petersburg’s city planning tradition.”

Also opposed were the Russian Architects Union, the Petersburg branch of the All-Russia Society for the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Landmarks (VOOPIiK), and the Northwest regional branch of the Russian Academy of Architectural and Building Arts. The skyscraper on the Okhta was also opposed by a number of the city’s political forces and social movements – Living City, Okhta Bend, Defend Vasilievsky Island (ZOV), Yabloko, the Communists, the United Civic Front, the local office of the international environmental organization Bellona, and others. Participants of an international congress held in honor of the centennial of the famous Russian scholar Dmitry Likhachev signed a petition calling on the authorities not to go ahead with the project, which they saw as disastrous to the city’s historic look.

All these protests and appeals have had no effect.

It is worth remembering that on several occasions the late Likhachev himself had argued against building skyscrapers in Petersburg, asking that the city’s skyline be preserved. We should also recall that Valentina Matvienko once called Likhachev a “candle of wisdom.” Now, however, she has apparently decided that candlelight is outmoded in comparison with gaslight.

In any case, neither appeals to the spiritual authority of Likhachev or the voices of living cultural figures or public protests have swayed her from her original plans. The governor holds firm in her support of plans to build a skyscraper on the Okhta, declaring that “the city must develop” and “we cannot live in a museum.” As for those Petersburgers who (already for the third year in a row) organize the Marches in Defense of Petersburg, she has contemptuously dubbed them “clamorous defenders of the historic center.”

In early 2007, when the tower’s opponents realized that no arguments would change Smolny’s mind, they attempted to have the question brought to a referendum. An initiative group formed that included members of the Petersburg opposition. The group prepared all the necessary documents for letting the voters decide whether Gazprom City could be higher than 48 meters (at that time, this was the height zoning restriction for the mouth of the Okhta River), but all its efforts came to naught. First the city elections commission and then the Legislative Assembly (controlled by the administration) blocked the call for a referendum.

Meanwhile, Gazprom and the city administration launched a massive propaganda attack on Petersburgers. On the one hand, famous cultural figures (first and foremost, the actor and singer Mikhail Boyarsky, and, later, Mariinsky Theater artistic and general director Valery Gergiev) were recruited to agitate on behalf of the skyscraper. On the other, the city’s mass-edition free newspapers began publishing the results of “sociological surveys,” commissioned by Gazprom, that allegedly proved the tower project was supported by ever-greater numbers of Petersburgers.

Flat-Rate Sociology

In December 2006, the Agency for Social Information (ASI), headed by Roman Mogilevsky, conducted the first opinion poll on Gazprom City. It turned out that the numbers of the project’s supporters and opponents in the city were approximately identical – 33% and 35%, correspondingly. However, Mogilevsky had presented raw data – on the attitude of various age cohorts to the project. When these same data were subjected to a few simple computations, a quite curious picture emerged. Journalists re-multiplied the number of respondents in each group against the percentages of supporters and opponents, and then took these numbers and divided them by the overall number of respondents. It turned out that in fact 31.6% of those polled supported the project, as opposed to 38.6% against. That is, either the folks at ASI don’t know how to count or the results were “corrected” in the interests of the client (Gazprom).

In spring 2008, ASI published the results of a new survey, announcing that Petersburg’s attitude to Okhta Center was “improving.” According to this survey, 46% of those polled now favored construction, with only 29% opposed. (15% of those surveyed said they knew nothing about the project, while 10% were undecided.) In wording the survey questions, ASI made no mention of the tower’s height. Mogilevsky invariably called what would seem to be the natural way to phrase the question – “Do you support the construction of a 396-meter-high Gazprom City skyscraper opposite Smolny Cathedral?” – “absolutely improper.”

It is absolutely clear that Mogilevsky practices PR under the guise of sociology. His task is not to find out the public’s opinion so that the authorities can base their decisions on it, but rather to try to show there is a basis for a decision that has already been made. In other words, he is fishing for the right answer.

In October 2008, a team of researchers at the Saint Petersburg State University Sociology Department’s Institute for Complex Social Research (NIKSI), led by the distinguished scholar Professor Valentin Semyonov, conducted a survey in which the height of the tower was directly identified as 400 meters. They found that 61% of those polled were opposed to the skyscraper, while only 13% said they were in favor.

A more recent poll, conducted by the Finnish marketing company TOY-Opinion and commissioned by the ECOM Expertise Center and Living City, asked the question, “Do you support the construction of a 400-meter-high skyscraper in the mouth of the Okhta River opposite Smolny Cathedral?” 66% of those polled said they were either “categorically” or “more or less” opposed to the project, with only 20% favoring it.

The latest blow to Gazprom’s version of sociology was delivered by a VTsIOM poll conducted in early October.

According to the results, only 23% of Petersburgers have a positive attitude to the Okhta Center project, while 50% express a negative attitude. Moreover, 77% of those polled believe that it is inadmissible to destroy the views in the historic center, while 18% feel it is wrong to ban the construction of new high-rise buildings.

We should note that in the VTsIOM survey citizens were not informed of the tower’s height nor was the word “skyscraper” used in the wording of the questions. And nevertheless the result was a complete embarrassment for Gazprom’s PR team.

I Want an “Exemption”

In February 2009, Saint Petersburg passed new Rules on Land Use and Development, which (among other things) limited the maximum height of construction on the plot Gazprom has chosen for its tower to 100 meters. Okhta Center spokespeople immediately announced that they intended to obtain permission for an “exemption” from this limit that would thus allow them to build up to 400 meters. According to the Russian Federation City Planning Code, it is possible to obtain such permission – in exceptional cases. But the case of the Gazscraper is not exceptional.

The code stipulates the possibility of permitting exemptions from maximum parameters, including height restrictions. But it is precisely exemptions that the code permits. There can be no exemption, as in the case of Okhta Center, that exceeds the maximum norms by a factor of three. That is the first point.

The second point is that the Code clearly lists cases in which it is possible to ask for an exemption: if the configurational, structural, geological or other characteristics of the plot in question are unfavorable to construction. In nature, there are no land plots on which it is physically impossible to build a 100-meter-high building but simultaneously possible to build a 400-meter-high building. That means it is forbidden in principle to ask for an exemption. And, correspondingly, that it is forbidden to grant such an exemption.

What were Okhta Center’s arguments for granting this exemption? In essence, its representatives made only one point: the 100-meter height restriction was “economically inexpedient” for them. That is, the exemption was necessary only in order to satisfy their commercial interests. But the fact that it is unprofitable for a developer to abide by legally established restrictions couldn’t be a reason for him to be exempt from those very same restrictions. Okhta Center behaves like a savage, a small child or a hooligan: “They forbade me to do it, but I want to do it anyway.”

The historic appearance of Petersburg is not an abstract concept: the appearance of the city is safeguarded by law from interventions on the part of builders. The Petersburg law on the boundaries of preservation zones forbids the construction of new dominants within the sightlines of the views in the historic center and open city spaces. In the historic center, the law also protects the views, the principal viewing sites, and the sightlines. However, Okhta Center – and this has been proved not only in surveys made by VOOPIiK and ECOM, but also by a study commissioned by Gazprom and undertaken by the Institute for Territorial Development – will be visible from the Spit of Vasilievsky Island, the Peter-and-Paul Fortress, the Troitsky and Liteiny bridges, the colonnade of Saint Isaac’s, and so on. The law protects all these views of the city: “intruding” on them is categorically forbidden.

There is, finally, one more very important aspect to this issue: construction of the skyscraper will lead to Petersburg’s removal from UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites listing. The Petersburg authorities have been warned about this on several occasions. The last time was at the July (2009) session of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, which demanded that work on the project be halted. It “express[ed] again its grave concern that the ‘Okhta Center Tower’ could affect the Outstanding Universal Value of the property.”

The height-restriction exemption contradicts Russia’s international obligations to protect the world’s common cultural and natural heritage – to wit, the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which was adopted by UNESCO on November 16, 1972.

If we examine the issue strictly, then construction of the tower is not so much an aesthetic question as it is a legal one. It is a question of whether the law will reign supreme in Petersburg (and in Russia as a whole) or whether the law can be ignored in the interests of Gazprom, interests that Smolny has been unabashedly lobbying. At all stages of the process to grant the tower a height exemption, city officials have been flagrantly playing on Gazprom’s side.

If the law allowed granting Okhta Center such a major “exemption,” then we might discuss whether the 400-meter tower was good or bad in itself. But since the law doesn’t allow this, then there is nothing to argue about: whether or not the law should be enforced cannot be a matter of public debate.

Public protests, however, forced the authorities to hold a public event and thus pretend to observe the letter of formal procedure. Naturally, the authorities conducted this event in their own style. The public hearing on the question of the height-restriction exemption was scheduled for 9 a.m. (!) on September 1 (!), 2009, in a smallish assembly hall far from the city center. [Translator’s note. The author’s exclamation points are warranted here by the fact that September 1 is the first day of the school year in Russia, the so-called Day of Knowledge, which is considered semi-sacred by many Russians. In any case, many Petersburgers would have had to take their children to school that morning. Or go to university themselves. Or just show up for work.]

The hearing was conducted like a typical police special operation. Two trucks with OMON riot troops were parked next to the building. Two dozen ranking police officers, including a colonel, and a number of police vehicles were stationed near the entrance. Getting inside involved passing through three cordons of security that included metal detectors, document checks, and an inspection of personal belongings under the watchful gaze of police canines. The Petersburg administration has long being running city planning hearings along the same lines as demonstrations by the opposition, beginning with surrounding the site with OMON troops and ending with the arrest of participants.

The 300-seat hall where the hearing took place was already packed to the rafters half an hour before the hearing began. People stood in the aisles. Because of the extraordinarily “unhurried” procedure at the entrance, many people were late in arriving and were unable to sit down – there were no seats left. Moreover, part of the hall had already been occupied by paid “extras” who had been let in earlier. These “war veterans” and “youth representatives” pronounced their rehearsed speeches by rote into the microphones provided for the public. They spoke of the great benefits that Gazprom brought to the city and about the necessity of “developing” the city, all the while studiously avoiding every legal aspect of the matter at hand.

In their blogs later that same day, Petersburgers who attended this hearing described it as a show directed by the authorities and representatives of the gas monopoly and with a paid cast of extras – actors, young people, pensioners, and bureaucrats – cast as “the public.”

“I didn’t understand straight off that extras were seated before me. My suspicions kicked in when the first member of the public took the microphone. He began by saying, ‘I support Okhta Center and no one can forbid me from doing so!’” wrote Kirill Strakhov, a deputy on the municipal council of the Finlyandsky Precinct and editor-in-chief of the newspapers Finlyandsky Okrug and Piskarevka.

Strakhov recognized the speaker as the actor Vladimir Zamorochinsky “from the long-cancelled game show ‘Untitled’ on Channel Five!” The journalist went on to write, “The first orator was an actor on this program. On the show he played the part of goons and assholes. And here he played the role of an asshole brilliantly: he swore, shoved the people standing next to him, and as soon as he’d said his piece, he instantly disappeared from the hall.”

“Then the next speaker took the microphone. He didn’t even hide the fact that he earned money by acting at children’s parties. He said it straight out. And then he voiced his unconditional support for Gazprom.”

Not everything went so smoothly.

“During the speeches by members of the public, one of the Leningrad Siege survivors – a smallish gray-haired woman in glasses – suddenly stopped ‘playing by the rules.’ At first, she began quietly cursing the Gazprom ‘speakers’ and then she made so bold as to applaud the opponents of Okhta Center. […] People on all sides began to hiss at the woman. ‘Don’t you understand that this is work?’ a simple old man in a dirty sweater said to her in an attempt to return her to the camp of the extras. ‘We’re getting paid for this.’ But the old woman merely waved him off: ‘You’ve sold out for money!’ ‘What can I do, I have a small pension,’ replied the old man.”

Maria Shcherbakova, head of the Krasnogvardeisky District, behaved more shamefully than all the rest. “On several occasions […] she jumped up and indicated to the ‘rank and file’ when they should applaud.” As Strakhov noted, however, the extras often got confused and applauded for the wrong people – that is, for the project’s opponents.

“I also attended the ‘hearing,’” wrote the well-known artist and civil rights activist Yuli Rybakov. “A disgusting, impudent gang of ‘bosses’ (or rather, the bosses’ retainers) sneered down at the audience, which was seething with indignation. They were calm: a third of the people who got into the hall were United Russia activists from some plastics factory or somewhere. They had been brainwashed beforehand, and so they obediently nodded their approval of the nonsense that thundered forth from the podium. People who came out of a sense of duty to their defenseless city were unable to shout over the din from the audio system, which was turned up full blast.”

The agenda that was passed out at the hearing illustrated the intentions of its organizers: the vast portion of the four-hour hearing was reserved for presentations by Okhta Center reps and the experts they had invited. It would be wrong to say that all these presentations were useless. Vladimir Avrutin, deputy director of NIPIGrad (an urban planning institute) and an author of the visibility study commissioned by Okhta Center, informed the public that the tower would be visible from 44 of the 135 sites analyzed and would inevitably intrude on the historical panoramas protected by law. His testimony alone was sufficient proof that the exemption should not have been granted.

In addition, Mikhail Amosov asked one of the Okhta Center project architects, Filipp Nikandrov (of RMJM), a simple question: would it be possible to construct a 100-meter-high building on the chosen site? Nikandrov was forced to admit that yes, it was possible. (This goes to the question of the characteristics of the site that are “unfavorable” for construction, characteristics that allegedly make it impossible to build within the norms laid down by the Rules for Land Use and Development.)

During the four days after the hearing, as stipulated by law, opponents of the project submitted their written comments to the district land use and development commission. They demanded that Okhta Center be denied an exemption because this would be blatantly illegal. However, according to the official report on the results of the hearing, only praise-filled assessments of Okhta Center were admitted for consideration by the commission. As for the critical remarks submitted in the hundreds by the opponents of the Gazscraper, who demanded that permission for the exemption be denied, the commission did not accept a SINGLE ONE for consideration. The commission threw out a portion of these remarks, while the rest were not referenced at all (in violation of the law).

Violation of the law at each stage in the granting of permission to build Okhta Center has now become the rule in Petersburg.

We Will Remember by Name All Those Who Raised Their Hands

On September 17 the city commission on land use and development met. Ten of its members are city officials, while the other five are deputies in the Legislative Assembly. They recommended granting the height-restriction exemption with a vote of eleven for, three against.

The decision took less than half an hour. The commission reacted in no way to the dozens (if not hundreds) of petitions sent to its members asking them to send back the mendacious “report on the public hearing” for redrafting. The commission didn’t even bother to review the arguments that Okhta Center had no legal basis to apply for an exemption. The commission did view the results of a computer modeling undertaken by the Institute for Territorial Development (they show that the skyscraper would be visible in the background of dozens of the city’s panoramas, which are protected by law from development). But then it was if the commission looked with a missing eye into a telescope and, in its vote, came to a unique conclusion, which was proudly summed up by the commission’s chair, Deputy Governor Roman Filimonov: “[The skyscraper will have] no negative impact on the city’s historic panoramas.”

People who don’t see this impact might find it worthwhile to visit an ophthalmologist or even a psychiatrist (one possible diagnosis is a pathological loathing for Saint Petersburg), but that is only half the matter. Petersburg’s law on historical heritage protection zones has nothing to say about the “negative” or “positive” impact of proposed buildings on the protected panoramas. It simply bans the construction of anything that would be visible in the background of these panoramas. And no one is denying that the tower will be visible.

Before the commission met, the Urban Economics Institute (IEG), a well-known organization that, in particular, participated in drafting the Russian Federation City Planning Code, presented its devastating expert findings on Okhta Center’s exemption application. After analyzing the application, the IEG came to the conclusion that none of the bases for an exemption stipulated by the City Planning Code would allow it to be legally granted. But IEG’s opinion was ignored in exactly the same way as all the other critical remarks on the decision.

On September 22 the city government met to make a final decision about the exemption. (Unlike the recommendations of the commissions, however, this decision has the full force of law.)

There is usually no voting during sessions of the city government, but this time they made an exception at the insistence of the governor. It is clear why this happened: everyone had to be “tied,” no one would succeed in evading the question. His lordship the dragon let it be known that any hesitation would be punished as an act of disobedience.

No one disobeyed. All thirteen members of the government who were present voted for the exemption: Valentina Matvienko, Mikhail Oseevsky, Yuri Molchanov, Alexei Sergeev, Roman Filimonov, Alla Manilova, Valery Tikhonov, Oleg Virolainen, Sergei Bodrunov, Dmitry Burenin, Svetlana Shtukova, Mikhail Brodsky, Vladislav Piotrovsky. Two members – Liudmila Kostkina and Alexander Vakhmistrov – were on holiday and thus absent.

The whole process took FIVE MINUTES: they didn’t consider it necessary to waste any more time on this decision, whose consequences for Petersburg are monstrous.

“Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do” does not apply to these people, who with the “impudent smile of the dishonored” (as Fazil Iskander once wrote) voted in favor of Okhta Center.

These people knew what they were doing. They knew perfectly well that they were engaging in lawlessness. They knew that the law didn’t give them a single basis for granting an exemption to Okhta Center. They knew that prominent scholars, cultural figures, artists, experts, and specialists had spoken as one that it was categorically wrong to make this decision. They knew – and they raised their hands in favor.

“Before the resolution was passed, all procedures stipulated by law were carried out. Opponents [of the decision] have the right to challenge the decision in the courts,” Alexander Korennikov, the governor’s press secretary, informed the public.

The decision has been challenged, of course. The next day, three Yabloko Party members (Mikhail Amosov, Maxim Reznik, and the author of the present article) filed an appeal with the court asking that the decision to grant the exemption be overturned. This will certainly not be the only challenge: VOOPIik, ECOM, Okhta Bend, the Civic Initiatives Movement, and other members of the civic coalition against the tower are in the process of preparing complaints. Legislative Assembly deputy Sergei Malkov, the only parliamentarian on the land use and development commission to vote against the Gazscraper, also intends to file a court challenge.

The actions of the officials who gave the green light to Gazprom’s monster are not only shameless; they are also criminal: destruction of cultural and historical landmarks (which, under Russian law, includes well-known historic panoramas) is a criminal offense. It makes no difference whether the decision was made out of stupidity or treachery, gross incompetence or uncontrollable greed; what matters is the result. It has been proven a dozen times over that Okhta Center cannot be built legally. All the necessary arguments, with references to the relevant articles of the legal codes, have been made. All the conclusions reached by the most authoritative experts have been published. And what of it? None of it matters. Certain that everything is permitted her because she has personal “protection” from Comrade Putin, the governor announces that “all legal questions have been resolved.”

An enormous billboard that appeared on a building opposite the proposed construction site before the arrival in Petersburg of Gazprom boss Alexei Miller – “It’s Miller Time” – was taken as the height of cynicism and mockery.

Has their time come?

“Don’t Leave This Matter in the Hands of the Petersburg Authorities!”

Forty-four prominent members of the intelligentsia, current residents of Saint Petersburg and internationally renowned academics and cultural figures, have written a letter to the former chair of Gazprom’s board of directors and current Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev. The tone of the letter is practically desperate:

Esteemed Dmitry Anatolievich, we appeal to you as a Petersburger: we have no doubt that you treasure your homeland.

There is also no doubt that you have heard about plans to erect a skyscraper at the mouth of the Okhta River in Saint Petersburg. But do you have all the information about the threat this construction poses to the city? We have reasons to doubt this. Allow us to familiarize you with several fundamental issues.

1. The appearance of skyscraper on the Okhta would forever destroy the traditional urban space of Saint Petersburg. According to the official expertise carried out by the Institute for Territorial Development, the tower would destroy a third of Petersburg’s traditional views. The city’s uniqueness is obvious: it is no accident that UNESCO lists it as a World Heritage Site. If the construction project is not halted, then at its next session UNESO will consider inscribing Saint Petersburg on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

2. Construction of the skyscraper violates a whole series of federal and municipal laws, in particular Saint Petersburg Law No. 820-7, which does not permit the emergence of new dominants within the protection zone as well as within the sightlines of the historic center’s panoramas. The Rules for Land Use and Development have established a maximum height of 100 meters for the mouth of the Okhta; in accordance with the Russian Federation City Planning Code there is no legal basis for ignoring this requirement.

3. The construction site contains a unique set of archaeological finds: Neolithic encampments and the fortresses Landskrona and Nyenskans. Archaeological digs have uncovered the moats of the fortresses. They are architectural landmarks, and in accordance with the Federal Law on the Preservation of the Heritage of the Peoples of the Russian Federation they may not be destroyed. Preservation of these ancient fortifications as discovered during the digs is an obligatory requirement for the development project. It is incompatible with construction of a skyscraper.

4. Much has been written about the fact that construction of this new Tower of Babel would destroy Saint Petersburg’s unique panoramas and entail cynical disdain for existing laws. There is, however, one more serious argument against erection of the skyscraper: the geological characteristics of the site at the mouth of the Okhta River. A geological fault line runs through the site at the depth of 300 meters. Construction of a skyscraper on the fault line would make the structure’s stability dangerously liable to seismic vibrations that might be generated in regions quite far from Saint Petersburg, for example, in the Caucasus or the Carpathian Mountains. If the building is constructed, Petersburgers will find themselves in a danger zone.

We ask you, Mister President, to carefully examine the way that decisions about the construction of the skyscraper are being made and to not leave this matter in the hands of the Petersburg authorities. Realization of the project will signal the end of Petersburg as a unique architectural ensemble that belongs neither to local or corporate power, but is the spiritual and historical inheritance of all citizens in our country.

There has been no response to this letter. That is, unless we consider a “second” letter to the President, written by cultural figures who support the Gazscraper, such a response.

This “counterweight” to the appeal made to the president by defenders of the historic center was signed by forty-two people (even the number of signers is almost the same as with the first letter). These include actor and singer Mikhail Boyarsky, filmmaker Vladimir Bortko, actress Olga Volkova, figure skating coach Tamara Moskvina, journalist Alexander Nevzorov, FC Zenit team manager Vladislav Radimov, singer Alexander Rozenbaum, singer and actress Liudmila Senchina, and the actors Igor Lifanov and Dmitry Nagiev.

The authors of this letter (dubbed the “letter of the assenters”) argue that the people who conceived Okhta Center have succeeded in creating a project that “combines the centuries-old traditions of Petersburg architecture and innovative ideas.”

It turns out that they were compelled to address the president because of their “sincere concern for the fate of [their] native Saint Petersburg in connection with the endless attacks on the Okhta Center project.” For “an active stance, as a rule, is adopted by protesters, while the voices of those who understand and appreciate the supreme value of the project for our city are unheard.”

When you read something like this you want to shed a tear. Where have the signers witnessed these “endless attacks”? On Channel One, RTR or NTV? In the (mass-market) newspapers Komsomolskaya Pravda, MK v Pitere, Izvestia or Nevskoe Vremya?

Perhaps from morning to night Petersburg television screens are inundated with spots featuring Oleg Basilashvili, Yuri Shevchuk, Alexander Margolis, and Alexander Sokurov, rather than the Okhta Center ad featuring that eternally youthful musketeer in his trademark hat (i.e., Boyarsky)? Perhaps Radio Russia, Metro, and Argumenty i Fakty have been given over exclusively to the defenders of the historic center, while skyscraper advocates are struggling to get their message to citizens? And who is it that hasn’t heard the stance of the tower’s supporters – the Petersburg government, which unanimously voted for the height-restriction exemption?

The distinguished historian and chair of the Leningrad Region branch of VOOPIiK, Professor Anatoly Kirpichnikov explained what is at stake in an interview with journalist Irina Smirnova.

“For the past three years, summer and winter, the archaeological expedition of the Institute for the History of Material Culture (Russian Academy of Sciences), led by Pyotr Sorokin, has been heroically conducting labor-intensive digs on the future construction site. This site is now sealed off and carefully guarded. There is a huge sign on the security barrier-walls: ‘The Impossible Is Possible.’ The people who put up this sign have no clue that they’ve hit on the truth.

“In the ground under the ruins of the demolished buildings of the Petrozavod they have discovered clearly visible remains of the (Swedish) fort Nyenskans from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – moats, curtain walls, and bastions. It is simply a sensation that these have been preserved. I had thought that there was nothing left in this part of the city, that everything had been built over. We knew that there had been a fortress there. But the digs have allowed us to establish the stages in which this fortress was built, a fortress captured by Peter the Great’s troops in 1703.

“Nyenskans and its environs had been the site of the Swedish merchant fort-town Landskrona, which had a large population. Erected by the Swedes in the mouth of the Okhta in 1300, this fortress was, according to the chronicles, famed for its unprecedented fortifications. A master builder invited from Rome for this purpose built them. The digs have revealed that the fortifications were indeed enormous: rectangular in outline, along with the moats they occupied a territory of 17,000 square meters. A year later, however, Novgorod armies took the fortress and ‘its firmness was rendered as naught.’ The fort was burned to the ground, and the earthen fortifications were ‘raked’ over.

“Pyotr Sorokin’s expedition has had incredible luck. They’ve found hundreds of rare ancient objects. Parts of the ‘cellar tower’ mentioned in an ancient source – a 5.5 x 5.5 meter log framework – have been uncovered, which wholly confirms the accuracy of the Chronicle of Erik. Under the ruins of these two fortresses a site inhabited by Neolithic-era people has turned up. This site is around 5000 years old. They’ve also discovered a medieval cemetery with ninety graves. The archaeologists have worked their way to the origins of ancient Russian habitation at the mouth of the Okhta. They’ve uncovered traces of the Novgorodian fortification that existed there before Landskrona was built.

“Right now more than 60% of the site has been excavated. It becomes clearer and clearer that the cape formed by the convergence of the Neva and Okhta rivers contains objects of enormous historical value. Of course the thought arises as to how to preserve the archaeological rarities that have been found. Now we have every reason to halt all forms of construction at this site. Objects of international historical significance have been uncovered here. They should not be merely dug up, but also museumified, something that would significantly increase Petersburg’s prestige as a European cultural capital. As a result, our city would be enriched with unique, newly discovered historical landmarks, which might together form a unique open-air museum entitled ‘Petersburg before Petersburg.’”

The choice that Saint Petersburg faces now is harsh and simple: either culture or barbarism.

“The Time for Kidding Has Ended”

It is not only opposition politicians who are now talking about the fact that construction of the skyscraper is a challenge made to our entire society, but also their quite moderate counterparts. It is no wonder that the March in Defense of Petersburg on October 10 was such a success, bringing together at least 4,618 people. (That is the number of people who signed a petition to President Medvedev, asking him to stop construction of the skyscraper, during the demo itself.) The march was an unpleasant surprise for Gazprom and Smolny, which had been extremely reluctant to allow the march to go ahead. The authorities didn’t allow the march to go ahead as a march (even though sixteen different routes were proposed), and so the march was held as a standing demo.

There hasn’t been such a massive protest action in Petersburg for a long time. The symbol of the action was a blue ribbon, symbolizing the Petersburg skyline that Dmitry Likhachev bequeathed us to protect. The demonstration was blessed with good weather –bright sunshine and blue skies – and so the predominant mood was spring-like. People showed their faith that the citizenry is stronger than the authorities and can force them to back down.

The placards included such slogans as “The Gazprom Tower Is a Victory of the Belly over the Spirit! “The City Is More Precious than Oil!” “Stop Mutilating Our City!” “Saint Petersburg – Yes, Gazputinburg – No!” “We Should Love the City, Not Rape It,” “Corn Is Not Our Choice of Vegetable!” A placard that depicted the governor fondly embracing the tower contained the inscription, “My favorite size.”

I heard many people say that something is changing in the city. Although Okhta Center was the main theme of the demo, many citizens came with placards protesting development of the square on Kommendantsky Prospekt, the demolition of co-op car garages, and redevelopment of the Primorsky Victory Park. There were also representatives from various civic resistance groups.

“You have come here because you have not succumbed to the advertised promises of the richest monopoly in the world and because you haven’t been swallowed the sociological surveys it has commissioned,” Yevgeny Kozlov, co-chair of the Civic Initiatives Movement, told the crowd.

The first speaker to address the demo was Leningrad Siege survivor Liudmila Elyashova: “There are very few of us left, but we dearly loved our city and defended it from foreign occupiers. Could we have imagined then that in the twenty-first century we would have to defend it from our countrymen who don’t love the city? Why, otherwise, would they disfigure it with their towers, which kill the beauty of the Neva’s panoramas?”

Elyashova recounted that, like other Siege survivors, every year on Victory Day she receives a letter of congratulations from Governor Valentina Matvienko, who so wildly supports the tower. Elyashova requested that the governor no longer send her these letters. Three-time Legislative Assembly deputy Mikhail Amosov (Yabloko) asked that a call for Matvienko’s resignation be included in the resolution of the demonstration. The crowd cheerfully supported this proposal.

“An important moment has come in the life of our city,” Amosov declared, “a moment when each of us must ask ourselves the question: can I consider myself a true citizen, a free human being, someone who can proudly call himself a Petersburger?”

“I think that the people who have decided to build the tower,” announced the poet Alexander Kushner, “are pitiful, miserable people who got Ds when they were at school. They have never read Pushkin’s line: ‘I love thee, Peter’s creation, I love thy austere and harmonious appearance.’ They want to deprive us of this appearance by erecting their corncob. We now face not only a choice of whether the tower will be constructed or not. We face another choice: democracy or totalitarianism?”

“This is not an ordinary demo in defense of the city. This is our last chance to change the situation and save our city from destruction. If Gazprom’s monstrous, obscene project is realized, our city will simply cease to exist,” actor Alexei Devotchenko told the demonstrators.

Among the other speakers were VOOPIiK co-chair Professor Alexander Margolis, civil rights activists Yuli Rybakov (who once again demanded that the issue of Okhta Center be decided by a citywide referendum) and Natalia Yevdokimova, actress Larisa Dmitrieva, vice-president of the Petersburg Architects Union Sviatoslav Gaikovich, ECOM Expertise Center director Alexander Karpov, Petersburg United Civic Front leader Olga Kurnosova, and artist Dmitry Shagin. Rock musicians Mikhail Borzykin and Mikhail Novitsky entertained the crowd with their protest songs.

The musical highlight of the demo was a new song* recorded by Borzykin, Sergei Parashchuk, and Vadim Kurylev:

Arch-kitsch in architecture: the game is beyond dangerous,
Presaging death for culture to the merry noise of football.
The population watches the tube, drunk and satisfied as always
With vodka and cursing on Sunday and FC Zenit’s victories.

In whose honor are the cannons fired? The city has been bought lock, stock and barrel.
Blok and Pushkin retreat with their outdated verses.
The boor has wiped his feet on the city and acts like he’s at home.
Has proud Peter really become a prostitute for Gazprom?

Oh, our country is rich – a lot of room, but little bread!
This dildo can scrape some other sky!
And we won’t allow the local bourgeois or the foreign scoundrel
To ruin the skies over Nyenskans with their concrete tower!

Hey, city, the time for kidding has ended.
The authorities have got their eyes on you: they’re going to love you till to the grave.
Wake up, city, and resist – fight against the skyscraper!
Against the skyscraper! Stand against it!

In addition to stopping construction of the tower, the demo’s resolution demanded an end to the destruction of the historic center and the creation of archaeological-landscape park on the planned site of Okhta Center. The demonstrators also called for the resignation of Valentina Matvienko and the filing of criminal charges against her.

The text of the resolution included the following lines: “The patience of city dwellers has been exhausted. We will use all legal means to insure that those people responsible for the policy that is destroying our city are brought to justice.”

Two days before the demonstration the “camp” of the defenders of the city’s historic center was unexpectedly joined by Russian Federation Minister of Culture Alexander Avdeev, who declared that he was against construction of the 403-meter-high Okhta Center skyscraper because it would disfigure the city’s historic skyline. He promised that the Ministry of Culture would “take decisive measures to prevent construction of the skyscraper.”

The minister sent the Saint Petersburg Prosecutor Sergei Zaitsev the results of a study of Okhta Center done by Rosokhrankultura (the ministry’s cultural heritage watchdog), which showed that the city government violated the law in the way it prepared and made its decision to permit construction. The minister asked Zaitsev to take all the necessary measures at his disposal as prosecutor.

In reply, the project’s supporters redirected their ire at the minister himself. Andrei Vermishev, head of Okhta Center’s press service, announced, “In our view, this declaration is an example of using one’s official position to foist a personal viewpoint on people who are badly informed about the Okhta Center project.”

That is, the Russian Federation Minister of Culture’s defense of Russia’s cultural heritage is, according to Gazprom’s branch company, “an example of using one’s official position to foist a personal viewpoint.”

That is, white becomes black.

* * *

The situation is Saint Petersburg is momentous. A lot depends on who is victorious in this confrontation between the authorities and society – a lot more than the fate of one plot of land in one great city.

Either the citizens force the authorities to do as they demand or the authorities will continue to act as they wish.

Wherever and whenever they like.

There is no in-between.

−Boris Vyshnevsky, Saint Petersburg
Special for Pskovskaya Guberniia

*You can listen to the song here.


Filed under activism, protests, Russian society, urban movements (right to the city)

2 responses to “Saint Petersburg versus Gazputinburg

  1. Nem

    The World Monuments Fund has just sent this via Twitter:

    In return, I have ‘Twittered’ the above. :-)

  2. Lots of thing is going on in Saint Petersburg but thanks to poster whose effort for posting both the post is appreciable.

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