The center of St. Petersburg is under threat. Why Smolny fights with city defenders | Russia and Russians: a view from Europe | DW

Well-known city defenders of St. Petersburg are sounding the alarm. Local officials want to lift the ban on the demolition of pre-revolutionary buildings. Following the appearance of this initiative, its active opponents were expelled from influential city public organizations.

The conflict reached a new level when the famous director Alexander Sokurov accused local authorities in the defeat of the city protection movement under the guise of a “difficult military-political situation.” The architectural appearance of St. Petersburg may change beyond recognition, experts fear.

UK investigates the destruction of pre-revolutionary buildings

At the end of May, it became known about a criminal case, the initiation of which, not indifferent to the fate of the city, Petersburgers had been waiting for a long time. The Investigative Committee suspected as yet unidentified officials from the Committee for State Control, Use and Protection of Monuments (KGIOP) of the government of St. Petersburg in preparations for the demolition of historical buildings. Investigators believe that for this they changed the year of construction of the house in the documents from pre-revolutionary to the period after 1917.

City defenders have long been talking about such a scheme for destroying buildings that are valuable from an architectural point of view. History Center Petersburg included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. At the same time, most of the buildings there are protected by local law, which prohibits the demolition of pre-revolutionary buildings.

Active city defenders were deprived of their posts

One of the authors of the appeal to the UK was a deputy of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg from Yabloko Boris Vishnevsky. As one of the oldest participants in the city’s city protection movement and a member of the local cell of the All-Russian Society for the Protection of Monuments (VOOPIiK), for example, he took part in a confrontation with officials, having achieved the refusal to build a Gazprom tower in the center of St. Petersburg.

Boris Vishnevsky

Boris Vishnevsky

At the end of June, Vishnevsky and three other well-known professionals, including the deputy head of the VOOPIIK Alexander Kononov, were expelled from this organization. This was done by the presidium of the Central Council of the society in Moscow. And a few days before that, Kononov and three other city defenders were expelled from another profile group – the Council for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage under the government of St. Petersburg.

Kononov, although he calls the council an advisory body, admits that there was not a single case when Smolny “would have gone in principle against the recommendations worked out by the council.” True, his influence has greatly decreased with the election of Alexander Beglov as governor in 2018 – instead of meetings once a month, now the council meets twice a year at most, Kononov notes.

“Sokurov’s group” is not interesting to Beglov

Against this background, the winner of prestigious film awards and People’s Artist of Russia Alexander Sokurov. The association was called “Sokurov’s group”. It appeared during the governorship of Valentina Matviyenko and included experts in the history and architecture of the city handpicked by Sokurov and opposition politicians. Member of the group and ex-deputy of the Legislative Assembly Maxim Reznik says that through dialogue with opponents, Matvienko tried to stay in her post.

Alexander Sokurov

Alexander Sokurov

The band members assured DW that it was effective despite being informal. According to Alexander Kononov, who is also a member of the “Sokurov group”, dozens of issues related to the preservation of historical buildings and architectural monuments were resolved at meetings with the participation of vice-governors. But with the advent of Alexander Beglov, this group never met.

“An old dream of the chairman of KGIOP S.V. Makarov came true to defeat the city protection movement in our city, – writes Sokurov in a letter to Beglov. “Particular attention is drawn to the purposeful, well-prepared operation to remove the most authoritative, selfless city defenders from the ranks of the St. Petersburg branch of the VOOPIK.”

The authorities of St. Petersburg do not want to protect all pre-revolutionary buildings

The administration of St. Petersburg rejects the accusations against them. The RBC edition was explained there that the composition of the Council for Cultural Heritage was only updated. Exclusion of city defenders officials explained their departure from other organizations of which they were representatives in the council – for example, VOOPIIK and legislative assemblies. “Thus, statements about the weakening of the protection of the cultural heritage of St. Petersburg have no basis,” Smolny is sure.

View of St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg

View of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg

But city defenders consider it no coincidence that the dialogue with them was stopped at several sites at once. “I think that this is a rather coordinated work,” says Alexander Kononov. “Of course, this is an increase in the influence of the construction lobby. Obviously, those forces that believe that experts and public figures are not needed, and things need to be resolved directly, have become close to Smolny” .

A manifestation of such lobbyism and a possible reason for the removal of all active city defenders from dialogue may be the initiative of the KGIOP to now officially abandon the principle of protecting buildings based on the criterion of the year of construction – that is, before 1917. “We would like to move away from defining historicity solely by year and move to the category of valuable environmental development,” said Alexei Mikhailov, deputy chairman of the KGIOP.

“Fights Lost, But Not a Battle”

Recognizing a building as valuable only by the year of construction is not an ideal criterion, but the most objective one, opponents of the KGIOP idea point out. It helps to get away from corruption schemes, says Alexander Kononov. Boris Vishnevsky also has no doubts that KGIOP experts will try to take pre-revolutionary houses off guard so that “they can be reconstructed, demolished, something built in their place.”

According to Kononov’s calculations, which he told DW, there are now about 10,000 buildings built before 1917 in the center of St. Petersburg. “Of course, there will be no total cleansing,” he agrees. “But even if five percent of them are recognized as having no value, then the account goes to hundreds of buildings. This is a very tangible loss.”

Anti-war demonstration in St. Petersburg

Anti-war demonstration in St. Petersburg, March 1, 2022

On July 19, Alexander Sokurov met with Chairman of the Legislative Assembly Alexander Belsky to give him a letter city ​​governor “against the dispersal of the hail protection movement.” According to the director, Belsky promised to create a commission on hail protection problems, which would include “respectable people.”

A member of the “Sokurov group” Maxim Reznik is sure that there will be no benefit from the creation of such a group. In his opinion, the defeat of the city defenders is due to the general situation in Russia: “Everyone must march in formation. In the Sokurov group, all five openly oppose the war. Is this how the authorities should conduct a dialogue with it?” Nevertheless, Sokurov’s associates do not agree with the final words of his last open letter, where he writes that he “lost”. “I’m not such a pessimist, which I told him about,” Boris Vishnevsky shares. “Yes, we lost several battles, but not the battle for the city. We will definitely win it.”

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