The economy-class governor

St Petersburg used to be called Russia’s second capital. As Putin’s home city, it enjoyed popularity and success when he became president in 2000. But not any longer. The distinctly uncharismatic governor, appointed to make cuts and keep order, is both the symbol and cause of that, says Mikhail Loginov

Georgy Poltavchenko is Governor of St Petersburg. He is the first leader of the city authority not to have been elected by its inhabitants, but that is not the only way in which he differs from his predecessors. Former mayors and governors, such as Anatoly Sobchak, Vladimir Yakovlev and Valentina Matviyenko, either significantly improved the life of St Petersburg, or at the very least offered it hope that things would get better. Poltavchenko makes cuts, but no promises. He is symbolic of the crisis and stagnation in Russia’s second city, which is to do both with the general political and economic situation in the country, and with his personality.

Successful career man, failed politician

Georgy Poltavchenko was born in Azerbaijan. His father was a naval officer and when the child was 7 years old, the family moved to Leningrad. Poltavchenko graduated from the Institute of Aviation Engineering, but preferred to make a career in the Komsomol (Communist Youth Movement) and the KGB. Initially he worked in the district committee of the Komsomol, but then he entered the service of the KGB, where he made the acquaintance of Vladimir Putin, another employee of the organization.

'Initially he [Poltavchenko] worked in the district committee of the Komsomol, but then he entered the service of the KGB, where he made the acquaintance of Vladimir Putin, another employee of the organization.'

At the time when the USSR collapsed, Poltavchenko was head of the KGB division in Vyborg, on the border between Russia and Finland. In 1993 he was appointed head of the St Petersburg division of the tax police, where he initiated several court cases against banks engaged in money laundering. The cases were unsuccessful, but Poltavchenko compelled the banks to wind up their activities in the city by making their lives impossible. At this time he was once more in touch with Putin.

In 1990 Poltavchenko became a deputy for the Leningrad Oblast [Region] Council. In 1998 he stood for election as a deputy in the St Petersburg Legislative Assembly, but he failed. Interestingly, he was a candidate for the same constituency as Boris Gryzlov, the future leader of ‘United Russia’. Neither of them got through to the second round and after that Poltavchenko didn’t stand for election again.

The red belt became red, white and blue

In May 2000 the new Russian President Vladimir Putin took up his post and immediately thought of his friends. Poltavchenko became Presidential Representative for the Central Federal District, which includes Moscow, though the capital itself did not fall in his remit.

One of Poltavchenko’s main duties in his new post was to replace opposition-minded governors with people loyal to the Kremlin. The centre of Russia was known as the ‘red belt’ because the local inhabitants preferred voting for communist governors.  Poltavchenko managed to arrange that the communists either voluntarily relinquished their posts or were moved out of them by pressurizing the judiciary so that the courts removed the names of the candidates for governor from the election lists. This was how Boris Yeltsin’s principal opponent, governor of the Kursk Oblast Alexander Rutskoi, was removed from power for ever in 2000.

Over a period of 10 years the former ‘red belt’ became totally loyal to the Kremlin, though this was less to do with Poltavchenko’s efforts than with the new legislation which stipulated that governors should be appointed by Moscow rather than elected.

Poltavchenko

Georgy Poltavchenko, Governor of St Petersburg. Unlike his predecessors, he is a typically colourless functionary of the Putin era (photo: city administration website). 

At the beginning of autumn 2010 rumours were circulating in Moscow that, at Putin’s request, President Dmitry Medvedev was planning to replace the mayor of Moscow Luzhkov with Poltavchenko. Luzhkov did indeed lose his post, but the Kremlin appointed a successful manager, Sergei Sobyanin, mayor of Moscow, because it was decided that the post required not only unstinting loyalty to Putin, but business know-how too, and Poltavchenko didn’t have that.

He was appointed to head up a city, but another one…St Petersburg, in 2011. To gain an understanding of the significance of this event, a brief overview of the work of his predecessors is essential.

1. The politician

Anatoly Sobchak, first and last mayor of St Petersburg, has stayed in the public memory as the politician who returned to Leningrad its historic name, and who took Vladimir Putin on to work for his Administration. In actual fact Sobchak was against the idea of a referendum about changing the city’s name for quite a long time. Putin’s talents as a bureaucrat and his strong wish to be engaged only in government would have meant that sooner or later he would have got into the government without Sobchak.

'In spite of his oratorical capabilities and his political intuition, Sobchak did little else of note to contribute to the history of St Petersburg.'

In spite of his oratorical capabilities and his political intuition, Sobchak did little else of note to contribute to the history of St Petersburg. Free trade, inflation and closing down bankrupt state enterprises went on in the city without his involvement. From the beginning, Moscow mayor Yuriy Luzhkov did everything within his power to ensure that market reforms remained firmly under his control, but Sobchak remained a politician. He constantly referred to St Petersburg as a European city, but did nothing to justify this name. Most of the Muscovites loved Mayor Luzhkov, whereas Petersburgers remained sceptical about Sobchak, which is why in 1996 he suddenly and unexpectedly lost the mayoral election to his deputy Vladimir Yakovlev.

2. The manager

Vladimir Yakovlev was lucky: his election coincided with Boris Yeltsin’s re-election and economic growth in Russia, which benefitted the economy of St Petersburg. New enterprises appeared in the city and construction took off in the areas of housing and transport. Sobchak was of a politician, but Yakovlev’s image was a manager engaged only in running his city. The popularity ratings of the new governor (the post replacing that of mayor) were so high that in 2000 he won the next election in the first round.

Yakovlev had only one serious problem: in 2000 Vladimir Putin became president of Russia and he wanted to pay Yakovlev back for having betrayed Sobchak.

3. Golden glitter and snow

For 3 years Yakovlev did all he could to prove his loyalty to Putin, but at the beginning of 2003 he received an ‘offer’ to stand down before the end of his term, with threats of prosecution for criminal corruption if he refused. The election was won, in the second round, by Putin’s shoo-in Valentina Matviyenko.

The main event of 2003 in the life of Russia’s second capital was the city’s tercentenary.  St Petersburg received a huge quantity of gifts for the festivities: as well as direct financial subsidies, some of the biggest tax payers, such as Sibneft, were ordered to register in the city and pay their taxes there.

‘The main event of 2003 in the life of Russia’s second capital was the city’s tercentenary.  St Petersburg received a huge quantity of gifts for the festivities: as well as direct financial subsidies…’

Matvienko’s first years in power were significant for the perceptible growth of prosperity and the grandiose construction projects. For the first time the city was encircled by a ring road, part of which went over the flood barrier across the Gulf of Finland. New elite apartment blocks and commercial centres sprang up on the outskirts of the city, as they had in Moscow. Some of the city’s architectural monuments were repaired; others were destroyed as part of development plans for the centre. But most of the city’s inhabitants approved the actions of their governor.

The winter of 2009/10 saw particularly heavy snow: the streets were impassable and transport ground to a halt. It emerged that under Matviyenko community services had lost both staff and capacity. The next winter was just as snowy, and some people, including children, were killed by ice falling off the roofs. Matviyenko showed that she was a politician unable to take knocks: at some of the press conferences she lost control and was extremely offensive to the press.

Putin didn’t wait for another winter. He moved Matviyenko to the Federation Council, to which she went after a scandalous election in a very small constituency. She bade farewell to the city and Georgy Poltavchenko was appointed in her place.

Tighten your belts!

The new governor of St Petersburg immediately made it clear that the era of big money and large-scale projects was over. He put a stop to the construction of the tunnel under the river Neva, the new bridge over the Neva, and the express tram to Pulkovo Airport.  Work on land reclamation for housing in the Gulf of Finland was stopped. The management of the city underground transport network was told that new stations could only be built using money from the federal budget. In effect there was only one large-scale project left: the skyscraper ‘Lakhta Center’ on the outskirts of the city, courtesy Gazprom.

Quite a number of Poltavchenko’s friends have been appointed to the City Administration, though there are still some of Matviyenko’s team left. They were not dismissed immediately, and the winnowing process is ongoing.

'The new governor of St Petersburg immediately made it clear that the era of big money and large-scale projects was over.'

Initially Poltavchenko’s appointment was a source of joy for those interested in protecting the city’s architectural heritage, and for the Orthodox Church. He restricted development in the city centre, though this instruction is periodically ignored. The Church was pleased because the new governor permitted some parishes to erect bell towers, which had been knocked down during Soviet times. For their own money, of course.

Enemies and yobs

St Petersburg’s political protests in December 2011 and the next few months were on a considerably smaller scale than Moscow’s. On the one hand, Petersburg has always been known for its lack of interest in politics; on the other, the new governor banned demonstrations and processions more often than the Moscow mayor. Poltavchenko openly referred to the protestors as ‘Western agents’, which in Soviet times would have meant ‘spies’.

In the autumn of 2012 he became embroiled in an unpleasant stand-off: he criticized car drivers for their angry hooting when city streets were closed off for President Medvedev’s cavalcade to pass. Poltavchenko said that ‘only the very lazy failed to sound their horns. People in the streets held up (two) fingers.  I’ve never seen such yobbish behaviour.’

At the next football match, fans of the local team Zenit chanted just two words – governor and yob. They also shouted ‘sell your dacha and build us a stadium!’ a reference to the governor’s call for people to contribute their own money towards the building of a stadium. In Russia football fans are traditionally loyal supporters of the authorities, but in Petersburg they have come out against the governor. For a mistake like this, the Moscow mayor would probably have been retired. Poltavchenko was forgiven, but not allowed to prosecute the fans.

Orphan city

Georgy Poltavchenko is not promising to turn St Petersburg into a European city as his predecessor Sobchak did, or to raise living standards to Moscow levels, as Yakovlev did.  The grandiose and expensive projects from the Matviyenko era are a thing of the past.  City analysts, even those loyal to Smolny [the seat of the City Administration and the governor’s residence] have still not made out whether the governor has his own vision of how the city might develop.

There’s a reason for that. While Matviyenko was in power, funds kept flowing into St Petersburg and all the key positions in the federal government went to people from St Petersburg. But time has passed and now the ministers who were born in St Petersburg have become Muscovites. Their weekends are no longer spent in their home city, because they are flying to their villas on the Cote d’Azur or in Spain. The golden rain which fell on the city has gone forever.

'Georgy Poltavchenko is a typical functionary of the Putin era, appointed rather than elected.'

Georgy Poltavchenko is a typical functionary of the Putin era, appointed rather than elected. He copes with his main duties: making economies to the city budget and preventing mass disturbances. This kind of a governor has not earned any affection and nor will he – there’s no reason to feel any for him. But he’s not hated either. This isn’t because of anything he’s done, but simply because standards of living in the city are quite high. And, as yet, there haven’t been any of the gigantic falls of snow that there were in Matviyenko’s time.

About the author

Mikhail Loginov is a journalist and novelist based in St Petersburg. He is the author of the recently published bestselling political thriller "Battle for Kremlin".