St Petersburg: in search of solidarity

Recent months have seen Petersburg residents mobilise themselves to control what happens in their town. This week’s bomb attack reminds us that the city’s solidarity is hard-fought. Русский

Natalia Shkurenok
6 April 2017
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Protester holding a poster reading "St Petersburg is a city of poets, philosophers and free-thinkers". 26 March, 2017. Image courtesy of the author.The number and variety of mass rallies, individual pickets and other displays of popular discontent since the start of 2017 might lead you to believe that Russia’s northern capital is about to experience the kind of upheaval we witnessed there 100 years ago. Certainly, the city has been abuzz with the idea, with historians, sociologists, politicians, as well as protesters, filling the press with debates on the subject. But the truth is that the city’s protest movement remains the same beast it’s been for decades — one focused on preserving the city’s architectural heritage and historic cultural institutions.

The terrorist attack on the Petersburg metro on Monday, in which 14 people were killed, has brought concerns about public safety onto activists agendas. In the face of adversity, Petersburgers show an exceptional ability to come together — but it remains to be seen whether different oppositional movements in the city will achieve solidarity.

Saving churches from the Church

The first salvo in this fight concerned St Isaac’s, the city’s largest Orthodox cathedral. Immediately after the New Year holidays, Petersburg governor Georgy Poltavchenko announced that the cathedral, which currently has the status of a state-owned museum, was to be handed over to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The first protests, both mass and individual, took place the next day. And a few days later, opposition members of the city’s legislative assembly held a rally in front of the cathedral.

This rally was a crucial moment in the campaign to protect St Isaac’s. Speakers demanded the initiation of the standard procedure established over the last few years for all campaigns to protect the city’s heritage — a protest march authorised by the city authorities and letters to the governor, the government (both city and national), the Minister of Culture, Prime Minister, President and the judicial apparatus.

This template has been developed over the last decades, and has sometimes been successful. In the last year and a half alone, for example, Petersburg residents have succeeded in saving the historic Stable Courtyard from demolition and even have the building restored. Сonservation activists also like to boast about how they forced former governor Valentina Matvienko’s administration to cancel the construction, by Gazprom, of an 400-metre high skyscraper on the outskirts of the city. Admittedly, they prefer not to mention that the tower is now going ahead in Lakhta, nine kilometres away, and will now be even taller. Their traditional tactics also failed to save two churches, the Sampson and Smolny cathedrals, as museums (they were both part of the St Isaac’s museum complex).

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Boris Vishnevsky, an oppositional deputy of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly actively fighting against St. Isaac Cathedral being handed over to the ROC. Photo: Dinar Idrisov.This time, legislative assembly member Maksim Reznik, of the opposition Party of Growth, told the rally that “saving St. Isaac in its’ museum status a question of human dignity”. Reznik was supported by Boris Vishnevsky, from the liberal Yabloko party, Aleksey Kovalyov from Just Russia and another Petersburg opposition figure, Andrey Pivovarov. Their position was shared by the crowd that had gathered to defend St Isaac’s museum status — most of them university-educated professionals.

There would be no Petersburg without its museums, libraries, universities and scientific centres, and our country couldn’t exist without them either

Ekaterina Bogach, a foreign languages teacher, tells me that St Isaac’s defenders are people who know exactly what they want. “We are fighting for our city’s cultural foundations,” she tells me. “There would be no Petersburg without its museums, libraries, universities and scientific centres, and our country couldn’t exist without them either.”

Thousands of people took a united stand to defend their city’s culture — this was the largest mass action in Petersburg since the protests over the Gazprom tower in 2006-2009. But at the same time, it was always more or less the same faces — like-minded people who had come together through social media, conservation activists and people from the arts and culture world.

It took until 18 March for a slightly larger protest to take place, a city-wide rally sanctioned by the authorities. This higher than usual number of protesters at this demo was due, on the one hand, to the fact that it was officially authorised, and on the other, to its broader agenda — here, the organisers called for the protection of not only St Isaacs, but of other important institutions, such as the Pulkovo Observatory, the National Library (commonly known as the “Publichka”) and the European University, which is under threat of closure, thus uniting several factions among the public.

This unity was, however, short-lived. On the eve of the first protest meeting at the end of January, Alexei Kovalev, one of the city’s most active conservation campaigners, unexpectedly announced that mass protests against handing St Isaac’ over to the ROC were ill-judged, and that what was needed was talks with the Church. He called for the full weight of the law to be invoked to punish protests inside the cathedral itself, prompting debate on social networks.

Lobbying for the libraries

The St Isaac’s affair has been paralleled by a wave of protests over the proposed merger of Russia’s two most important libraries — the Russian National Library (the “Publichka”) in St Petersburg and the State Lenin Library (the “Leninka”) in Moscow. Publichka staff announced their own protest, but the library’s chief librarian Tatyana Shumilova was fired after she voiced her colleagues’ concerns.

Shumilova’s dismissal was followed almost immediately by pickets and flashmobs outside the library building. The distinctive feature of these actions was their creativity: people read books aloud, launched balloons bearing the image of the library’s director and organised “tableaux vivants”. And the first people to appear with placards at the Publichka’s doors were its users, Petersburg’s scholars and writers.

Petersburg residents are a separate nation, with their own national interests — everything connected with culture and scholarship

“I studied how and why people emigrate from Russia, and couldn’t understand why they did it,” says Viktor Voronkov, sociologist and director of St Petersburg’s Centre for Independent Social Research. “Until one person said, ‘I’m sick and tired of all this!’ And there it was: the reason for emigration. And it’s also the reason for our protests: we’re sick and tired and want to show our solidarity with one another.”

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Street protest in support of the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. Image courtesy of the author.According to Daniil Kotsubinsky, a historian and writer, Petersburg’s cultural world is key to its identity: “It’s like defending the interest of some nation or another,” Kotsiubinsky explains. “Petersburgers are a separate nation, with their own national interests — everything connected with culture and scholarship.”

Nataliya Sokolovskaya, an author and member of the St Petersburg PEN Club, can no longer tolerate the flagrant disregard shown by Moscow for its northern cousin’s rules and customs. “There’s an inner sense of justice, what Kant called a ‘categorical imperative’,” Sokolovskaya believes. “If you look at what is going on in our country and our city from that angle, you can see that it is wrong. For me personally, it has reached such a stage of critical mass that I can’t not take part in protests.”

We are hostages: we can be fired at any moment, so I don’t go on protests and don’t advise my colleagues to do so

But none of the library staff have taken part in any protest activity. A few turned up at the public rally, but they stood without placards, trying not to advertise their presence.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Kotsubinsky tells me. “They aren’t free to protest. One member of staff has been fired already, and they’re scared.”  

“It’s not fear,” Sokolovskaya tells me. “It’s a mixture of contempt and offended dignity. It’s performance review time. Members of staff who have been there for decades are sitting and waiting to find out who will face the chop from the director, a man with no experience of libraries whatsoever.”

Nikita Eliseyev, a writer and translator and the leading bibliographer of the Publichka’s Social and Economic Studies Department, gives me a blunt answer when I ask why he hasn’t taken part in picketing: “I’m grateful to everybody who is defending us, but we are hostages: we can be fired at any moment, so I don’t go on protests and advise my colleagues not to do so either.”

It’s the same story as the St Isaac’s business: museum employees have also steered clear of public protests. They have, however, asked President Putin to stop the proposed handover to the ROC and halt any further handovers of property to religious bodies.       

European diplomacy

The fact that the European University at St Petersburg is under threat has been known since December 2016, when Russia’s education watchdog Rosobnadzor suspended the university’s teaching licence and St Petersburg’s property management department unilaterally severed its rental contract on a former palace on Gagarinskaya Street. The university took the city administration to court, but lost its case in the lowest court and found itself threatened with closure.

The university, despite its near stalemate situation, nevertheless avoided public protest actions until the authorised march on 18 March. Instead, it adopted a different tactic, developed and agreed by its faculty and graduate students — reputation management. The European University has had the support of its board of trustees, led by Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky, as well as dozens of scientific and educational establishments in Russia, Europe and the US. Dozens of letters have been written to the Russian Government and Ministry of Education and Science, President Putin and PM Medvedev in defence of this renowned university, internationally recognised as one of the best in Russia.

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Rally in support of the European University. Source: Anna Klepikova. Some rights reserved.Its teachers and students, however, only took to the streets with placards and slogans and support from the wider scientific and academic community on 18 March, at the rally authorised by the city government. Asked by the media why they had waited so long, they replied that they were waiting for the court’s decision; they didn’t think things would go so far; they thought that the Board of Trustees’ authority would be sufficient to stop the process. European University alumni all over the world also voiced their support at the same time as the rally.   

Karina Chupina is a graduate of the EU who is now living in Berlin, writing her PhD thesis on the inclusion of disabled people in society in Russia and Germany. Until June 2016, Karina was Chair of the European Association of EU Alumni and campaigned for the development of a more coherent student body. She also coordinated a flash mob in Berlin in support of the university.

“It’s simply outrageous that they are trying to get rid of one of the best universities in Russia, on some ridiculous pretext,” she tells me. “I am grateful to the EU for the depth of the education I received there, and so I try to support other alumni in various ways. I have no idea why the university has still not held protest meetings, but I would also want the EU to run a stronger campaign to highlight the situation, on social media, for instance.”

Even if a protest action ‘won’t change anything’, it will increase solidarity and a feeling of togetherness. Otherwise, nothing will ever change

Anna Zhelnina, another EU graduate who took part in the flash mob, believes that pickets and other protest actions give people a sense of their own worth and faith in their ability to do something.

“The main thing about the endless moaning around ‘there’s nothing we can do, it won’t change anything’ is that demotivates people and robs them of the ability to act,” says Anna. “Even if a protest action ‘won’t change anything’, it will increase solidarity and a feeling of togetherness. Otherwise, nothing will ever change.”

Dmitry Dubrovsky, one of the EU’s first graduate students, now works in the USA and was one of the organisers of a picket in New York.

“The university was like a home to me, and you need to defend your home,” he tells me. “And for me the EU was also a haven of academic freedom, perhaps the only one left in Russia, and these attempts to close it are hitting not just me, or the academic community in St Petersburg: it’s a blow to Russian freedom, science, scholarship and education. There’s not a lot we can do to help: writing letters is pretty useless, but taking to the streets is a form of intellectual resistance. It’s a pity the university itself didn’t get involved in this earlier, instead of trying to work ‘behind the scenes’ and send letters ‘upstairs’ – that sort of thing is irrelevant now.”

The kids are alright

The campaigns for the conservation of the built environment and culture are a mainstay of Petersburg politics. All the opposition deputies in the legislative assembly have won their political authority and capital by campaigning for the preservation of the city’s historical and cultural heritage — the terms “heritage” and “opposition” are almost synonyms.

However, the events of 26 March, which saw mass protests against government corruption across Russia, showed a new kind of opposition — young, fearless and politically savvy. Thousands of young people (10,000, according to some accounts) most of them under 25, ignored the official ban on protests and the appalling weather to occupy the Field of Mars square in the city centre. Thousands of young voices joined in chanting “Putin’s a thief!”, “Put Dimon [a disparaging nickname for PM Medvedev] on trial!”, “Down with the Tsar!” “Let’s change government!” No one mentioned St Isaac’s or the Publichka, and there very few of those who had waited three months for permission to hold a rally, written letters and lost court cases — the traditional members of the city’s cultural protest movement.

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Protests on the Fields of Mars, St. Petersburg, March 26, 2017. Image courtesy of the author.Legislative assembly member Boris Vishnevsky, one of the organisers of that movement, in fact wrote on his Facebook page on the previous day that he wouldn’t go on a rally for supporters of prominent opposition figure Aleksey Navalny and advised other people against it as well:

“The Petersburg ‘Navalnyites’ are planning to hold a rally on the Fields of Mars, where they will join with thugs from the ultra-right National Liberation Movement (NLM) to call for Medvedev’s dismissal and an end to corruption — to protect our ‘traditional values’. We can’t join a rally of those who attack our comrades, insult us and talk about ‘American Occupation’. These same ‘Navalnyites’, by the way, sabotaged the March for the defence of St Petersburg by deleting information about the march from their group sites and blocking those who were sending it.”

The respected assembly member has his wires crossed. In the first place, the ‘‘Navalnyites” were not protesting with the NLM, but alongside it – the anti-corruption rally was banned by the authorities precisely because NLM had already occupied the space. In the second, in February, Vishnevsky held a meeting of assembly members with the NLM and other ultra-patriots on the same Fields of Mars for the same reason. And this childish moaning about who blocked whom is nonsense. But all this evidently had an effect on some people, and there were very few members of the cultural “old guard” among the young people on 26 March.   

So can the traditional champions of St Petersburg’s culture enter an entente cordiale with the new generation of protesters? There is still time.   

Assembly deputy Maksim Reznik, whose day job is teaching history at a school, came to the rally with some former pupils, now university students.    

“They came to the 18 March rally, but said that they felt out of place – most of the protesters were older”, Reznik tells me. “But on 26 March, they were surrounded by people of their own age. These kids are really aware of what’s going on in the country and in their city; they talked about official thievery and corruption, and said they weren’t afraid and that ‘we’re in charge here’. And they know what kind of country they want to live in: when they chanted ‘Ukraine is not our enemy!’, that was a big statement to make.”

This lack of fear, maximalism, openness and directness are the features that distinguish this new “unbeaten” generation from their parents and teachers. If traditional “save our heritage” rallies involve placards with diffident slogans such as “Down with Putin”, the kids shout “Putin’s a thief!” in their thousands on Palace Square. The older generation asks permission to protest and tries to avoid confrontation with the police, having been taught to “stay behind the barriers”, but the new generation protests without asking for permission, knowing full well that it might end in arrest.

Blast pressure: the terror attack and its consequences

Monday’s bomb attack on the Petersburg metro is the first terrorist attack on the city's subway system. The improvised explosive device, which hit a train as it made its way from Technological Institute to Sennaya Square, killed ten people at the scene, and another four people died from their wounds in the course of the day.  In total, 50 people were wounded, and there’s still 49 people recovering in city hospitals.

It probably would have been natural to expect panic from city residents. But instead Petersburgers demonstrated their best qualities — reserve, understanding and self-organisation. Given that all metro stations were closed a result of the attack, the city began to experience a transport meltdown. Thousands of drivers started taking people across the city for free. According to Ksenia Chapkevich, who coordinates the City Projects foundation, her organisation managed to mobilise more than 4,000 car owners to transport people around the city. These people spent almost an entire day constantly driving people who’d been left on the street to where they had to get to.


With the full collapse of public transport system resulting from the terrorist attack on Petersburg subway, carsharing initiatives sprung immediately on social media. Drivers all over the city were offering free seats to anyone who got stuck away from home. Source: vk.com/spb_today.“We created a Google spreadsheet, and we asked drivers to update it with where they were headed and how many people they can take with them,” Ksenia tells me. “Then we made a separate website, and then later joined forces with Telegram, who made a chat, and a general site that people could use easily. A few businessmen got involved — our volunteer drivers were fed and were fuelled up for free at a few petrol stations. I’m really proud to see how Petersburgers responded, some drivers continued helping the next day, too, when the metro was already back up and running, because many people were afraid to travel underground, they were scared.”

The tragedy on the Petersburg metro this week shows that the city is capable of solidarity

But what will happen to the city’s protest movement? Won’t the authorities begin to tighten the screws in response to Monday’s tragic events, and city residents, scared of further attacks, stop taking part in mass protest actions? Members of Petersburg’s Legislative Assembly and the State Duma have already come out with calls to introduce the death penalty for acts of terrorism, and Andrei Anokhin, a member of the city legislature, believes that the state should add further restrictions to procedures governing entry of citizens from CIS countries into Russia. Moreover, the State Duma has supported an initiative from Petersburg deputies to qualify meetings with voters as public demonstrations.

Will the metro attack bring city residents together? Or will they force them to keep away from continuing the struggle? “I’m afraid that it’s impossible to forecast anything right now, but people will definitely come together against international terrorism,” says Maksim Reznik from Party of Growth. “But we need to unite around the safety of our citizens, not our leaders, that’s something that everyone can participate in. The city has demonstrated that its ready to come together as individuals, to help one another, and I hope that the authorities are smart enough not to ‘tighten the screws’. We’re planning to hold another March in Defence of Petersburg on 1 May, and if by that time the authorities haven’t carried out an investigation into the causes of the terrorist attack on the metro, then we’ll include public safety in our agenda.”

The tragedy on the Petersburg metro this week shows that the city is capable of solidarity. And now both the authorities and politicians — especially those who see themselves as part of the opposition — need to find common ground with the new generation, to ensure this protest energy becomes a constructive force rather than a destructive one. So that the values held dear by our city’s cultural opposition are adopted by young people as well. So that these spontaneous protests can grow into a conscious political movement — one that could actually lead to fundamental change.

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