St. Petersburg’s ‘gas-scraper’ saga: culture turns political

Gazprom's controversial decision to build a skyscraper in St. Petersburg had the support of Putin and governor Valentina Matvienko. But a recent broadside on TV suggests that broader forces of political opposition may be gathering behind this ostensibly cultural decision, comments Dmitry Travin
Dmitri Travin
26 October 2009

On 19 October everyone in St. Petersburg who is even remotely interested in politics was talking about one thing only- the TV programme Vremya and its coverage of the Okhta Centre issue.  Vremya is both Russia's main information programme and the Kremlin's chief propaganda mouthpiece. The Okhta Centre may not be a government matter, but its coverage has turned it into a political sensation of national importance.

A good turn or not?

This story goes back a long way. Several years ago the major Russian industrial company Gazprom decided to build an enormous business centre in Okhta, one of St. Petersburg's historic districts. The dominating architectural feature was to be a skyscraper about 400 metres high. The city authorities, and particularly Smolny (the governor's residence) gave this project enthusiastic support, as it was perfectly clear to everyone that the most popular Petersburger in the country, President (now Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin, was personally interested in its construction. Another Petersburger, Gazprom president Alexei Miller, has direct responsibility for the project.

Putin, Miller and many other high-ranking supporters of the project evidently see the skyscraper as a symbol of Russia's economic prosperity, advanced technology and modernization. They sincerely believe that by locating this project in St. Petersburg and nowhere else they are doing their native city a good turn.

But is it such a good turn?  Many leading cultural figures in Petersburg believe that the Gazprom skyscraper, popularly known as the gas-scraper, will ruin the historic, uniquely preserved centre of St. Petersburg with its rich 18th and 19th century architectural ensembles. UNESCO representatives responsible for issues of cultural heritage have already made it clear that building this skyscraper may adversely affect the city's status, which would be extremely serious for the tourist industry.   Pluses created by a modern business centre in Okhta will hardly be able to compensate for the minuses if St. Petersburg loses its reputation as a unique monument of European culture.

Local opinion is divided. In private several of the city's leading sociologists have noted that in surveys most residents are against the skyscraper. If asked about the construction of the Okhta Centre as such (without specifying the height of its dominant feature), most of them are for it. Each opposing side advances what they consider the most useful sociological data to prove that the Petersburgers are behind them.

Until recently the regime had a clear lead in the battle.  Governors in Russia are appointed by the president, so the leader of the city authorities has no need to pay much attention to the opinions of its residents. And, most importantly, the mass media, which is controlled by the authorities, has until recently been saying exactly what the supporters of the Okhta Centre wanted to hear. But on the evening of Sunday 18 October that changed dramatically.

A sudden blow

That Sunday, at prime time, Vremya dealt a crippling blow to the gas-scraper.

If the coverage had been journalistically even slightly professional i.e. giving balanced judgments and stating the positions of both sides, it could simply have been regarded as normal media interest in a topical problem. But the attack on the gas-scraper was so vitriolic, one-sided and self-assured that, knowing the recent traditions of Russian television, it is almost impossible not to suspect a political dimension. This was a blow aimed at Valentina Matvienko, St Petersburg's governor, who must have been taken entirely by surprise by this turn of events.  She had tied her business reputation firmly to the Gazprom project. She had no reason to doubt that the construction of the gas-scraper had been approved at the highest level of the vertical of power.

If anyone still doubts that architectural problems have become political, they should consider the tough anti-Gazprom and anti-Smolny stance suddenly adopted by the Russian minister for culture, Alexander Avdeev. He is not only a minister, but a career diplomat as well. People like him are very cautious about expressing their views, but here he was suddenly speaking out unequivocally against the gas-scraper, demonstrating civic responsibility and a concern for cultural heritage. Something very serious has evidently taken place at the top of Russia's vertical of power. The St. Petersburg conflicts are merely a reflection of the battle of the titans taking place somewhere up above, from where even the tallest gas-scraper seems small.

We will talk about the battle later. First, we should clear up what the gas-scraper actually means for Petersburg.

Politics disguised as culture

When the authorities close off all opportunities for expressing dissatisfaction with the political system, the traditional reaction in Petersburg is a battle for culture. Opposition within the permitted boundaries can mobilize the masses in the name of goals they understand, and prepare future battles with the regime.

In 1986 at the very beginning of Gorbachev's perestroika i.e. long before the first free elections were held in the USSR, a group was formed in Leningrad to oppose the demolition of the famous house of Delvig, a renowned Russian poet of the 19thcentury. In 1987, the group protested against the demolition of the Hotel Angleterre, where the great poet of the 20th century Sergei Yesenin committed suicide. Many historians and political analysts believe that the democratic movement in St. Petersburg grew out of this architectural movement.

In recent years the regime has become increasingly cynical and open about preventing the democratic opposition access to any bodies of power.  So it is hardly surprising that architecture is in the news once more. Especially as the Smolny-Gazprom tandem, which was absolutely sure it controlled the whole political space, had simply laid itself open to attack.  For what is at issue is not so much a clash of tastes within the St. Petersburg intelligentsia as an open violation of the legal limits on the height of buildings in the city.

The battle of the gas-scraper has become a high-level quasi-cultural (but at the same time political) project. Interestingly, the construction of the gas-scraper is only at the planning stage and the crisis means that the money is unlikely to be raised. There are many trouble spots in St. Petersburg today, where our cultural heritage has suffered considerably.  None has attracted a fraction of the protest which has been concentrated on the gas-scraper. It is, after all, the symbol of the whole vertical of power today and the brainchild of Putin's favourite company.

People have started going to demonstrations again, as they did perestroika years.  They have a very clear idea what they are protesting about and against whom.  There is a new taste for a political fight and people are gradually learning how to define what they stand for. In political strategy this mobilization of the masses is the first stage of the battle. After some time, they will learn to come up with slogans that are purely political, rather than quasi-cultural. Incidentally, at the unexpectedly large rally held in St. Petersburg on 10 October, city residents were already demanding the resignation of Matvienko. It's not impossible that, after two or three more protests, the resignation of the St. Petersburg governor will be the smallest demand of the angry crowd.

However, the quasi-cultural opposition movement could probably not have properly mobilized the wider masses by itself. The fact is that the level of cultural concerns and values in St. Petersburg is traditionally over-stated. After the many Stalinist repressions, the losses in World War II and then the exodus of a large section of the elite to Moscow, where there are greater opportunities for creativity and career growth, there are no longer that many people who mind about the city's historic architectural image. Probably only a small part of the big city is truly concerned about the construction of the gas-scraper. But there have now been political changes which have made the issue of forming a public movement very relevant.

Medvedev against Putin

Much has changed in Russia since Dmitry Medvedev's sensational article "Forward, Russia!" (see my commentary "Do Gorbachev's clothes fit Medvedev?" at http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/russia-theme/do-gorbachev-s-clothes-fit-medvedev). In it he tried to position himself as an independent politician, prepared to announce perestroika a la Gorbachev, and to break with a certain part of Putin's heritage. Whether he really will break with this heritage is not clear, but some modification of the political system that was formed under Putin cannot be completely ruled out. It's not about democratization or a continuation of the economic reforms of the 1990s, but about the redistribution of property and control over capital flows. Medvedev's people are certainly trying to take away some resources from Putin's people, though not his high-flyers.

There are very serious financial resources in St. Petersburg and Medvedev would certainly like to gain control over them. Many people would also like to force the St. Petersburg governor out of office, especially if there is a formal reason for doing so. The confusion surrounding the gas-scraper provides just such a reason: the law has been violated, Petersburgers' wishes have been ignored, the appearance of a great city has been ruined etc.

As long as there was just one system of power in Russia, controlled by Putin, there was little point in attacking Matvienko. After all she is ruling St. Petersburg not by the will of the voters, but because she was appointed by Putin, who is indifferent to rebukes from Washington or Brussels, let alone UNESCO.  As things stand now, people who wish to gain control over the financial flows of St. Petersburg are able to exploit the differences between Medvedev and Putin. The gas-scraper won't be enough of a reason for changing the governor, but it could give Medvedev an excuse to move Matvienko to another, less prestigious job - if, that is, he is looking for an excuse.

However, I'm not at all convinced that the Russian President is personally taking part in all of this, or trying to attack Matvienko. It's quite possible that the people with an interest in establishing control over St. Petersburg are now acting independently. When public opinion has been properly prepared, the issue will be submitted to the President for his consideration. The fact that in Russia a major television channel and an important ministry can act together at the right moment and act tough suggests that the people are very rich and very influential.

St. Petersburg is becoming an experimental platform for testing whether President Medvedev will be able to make serious staff changes and take control of sectors which were until recently under the sole control of Mr Putin.


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