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Letter from Samara: demolishing history

Land in the centre of Russian cities is expensive and very sought after. No matter if there’s a listed building or a school on it: something can always be arranged to suit the interests of speculative developers, often a fire. Most Russians have experienced the arbitrary decisions of the authorities and Anna Krasnova is no exception.

The school

It was a normal June morning for everyone except my friend Elena Vasilyevna. She was woken by a telephone call from the head of school No. 81, attended by her two small children. She told her that the school was to be closed because the building was not fit for purpose: subsidence in the basement. Lessons had already stopped and children would have go to other schools, though most schools are already oversubscribed. No more familiar classroom, dear teachers and classmates. This news was so unpleasant and unexpected that something had to be done immediately to save the school and its pupils.

Samara School No. 81, an example of the widespread
corruption used to acquire land in the city centre.

Elena’s husband is head of the parents’ association, so a protest meeting was set up for a couple of days’ time. It was attended by most of the pupils and their parents with posters, banners and angry cries of ‘give us back our school’. The main fear was that the school building would be demolished and the land given to commercial organisations with money, connections and no interest whatsoever in the children. It was easy to see what had happened: someone took a fancy to the land on which the school stands. It’s in the centre of town, where land is sought after and very expensive, so if the school is knocked down the possibilities for construction would be endless – shopping centre, business centre, entertainment complex or top-end-of-the-market flats. How many buildings of architectural worth have been torn down in Moscow, in spite of the fierce criticism and protests from the public?  How many times have inhabitants of big Russian cities like Perm, Vladivostok, Irkutsk or St Petersburg had to stand by and watch bulldozers knocking down old buildings on any pretext?

Cultural values and traditions have no value at all for today’s barbarians. They feel nothing when they see traces of the past or places of social significance disappearing from our surroundings. The authorities and the businesses expect protests and are rarely inclined to make any compromises. When I heard about the parents’ protests I wondered whether they had any chance of succeeding in their defence of their children’s school. Will anyone listen to what they have to say and what they want?

Will these school doors ever open for pupils again?

The headmistress, Lyudmila Batisheva, gave the protesters photocopies of the technical documents. The investigations had taken 2 months to complete and the conclusion was that the building was unsafe. But she said that there was no point in getting het up, because when the old school had been knocked down, a new one would be put up in its place. The demolition would take 1 year and the reconstruction 2, so the pupils were unlikely to go back into the building. Though this was not expressed in so many words.

The meeting refused to accept that the documents were authentic, because everyone knows how these kinds of documents are written.  “We need an independent opinion,” shouted one of the protesters.

Success No. 1: the technical report, which had been prepared earlier, was sent to the Samara State University of Architecture and Building for an independent opinion. In addition, a letter from the teachers and the parents to President Dmitry Medvedev was dispatched to the regional government for consideration.

"Cultural values and traditions have no value at all for today’s barbarians. They feel nothing when they see traces of the past or places of social significance disappearing from our surroundings. The authorities and the businesses expect protests and are rarely inclined to make any compromises."

The independent opinion stated that the «technical analysis had been badly executed and there was insufficient proof for the conclusion that the school building was unsafe.» The document and the complaint have now been returned for revision. This, alas, doesn't mean that the building has been declared safe, but only that the technical analysis was badly put together and the contractor has to make a better case for his conclusions. Only then will the authorities decide what is to be done.

Today the school is shut again. While the documents are going back and forth, the education authority, to be safe, is preparing to distribute the children around other establishments of the nearest district.

The dacha

Nowadays the dacha can be only seen from the Volga
river; previously everyone could enjoy its delights.

I am familiar with the upset and what has happened to my friend, because I have twice found myself the victim of similar situations, when you don't know who is taking the decision for you about what actually belongs to you, and what doesn't.

I remember when I was still at school going with my parents to the 'dacha with the elephants', as we called it. It's an amazing place of unbelievably beauty. The dacha was built in 1909 by Konstantin Golovkin and became one of the wonders of Samara. The courtyard looks out on to the Volga and has two enormous statues of elephants.  The décor of the inner courtyard is entrancing. Specialists say the architectural style is Art Nouveau, which was obviously way ahead of its time. We'd been there before and I'd always wanted to go back.

We were almost there and I remember how impatient I was to see it again, when at the entrance we found a huge fence, a barrier and a very unfriendly guard. He said the dacha was now private property and there was no public access. He turned on his heel and left. Just like that. One day it was one of the sights of the city, the next it belonged to some rich man.

We stood there for some time not knowing what to do. Then we turned round and went home. I looked out of the car window and was overwhelmed with waves of disappointment. Looking back at the house as it receded into the distance and thinking that never again would I see the huge elephants on the bank of the Volga, walk around the garden full of warmth, peace and harmony, I wanted to cry. I couldn't understand how things like that could happen. I never went back there.

The park

Civic action ensured that Samara's biggest park will
not be converted into an Amusement Park with paid
entrance.

Time passed and I forgot. I was a 3rd year student at the university when rumours started to circulate that the Country Park was to be sold. The Maxim Gorky Central Park of Culture and Rest – the Country Park – is the biggest park in Samara, a local natural landmark managed by the state, which was opened in 1932 on the site of a former merchant's mansion.

How can they? Just sell it? What about us? What about the children for whom the day they go with their parents to the 'Country Park' is a real holiday? We students were all in shock, because we too often went there after lectures: it's just a step away – you cross the road and you're there, in a green oasis smelling of oak trees, with squirrels hopping from tree to tree.

The information was that all the groups of trees and shrubbery in the park would be cut down, to be replaced by fairground attractions. You would, of course, have to pay to get in. We started collecting signatures for a petition to stop the sale of our park. There were several 'green' protest rallies in which our students took part. It all went on for a few months and then there was no further talk of selling. We had fought them off and won back our park, which remained in state hands.

Recent developments

Now, some years later, it seems as though it wasn't that significant. But it was and it demonstrates an interesting pattern: if there's no active popular protest, then city property can be sold to anyone, listed buildings can be demolished on someone's whim and it's a free for all, as it is at the moment. What this shows is that the city high-ups are unconcerned about either what is city property or what it means to the inhabitants. Today's situation is a demonstration that they will not invest any money, effort or initiative into anything where they don't have a vested interest. While things are this way, the only way of getting through to those at the top will continue to be strikes, demonstrations and mass protests.

From its earliest days Samara has been a strong and well-developed city, which is why the prevailing state of affairs in recent years is so painful to behold. The political parties are corrupt, the administration does nothing and decisions taken concerning the police, education and business are completely arbitrary.

"In recent years Samara has become used to seeing city property being transferred to private hands. The more expensive the land, the more attractive the site; the more ancient the history, the greater the temptation to get one's hands on things which by right belong to the city."

Today expensive cars drive along beaten up roads. One person can buy a flat overlooking the Volga costing 1 million euros, whereas another lives in a one-storey wooden house which is just about to fall down. At the same time kindergarten and school buildings are dilapidated and there's no government money to repair them because the budget has all been divided up between the pockets of the officials and those in power.

How do they do it?

In recent years Samara has become used to seeing city property being transferred to private hands (big businessmen and commercial organisations which often have connections high-up). The more expensive the land, the more attractive the site; the more ancient the history, the greater the temptation to get one's hands on things which by right belong to the city. 

Wooden houses, many abandoned, form part of Samara's architectural heritage, but the local authorities do nothing to restore them and fires are fairly common.

In the centre of Samara there are many early 20th century houses. They are grains of our history, architectural treasures, but no one is at all interested in them, except the inhabitants or the odd wandering tourist. The city administration will not take them under its wing or allocate funds for their restoration. They are abandoned and tumbledown – very alluring for people who want to get their dishonest hands on land in the centre of Samara. The fires that start in these houses (and there are plenty every year) are not by chance. People in Samara have seen this with their own eyes. A house burns down and its residents are re-housed, usually very inappropriately. Land in the centre of the city can't be sold, because there is a listed building on it, and demolishing it is not an option either. But a fire or other acts of God mean that when a house 'disappears' the land passes to the local authority. Who can sell or lease it.

What now?

I do wonder about the fate of school no 81…. It didn't open on the first day of term, 1 September, and the pupils have been transferred to other schools. But is this transfer permanent or temporary? The Community Council is to meet after 19 September and finally decide whether to strengthen the structure and carry out repairs, as recommended by the independent expert opinion, or pull it down.

It's quite obvious that if the pupils and their parents had not violently protested, no one would have given the matter a second thought and the school would have been closed as soon as the documents confirming that it was unsafe had been submitted. But active resistance and civic anger played their part in resisting the commercial companies.  Perhaps only for a short time, but still… A good lesson for our society: when your basic rights are being violated, you have to get out on the street and shout as loudly as you can. That's your only chance of being heard.


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