Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters
Activists from the pressure group Living City protesting against the planned new Gazprom tower in November 2006.
A television documentary highlighting the damage done to St. Petersburg’s historic center by new building projects has received a massive response from the public after it became available on the Internet earlier this month. The debate continued offline when “St. Petersburg: The Dusk of the New Century” was screened and discussed at the offices of the Russian-German Exchange, a local non-governmental organization, last week.
Directed by Tatyana Selikhova, the 44-minute documentary shot in 2006 for RTR Television, shows how much of the historic center has been destroyed in the past few years and includes interviews with such cultural figures as author Daniil Granin, the late actor Kirill Lavrov, and rock musician Yury Shevchuk about the current state of St. Petersburg’s architectural landscape.
Met with disapproval by local authorities — whose planning policies it implicitly criticizes — the film was shown on RTR early last year and largely went unnoticed.
The documentary was shown in a late-night slot, after a long delay and with no publicity. After watching it, Governor Valentina Matviyenko dismissed it as “untimely,” director Selikhova said on Ekho Moskvy radio earlier this month.
However, the film created a stir on blogs and in the media when Living City (Zhivoi Gorod), a pressure group struggling to protect the city’s endangered buildings, uploaded it onto RuTube, the Russian replica of YouTube, earlier this month.
“The film landed on us all of a sudden,” Dmitry Vorobyov, an activist with Living City, said.
“It was shown on television at night and that was that, and nobody would know about it were it not for the rumors that it had actually been made. And because we have a great interest in how our city changes, and there’s a big discussion going on about how it develops and how it is destroyed, any impulse, any analysis of what is happening is in great demand.
“It was found through connections, and after we got in contact with the film crew and obtained a copy, we thought, ‘Why don’t we upload it on the web?’ That’s what we do; we find some facts, artifacts and so on and use them so that somebody can see it and understand it.”
According to Vorobyov, the public screening was organized when an unprecedented number of viewers downloaded or watched the film on the web.
“We decided to show it on a large screen, because by that time it had been watched by 21,000 people on RuTube.” “It’s just a natural development of events, we’re just helping it,” he said. The number of views increased to 24,169 this week, not counting downloads from file exchange services.
Though rather mild and unfocused in tone, the documentary’s vivid images of historical buildings being pulled down and replaced by ugly business centers say more than words can in the redevelopment debate.
Since no criticism of the authorities’ town-planning policies is allowed on local television and in most newspapers controlled by the local government, news of the screening caused an unexpected reaction from journalists, who called the organizers and asked them whether they are afraid to screen the film in public.
“That’s because there’s nothing happening here in St. Petersburg, there’s no active civic life, and because the film caused a big response on the web,” said Vorobyov.
“Many think that it is a total nightmare in the city, with repression, mafia, corruption, and then a film appears exposing the processes of what’s going on here — how could it be that some group of people decided to show it on a large screen? It must be scary — there will probably be 45 OMON policemen, some scandal, perhaps the film calls people to take to the streets... The press called both us and the venue, the Russian-German Exchange, asking us whether we’re afraid and whether the screening would take place or not.”
The film was unearthed by Andrei Vorontsov of Living City, who had learned about it from a friend and got a copy after contacting the director.
“The film almost coincided with the emergence of the Living City movement, which formed just over a year ago,” he said. “Actually, the emergence of Living City was caused by the problems depicted in the film.”
But the situation has worsened since the film was shot, according to Vorontsov.
“The situation is progressing and moreover, the most dangerous and most unpleasant aspect of it is that they now are trying to free themselves to further destroy the city on a legislative level, and, secondly, legitimate the crimes that they have committed. It’s not looking good,” he said.
The Okhta Center, the highly contentious skyscraper development known as Gazprom City when the film was shot, is mentioned in the documentary, although its planned height was only 100 meters at that time (already violating a local law allowing buildings no taller than 48 meters in that area). Since then, however, plans for Okhta Center have seen it increase to nearly 400 meters.
“The more you get, the more you want,” said Vorontsov. “They talked about 100 meters at first, then all of a sudden there was a condition that it should be no less than 300 meters tall.”
In September, Living City co-organized the March for the Preservation of St. Petersburg along with the liberal political party Yabloko and the pressure group Okhtinskaya Duga (Okhta Bend) to protest against the Okhta Center, attracting an estimated 3,000 demonstrators. The 396-meter building — just 50 meters shorter than the Empire State Building — threatens to destroy St. Petersburg’s UNESCO-protected historical skyline.
Shot for state-run television, the documentary avoids naming those officials responsible for railroading building projects through planning stages. The film also extensively cites, for instance, Vera Dementyeva, the chairwoman of the Committee for the State Inspection and Protection of Historical Monuments, or KGIOP, who speaks for the preservation of the historical sites on screen.
However, her committee is held responsible by Living City for licensing the destruction of historic buildings in the center.
“Vera Anatolyevna looks smart and says some nice words in the film, but it doesn’t correspond to what they sign and approve,” said Vorontsov. Living City criticizes KGIOP’s intention to reduce the city’s preservation zones to give way to new construction activity in the historic center.
“So construction works in the center will be allowed, and, taking into account the preparation of amendments to the general plan that cancels the distinction between construction in the ‘bedroom communities’ and central districts and attempts to change height regulations, they will destroy historic buildings and erect high-rise buildings in the center.
“We will only be left with the borders of Peter the Great’s St. Petersburg. The general trend is that we will only be left with postcard views; here you have the Stock Exchange, the Strelka, the Peter and Paul Fortress, here you have the Winter Palace, see and admire. All the rest is given over to builders. How can Dementyeva’s position correspond with what she was saying in the film? In my view, it’s a profound contradiction between words and deeds.”
One of the most striking examples of the committee’s actions has been the fate of a historic building at 7 Ulitsa Esperova that was deprived of its “cultural monument” status by the committee five days before it was pulled down, according to Vorontsov.
“On the other hand, one should consider that they are not independent,” he said. “Sometimes they do try to defend a building, as they are doing with the Frunzensky Univermag, but, ultimately, they are all subordinate to the governor or St. Petersburg’s administration.”
Launched early last year as the “movement for the preservation of the cultural and architectural heritage of St. Petersburg,” Living City has frequently been in the media spotlight for its frequently flashy, theatrical protests. Occasionally, the protests have achieved results, according to Vorontsov. Dom Knigi, the city’s main bookstore on Nevsky Prospekt, was planned for offices after renovation, but has become a bookstore again.
“So far the Tavrichesky Sad has been prevented from being all built up. I think the public should keep an eye on the so-called reconstruction of the Summer Gardens that was mentioned in the film as well, because it’s not finished there. I know that there’s still lobbying for the alleged rebuilding of lost buildings whose purpose will become purely commercial.”
“The public, the city’s residents, are capable of doing a lot. This small group of bureaucrats connected with the construction industry, they do what’s profitable for themselves, and they think least about those who live in the city. It’s not a normal situation. In a city like St. Petersburg, two, three or five people should not decide its fate.”