Evictions Loom for Artists
Published: June 25, 2004 (Issue # 980)
In a city renowned for its art, the St. Petersburg Property Committee has told all local cultural figures using studios belonging to City Hall that they will be privatized.
Tenants will have to pay market rents or buy the studios if they want to stay. The artists were not ordered to vacate the studios, but the city's decree makes that virtually inevitable because most artists cannot afford market rentals.
The artisans, bewildered by the decision, held a protest meeting at the headquarters of the Artists' Union on Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa on Thursday to discuss their response.
Street protests and even mass renunciation of Russian citizenship were mentioned as possible moves.
The city boasts about 2,000 studios that belong to the city and are rented by the artists in perpetuity. The right to rent a studio is granted by a professional union.
There are 14 artists' unions in St. Petersburg, including the Union of Artists, the Union of Composers, the Union of Writers, the Union of Designers and the Union of Architects.
Many artists live in the studios as well as using them for their creative works. The studios can't be inherited.
Prominent writer Ilya Shtemler urged the artists to take to the streets.
"Being delicate, quiet and tolerant is not going to help," he said. "The only way to confront this usurpation is to publicly protest outside Smolny and the Legislative Assembly. Even if we lose the studios we will keep our pride."
Artist Sergei Usik was far more radical; all petitions, meetings and protests would be treated as voices crying in the wilderness, he said.
The issue is political and requires a political response - all artists kicked out of their studios should renounce Russian citizenship, he said.
"To be effective, the measures must be sufficiently dramatic," he said. "If the authorities deprive us of our working space, they are clearly not interested in having artists here. That means we should go elsewhere."
Alternatively, Usik advised sending an appeal to the governments of developed countries asking them to give "the wandering stars" a roof over their heads.
"I very much doubt that our governor could swallow several thousand artists exposing her to such shame at an international level," he said. "Valentina Matviyenko [the city governor] will have to reconsider."
In the meantime, the governor has been sent a protest letter signed by the artists at Thursday's meeting.
"The actions of the City Property Committee target destruction, rather than encouragement, of culture in St. Petersburg," the letter says.
"Most talented artists who rent studios can't afford market prices because they are not involved in commercial enterprises ... Political shortsightedness and a get-rich-quick attitude may result in the elimination of artists as bearers of spiritual culture and threaten to destroy the professional artistic unions in town."
The decree that will mean the eviction of the artists, signed by Vice Governor Sergei Tarasov and dated June 15 orders the privatization of the studios.
The St. Petersburg Times has a copy of the decree that makes exceptions for artists, including survivors of the Siege of Leningrad and World War II veterans, who have been granted free, lifelong use of the studios by the local go-vernment.
The decree also entitles district real estate boards to visit all studios within a month to check how the studio space is being used. All contracts with tenants who misuse the studios or have debts on them that have stood for at least three months, will then be cancelled.
Alexander Saikov, deputy head of the Artists' Union, said the monthly rent on a studio of 50 square meters is 1,000 rubles to 1,500 rubles.
"We haven't been offered any rates yet [for buying the studios out] but judging by average market prices, it is unlikely to be below $600 dollars per square meter," he said.
Smolny's press office refused to comment on the matter Thursday.
St. Petersburg began the year with a budget deficit. Budget expenditures for 2004 are forecast at 83.9 billion rubles ($2.8 billion), but revenues are only 80.2 billion rubles. Expenditure is set 8.8 percent above last year's level and revenues at 6 percent more than for 2003.
The deficit was put in the budget to keep capital expenditures at a level of 23 percent of the whole budget, or 19 billion rubles.
During her first news conference as elected governor last year, Matviyenko said the deficit will be overcome by increasing the rent and sale price of land and office space, especially in the city center.