History Hysteria Architecture

On July 1, Petersburg’s developers and architects held a round table to discuss how to eliminate the alleged threat to their happiness and livelihood posed by historical preservationists and local grassroots NIMBY and housing activists, as recounted here by journalist Dmitry Ratnikov.

According to Ratnikov, Elena Smotrova, head of Tellus Group developers, compared the activists to the infamous mafia protection rackets that shook down honest businessmen in the 1990s. Architect Yevgeny Gerasimov recommended calling the police when activists showed up, while Igor Vodopyanov, head of development and management company Teorema, claimed that activists had driven developers from Petersburg. What lay in store for the city, he argued, was a “Cuban historical preservation” scenario, where houses are propped up on wooden stilts (sic), and there is no business.

In fact, pace the anti-populist hysteria of Gerasimov, Vodopyanov, Smotrova and Co., literally everything that has been built and developed in Petersburg in the past fifteen years has been utter garbage by even the most minimal and indulgent international standards.

This is not to mention the ruinous effects of such pseudo-architecture on the historic built environment, but these refined ladies and gentlemen passing themselves off as developers and architects have had the gall to blame the so-called gradozashchitniki (“city defenders”) for their woes. What chutzpah.

So the pushback on the part of local people of good will, had it not happened in the face of such an assault on the city, would have been more mystifying. In fact, practically the only thing worthwhile, in terms of grassroots politics, to come out of Petersburg in the last ten years has been this relatively strong movement of historical preservationists and just plain folk out in the Soviet new estates defending their turf (and the relatively decent Soviet planning therein) from bad developments and even worse architecture.

Given their lack of talent at developing and designing buildings that would complement and enhance one of the world’s most beautiful cities, and their hostility towards the much more refined aesthetical and legal sensibilities of the rank amateurs who mostly populate the the ranks of the activists, it is not surprising that Petersburg’s architects and developers often resort to facile evocations of history to cover up their crimes and misdemeanors, which often involve demolishing listed or perfectly serviceable and comely old buildings and replacing them with variations on post-postmodern listlessness and anomie, whose only real purpose is to occupy as many storeys and square meters as possible and stroke the egos of their “authors” by physically dominating their historic built environments.

And given the current political conjuncture, it is no wonder these historical evocations and gestures are usually deeply reactionary celebrations of Russian imperial history rather than Russian revolutionary history (whose early period produced art, architecture, and theory that people are still marveling over and studying  almost a hundred years later, and whose middle and late periods are, at very least, recognizable as legitimate products of architectural and social history).

While strolling around the city this past spring, a friend and I came upon this newish oddity on the Sinop Embankment of the Neva River.

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Upon closer inspection, it turned out the grillwork on the balconies were emblazoned with rather odd, at first glance, inscriptions.

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“Battle of Sinop. The Paris, ship of the line. The Grand Duke Konstantin, ship of the line. The Empress Maria. The Rostislav, ship of the line. The Chesma, ship of the line.”

After pondering this funny list for a few minutes, I realized the inscription on the top balcony read, “Battle of Sinop,” and that listed below it were Russian naval ships that, I discovered later, had taken part in this maritime slaughter of Turkish ships during the distant Crimean War.

The building’s designer, “post-neo-Empire style apologist” Dmitry Lagutin, explained the gimcrack notion behind the building in an August 2012 interview with online local architecture and development watchdog publication Karpovka:

The building was intended as a memorial to the Battle of Sinop, the last battle between sailing ships. The idea arose when we had to get the image across to the client and convince them to build a classical building. We wanted to deliver the building before December 1 of this year, for the anniversary of the Battle of Sinop.

There is a two-storey glass dome at the top of the building, an expensive luxury. It can be seen from the other shore. But if you are walking along the embankment, the dome is not visible. It disappears into the depths, and the building becomes smaller. So there will be a smooth segue from Alexander Nevsky Square with its lower built environment. There is a pediment, which, if you look closely, resembles the stern of a ship. It supports a sculpture of Empress Maria, recalling the name of the flagship Empress Maria, which Admiral Nakhimov commanded in the battle. The names of the ships [involved in the battle on the Russian side] will appear on the gridwork of the facade.

sinopskaya 22-sketchRendering of the new building on Sinop Embankment, 22. Courtesy of Karpovka

[…]

We are communicating with sculptors. There is architecture that includes a place for sculpture. And our building has a lower arcade of six arches. Between the arched windows there are niches that will house sculptures of [four Russian] admirals. Everyone knows Nakhimov. There is Kornilov and Panfilov, whom everyone confuses with Panfilov’s Men. There is Novosilsky. The four admirals who took part in the Battle of Sinop. Real heroes.

Now, as we are selecting sketches, we have to study the story of each admiral to avoid mistakes, starting with how they looked. We have to study every thing down to the epaulettes and buttons. Recently, a monument to Nakhimov was erected on the street of the same name. It was chockablock with crude mistakes.

When the busts of the heroic Russian admirals were unveiled on October 3, 2013, the city’s high and mighty were present for the festivities, as reported by Peterburgskii Dnevnik, the city government’s official newspaper.

Busts of Admiral Kornilov, Pavel Nakhimov, Fyodor Novosilsky, and Alexander Panfilov were unveiled today in a ceremony at Sinop Embankment, 22.

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St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko, Russian Museum director Vladimir Gusev, businessman Boris Zingarevich, who initiated the creation and installation of the busts, and sculptor Alexei Arkhipov attended the unveiling.

It is no accident that the sculptures of the great admirals have appeared on the Sinop Embankment. 2013 marks the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Sinop, which was the last battle involving sailing ships. Likewise, sixty years ago, the embankment was named in honor of this naval battle.

“It is twice as nice and important that that we have not forgotten the glorious tradition of the Russian fleet and are unveiling the busts of those who were victorious at Sinop. I thank everyone involved in the project—the architects, designers, and builders—for wanting to recall history and for their initiative,” Georgy Poltavchenko said at the unveiling ceremony.

The designer of the busts, Union of Artists member and sculptor Alexei Arkhipov, said that executing the works was not easy, because there were very few extant images of the admirals. The decorative elements—buttons embossed coats of of arms, and the decorations worn by the admirals—were a particular challenge. In total, the work took around a year.

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Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko (second from left) with naval officials and other dignitaries at unveiling ceremony. October 3, 2013, Sinop Embankment, 22

The dome of the building on Sinop Embankment where the busts of the great admirals have been installed is crowned by a replica of the bas relief from the bowsprit of Admiral Nakhimov’s flagship, which was named after the Empress Maria Feodorovna. In turn, the names of the ships involved in the battle have been inscribed on the railings of the balconies in the building, which will house a business office center.

For what it’s worth, before this recent outburst of collective built patriotism, the lot at Sinop Embankment, 22, was occupied, until 2003, by a much homelier but more more recognizably Petersburgian building. Known as the Alexander Nevsky Lavra House, it was erected in 1860 by architect Karl Brandt (1810–1882).

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Alexander Nevsky Lavra House in 1993. Photo courtesy of A. Kaidanovskij

And this is what Brandt’s modest building looked like on the eve of its demolition.

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Sinop Embankment, 22. Photo courtesy of CityWalls.ru

I was reminded of our springtime encounter with the patriotically dolled-up “business office center” on the Sinop Embankment while investigating one of the Petersburg’s oldest streets, Galernaya, with a group of local psychogeographers a couple weeks ago.

During our drift, we came upon this little art nouveau bonbon at Galernaya, 40.

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According to CityWalls.ru, it was built by Maxim Kapelinsky in 1905-1907 and 1910 as apartment building and publishing house for S.M. Propper.

And yet a plaque on the first storey claims that the great Russian architect Vasily Stasov lived and died there on September 5, 1848.

holland-stasov

This apparent contradiction is easily explained. When Stasov lived there, the lot was occupied by the Kireev estate, which extended all the way from Galernaya to the Admiralty Canal Embankment on the other side of the block.

The real mystery, however, is not where Stasov lived here at the end of his rich life, but whether the building now on the site is the same building that Kapelinsky built over a hundred years ago.

Views from the side and the front, and a glimpse through a crack in the gateway hinted that something fishy might have been afoot at Galernaya, 40.

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Sales office of Holland apartment complex, Galernaya, 40

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In fact, it seems that Kapelinsky’s hundred-year-old art deco confection has not been restored, as deceptively suggested by the facades on both ends of the block. Instead, it has been partly or totally reconstructed, its original innards replaced with tonier digs, more storeys and square meters, and its “empty” courtyards righted with a lot of infill construction.

On November 2, 2014, CityWalls.ru user “Vlada” snapped the official sign that has to be erected, like a permit, outside all such construction sites.

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The sign reveals that the Propper House, identified as a listed regional architectural landmark, is being “adapted for modern use (reconstructed) as an apartment hotel.”

As redeveloped by the Clover Group, the Propper House has now been renamed Holland.

I cannot recommend the project’s video presentation (accessed by pressing the big arrow on the home page) or the page where you can select an apartment (and simultaneously take “virtual tours” of various parts of the complex) highly enough, because you will be quickly convinced that the Propper House has indeed been “adapted” (gutted) to make way for a new gentry or their loose cash.

holland-deckVisualization of penthouse deck, Holland apartment complex, Galernaya, 40

How this brutal approach to a listed regional architectural landmark is compatible with local law, federal law, and the city’s expliciat obligations as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which should amply protect the city’s historic center from such predations, is beyond me. This, however, has been the standard practice for the past ten years, a sad fact known all too weel by the pesky gradozashchitniki I mentioned at the beginning of this post, and tens and hundreds of thousands of other Petersburgers who are less active civically but see perfectly well what has been going on and to whose benefit.

But you will not be surprised, I hope, when you learn that Clover Group’s elegant wrecking ball methods have also been sanctified and sanctioned by Russian imperial history, to wit:

The Holland complex consists of three sections, Amsterdam, Hague, and Zandaam, located in historically significant renovated buildings. Ranging in height from five to seven stories, each of the buildings offers luxurious apartments of various sizes (from 27 to 195 meters square). The names given to them were not accidental. These resonant names have their roots in Petrine times. These were the names of the three main stops in Holland during Peter the Great’s Grand Embassy.

If you suspected there might be something in common between this pseudo-historical papering over of what are often latter identified, euphemistically, as “town planning mistakes,” and the current political regime’s uses and abuses of history, you would probably be on the right track.

Goethe is reported to have said that architecture is frozen music. In today’s Russia, new “architecture” is the frozen hysteria of a ruling class and society “enslaved by history” and thus unable to do anything other than salvage and bricolage it to justify its knowingly futureless projects. That this often involves simultaneously destroying real history, such as the historical buildings and cityscapes of the former imperial capital, is only one of the paradoxes generated by this extremely dangerous political moment in Russia.

Victoria Lomasko: We Won

lomasko-we won (stencil)Victoria Lomasko, We Won, 2015. Pen and ink on A4 colored paper

______

We Won

Victory Day 2015 was celebrated in Russian with great fanfare. Nearly all the veterans and witnesses of the war are dead, and now people who had nothing to do with it can privatize “the Victory”.

People from all the Soviet republics fought on the frontlines or worked in the rear on behalf of the soldiers at the front, but now the victory has become the victory of ethnic Russians alone. Atheists fought for their communist homeland, but now they are dubbed “agents of Russian Orthodox civilization,” and Patriarch Kirill says a “divine miracle” played the decisive role in the victory. Soviet soldiers bore red flags emblazoned with hammers and sickles as they scrapped their way toward victory over fascism, but now Soviet symbols have been replaced by orange-and-black striped ribbons that originated in the tsarist era.

To be eligible to celebrate “the Victory” you have tie St. George’s Ribbons to your clothing, your backpacks, your rearview mirrors, and your car antennae, adorn yourself with crucifixes, oppose Ukrainian independence, and be a flagrant homophobe.

This has been the route to public renown taken by the Night Wolves bike gang leader nicknamed The Surgeon, a Putin favorite who organized the To Berlin! “patriotic” motorcycle rally, and had the full support of Russian state media in this dubious and potentially offensive endeavor.

To find yourself labeled an “enemy” and a “Nazi,” however, it suffices to point openly to the way history has been distorted and to remind people that war is primarily an act of mass slaughter. This was the route taken by the Oleg Basov and Pyotr Voys, the artist and the curator who organized an exhibition entitled We Won, which police and the FSB shut down on May 8, a day after it had opened for a private viewing, and one day before Victory Day, May 9.

The art community did not discuss what happened, because what happened was too frightening for them to discuss.

Victoria Lomasko

* * * * *

Here is a translation of the statement the organizers of We Won posted on the exhibition’s Facebook page on May 7, 2015.

The country is celebrating a great victory.

The St. George’s Ribbon, portraits of Stalin, the red flag, and the word fascist are vigorously being replicated again nowadays, becoming a part of everyday life.

But we should clarify the situation. The St. George’s Ribbon is orange and black. It was awarded for military valor, and during the Second World War itself it was a decoration awarded in Vlasov’s Army, which fought on the side of the German Wehrmacht.

As a symbol of victory in the Great Patriotic War [the Soviet name for the Second World War], it was suggested by RIA Novosti news agency in 2006, and the government supported this proposal. The St. George’s Ribbon is now tied to backpacks, dogs, and Mercedes-Benz cars. It has become something commonplace, as if the rank of general or medals for heroism were handed out to everyone.

When heroism becomes a cult, and its symbols are reproduced en masse, its meaning is emasculated. The St. George’s Ribbon is today an identifying mark of the pro-Putin regime fans of Russian TV Channel One.

We won! Let’s take a look back at what this meant.

When counting the numbers of the dead, the margin of error amounts to millions of people.

The beheading of the Red Army’s command on the eve of the war, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that divided Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and the shameful Winter War, which undermined the army’s authority, were only a prelude.

The illusion that the Soviet Union had unlimited human resources led to terrifying losses: seven Soviet soldiers for every German soldier.

In the postwar years, the military-industrial complex accounted for two thirds of the Soviet Union’s GDP.

These years also witnessed total poverty and devastation, a deformed civil society, an epidemic of fatherless children, concealment of the disabled from the general public, widespread reprisals against war veterans who had been in Europe during the war, and Stalinism’s postwar apogee. The list could go on.

The victory was seen as a justification of the Stalinist terror. Declaring ourselves victors blocks our chances to humanize and evolve our society today as well.

Cultural trauma and post-traumatic amnesia distort our identities. This is expressed in the brain drain of talented people to other countries, widespread alcoholism and drug addiction, and the monstrous lives led by the elderly and the disabled.

We won, and today the outcome of this discourse is a restoration of totalitarianism with an admixture of Orthodox fundamentalism.

Our exhibition does not question the heroism of the people, that is, the men and women who stood in muddy trenches and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

But we question the chimera of the great imperial past, which today is manufactured as the one and only indisputable core of Russian identity.

The Second World War was a monstrous bloodletting by the nations of Europe. A day of mourning is not an occasion for congratulation.

Source: Facebook 

Summer of Friendship Campaign Continues in Petersburg

Summer of Friendship Campaign Continues in Petersburg
David Frenkel
Special to The Russian Reader
June 29, 2015

The Vesna (“Spring”) Movement has continued its Summer of Friendship campaign for peace between Russia and Ukraine.

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Summer of Friendship postcard

Yesterday, Sunday, June 28, Vesna activists handed out blank postcards on the corner of Nevsky Prospect and Malaya Sadovaya Street asking people to write kind messages to Ukrainians.

The organizers claimed that members of the public dropped over two hundred “freedom postcards” into a special mailbox during the event. Our correspondent estimated that the number of postcards submitted was closer to one hundred.

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“Russian Post”

“All the letters will be sent shortly to the addressees. Our colleagues in Kyiv and other cities will help us deliver them. We want to remind both Russians and Ukrainians that we are a fraternal people and must remain this way. We have many things in common: history, culture, family connections—everything but politicians. And we must overcome hatred together!” Vesna’s press secretary Anton Gorbatsevich explained in a letter to our correspondent.

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Similar actions took place in Krasnodar and Tomsk, and another such event has been planned for Voronezh in a few days.

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All photographs by and courtesy of David Frenkel

Free Journalist Sergei Ilchenko!

Sergei Ilchenko is a professional journalist who has reported for a number of Moldovan, Ukrainian and Russian media. He is currently being persecuted for his professional work by the secret services of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), commonly known as Transdniester or Transnistria.

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Sergei Ilchenko

Ilchenko was arrested by the PMR KGB on March 18, 2015, following his involvement in an opposition rally in Tiraspol, the PRM capital, and his refusal to delete the report and video footage he made at the rally.

The PMR Investigative Committee has brought criminal charges against Ilchenko under Article 276, Part 2 of the PMR Criminal Code (“Public Incitement to Extremist Activities”). If convicted, Ilchenko could face a term of up to five years in prison.

Ilchenko’s colleagues believe that in order to arrest and charge Ilchenko with incitement to overthrow the state the KGB resorted to a provocation by posting fabricated texts under Ilchenko’s name on various Internet forums and social media. Ilchenko denies having written these texts. Moreover, a day before his arrest he informed a number of his colleagues that his Facebook and Skype accounts had been hacked and the passwords changed, and that he had lost all control over the social media groups he was moderating.

Sergei Ilchenko is a left-wing political activist. He has been involved in the work of various trade union forums and has reported for the international trade union solidarity platform LabourStart.

What Can We Do to Help Sergei Ilchenko?

  1. Human rights organizations, journalists unions, and journalist communities in various countries should make statements of support of Sergei Ilchenko, denouncing Internet provocations as a means of persecuting dissidents.
  2. Write a letter to PMR President Yevgeny Shevchuk, demanding Sergei Ilchenko’s immediate release. Letters should be sent to the following address:

г.Тирасполь 3300, Горького, 53, Администрация Президента

Tiraspol 3300, Gorky Str., 53, Presidential Administration

You can also submit a letter to President Shevchuk on the presidential administration’s website. (Warning: all instructions are in Russian.)

http://president.gospmr.ru/ru/letter

  1. Contact your country’s ministry of foreign affairs, calling on it to put pressure on the PRM authorities to release Sergei Ilchenko immediately.
  2. NGOs and journalist organizations should send their representatives to Tiraspol to act as independent observers at Sergei Ilchenko’s trial and ensure it is covered objectively and fairly. 

More Details on Sergei Ilchenko’s Case

In English

“Journalist jailed on extremism charges in Moldova’s Transdniester region,” Committee to Protect Journalists, March 26, 2015

“[Moldovan] Government seeks release of journalist arrested in Tiraspol,” IPN, March 28, 2015

“Journalist Sergei Ilchenko jailed on extremism charges in Moldova’s Transdniester region,” Council of Europe, April 2, 2015

In Russian

Sergei Ilchenko’s LiveJournal blog (including letters from prison, photographs, and reports on the case)

“Odessa journalists demand PMR cease its persecution of Sergei Ilchenko,” Comments.ua, March 20, 2015

“Roman Konoplev on the Ilchenko case: Rogozin will sing praises, Moldova will provide cover,” Regnum, March 23, 2015

“The Republic of Moldova demands journalist Sergei Ilchenko’s release,” Teleradio Moldova, March 28, 2015

“’Free’ Transnistria: the setup and arrest of opposition journalist Sergei Ilchenko,” April 6, 2015, politcom.org.ua

“An appeal from political prisoner Sergei Ilchenko,” Antikor.com.ua, April 14, 2015

“Dill Tomatovich’s notes from a Transdniestrian prison,” [a letter by Sergei Ilchenko from Tiraspol Remand Prison No. 3], Ava.md, April 15, 2015

“Ukrainian journalists join demand for Sergei Ilchenko’s release,” Novyi Region 2, June 11, 2015.

 

Lenin, God of Water

Eight People Detained at Water Battle in Petersburg
June 7, 2015
Yodnews.ru

On June 6, Petersburg police detained eight people on suspicion of theft of personal belongings during the now-traditional mass “Water Battle,” reported online publication Fontanka.ru.

According to the publication, beat police, after chasing them around the yards of residential buildings, took eight young men, the oldest of whom was twenty, to a police station. They are suspected of large-scale theft at a public event. At present, six of the victims have filed reports of theft.frenkel-water god

“Water Battle” on Moscow Square in Petersburg, June 6, 2015. Photograph courtesy of David Frenkel

The flashmob lasted for four hours. Several hundred young people armed with buckets, water pistols, bottles, and basins met at the fountains on Moscow Square to celebrate the onset of summer.

Many came in costumes and masks, and the absent-minded risked being caught and dumped into a fountain. Those drying themselves on the sidelines performed circle dances and engaged in “free hugging.” The weather came through for the Petersburgers.

Blue Turns to Red

Here are my early summer evening snapshots of yet another catastrophic urban anti-development in the ex-Capital of All the Russias, this time on Korolenko Street in the Central District.

These snapshots were taken on an old Nokia 3110 that has long suffered from a ghostly “pillar of flame”-like blemish on the lens. The blemish lends shots an extra creepiness when they are taken at the wrong time of day. Sometimes, it is just what the doctor ordered.

After all, rancid, pretentious crap like LSR’s hideous Russky Dom (Russian House) anti-development on Korolenko, designed by local architectural bureau Evgeny Gerasimov and Partners, does not deserve high-quality photography.

It deserves grassroots resistance, but there has never been enough of that, especially lately, under Putin 3.0, and especially when “projects” like this have been battering the old city and the Soviet new estates hotter and heavier than the beleaguered and outnumbered historic preservationists and other local residents and activists have the time or the forces to handle. (For those who read Russian, here is one local press account of attempts by preservationists to resist the demolition of this block in the UNESCO-protected historic center. This mostly verbal skirmish took place almost exactly three years ago.)

rh-red fenceRed construction site fences are a rarity in Petersburg. Such fences are almost ubiquitously blue.

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In fact, this particular fence apparently began life blue, like most of its other local brethren. But then it was painted red.

rh-paradny“From the creators of Paradny Kvartal,” reads the caption, a backhanded endorsement if there ever was one.

rh-russky domWhatever the ethnically tinted title of the project, Russky Dom, could mean amidst all the ideological, political, economic, social, and physical wreckage of its own site, and its place and time, is beyond me. Except, maybe, that it visually represents the aspirations of the Russian ruling class, their servitors, and their aesthetically stunted fans among the masses. (Whom, I assure you, are far fewer than the eighty-six or eighty-four percent cited by dubious polling organizations and reproduced ad infinitum by Russian and western media alike, who then go further by conjuring up a fake alternate reality to explain these fake ratings.)

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The specs includе a variable number of storeys (from five to nine), flats from 60 to 250 square meters in size, an underground parking lot for 519 cars, and commercial spaces, as well as “closed yards and a large promenade zone [sic].”

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The captions reads, “Unusual flats: panoramic views from terraces on the upper floors; flats with turrets and second levels.”

The description of the project on Gerasimov’s website, aside from the usual boilerplate (e.g., the development is meant to blend into the built environment while also striking a bold pose), reveals, unsurprisingly, that it was inspired by the Russian Revival style architecture of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

If this is not an admission of aggressive ideological and aesthetic bankruptcy, I don’t know what is. In this sense, however, Russky Dom tries to blend in not with its built environment but, rather, with the country’s hyper-reactionary zeitgeist.

Duma deputy Irina Yarovaya declared today that Russia’s education system is too “tailored to the study of foreign languages,” according to a report by United Russia, the country’s ruling political party.

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“How can we expect to preserve our traditions under these circumstances?” Yarovaya asked worriedly, criticizing the Education Ministry’s plan to make a second foreign language compulsory in schools’ curriculum and require students to pass a standardized exam in at least one foreign language.

www.egp.spb-1The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets published an even more radical quote from Yarovaya’s statement: “While studying in our schools, students spend 866 hours of instruction on the Russian language and 939 hours on foreign languages. Now the Education Ministry wants to introduce a compulsory standardized exam in a foreign language and mandate the study of a second foreign language. My fellow citizens, what kind of country are we raising here?”

www.egp.spb-2Yarovaya also said the state’s current educational standards rely on “students’ personal success,” which she claims is “foreign to the Russian frame of reference,” instead of developing traditional values. Additionally, she expressed concern about the variety of school textbooks used throughout the country to teach the same subject.

rh-russa boy with toy machine gun

This kid was polite, making a point of getting out of the way when I was snapping pictures, but he was wearing a jacket emblazoned with the word “Russia” and toting a toy AK-47.

Whom or what was he planning to go to war against, Yarovaya and her “traditional values,” which are actually designed to keep the current kleptocratic regime in power in perpetuity and keep people like him poor and disempowered, or “foreign frames of reference”?

* * * * *

I (or, rather, my Nokia) tried to peer through a hole someone or something had punched through the red fence to get a sense of how the Russky Dom was shaping up.

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But when I got to the corner of the block, I discovered the construction site’s main gate was wide open, probably because the workday was wrapping up.

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Work was proceeding apace on the Russian reactionary elite’s dream home.

As well it should have been, because, according to the site’s “passport” (everyone and everything has a passport in Russia, including built and unbuilt buildings), construction is scheduled to be completed in July 2017, a mere two years from now.

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So if you are thinking about getting in on the ground floor of this Russian neo-Revivalist reactionary real estate action, the time to call is now.

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It was not that the Leningrad City Executive Committee and Main Internal Affairs Directorate (i.e., police) motor pool garages that previously occupied the lot were things of great beauty (and until they were threatened with demolition, three years ago, seemingly nobody knew that what was left of the barracks of the First Artillery Brigade Life Guards may or may not have also been taking up otherwise expensive land there), but they served some purpose other than driving up real estate values and giving rich people a venue to offload their extra cash, kids, lovers or themselves while on vacation from Goa or London.

They were also part of the city’s real history, for better or worse.

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The other day, a friend of mine showed me, on the invaluable but somewhat incomprehensible Regional Geographic Information System, how many “projects” real estate developers had stashed away among the nearly incomprehensible and numerous filings and permit requests they make with the city’s relevant committees.

If all these projects are implemented, Petersburg will be unrecognizable in ten years or fifteen years or so, a bright and shiny Russian Revivalist and “neoconstructivist” no man’s land with lots of elite housing, business centers, entertainment and shopping complexes, and superhighways.

But there will not be much of anything else, because Petersburg’s inner-city light and heavy industry were long ago condemned, under the guise of “developing and preserving” the historic center, to banishment to the far suburbs or even farther, to the outer darkness of the Leningrad Region. The orders were signed by Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, in 1994, and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, in 1996, respectively.

The funny thing is that the new powers that be revived this approach a few years ago. As current Governor Georgy Poltavchenko has said recently, “The formula goes like this: ‘Preservation through Development, Development through Preservation.’

Or as a comrade and I have written elsewhere, Petersburg is a “World Heritage Site under permanent reconstruction.”

wikimapia-russky dom scorched earth

All shabby snapshots and main text by The Russian Reader. Additional images and quoted text courtesy of Evgeny Gerasimov and Partners, Meduza, Kanoner, and Wikimapia.

Alexander Markov: A Soundtrack to Soviet Africa

Alexander Markov
Soviet Filmmakers in Africa from the 1960s to the 1980s

In 1960, seventeen African countries gained their independence. For the two superpowers, competing for influence in the Cold War, these “new” countries were obvious opportunities for deploying their own power. Under Khrushchev’s Thaw, Soviet foreign policy increasingly focused on Africa and the Arab world, which became priorities for proactive Soviet diplomacy.

The 1960s thus witnessed the heyday of African studies in the Soviet Union. A number of Soviet filmmakers were dispatched to the continent to produce newsreels and documentary films whose mission was to record the “friendships” between the Soviet socialist specialists at the helm of scientific progress and the African socialist hopefuls who had just broken free from the yoke of colonialism.

The films were given titles such as Hello, Africa!, We Are with You, Africa!, and Good Luck to You, Africa!, to convey that desire for friendship unambiguously, and to contrast starkly with films produced on the other side of the Iron Curtain, such as the notorious Italian documentary about the “dark continent,” Farewell Africa (Addio Africa, 1966), which speculated that civil wars and bloody conflict would set the continent ablaze after the European colonialists exited it.

Despite the fact that Soviet film production was centralized in Moscow and Leningrad, studios in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan also produced documentaries about Africa. The best filmmakers were involved in their production, and Saving Bruce Lee focuses on four of them: Yuri Aldokhin, Mikhail Litvyakov, Vladlen Troshkin, and Rimtautas Šilinis, who made films about Mali, Congo, and Tanzania between 1960 and 1980.

There was also an interest among Soviet filmmakers in documenting wars of independence and armed conflicts (Ethiopia, Libya, Algeria, Congo, Egypt, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, and Namibia), but such films were produced differently. Only cameramen were dispatched to film on location, and most of them were veteran WWII cinematographers.

Nearly half of the Soviet documentary and newsreel films about Africa recorded official visits by Party leaders, government officials, and heads of states. The other half presented partly imaginary Soviet constructions of African reality.

On the one hand, the filmmakers were under the spell of a revolutionary romanticism. In factories, schools, and universities, in streets and in squares, Soviet citizens had marched and rallied in support of the aspirations of their African comrades for liberation from colonial rule and the right to self-determination. On the other hand, Khrushchev’s Thaw itself contained a promise for better times for Soviet citizens themselves that echoed the hopefulness of the newly sovereign African countries. The imaginary construction of socialist Africa was fashioned according to Soviet paradigms, with soldiers and youth on the march, collective farms, and one-party rule.

The documentaries produced during the Thaw are peculiar, because while they toe the ideological line, they are nonetheless imbued with the loosening of inhibitions that permeated Soviet society at the time. So while an ideologically motivated eye will only see what it wants to see, in these films, the cinematographer’s lens betrays a tangibly genuine curiosity about the “otherness” of African reality that would be impossible to counterfeit.

In contrast with the footage of official parades and collective farms, the films also capture ordinary people going about their everyday lives. The camera conveys the contradictory emotions and mindset of the people standing behind them, in which simple, unfiltered affection and enthusiasm blend with the cinematic idioms of the era.

Ordinary Africans were shown at the helm of a historical transformation, thus embodying the journey toward the “radiant future.” This was another echo with the spirit of the Thaw that, paradoxically, made Soviets more congenial to Africans. It was a seemingly naïve illusion in retrospect, but it was emblematic of the period.

The dramatic structure of these Soviet documentaries about Africa produced in the 1960s and 1970s is perhaps where the ideological conditioning is most palpable. Almost all fit into a particular generic scheme or pattern, because they were commissioned by a state that valued ideology more than the art of documentary cinema.

The footage was edited to fit a script, drafted in the studio back in Moscow or Leningrad, and narrated in a voiceover. Soviet composers were also commissioned to provide the musical scores. In other words, the soundtracks rarely featured sound from the locations where they were filmed, and the voices of everyday Africans were almost entirely absent. Instead, the Soviet narrative carefully guided the viewer’s experience of the moving images.

In this exhibition, the soundtracks have been severed from the images, and the cinematic footage has been freed from its bondage to the master narrative. I would thus like to propose a critical rethinking of the era and the language of Soviet political film.

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These are Petersburg filmmaker Alexander Markov’s notes to his contribution to Saving Bruce Lee: African and Arab Cinema in the Era of Soviet Cultural Diplomacy (A Prologue), an exhibition curated by Koyo Kouoh and Rasha Salti, in collaboration with Alexander Markov and Phillippe Rekacewicz. The exhibition is on view at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow from June 12 to August 23, 2015.

Alexander Markov’s documentary film Our Africa will be released in 2015 or 2016.