WHOSE CITY IS THAT / Glavstroy stories

Written by: Nastya Sotnik

Photo: Vladimir Abikh


In St. Petersburg, there is an unprecedented boom in grassroots initiatives. Citizens themselves restore historical doors of houses and restore signs with names of the bridges, renovate paths on the embankments and place trash cans. They also go through all historical front doors and make catalogues of preserved stained-glass windows. Help residents of the districts to know each other by arranging super local festivals, for example, «Liteyniy Local Fest». And plant trees where they used to grow but now don’t.

Why did this boom of self-organization happen and how St. Petersburg citizens felt that the city belongs to them? Tells Rita Kuleva - sociologist, Associate Professor of the Department of Sociology, Head of the Department of Design and Contemporary Art of the Higher School of Economics - Saint Petersburg.

Hereinafter - works of St. Petersburg street art artist Vladimir Abikh. This picture is made by Ivan Sorokin, and the owner of the photo is the north-west branch of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.

Why have grassroots initiatives flourished in Saint Petersburg? Because lots of people here want to change something, but it’s hard to find money for that. If in Moscow ideas get sponsors and become institutions (such as Moscow Music School or the Richter Foundation), in Petersburg they come in the form of grassroots initiatives. For the same reason, there are a lot of international projects. Often funds can be found at consulates and international cultural centers. That’s how “Albert Edelfelt and the Romanovs. Finnish Artist at the Russian Imperial Court” exhibition organized by the Institute of Finland and the Research Museum of the Russian Academy of Arts was created, for example. So from the point of view of some connections and collaborations, St. Petersburg is a very international city, even though mainly it turned this way not because of curiosity but because of financial restrictions.

Even those who are considered “vandals” actually share ideas about cultural heritage and how to properly handle it.

Probably, a question about who the city belongs to first appeared in 2003, when we celebrated the 300th anniversary of Saint Petersburg. Back then architectural monuments were restored, new objects were built, however, the majority of people understood that it all was done for Russian and international elites, not for citizens. There was a feeling that the city exists not for us. I remember clearly that a lot of St. Petersburg citizens, especially residents of central districts, at that time tried to run away from the city filled with security personnel, and hide in the countryside. The question of whether this is our city is still acute. Recent protests are another reason to think about it. People went out on the streets implying that they simply were going for a walk just like at any other time. And suddenly it turned out that it was not possible. So even if the city is ours, still not for 100%, not completely and not always, only until a certain moment. And when it comes, it is not up to us to decide.

These are the works of Vladimir Abikh photographed by the artist himself. Notice that street art is traditionally considered to be one of the ways of “owning” public space.

In this regard, the story is recalled. A few years ago, the Restaurant day movement, which came from Helsinki, became popular in St. Petersburg. The idea is that everyone can open their own restaurant for a day. In Helsinki, for example, people can serve lunch and dinner in their apartments or outside. Obviously, in Petersburg, the campaign was held with reservations. Without permission, you were not allowed to just start selling food on the streets, but the campaign was supported by many small galleries, creative clusters where people could just cook without documents. That is, the citizens received semi-public spaces for personal use. Did it give the feeling that any place in the city, even Dvortsovaya square, belongs to me? Probably not. But the city definitely felt more like my own.

And what does the city mean for everyone who lives far from Nevsky Avenue? It’s as if the other places don't exist or they are invisible.

And here, of course, it’s important how citizens feel about their city. St. Petersburg is always perceived as a museum city and this imposes certain restrictions. Together with my colleagues, I did research a few years ago about artists who are engaged in sticker art. That’s how we learned that our heroes have some forbidden places. For example, they believe that one can’t put stickers on Hermitage and other historical buildings. So those who are considered “vandals” actually share ideas about cultural heritage and how to properly handle it.

This work of Vladimir Abikh is a reflection on what can be considered vandalism. Photo provided by the author

I think the heyday of grassroots local history and guided tours is very important. Walks through main entrances, “St. Petersburg through the Eyes of an Engineer” and Sputnik8 projects, tours to non-central areas. I really hope that this blossoming interest for non-typical parts of the city will work for its decentralization. Now St. Petersburg is a city with a vivid small center and the rest of the districts. This raises the question: what does the city mean for everyone who lives far from Nevsky Avenue? It's as if the other places don't exist or are invisible. I like the Moskovskiy district where I live, but I need to travel three stops just to find a good café where I can work. I would really like this to change.

All works in these materials are from St. Petersburg and this one is no exception. Author’s photo.