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The demolition of the Finnish Guard Regiment's riding arena on St. Petersburg's Vasilyevsky Island. April 2022

‘A special operation against city preservation advocates’ How commercial interests in St. Petersburg are using the ‘political situation’ to demolish historic buildings

Source: Meduza
The demolition of the Finnish Guard Regiment's riding arena on St. Petersburg's Vasilyevsky Island. April 2022
The demolition of the Finnish Guard Regiment's riding arena on St. Petersburg's Vasilyevsky Island. April 2022
Sergey Yermokhin / TASS

On July 13, Live City, a movement dedicated to preserving St. Petersburg’s cultural heritage, published a letter from film director Alexander Sokurov to city governor Alexander Beglov. In it, Sokurov accuses the city authorities of taking advantage of the “difficult military and political situation” to dismantle the movement to preserve St. Petersburg’s historic buildings. According to the St. Petersburg news outlet Bumaga, the government has spent the months since the start of the war reorganizing and eliminating the city's oldest preservation advocacy groups, demolishing monuments, and changing laws to benefit commercial developers. With Bumaga’s permission, Meduza is publishing an abridged translation of the investigation.

On July 13, the St. Petersburg-based Live City movement published a letter signed by film director Alexander Sokurov and addressed to city governor Alexander Beglov.

The letter lists organizations that have worked for years to preserve the city’s historical and cultural sites — and that have, in recent months, been restructured by the authorities or liquidated altogether. The list includes the Sokurov Group, which was created in 2010 with assistance from then-governor Valentina Matvienko, and the All-Russian Society for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Monuments (VOOPIiK), which has lost its “most authoritative and dedicated city preservation advocates," among others.

Sokurov wrote:

City government members and the local authorities have worked with interested parties... to remove all city protection advocates from the top relevant organizations. They have expelled everyone who might have an alternative point of view regarding St. Petersburg’s preservation.

He concluded the letter by “expressing his opposition to the actions committed,” and by warning the governor about the “negative reaction among civil society” to the city preservation movement’s “destruction.”

Alexey Kovalyov, a former deputy in St. Petersburg’s Legislative Assembly who has long worked to preserve historic sites in the city, told Bumaga that another attempted “coup” took place in the regional branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

“Half of the monument protection committee, plus [guys from] architectural and restoration groups who work on city and federal contracts, joined the organization. They’re all government-affiliated people with various personal and commercial interests of their own,” he said.

Legislative Assembly deputy Boris Vishnevsky, a member of the Yabloko party, dedicated a column in Novaya Gazeta Europe to the movement’s dismantling, calling it a “special operation” against monument protection advocates.

Vishnevsky noted that in addition to the organizations listed by Sokurov and Kovalyov, the authorities have also restructured the city's cultural heritage council, a government body responsible for protecting important historic sites. “Almost all of the city protection advocates have been replaced with people known for actively working to strip historic buildings of their protected status,” wrote Vishnevsky.

Leadership changes

In late June, it was reported that 75-year-old Alexander Margolis had been replaced as the head of VOOPIiK’s St. Petersburg branch by his deputy, 43-year-old Anton Ivanov. Margolis had led the organization for 10 years.

Ivanov, who runs the city-funded Open City project, also serves as deputy to VOOPIiK national chairman Artyom Demidov. Someone with the exact same name as Ivanov owns multiple construction companies that have received public contracts — and one of the companies, Soyuzstroirestavratsiya, LLC, is the subject of a claim currently being considered by the St. Petersburg Arbitration Court.

Bumaga reported that Ivanov's election came after an emergency meeting convened by Margolis in which he and his supporters — Anna Kapitonova, Alexander Kononov, Alexey Kovalyov, Boris Vishnevsky, and other organization members — fired Ivanov for grossly violating the organization’s charter.

Ivanov opposed the decision and appealed to VOOPIiK’s central council. The council proceeded to suspend all activities by the city's branch and call another special conference, where they would choose a new chairman.

Preparations for the conference were marked by scandal, ultimately leading not only to Ivanov’s victory, but also to the removal of Kapitonova, Kononova, Kovalyov, and Vishnevsky from the organization altogether. The ex-members now fear that the branch’s new leadership will focus solely on education and will stop pursuing legal action against builders who want to demolish the city's historic buildings.

High-ranking officials on cultural preservation boards

After Kapitonova, Kononova, Kovalyov, and Vishnevsky were forced out, VOOPIiK St. Petersburg’s remaining members restructured the organization’s executive committee, leaving it with more officials and fewer city preservation advocates.

The committee now includes Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky, Russian Academy of Arts rector Semyon Mikhailovsky, and St. Petersburg Polytechnic University rector Andrey Rudskoy. Several previous committee members survived the changes and remain on the council, including art historian Margarita Shtiglits and Scientific Research Institute of Theory and History of Architecture and Urban Planning (NIITIAG) employee Mikhail Milchik, who told Fontanka that he wasn’t even officially seeking reelection because he considered the most recent vote illegitimate.

The city administration’s cultural heritage preservation council underwent a similar shakeup a bit earlier. According to Legislative Assembly deputy Boris Vishnevsky, those forced out of the council included then-VOOPIiK chairman Alexander Margolis, Live City coordinator Yulia Minutina-Lobanov, and two of the same city preservation advocates recently ousted from VOOPIiK, Alexander Kononov and Alexey Kovalyov, who were replaced with Igor Pasechnik and Vladimir Trushkovsky, both of whom have close connections to the government.

According to Kovalyov, there was also an attempt to elect Trushkovsky as the new chairman of ICOMOS. “We refused to allow Trushkovsky to become the council’s new chairman, because we consider him completely unworthy of the post. He needed to earn two thirds of the votes, but he didn’t,” said Kovalyov. After dozens of other new state-affiliated members were accepted into the organization, however, another election was held — and the council was expanded from 21 to 23 members.

The demolition of a building constructed in the early 19th century in St. Petersburg’s Petrogradsky District. April 2022
Sergey Yermokhin / TASS
The demolition of a building constructed in the early 19th century in St. Petersburg’s Petrogradsky District. April 2022
Sergey Yermokhin / TASS

Pressure against city preservation advocates

In addition to restructuring and liquidating city protection groups, officials have put pressure on several individual city preservation advocates.

In mid-May, Alexander Kononov, who served as the deputy minister of VOOPIiK's St. Petersburg branch until recently, was called to the Admiralty district police department, where he was fined 40,000 rubles ($683) for “discrediting the Russian army.” In late June, he was fined again (after a city court canceled the first fine).

Kononov pleaded not guilty to the charges. He told Bumaga that he suspects the accusations are related to the conflict with the city’s cultural heritage preservation council.

According to case documents, Center E employees based the case in part on information from a Telegram channel called Troika, where screenshots were posted that allegedly show Kononov disparaging supporters of the war in social media posts.

The same set of documents named city preservation advocate Natalia Sivokhina, who was arrested in June for the same “crime” as Kononov after she was reported by Timur Bulatov, a local activist who’s well-known for filing frequent complaints against LGBTQ people and activists. Troika’s administrators wrote that Sivokhina had "mocked murdered children from Donetsk’s Alley of Angels monument, called on contract soldiers to desert the army, celebrated the corpses of young men in Hostomel, and refered to herself as a ‘fifth column.’”

In July, Kononov was arrested again after himself being reported by Bulatov. He was interviewed in connection with a fraud allegation before being released. Kononov’s lawyer has called the arrest a form of intimidation.

The demolition of the historic Shagin building on the Fontanka Embankment. July 2022
Live City

Meanwhile, builders are rapidly demolishing historic buildings

As the local government systematically dismantles St. Petersburg’s city preservation movement, officials are also considering sweeping changes to ways historic buildings are officially protected.

Currently, two categories of buildings are protected from demolition in St. Petersburg: those included on the city’s protected buildings registry and those built before 1917. In April, the Committee for State Control, Utilization and Protection of Historical and Cultural Landmarks (KGIOP), which maintains the registry, proposed changing the law so that only “valuable” structures would be protected; which buildings qualify as being “valuable” would be determined by a board of experts chosen by the committee itself. VOOPIiK St. Petersburg has spoken out against the initiative.

Though KGIOP hasn’t yet achieved its desired legal changes, the city has given permission for developers to demolish a number of historic buildings, including the Lapin House, the Finnish Guard Regiment’s riding arena, the Vasilyevsky wine quarter building, and the Yekimova Bathhouses; the majority of the structures have already been destroyed. Most of the demolitions were done by a company called Pride, Bumaga reported.

After more than fifty municipal and Legislative Assembly deputies called on Russian Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin to stop the destruction of the city's historic buildings, Bastrykin vowed to look into the situation.

After an official review of several unidentified KGIOP members, authorities opened an abuse of authority case against them. According to the investigation, they issued official decisions that said multiple St. Petersburg buildings fell outside of cultural heritage site borders, as well as editing documents to make it appear as if certain pre-revolutionary structures were built after 1917, causing monuments to lose their protected status.

KGIOP representatives said in a statement that they “don't understand the claims being made, as [KGIOP] is not authorized to determine or change building construction dates,” Fontanka reported. The status of the investigation is unknown.

At the same time, the Russian government has reportedly prepared a draft resolution that would change the requirement that a plot of land be examined before construction begins on the property. While an archaeological survey used to be required before any construction, the decision will now be left to builders.

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