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#5- 29: Whose city is this?

Dmitry Vilensky /// Afterword to the publication of the Whose City Is This? issue of Chto Delat newspaper

The question we posed in this issue was not merely the demonstration of a researcher’s idle interest in questions of developing the urban environment; it unexpectedly turned out to be a thorny question of everyday life and work in our city. The theme of the number was a litmus test to inspect control over the state of the city’s printing houses. When tested, these “independent” private businesses were revealed to be obviously dependent, as it is accepted in our country, not on legal norms, but on entirely explainable fears that the local authorities can always find a way of interfering in their business if some publication or other appears to them inappropriate.

Four Petersburg printing houses refused to print this issue even though, after reading the texts, they all expressed total agreement with the publication’s position. They did add that, in their situation, they were unable to publish something that criticized the city’s policies and Gazprom in such a fashion, since the risk of running into serious problems was too high.

The question we posed in this issue was not merely the demonstration of a researcher’s idle interest in questions of developing the urban environment; it unexpectedly turned out to be a thorny question of everyday life and work in our city. The theme of the number was a litmus test to inspect control over the state of the city’s printing houses. When tested, these “independent” private businesses were revealed to be obviously dependent, as it is accepted in our country, not on legal norms, but on entirely explainable fears that the local authorities can always find a way of interfering in their business if some publication or other appears to them inappropriate.

Four Petersburg printing houses refused to print this issue even though, after reading the texts, they all expressed total agreement with the publication’s position. They did add that, in their situation, they were unable to publish something that criticized the city’s policies and Gazprom in such a fashion, since the risk of running into serious problems was too high.

The answer to the question we ask in the title of that issue of our newspaper seems banal and obvious: to whom does it belong? We know to whom: to those who control the city; to those who are in power; to those who have money; to those who are able to profit from real estate speculation, from controlling production, from receiving dividends on paid education and medicine. And you don’t have to be a Marxist to understand this elementary truth: a city, like a factory, belongs to the people who control the profits and means of production. And just as factories do not belong to their workers, neither do cities (not only Petersburg) belong to the people who live in them.

At the same time, having given such a clear, sobering answer, we immediately (in contrast to the situation with the factory) understand that there is something not right in such a statement. We don’t know why, but every citizen feels their “natural” right to their city as to a place which should serve their interests and should not be required to extract profits at any cost.

Back when our platform was being created in 2003, we posed the question in the materials for our “New Foundations of Petersburg” action of who actually can and should determine policy for the city’s development. Fully within the framework of the avant-garde line of Chto Delat, its authors did not hide that they obviously saw themselves as the agents of a new, radical agenda for creating urban space. That means not only streets and squares, but also symbolically produced space such as knowledge, ideology, culture and art.

It so happened (as it usually does) that the authors’ avant-garde pathos was very far from those images of the city that dominated both deep within civil society with its protective and lofty idea of the city as the keeper of the highest ideals of past beauty, but also the authorities, who were interested in this “beauty” exclusively as a unique commodity which, after a little cosmetic “touch-up,” will do good business on the international tourism market.

When describing any post-socialist city today we run up against a host of structural problems concerning analysis and the inability to make comparisons, whether temporally or with other cities which have never undergone a period of radical socialist collectivization of property.

To whom did the Soviet city belong?

Nominally, it belonged to the people, but in reality it didn’t belong to anyone. This “nobody’s” melancholy of the ruins of urban space with its broken infrastructure, with its total absence of a consumer sector, and poisoned by extensive development of industry, to this day is remembered as a time of stoic communism. What replaced it immediately seemed bright and attractive, criminal and risky, both liberated and corporal. Everything that belonged to all but none was privatized and ransacked at a rate never before seen in history. That was how the city only recently re-entered its new, deferred stage of capitalist development, which even today can be described as a transitional state, since there are still plenty of relics of the socialist period and they are bizarrely intertwined with the new, unique system of authoritarian capitalism. This form of city management combines numerous experimental features. The stunted nature of market structures which are totally subjugated to and intertwined with the vertical of power dictates its forms of ownership which are based on pervasive corruption. The city’s administration, which no one elects (or elects from a controlled number of players, which doesn’t really change anything) is also the principal owner of the real estate and land and openly demonstrates its limited interest in resolving the city’s problems only to the extent that they are profitable to the administration itself and the business it controls (as we can see, that control has become nearly total). Everything is permeated by corruption, from the distribution of lots for development and contracts with contractors, to court decisions and the interference of law enforcement agencies: everything is subject to unwritten laws of kickbacks, bribes and localism. Society is also permeated by this “administrative octopus” with which, as we have once again become convinced with this publication, it is more comfortable to make a deal than experience the risks of resistance.

The city (as the entire country) has found itself in a state of dead-end compromise where everyone understands that the old infrastructure is on the verge of utter decrepitude and collapse (the number of dilapidated buildings, bad roads and lack of roads, outdated water supply systems, leaky roofs, etc.) and at the same time, no one is very much worried about the impending crash, since they prefer to live now and take their pleasure. This is the pleasure of accumulation (large and small scale) which is plainly guaranteed by ever newer encroachments on the “commons,” such as green spaces (the number of squares and gardens is contracting catastrophically due to development); on air due to the unchecked increase in the number of private vehicles which poison the air in kilometers-long traffic jams; and education in favor of an ever narrower caste of rich people able to pay for the ever growing private tuition market.

On the surface, the city has emerged from the zone of criminal scourge of the 1990s, but the main trick of the current administration is to create a façade; to displace problem zones (and categories of residents) into the zone of invisibility/indiscernibility. Against this backdrop, most cynical of all are the administration’s claims that they will soon achieve the standards of European cities—in a situation where the average male life expectancy is only 64; where an outrageous number of residents continue to live in communal apartments and in dilapidated housing; where neo-Nazi terror on the streets is off the scale; and where any non-European-looking resident or tourist is afraid to take a single step from the main streets (although murders have occurred even there). All of this points to the fact that, you guessed it, that’s right! We need to build a few grandiose, symbolic buildings intended to symbolize the city’s new stage of development. And what could be better than to erect a nice skyscraper? What’s even better is if it’s the office of Russian’s major corporation Gazprom.

This is precisely the case we have chosen to study, since it concentrates in an extremely vivid way the current state of affairs with the redistribution of urban space, not only in the tangibly material form, but in the no less important symbolic form.

It appears to us that a clear analytical picture of what is going on could work like a sobering gulp of fresh air in a space poisoned by the foul fumes of the authorities’ absurd claims on the city, and can help other people—our readers—to understand the city’s actual state of affairs with its glamorous facades and rotting basements, senseless new office blocks and shopping malls, its paralyzed public transportation system, polluted air and water, deteriorating education system and growth of a conservative pseudo-culture and populist mega-celebrations.

So that is why we, loving our city, strive to envision for it a worthy and different future. We insist that the city should first and foremost generate meaning: the meaning of different people being together, joined not by a superficial commonality of the unity of fans of a corporate city-wide football club (this doesn’t stop us from cheering on the Zenit team if it shows us good football), but a genuine commonality based on an egalitarian vision of the city as a public space open to everyone, in which honest political life and debate over the future are possible; a city whose chief aim is not to maximize profits, but a place in which appropriate conditions can be created not only for each resident to live, whether a migrant laborer, homeless person, transvestite or millionaire, but where they can share common dreams, creativity and action.

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