Russia's former capital has been spared the rampant rebuilding that remade Moscow. But with construction on the rise, it could lose its UN heritage status
Moscow lost the battle a long time ago. When shooting movies set in Moscow before World War II, Russian filmmakers often have to go elsewhere, as little has survived architecturally in the Russian capital to provide a convincing backdrop.
One of Russia's most admired novels, Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita is set in Moscow in the 1930s, yet a TV miniseries shot in 2005 was largely filmed in St. Petersburg, with the crew traveling to the capital for only a few signature episodes. Naturally, there are scenes that can be filmed only in Moscow such as those set in Patriarch's Ponds, the Pashkov House, or the Alexandrovsky Garden – but that's about it.
Moscow has gone through massive reconstruction since the novel was written, and the landscape has, for the most part, changed a great deal. Much to the regret of the crew, Bulgakov's Moscow is easier to find in central St. Petersburg because this city has been much better preserved.
When the TV production was planned, it seemed unlikely that even the authentic locations around the legendary Patriarch's Ponds could be used. In 2003, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov lobbied for an ambitious plan to construct a giant shopping center with underground parking there. He also wanted to erect monuments to Bulgakov and his characters. But the plan failed after Muscovites took to the streets in protest and blocked construction work to preserve the site.
The protests have moved to the streets of St. Petersburg, though the northern capital appears to be losing the battle. The city finds itself at risk of being added to UNESCO's World Heritage in Danger list "in the absence of substantial progress" to safeguard the city's traditional skyline, the organization said.
UNESCO this summer dropped the city of Dresden from its prestigious World Heritage List as a result of the construction of a controversial four-lane bridge over the Elbe River near the city center. St. Petersburg may soon find itself in the same boat due to the planned construction of a new Gazprom Neft headquarters known as the Okhta Center. Like Dresden, St. Petersburg refuses to compromise. And, as in Dresden, a large-scale, modern construction project threatens to distort the cultural landscape. The analogy is obvious, and if the Russian officials continue to ignore it, the outcome will be identical.
UNESCO sounded its first warning to St. Petersburg back in 2007, when Marcio Barbosa, UNESCO's deputy director, said that St. Petersburg had been asked to halt all development work on Okhta Center until the organization had investigated its possible risks to the city's architectural legacy.
"To use soccer terminology, we have issued a yellow card to the city," Barbosa said in 2007. "If the situation does not improve, the next logical step is a red card. This means we will have to move St. Petersburg onto the list of endangered sites."
The new Gazprom (GAZP.RTS) building has been designed as a spiraling 396-meter tower, no less than eight times higher than the current official limit for new buildings in the city's historical center. It will stand close to where the Okhta River flows into the Neva on the opposite bank from the famous white-and-blue Smolny Cathedral. The tower is to be the new headquarters for Gazprom Neft, a subsidiary of the national energy monopoly. It is tentatively scheduled for completion in 2012.
The New York-based World Monuments Fund, a leading heritage protection body, has already placed St. Petersburg on its list of the world's 100 most endangered historic sites, alongside war-torn Iraq, sinking Venice, and hurricane-ravaged New Orleans.
In Dresden the decision to go ahead with the bridge's construction was made following public debates and a referendum on the issue. In St. Petersburg, protests have been numerous but fruitless. When the local branch of the liberal party Yabloko called for a citywide referendum on the project, the move was blocked on a technicality in the city assembly.
In the wake of recent scandals surrounding the Okhta Center and other large buildings resulting in the disfigurement of St. Petersburg's unique and precious architectural ensemble, a local organization has conducted an investigation into local construction practices, yielding intriguing results. The experts of the St. Petersburg Center for Environmental Expertise of the city's Society of Natural Scientists have long wondered how construction companies manage to get through the dense thicket of regulations in local construction policy.
The experts took their time attending court cases, studying paperwork on construction projects, and analyzing correspondence among officials, the public, and construction organizations. Their analysis of the claims construction companies use to achieve their goals found that the first justification companies typically give to officials in order to get hold of a much larger piece of land is, "the size of the plot is very limited."
This simple trick can be applied to just about anything, from a 600-square-meter slot for a cottage to a territory of several hectares – or several dozen hectares.
"If a company needs to be absolutely sure of obtaining a plot of the desired size, a more detailed explanation can be offered: a helipad is needed, or a medical center, or a curling rink," one of the center's experts told me.
Builders also complain about the "complicated geometrical shape" of the site, or exploit ecological concerns by trying to convince authorities that 60 percent of the territory will be occupied by a park.
Major development anywhere often carries a whiff of scandal or influence-peddling, but in many places there are checks and balances against these practices. Reformers can run for office unhindered – and sometimes win. But, as Yabloko's attempt to put the matter to a referendum illustrates, the process simply does not get held up to the light in St. Petersburg.
Russia's corrupt authorities tend to regard all the country's resources – its lakes, rivers, woods, palaces, architectural treasures – as their own property. They are not interested in passing a sound construction code that would protect the historic landscape. There has been no reaction to UNESCO's repeated warnings, while construction projects with ridiculous justifications, like "we need more space because our project is very big" continue to multiply.
Perhaps, very soon Russian filmmakers won't be able to make any more movies set in old St. Petersburg.