St. Petersburg Russia's City of Rebels
St. Petersburg is a place of protest against power -- and the only major Russian city in which the opposition still has a voice. Why?
The address is Prospect of the Five-Year Plan, House 1, a name reminiscent of the Soviet era, when this city was called Leningrad. Even the metro station across the street is still called Prospekt Bolshevikov.
Otherwise, however, the building has no connection to the past: It looks like a large glass bowl sandwiched between grey apartment blocks. The arena was built for the 2000 Ice Hockey World Championships, but today a sold-out concert is being held here, with 15,000 people in the audience.
By 8 p.m., the crowd starts getting excited. Sergey Shnurov -- nicknamed "Shnur," or "Cord" -- and his band, Leningrad, are about to perform. Shnurov, 43, rock singer, actor and composer, is Russia's biggest star. The upscale print magazine Snob has written that he is like the poet Sergey Yesenin, singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysovtsky and musical performer Alla Pugacheva all in one. "One day they will study the Putin era on the basis of songs and clips by Leningrad." Perhaps the only Russian to eclipse Shnurov's popularity today is President Vladimir Putin.
The fans are jumping up and down in the arena to stay warm, and the stage in the center is surrounded by Shnurov fans. "No Shnur, No Party," some T-shirts read.
And then he finally appears, wearing a white shirt and cutoff blue jeans, a gold chain around his neck and a three-day beard. He starts strumming his guitar and kicks off the concert with the song his St. Petersburg audience wants to hear: "Totshka.ru." It essentially means dot.com and is the theme song for St. Petersburg: "I forgot when I moved here. I must have been drunk at the time. I have no registration and no street address. My address is www.leningrad.saintpetersburg.totshka.ru."
St. Petersburg, the brainchild of Peter the Great, was the capital of Russia for 200 years, and it was renamed three times in the last century. The czars ruled from St. Petersburg. It was also where Lenin overthrew the Kerensky cabinet and launched his bloody revolution. But when the government moved to Moscow in 1918, St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad descended into provincialism.
City of Superlatives
Even though it was given back its old name of St. Petersburg in 1991, the city is still stuck in that provincial mold. But it is a place of superlatives: the world's northernmost city with a population of more than a million and Russia's most important Baltic Sea port. It is as glistening a place as Venice: The city has 342 bridges, nine of which are opened for ships every night, and the virtually untouched historic center contains 2,300 palaces, castles and other magnificent buildings. The World Travel Award jury has just recognized St. Petersburg as the world tourist capital with the most interesting cultural destinations. The city saw 6.9 million visitors in 2016.
St. Petersburg is still a government focal point. The president and prime minister are native sons of St. Petersburg, and President Vladimir Putin began his career at the KGB in the Leningrad of the 1970s. Today he receives state guests at Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg, takes them on tours of the art collection at the Hermitage and to premieres at the Mariinsky Theater. Many of the men in his entourage were also born there.
Otherwise, there is little that connects St. Petersburg with official Russia. It lives in its own cosmos. Architecturally speaking, it began as an alternative to Moscow, which expanded into the Russian landscape like a large village. But St. Petersburg is also more aristocratic and educated. In Moscow, people address one another informally and kiss when they greet each other, but in St. Petersburg this is seen as a sign of poor taste. St. Petersburgers use completely different Russian words for common objects. And they know how to create hipness -- Rubinshteyna Street, for instance, whose pubs and bars have turned it into a nightly hot spot for all of St. Petersburg.
Indifference to Moscow
As a city, St. Petersburg is the incarnation of an attitude toward life that can be found all over the country, exuding indifference to what happens in Moscow. Its unofficial motto: Leave us alone and we'll leave you alone. While Moscow is at the top of the power pyramid, St. Petersburg symbolizes the disconnection of the people from power.
Rock singer Shnurov expresses this feeling better than anyone else. "All the absurdity, the pointlessness and the boundless cynicism of our time are hidden in Shnurov's melodies," the Snob article states. Shnurov sings in the Russian vulgar language known as "Mat." "What could be more absurd than that? Mat was banned under Putin and there is a penalty for using it," writes Snob. "But half the country is singing Shnurov's songs, with their obscene lyrics."
And so they sing along in the St. Petersburg ice arena. In a song about the funeral bells over Moscow, Shnurov sings: "Yesterday I dreamed, in a wonderful dream, that Moscow had burned down completely. The fire raged across Red Square, and it consumed the former election commission. Everyone burned: all the Pussies, Putin and Navalny. The police and Ostankino."
Russia's TV headquarters is located in Ostankino. "If you watch our television, you think you're living in a land of idiots," a perspiring Shnurov says backstage, during the intermission. "Politicians are concealing what is happening here. But everyone tries to preach some sort of moral to us. We, on the other hand, are engaged in carnival. Carnival is when the top and the bottom trade places. We sing about things that everyone understands, things that bring people together. If something is shit, then we call it by its name. I am this city's singer."
Voter turnout alone shows that St. Petersburg is the place where people rebel against the despotism of Moscow's policies. In September, when there was a vote on the new Russian parliament, less than a third of St. Petersburg residents cast ballots. And only 13 percent of eligible voters in the city voted for Putin's government party. In Chechnya, 91 percent voted for the party.
In contrast, 15,000 St. Petersburgers took to the streets after the murder of politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow to protest against the harassment of liberals in Russia. In today's Russia, 15,000 protestors is a huge number.
Finally, there is no other place where governors are under as much public pressure as in St. Petersburg. The current governor is already the fifth head of the city government since the end of the Soviet Union. Putin was forced to remove his predecessor from office and bring her to Moscow in response to massive protests.
Lev Lurye, St. Petersburg's most well-known historian, journalist and screenwriter, knows all about the city's latent subversive nature. "Putin's military intervention in Syria or the arrest of the Russian economics minister? That's their business, it happened in their city -- that's what we say in St. Petersburg, and we are referring to Moscow. It doesn't concern us."
Lurye, an economist who later worked as a tour guide in the Peter and Paul Fortress, where most of the czars are buried, runs the Lew Lurye Culture Center with a number of like-minded people. It is an unusual venue for debates, a "place of enlightenment," as he puts it. "We talk about the things that others never talk about." About the commonalities between Putin and the oligarchs, about why the victory in the Great Patriotic War was both a triumph and a tragedy, and -- as they are discussing this evening -- about the question: "Did Rasputin have to be murdered?"
It's a timely question, because the Russian itinerant preacher -- who, as a pseudo-psychotherapist, gained fatal influence over the czar and his family -- was murdered in a particularly barbaric way 100 years ago. His assassination heralded the February revolution, and Nicholas II was overthrown three months later.
Lurye and a historian who published Rasputin's diaries are sitting on the podium, arguing about how much damage Rasputin did in Russia at the time. But their dispute is riddled with contemporary messages: that Nicholas's Russia was divided between the elites and the people, like the country today; that there was also a state party at the time that could be compared to Putin's United Russia; and that the church was as ultranationalist as it is today.
Drawing Parallels to Past
And doesn't the patriotic rejoicing on the palace square in St. Petersburg in the summer of 1914, when Czar Nicholas called for war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, remind us of today, Lurye asks the audience? "Isn't that jubilation the same as the euphoria with which Crimea was brought home to Russia in 2014?"
About 100 St. Petersburg residents are sitting in the room. They've paid the equivalent of €12 a ticket, which is a lot of money in Russia. But they like this kind of discussion, and they also participate by occasionally shouting out corrections of certain details. It would be difficult to imagine such an audience in coarse, business-obsessed Moscow.
The nationalists used Rasputin to manipulate the czar, say the men on the stage, noting that politics was extremely non-transparent at the time. But, they add, Russia's autocracy would also not work under the conditions of an open society, and in this respect today's Russia resembles the country in Rasputin's time. "Anyone who dreams that Russia will be free one day must realize that if it becomes free, it will cease to exist," says one person. The comments at this event border on the seditious.
'We Have Always Been Different'
The spirit of contradiction is deeply entrenched in St. Petersburg. The city was forced to bleed during the communist era, when Moscow perceived it as an intellectual and political threat. Stalin had large numbers of people executed there in the 1930s, and the repression continued after World War II. In the course of the "Leningrad affair" in 1950, the city's entire leadership was shot to death, because it was allegedly about to launch a second communist party. Moscow reintroduced the death penalty, which had been abolished in 1947, specifically for this case. As late as the 1970s, the Kremlin was still hunting down underground groups in Leningrad that were distributing banned literature.
"We have always been different," says Lurye. "We have relatively progressive media in the city, and there is still an opposition party in our parliament. And, of course, after the annexation of Crimea there were fewer black and orange ribbons of St. George cross -- a symbol of Russian patriots -- to be seen in St. Petersburg than in the rest of the country." Perhaps, says Lurye, this is because St. Petersburg, unlike Moscow, still looks the way it did in the days of the czars, and "people here were constantly aware of the contrast between bourgeois and Soviet elements."
Rock singer Shnurov, too, has always been part of the St. Petersburg underground. He has worked as a truck driver, a security guard in a kindergarten, a carpenter and a blacksmith, and he also studied philosophy at the theological seminary. Shnurov says there are many taboos in Russia, but that you can overcome them if you keep a sufficient distance from politics and seek a common language with the people. He also says that Russians live "pretty gruesome everyday lives." He has even written a song on the subject, called "V Pitere pit," or "Drinking in Petersburg." Some condemn it as trash while others call it a hit. The video has been viewed more than 30 million times on YouTube.
His fans scream with enthusiasm when Shnurov performs the song for the 15,000 people in the ice arena. Many are familiar with the music video, which depicts five St. Petersburgers -- a fired bank employee, a store clerk, a police officer, a museum guide and a taxi driver from the Caucasus who speaks broken Russian -- as they roam the city, drinking vodka. There are no social barriers for us, and together we are strong -- that's the message of the song.
Shnurov jumps down from the stage and mingles with his fans, who all know the lyrics of his songs by heart. One is "Na labutenach," his biggest hit, which he now sings. The song is about a girl and a pair of shoes by designer Christian Louboutin, which she borrows from her girlfriend for a date. The song has been viewed 100 million times.
Boris Vishnevsky's view of St. Petersburg isn't as playful. A mathematician, he and his colleague Mikhail Amossov, a geographer, represent the opposition Yabloko Party in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly. Yabloko means "Apple," and the liberal party once had its own parliamentary group in the Russian Duma. But that was long ago, and today the liberals aren't even represented in the Moscow city parliament, but they certainly are in St. Petersburg.
And yet this is remarkable because, even in St. Petersburg, opponents are using many tricks in efforts to drive Yabloko out of office. Vishnevsky experienced this only last summer, during elections to the Legislative Assembly.
He's standing in his office in Mariinsky Palace, where he has a magnificent view of the gold dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral. He says no advertising company was willing to put up his election posters in downtown St. Petersburg. At the same time, he says, posters appeared with his photo and the words: "I am the opposition candidate. To support me, please deposit 1,000 rubles into the following account ..."
Vishnevsky says the fake posters were made by Putin's party, United Russia. "Doctors, teachers, customs officials, members of the military -- all those who receive a government salary -- were mobilized against Yabloko," he says. Vishnevsky was denied access to schools and hospitals. Even the head of the central Russian election commission spoke of a "defiantly cynical use of government leverage" in St. Petersburg to give preference to certain candidates.
Vishnevsky's main rival is the governor of St. Petersburg, the representative of the government's power. He is the first governor who, like Putin, rose through the ranks of the KGB, and he purports to be deeply religious. The red flags that were once displayed at his office have now been replaced with icons. And instead of party meetings, there are now prayer breaks.
Vishnevsky says that the governor is rarely seen in public and that he's cautious. His predecessor was brought down by St. Petersburgers after two harsh winters in which six people died. The homeless should be used to shovel snow, she had said, triggering angry protests.
St. Petersburgers are not very willing to put up with things they don't like. They are patriotic, but mostly when it comes to their city. Thousands took to the streets when they planned to tear down the historic Hotel Angleterre, where lyrical poet Yasenin hung himself in 1925, and the plan was stopped. Such protests haven't occurred in a long time in Moscow, where dozens of historic buildings have been leveled.
A City Tackles Gazprom
But St. Petersburg residents achieved their greatest victory in the battle against Putin's government-owned company, Gazprom. Executives there wanted to build a business center with a 400-meter (1,312-foot) skyscraper on the edge of the old city, paid for using city funds -- even though such tall buildings are banned in downtown St. Petersburg.
Boris Vishnevsky led the protest movement against the skyscraper. He wrote more than 400 articles to mobilize the public against Gazprom, and the matter was even argued before the country's Supreme Court. After four years, there was so much pressure that Gazprom finally backed down, and the tower will now be built much farther out. Vishnevsky's efforts prove that it is possible "to take a stand against a government that forgets all sense of proportionality," St. Petersburg actor Alexey Devotchenko wrote.
Even when there is a dispute -- as there is currently -- over the transfer of St. Isaac's Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church, it is almost always based on fundamental issues. The cathedral is one of the world's most visited museums. It was built by the Russian state and has never been church property nor a parish church. Nevertheless, the governor of St. Petersburg has caved in to pressure from the Orthodox Church and promised to transfer the cathedral to it.
"He didn't ask St. Petersburgers for their opinion, and he ignored all legal hurdles," says Vishnevsky. "What disdain for the public, and what a boorish approach!" St. Isaac's Cathedral would not be turned over to the Orthodox Church, Vishnevsky recently said publicly. Within a short time, 200,000 St. Petersburgers had signed the corresponding protest petition on the internet.
There is no other place in Russia where activists are so successful at limiting the latitude of those in power as in St. Petersburg. This is also attributable to an achievement from the early days of democratic Russia: St. Petersburg has a professional parliament, one of only two still left in the country. The members receive a salary and are not allowed to perform any secondary jobs. This enables them to keep an eye on Putin's governors. "In every other place, they have abolished the troublesome professional parliaments again," says Vishnevsky. "But it isn't possible to maintain checks and balances on the people in power in Russia in the capacity of a volunteer job."
Back at the ice arena, they're now singing the last song: "Muzyka dla muzhika," or Music for Real Mean. Sergey Shnurov has thrown off his shirt and is now jumping around, exposing his upper body. The audience dances along and, even after the lights have gone out, the light from thousands of mobile phones continues to glow. It's as if a clear, starry sky had formed a dome over St. Petersburg. "There are good things in the world, and of course there are bad ones, too," Schnurov sings. "Living the right way -- only music can help you do that."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan