The Marine Façade and the Petersburg Myth in Post-Soviet Russia

Sophia Kosar (Russian Studies Program, College of William and Mary)

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St. Petersburg has always been Russia’s “window to the West.” At the time of its construction in the eighteenth century, Peter the Great envisioned a city encompassing the greatest architectural achievements of Western Europe: the romantic island-canal systems of Venice and Amsterdam, luxurious baroque architecture, and a court rivaling that of the French in power and elegance. However, the city has not always lived up to its intended purpose—to prove that Russia could leave behind her backwards ways and enter modernity with the rest of Europe (Figes 10). Thus the Petersburg myth was born—its foundations lying in this discrepancy between the idealized city and its real counterpart. The myth, which expresses Russia’s complicated experience of modernity, continues to be prevalent in contemporary St. Petersburg. The Marine Façade development project embodies the Petersburg myth and the three-hundred-year-old dichotomy between dreams and reality that lies at the heart of the city.

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Kosar and her crew collect b-roll for the film ab. the Marine Facade

 

The Marine Façade, launched in 2004, is the largest and most recent of Petersburg’s urban development plans. A joint project between the St. Petersburg City Administration and several private firms, the plan involves the commercial passenger port, a new business district, neighborhoods, and an expansion of the city’s transportation system. The port was the main justification for constructing the Marine Façade; until the port’s construction, Petersburg was the only major European city without a passenger seaport (Shimberg).

Considering Peter the Great’s intent to make the city his empire’s main commercial port, the Marine Façade immediately becomes part of Petersburg’s cultural tradition. In order to render Petersburg a more prominent trading location, Peter increased production of Russian ships and encouraged foreign merchants through trade concessions (Massie 358). Years later, a modern Petersburg facing the same challenge finds remedy in the new Marine Facade, welcoming luxury cruises in place of freight liners. (Mitiurev, MFMC). Until the Passenger Port was built, passenger ships had to share limited port space with cargo ships and oil tankers (Marine Port SPb). In order to cope with the pressures of a modern city and popular tourist destination, Petersburg had to create incentives for ships to utilize this new port. Thus the idea for the grandiose Marine Façade district was born, an ultra-modern contrast to the rest of the city that would provide comfort and leisure for tourists.

In this attempt to innovate we can see that the weight of the Petersburg myth still rests upon the city. The downtown, now the historic center, was the pinnacle of modernity in its day. It was also just as contrived as the Marine Facade. Dostoevsky critically called Petersburg “the most intentional city” (Munro 15). The completed Marine Façade is to be a sleek downtown area that will cater to tourists, professionals, and wealthy residents. It will cover 450 hectares of reclaimed land, nearly half the size of Vasilievsky Island as it exists today. The port, opened in 2008, consists of a rectangular bay in which international commercial cruise liners can dock at one of four terminals. Current predictions put completion of the business and residential areas near 2020, at which time they will be sold to private entities (Shimberg). The reclaimed land serving as the foundation of these areas, called the “precoat,” is currently under construction. The precoat resembles its host city in that any connection to its environment is forced, if present at all.

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Promotional Corporate Video of the Marine Facade Island

 

This artificiality is key to the Petersburg myth and the city’s history. The city is seductive with its beauty and symbolic modernity, but these qualities hide the city’s darker half—the unnatural and autocratic. The Marine Façade exhibits these same traits. By facilitating increased tourism, it will help the city, its economy, and infrastructure. However, these benefits come at the cost of the environment and the city’s residents.

The predicted result of the project is decidedly utopian, appropriate for St. Petersburg. Scale models in the Marine Façade Management Company’s office show a sophisticated district that looks more like Sydney than Petersburg. The Western High Speed Diameter highway is to run horizontally through the district, alleviating Vasilievsky’s congestion issues by providing an alternative to the city’s famous bridges. There is a plan to expand the metro system, adding two more stations to the two currently on the Island (Kuznetsova, MFMC). Just as Petersburg was extremely fashionable in the 1700s, the Marine Façade is designed to be the most contemporary district in all of Russia.

There are, however, several drawbacks to the project that residents of St. Petersburg do not fail to notice. Locals still have major reservations about the motives behind the project, its implementation, and its effect on the city. Debate over the Marine Façade has focused on two sensitive sets of values: the aesthetic and the practical. Generally, proponents are the city authorities, corporate developers, and groups that will benefit economically from the project. Detractors include architects, residents of Vasilievsky Island, ecological groups, and political groups that oppose the authorities currently in office.

Those who feel that the Petersburg’s aesthetic tradition should be preserved worry that the Marine Façade will change the city’s aura. The classic Petersburg style is characterized by a horizontal skyline, linear architecture, symmetry, and a strong contrast between water and stone. An architect, historical restoration expert, and city native, Rafael Maratovich Dayanov considers the Marine Façade “upsetting” from an aesthetic point of view. He sees it as a question of forgetting Petersburg’s architectural identity and is afraid that the city will change beyond all recognition for the worse.

The city’s distinctive style is a direct reflection of the Western architects Peter commissioned to build his city. Completely departing from traditional Russian form, he ordered the Moscow nobility to build palaces in Petersburg in the new fashion. He forced thousands of peasants from across Russia to come construct the new city and live there afterward. The combined human toll of building accidents, disease, and flooding illustrate the autocratic nature of Peter’s project (Massie 356, 360-62). In Dayanov’s words, the city was the dream of “one man.” The commoners and nobles hated the location and the hardships it caused for them, “but Peter would not listen” (Massie 360-61).

Similarly, the Marine Façade completely departs from the Baroque aesthetic of the city. The government and managing firms want it to look like a 21st-century business district, totally incongruous with the existing style. Again paralleling the city’s birth, the Marine Façade is a top-down execution; the residents of St. Petersburg and Vasilievsky Island have had little say in the project’s implementation, though it disrupts the lives of many, as well as the surrounding environment.

In fact, Vasilievsky Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Because it is protected by UNESCO, the Petersburg government regulates the style of all new construction within the city limits. Under the City Administration are two architectural committees that have jurisdiction over the city’s design. One, the Committee for Urban Planning and Architecture, passes all legislation concerning new development in the historical area. However, the Marine Façade area lies under a different municipal authority, and is therefore not subject to the same set of architectural and structural regulations (Legislative Assembly ZAKS). This means that the 450 hectares of new development are not required to conform to the historical style.

Aside from aesthetic concerns, many see the Marine Façade as an impractical and harmful endeavor. It is argued that it is detrimental to the environment in the coastal area and to the daily lives of those who live there. Journalist Victoria Rabotnova, a resident of Vasilievsky Island, wonders why the port complex could not be built somewhere else along the coast. Before deciding on Vasilievsky, other options were on the table—such as Kanonersky Island, located to the south of Vasilievsky and far enough from the historical center that it would not be as controversial. Rabotnova’s theory is that Vasilievsky was chosen because placing the port near an existing residential district would give the developers an excuse to build the new district (Robotnova).

Ecological groups were furious at the lack of concern over the project’s environmental impact, as the land reclamation process causes extreme turbidity around the coast and where the Neva meets the bay (Medvedev and Zaitseva). In 2010 the St. Petersburg People’s Democratic Union of Youth protested against the destruction of local fish populations (RPDU). Other ecologists complain that the project will destroy the coast, reduce the number of green areas in the city, and make the Neva Bay unfit for wildlife (ZOV petition).

Yet the government approved the Vasilievsky project for construction, and it passed all the necessary tests concerning environmental safety. Journalists Nadezhda Zaitseva and Alexander Medvedev quote an unnamed member of parliament who took part in the Marine Façade meetings of the Standing Committee on Health and Environmental Legislative Assembly in 2005: “’We asked the experts questions about the impact … on the surrounding area, the impact … on the water quality in the Gulf of Finland and came to the conclusion that … it does not adversely affect either the health of the air or water.’” He also said he believes Vasilievsky is the only place where a port like this could be located, although many experts are quick to argue to the contrary.

Again, the Marine Façade echoes the city’s construction. The swampy mouth of the Neva was nearly uninhabitable. However, Peter desperately wanted a port, and it allowed him to move away from Moscow, the capital he so hated. Foreigners and nobles did not believe it would survive past Peter’s reign as the climate was so poor and the residents so despised it. However, for Peter, “no obstacle was great enough to prevent his carrying out his design” (Massie 364-65).

Economically, many Vasilievsky residents are upset about the Marine Façade’s effect on apartment values. People who bought expensive waterfront property in the Primorskaya area are extremely angry and have formed lobbying coalitions protesting Marine Façade construction. Not only will they lose the beautiful view of the Gulf, they will also lose value on their once prime real estate. One NGO, “Protecting the Island Vasilievsky” (abbreviated ZOV in Russian), filed a lawsuit in 2006 attempting to stop development of the Western High Speed Diameter on the grounds that it would decimate the value of surrounding real estate (Teplouhov).

Although Peter’s nobles built the city’s original palaces, they too endured economic hardship because of construction. Having no choice but to move to the new capital, the costs of construction and food led many to estimate they had lost two thirds of their wealth (Massie 361). The people hated St. Petersburg; they “suffered greatly but did not complain” (Massie 364).Today’s residents have no problems raising their voices against the Marine Façade, but they are no more effective than their 18th-century counterparts.

It is a fact that public opinion has not been acknowledged in the project’s implementation. Groups such as ZOV and the St. Petersburg Youth League have tried laboriously to change the plans, but to no avail. ZOV has held rallies and written to both Presidents Medvedev and Putin during their terms in office (Sharagina). They have also petitioned the local Petersburg government (ZOV petition). Tatiana Sharagina, who owns an apartment next to the port, is a prominent member of ZOV and elected representative of Vasilievsky Island. She admits the group has not had much success with accomplishing their goals, considering the port is already functioning. Residents of an apartment building located on Morskaya Naberezhnaya, right next to the construction, wrote a petition expressing their grievances about the way the noise of the construction was disrupting their everyday lives. With the estimated deadline of the project set at 2020, they will have to put up with the disturbances for a while to come (House no. 15/17 petition). But as long as the city can get its makeover, the people’s plights do not seem to be an obstacle.

American journalist David Greene published an article on St. Petersburg, in which he really does consider it Russia’s façade. “Peter the Great,” he says, ” imagined a luxurious playground for the ruling elite … [now] some residents think Russia’s current leaders are using the city for the same purpose.” Petersburg is a special city, as tour groups from cruise liners can enter without a Russian visa as long as they are accompanied at all times by a licensed tour guide. Greene says that this, combined with the atmospheric discrepancy between Petersburg and the rest of Russia, gives the Russian government control over foreigners’ impressions of the country. Not only does the Marine Façade facilitate this superficial tourist experience of the country, but the surrounding areas will also send these types of visitors a different perception of the country than what really exists, purposefully disguising its negative attributes.

Petersburg was built to be, and remains to this day, Russia’s “window”—not “door”—to the West; as in image, it is “more constricted … more subject to control” (Munro 266). The Marine Façade facilitates this same control, as the connection between Russia and tourists can be controlled. The façade of modern business may hide the similarities between the Marine Façade and Peter’s vision, but they are both utopias of modernity. Both stem from the intent to put Russia on a par with Western Europe, but both are, in actuality, monuments to Russia’s top-down power structure. The Petersburg myth lives on into the present: the Marine Façade exemplifies the myth and shows that it is still an important part of the city and its culture. The conflicts between new and old, the powerful and powerless, vision and reality can all be found under the surface of the Marine Façade.

 


Special thanks to Maria Nefedova (St. Petersburg University) for her help with research, translation and video production components of this project.  Отдельное спасибо Марии Нефедовой (СПБГУ) за её помощь в исследовательской части проекта, переводе и производстве видео.

 

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