Haniel Spring School 2015: Urban Activism

by: Joren van Veen

After visiting the State University of St. Petersburg for a lecture on higher education in Russia, we took a bus to the third district (also known as the Petrogradskiy district). Here young urban activist Alexandra Nenko elaborated on her ‘participatory art’ projects within the concrete jungles of St. Petersburg. Alexandra, who is a sociologist by education, showed us one of her projects where she invited inhabitants of her district to improve the liveability of St. Petersburg. Together they painted grey concrete flower beds and attached swings to trees to transform a typical grey ‘Soviet-style’-playground in a place one could actually enjoy being in. We learned how inhabitants are able to take matters into their own hands, providing that the local government is not willing or able to do so.

It was a question of ability in this particular cause, according to Yuriy Panov – who is the Head of the Administration of the Posadskiy municipality district- as he told us later during a tour through ‘his’ municipality. Mr. Panov explained how it was hard to secure enough funds for green spaces and playgrounds within the city of St. Petersburg, especially with the harsh climate and various demands by citizens. His friendly attitude and optimism made us believe his story; however, a later lecture by Elena Belokurova the next day made clear that it is not that clear cut. Ms. Belokurova ran for the local government, but (alleged) rigged elections prevented her from obtaining a seat. This made us wonder: was Mr. Panov one of the good people, trying to do what is best for his constituency, but simply obstructed by bureaucracy and higher officials or was he merely a smooth talker? I guess we will never know, but it was a unique opportunity to see these both sides on the matter of local authority in St. Petersburg.