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Building Boom Threatens St. Petersburg's Style

An island in the Neva River is the planned site for Gazprom's soaring new tower.
Gregory Feifer, NPR
An island in the Neva River is the planned site for Gazprom's soaring new tower.
Workers are already clearing the land for the new Gazprom tower despite ongoing legal challenges.
Gregory Feifer, NPR
Workers are already clearing the land for the new Gazprom tower despite ongoing legal challenges.

Known as the Venice of the North, St. Petersburg, Russia, is one of the world's architectural marvels.

Originally planned as a fortress to defend Russia from attack, St. Petersburg became a projection of the czar's imperial might. Pushkin wrote that it was Russia's window on the West, but it was expanded to show that Russia could build a modern European city.

Today, some residents say their storied city is under threat. They say that new wealth from the country's energy-fueled economic boom is ruining St. Petersburg's unique style, and destroying its social fabric.


Out With the Old?

The end of communism left St. Petersburg impoverished, but Russia's new oil and gas wealth is sending real-estate prices soaring. New high rises are being built, and old buildings are sprouting incongruous new additions that critics say compromise St. Petersburg's elaborate neoclassical style. Historian and preservationist Alexander Margolis says he blames corruption.

"Much of the architecture here is protected by law. But under our style of capitalism, developers bribe officials to condemn sound buildings ... and allow them to build whatever they want. It's not clear how much of the old St. Petersburg will survive that process," Margolis says.

Peter the Great built Russia's St. Petersburg on swampland on the windswept shores of the Neva River 300 years ago. The Russian Revolution began in the city, but the Soviets moved the capital to Moscow, and Leningrad — as St. Petersburg was renamed — became something of a backwater. More than a million people died during the Nazi blockade in World War II, but the ruined buildings were rebuilt, and then decades of neglect actually helped preserve the city's architecture.

Forcing Residents Out


Today, St. Petersburg's streets are flanked by grandiose apartment buildings that contain dilapidated, Soviet-era communal apartments. St. Petersburg still has the country's largest concentration of communal housing, some of which belongs to the scholars and other intellectuals who give the city its liberal reputation. As developers move in, those residents are being pushed out.

Alla Moskvina, a legislative aide who lives in an apartment near the Hermitage Museum, says a wealthy businessman who owns an adjacent building wants to take over her building.

"He's bribed officials to falsify ownership documents," she says. "He's sent thugs to break in and he's threatened to have us beaten. We've filed suit, but the authorities have done nothing to stop him."

Many other residents of central St. Petersburg say they're being forced into shabby concrete slab buildings on the city's outskirts.

A Looming Tower

One new project by Russia's giant state-controlled company Gazprom seems to symbolize the new reality in St. Petersburg. Planned as Europe's tallest building, Gazprom wants to build a 1,300-foot glass tower on a small island in the Neva River. The union of architects calls the Gazprom project an architectural crime, and UNESCO says the glass spire would threaten the city's status as a world heritage site.

The building's chief architect, Tony Kettle of the Scottish firm RMJM, dismisses accusations that the natural gas company's soaring tower would ruin St. Petersburg's low, horizontal skyline.

"There are certain elements within the city that are celebrated, and these are always vertical dominants," Kettle says. "And now we have one of the world's most important companies and one of the key issues of our time, which is energy, and I think it's perfectly right and fitting that Gazprom as a global energy company should be celebrated within the city."

But others disagree. Anna Chernova, one of four local residents who have filed suit to stop the construction, calls it a "catastrophe."

"One building like that would be enough to destroy the entire city's architectural unity," she says.

Some St. Petersburg residents believe the authorities are deliberately trying to take away St. Petersburg's unique culture, although historian Margolis blames bad taste. He says the pressure of money and power behind the projects means it would take another revolution to stop them.

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