Sofia Tchouikina, St. Petersburg: Contradictory social meaning of post-Soviet city space: the experience of artistic sociological intervention in a workers’ district of St. Petersburg
Social changes which occurred in the last ten-fifteen years in Russia have left imprint on the city space. Different districts are very unevenly touched by these changes. Some of them are representing St. Petersburg as a modern European city, a flourishing tourist attraction, others keep memory of the Soviet times and remind us of the difficult transition to capitalism. Often non-central residential districts are now nearly as they were in the Soviet times, but less comfortable and less clean. They are not exposed to the tourist gaze and are neglected by the city authorities. The city space reflects the conflict atmosphere of the society, where a large number of people are impoverished, where illegal migrants from the former socialist republics live and work in very difficult conditions. Racism is growing, and the state apparatus, including the police is extremely corrupt. If the well developed western European cities face the problem that urban space is over-controlled (in the neighboring city Helsinki there are cameras on every corner), in St. Petersburg this problem does not exist. On the contrary, the city is being subject to a "wild" repartition, and the question "to whom belongs the city space" is posed very often on all levels, and causes a lot of conflicts between the authorities and the residents, between the local people and the strangers, between the prosperous middle-class and their alcoholic neighbors, between well-adapted families and outsiders.
To explore this situation, to understand how these conflicts are articulated and to articulate the problems of the silent, but rather aggressive and neglected population in the public sphere, Chto delat, a group of engaged artists and intellectuals organized a sociological intervention in one of the worker’s district of St. Petersburg called Narvskaya zastava. As a sociologist I was interested in testing the unusual field methods. Artistic mode of intervention in the city space was in some ways different from the traditional sociological methods, and was inspired by the Situationist experiences of psychogeography.
We found out, that the social meaning of this city space it contradictory. On the one hand, it transmits a depressive mood by its lost houses and plants. On the other hand, there were a lot of nostalgic remarks both in the interviews of residents and in the monologues and dialogues of intellectuals, because this territory preserves traces of socialist era and reminds of the times of social equality and workers’ paradise.
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