Staunton, June 14 – The wave of protests that have spread across Russia and even entered Moscow has generally passed by St. Petersburg, the result, Mikhail Shevchuk says, of the northern capital’s special circumstances and identities, ones that reflect its residents’ confidence that nothing is going to change the city and its role as a window on Europe.
In a commentary for the Tallinn-based regionalist portal Region.Expert, the St. Petersburg journalist says that regionalism in his city is “like the honey in the story of Winnie the Pooh – sometimes it seems as if it exists and sometimes as if it doesn’t (region.expert/spb-identity/).
Petersburg as everything needed for the rise of a regional identity: “a geographic position, a role in history, size, a developed economy and its own mythology, in general absolutely everything makes the city unique in Russia” and a candidate for the rise of a regionalist movement.
Few other places in Russia could dream of having such resources, and they could not imagine having as much autonomy either. The northern capital, Shevchuk says, “is autonomous like a submarine which is simply floating in the Gulf of Finland. ‘The federals’ simply don’t take note of this.” And Petersburg lives its own life with less interference from Moscow.
Many people come to St. Petersburg, he acknowledges, fewer than Moscow and with less of an impact. Those arriving in the northern capital are quickly acculturated and do not change the face of the city. “The city’s authority is too high. When they go to Moscow, however, they change it.”
According to Shevchuk, “the rhythm of life is not different: it is lacking altogether.” Muscovites see around them constant change and react accordingly. Petersburgers in contrast are convinced that “nothing will ever change in his city” and therefore there is no reason to get exercised or to leave.
That attitude means, he continues, that it is impossible to imagine protests like those in the North against trash dumps “because it simply doesn’t occur to put in Petersburg a disposal site for Moscow waste.” Petersburgers will protest but only against changes in their city, such as handing over St. Isaacs to the church or building a skyscraper that would ruin the skyline.
But one thing is clear: Petersburgers in general do not want to identify themselves with regionalism because that would implicitly reduce the Northern Capital to the level of other regions in Russia, Shevchuk says. They view their city as far more than that, as part of Europe rather than part of Moscow’s patrimony.
Moreover, residents of St. Petersburg have no use for the status of a second Russian capital. For them, their city “was and has remained the capital of a country which Russia never had and they do not want any other.” Perhaps some day, Moscow will try to draw Petersburg into its plans for “a dynamic breakthrough” but it won’t be under Putin.
And so for the time being, Petersburgers will protest but only within the boundaries of their own identity.” They aren’t interested in going beyond them – and won’t be unless someone from the outside violates those limits.