Street art scenes from Russia’s northern capital St. Petersburg – a photo essay by Philipp Brugner.
The following photographs were taken between February and June 2011 as part of the series “urbanities in post-Soviet cities”. It was motivated by the prevailing cliché that post-Soviet cities lack a western-style urban appearance. While creative industries make many Western cities attractive to international investors, most post-Soviet cities are over-industrialised and struggle with the historic legacies of an old-fashioned economic and residential infrastructure. This shapes their global image as “backwards” and always a step behind the ideal of the 21st century city. At the same time, the paradigm to become “creative” cannot be the all-encompassing answer to the question of urban development. Each city differs in its history, population and functionality. Simply said, each city needs its own master plan.
The selected photographs show examples of urban creativity in the post-Soviet city of St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg is a good example of a unique post-Soviet city: only around 300 years old, it was built in the midst of swampland and experienced a dramatic change from a bourgeois to an industrial city. Today, it is a hub for fine arts while simultaneously hosting impressive industrial sites in and around the city. While home to a significant creative scene, St. Petersburg still deals with the post-Soviet reality of economic hardship and increasing nationalism. In this context, what is depicted here cannot simply be understood as “creative expression”. Many of the messages on the walls of St. Petersburg come from the very heart of current political debates in Russia. It is not always the artistic value that matters but the public message. Street art in Russia nowadays tends to be used for what we regard as the wrong cause, such as nationalist propaganda. But there is also some diversity, as the photographs demonstrate.
The first photograph shows the figure of “Super Mario” in the form of a small mosaic made of stony pads. It is a non-political piece of street art aiming to display the city as a playground. As a prime example of a playing character, the creator utilises Super Mario to remind urban residents that their city can also be their playground.
This is another example of Super Mario, in another shape and in different colours. The same material was used (stony pads) to create this image on a random St. Petersburg wall. Again, it illustrates the idea of an urban playground.
The graffiti slogan on the next photograph is a political message. The meaning of “Россия будет/Rossija budet” can be roughly translated as “Russia will arise”. As critics argue, Russia contests Western values while pushing its own Russophile principles in the spheres of culture and politics. Ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has sought to regain its great power status. The parole takes up this mindset and promises that Russia will regain its former power. It comes from the nationalistic political segment.
The following image conveys a similar political message. It illustrates the two-headed Russian eagle, an old symbol from the Byzantine era, which was taken over by the former Russian grand dukes and tsarist families. The word above the eagle is “Русь/Rus’”, which refers to the old Kievan Rus’. This was a historic loose federation of East Slavic tribes, amongst which were the ancestors of today’s Russians. Many still believe that the Kievan Rus’ is the founding entity for the later Russian state. The combination of the two-headed eagle and the reference to the old Rus’ delivers the idea of Russia as a state with a specific cultural history. Again, this idea is mostly supported by nationalists.
The following photograph shows an arrangement of randomly found objects. Next to the graffiti one finds a mattress, part of a shelf and some electronic components. The fence on the left side serves as a closing element for this “urban corner”. This is a fairly illustrative example of urban street art apart from the predominant (political) graffiti.
The last photo carries a highly rhetoric value. The word “гордость/gordost’” (pride) is written with a question mark on a piece of wood on a wall. This small urban intervention is directly linked to the two earlier examples of political street art. Should Russians really be proud of their state (remember the two paroles “Rossija budet’” and “Rus’” with the two-headed eagle) given the broken walls, old apartment buildings, miserable urban area and, on a larger scale, the poor living standards in many parts of Russia? This intervention demands personal reflection. It is directed at anyone coming along: What is your situation in Russia? Are there really reasons to become that proud of something?
In summary, street art in St. Petersburg must be separated from the more general discourse of the city’s urban development. Whereas street art in Western cities is often linked to gentrification and the creative upgrading of certain areas, street art in St. Petersburg is best understood in the context of (nationalistic) Russian politics. But as examples like Super Mario show, the city can be and is more than a canvas for politics – a playground.