St. Petersburg is a European treasure resplendent with winding canals, towering cathedrals and 18th-century landmarks. But the city, which was founded by Peter the Great and marks its 310th anniversary Monday, is also facing a most modern dilemma: sprawl.
Developers are putting much of its historic district, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, under pressure. Last month, construction crews demolished a collection of 150-year-old railway warehouses that were made famous in works by Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and there are fears more buildings will be flattened to make way for apartments, business centres and shopping malls. It's hard to go almost anywhere in St. Petersburg without running into a construction site as the city makes way for a new airport, subway lines, a soccer stadium, a toll road and any number of apartment towers.
The city's residents have started to fight back, thanks largely to the efforts of an unlikely, but very Russian, kind of hero: the bookish historian Alexander Kononov.
The unassuming Mr. Kononov, 43, never intended to become a champion of heritage protection, and for years he was content to work in the city's public library and take pictures of monuments in his spare time. But when energy giant Gazprom announced plans in 2005 to build an 86-storey skyscraper and entertainment complex just 500 metres from St. Petersburg's landmark Smolny Cathedral, Mr. Kononov became enraged. The office complex would have towered over the cathedral and been an eyesore that would be visible from just about every other historic site, including the Winter Palace and St. Isaac's Cathedral.
He teamed up with the All-Russia Society of Historical and Cultural Monument Preservation, a small non-profit group that relies on donations to survive, and launched a campaign to block the project. No one thought they had a chance. Gazprom is the largest company in Russia. It was built up into a giant by Russian President Vladimir Putin, no less, and remains critically important to him. But gradually, Mr. Kononov's cause attracted wide public support and residents rose up against the project. In 2010, the company backed down and moved the $2-billion complex to the outer suburbs.
The victory over Gazprom "was huge for us," Mr. Kononov said through a translator as he sat in a coffee shop overlooking one of the city's canals. "People realized how much had been lost in the city [to development] in the past several years, and they felt it was their right to protest."
Mr. Kononov, who is now deputy head of the preservation society, talked at length about how developers stay one step ahead of critics, using bogus safety excuses to tear down historic structures and paying off city officials to get building permits. In recent years, the city has bowed to pressure from developers, he said, and shrunk the size of heritage zones, where all buildings are supposed to be protected.
Mr. Kononov pointed to a small square just up the street from the cafe, saying the city protects buildings on one side of the square but not the other. "There is basically no difference between these parts," he said referring to their historic significance. "There is no [historic or heritage] basis for such divisions."
There are signs of progress since the Gazprom decision. Public debate about protection has heated up and the society has been invited to participate in discussions at city government about building policies and heritage defence. "Six or seven years ago I couldn't imagine that they would ever discuss these issues on TV or in the daily newspapers," Mr. Kononov said. "But now the situation has changed completely." Some developers have even approached the society for advice before starting construction in sensitive areas.
Mr. Kononov said he often longs for his life before the Gazprom fight, when he could spend time with his partner and two children and indulge in his real passion of exploring Russian history. Now his volunteer work at the society has become all-consuming, and he still has a full-time job at the library. But he knows he has gone too far to turn back. "In the first few years, I had a feeling that it's a war, and that this war will end at some point and I'll come back to my scientific work," he said. "But now I understand that it's not over yet and that it will continue for quite a long time."