Two Generations of Activists United in Protest
By Sergey Chernov Staff Writer
A new generation of activists joined veteran protesters this week near the Angleterre Hotel on St. Isaac’s Square to mark the 21st anniversary of mass protests held to save the original historical building, one of the most important such demonstrations of people power in the waning days of the Soviet Union.
News of the building’s impending destruction drew up to 22,000 protesters, who kept up the defense of the building around the clock for three days until they were dispersed by the Soviet riot police and the army, just a few minutes before the facade was pulled down on March 18, 1987.
“This day is very important for us, because the Angleterre’s demolition united very many people, very many Petersburgers at that time,” said Yulia Minutina, the coordinator of Living City (Zhivoi Gorod), a pressure group that today struggles to protect the city’s endangered buildings.
Living City shares the same goal as the Salvation Group (Gruppa Spaseniya), the organization that led the 1987 protests against the destruction of the hotel, which is remembered as the place where the revered poet Sergei Yesenin died in mysterious circumstances in 1925.
Most Living City activists did not take part in the 1987 protests because they were too young or had not yet been born.
“We were kids at that time, but now it’s the next generation,” said Minutina.
“We do have people who were at the Angleterre at that time in the organization, but there are few of them, mostly we are all younger. One of our members is the daughter of a Salvation Group activist in Living City, so we have literally inherited its cause.”
The demolition of the Angleterre and the preceding protests represent a symbol for veterans and newer activists for the cause of preserving the city’s historical buildings, which they say is relevant as never before.
“On one hand, this date is a symbol of the disasters, the losses that the city suffered and is yet to suffer, but on the other hand, the Angleterre is a symbol of people’s unity, their ability to forget their own business for the sake of common values,” said Minutina.
“The people from the Salvation Group mark this day every year. They come to the Angleterre at around 2 p.m., when the people were dispersed and the demolition started. Living City has existed for 18 months now, and of course, we join and support this tradition and are planning to keep observing this date. It’s very meaningful for us as well.”
The Angleterre was later rebuilt and now operates as a luxury hotel managed by the Rocco Forte group.
As the first open, mass protest in St. Petersburg under the Soviets, the rally to save the Angleterre’s original building opened the way for other street protests demanding social and political freedoms, and symbolizes the beginning of real changes in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
“People were defending historical architecture, but they had a feeling that they were defending their own freedom. It was one of the first acts of civil disobedience,” said Minutina.
“The people took to the streets not only for the sake of the Angleterre — they felt they were defending themselves, defending their freedom, defending their country, their city, and making the point that it is their country, their country, thus breaking the Soviet stereotype.”
Although many more historical buildings in the center have been destroyed during the last few years, street protests now usually draw dozens, rather than the thousands who were present during the three days of the defense of the Angleterre.
“The situation is different. It was something shocking then. If you could break through and get on the television or in the papers, it was half way done,” said Minutina.
“Now it’s easier, but the attitude is calmer; well, it was shown, printed and so what. Nobody cares.”
However, a March for the Preservation of St. Petersburg, organized by the Yabloko democratic party, Living City and a number of other organizations, drew an estimated 3,000 protesters in September, a substantial number compared to other protests.
“We believe that as time goes by, such actions will get bigger,” said Minutina. “The thing is that people don’t realize yet that what is happening is not one-shot, pinpoint destruction, it’s a general tendency.
“And the more people realize it, the more will join our ranks — not only because everybody wants to preserve our cultural heritage, I don’t have illusions about that, but also because they will understand that his or her own house could be threatened. And people can do a lot when fighting for their own homes.”