vveshka (vveshka) wrote,

“It’s Miller time.” Photojournalism from behind the wall

Photography is forbidden on the territory of the future Okhta-Center. Security men from the Gazprom press office allow only a few chosen to come onto the site—journalists, photographers and cameramen who have been vetted ahead of time. And for some reason these people aren’t interested in archaeology. They record in close-up only the infrequent visits of officials from high or low levels of power. And according to the conditions of an agreement with Gazprom, even archaeologists who have been digging here for three years do not have the right to invite in journalists or to publish their findings. An exception is made only for sites with a narrow professional profile, where reports are posted about “the preliminary results of secured archaeological excavations at the mouth of the Okhta River.

Editors of the print media in Petersburg have been just as attentive. An interview with two masters of Russian archaeology, Anatolii Kirpichnikov (IIMK) and Oleg Ioannisian (Hermitage), about the discoveries made at the mouth of the Okha have made it only into the electronic press. What is the secret? And what is Miller hiding, apparently in shame?

Smolny Cathedral beyond the construction barrier

During normal excavations, archaeologists select an entire cultural layer, after which any construction is permitted on the site which does not contradict the law. This is how it was done in Novgorod, for example. And no one is hiding anything there. What is there to hide, if you can be proud that you financed scientific progress? After the first birchbark document or bowl with medieval coins, even those who first curse legislation and pesky archaeologists feel a sudden rush of pride in national history and regularly have their picture taken with the famous ditch in the background.

But a different situation is possible (true, only rarely), when on the site of the desired new construction an architectural monument is discovered. This means that you can’t build there. You can either turn this spot into a museum or conserve it—that is, cover it with dirt again, keeping the discovery for posterity and for future, probably superior, scientific methods.

In such a case, the law protects such a monument from the very moment of its discovery (and not from the time of its registration).

That is the case that we have before us.

It has long been known that on the site of the future Okhta-Center is located the Swedish seventeenth-century fortress Nienshans. But we won’t attempt to discuss how a territory with a protected underground monument was sold to the Gazprom corporation.

At first it was thought that the Swedish fortress was completely destroyed. First by Peter, then by time, and finally by the foundations of the “Petrozavod” factory.

Archaeologists have shown that the monument is alive. Let’s take a look at the fortress ramparts of Nienshans shows on this Swedish map from 1681:

A historical drawing of the fortress of Nienshans

This entire geometrical wonder is preserved under the ground. The ravines, the earthen embankments, the wooden reinforcements for the embankments, and even the secret iron-bound door that led from the fortress into the ravine (archaeologists found the broken key to the door in the well). The door is, as before, closed—and as before keeps its secret.

The secret door from the “Dead” (this is the ancient name) bastion into the ravine. Photo from the Institute for the history of material culture of Russian Academy of Sciences (IHMC RAS) sait

The Nienshans ravine, with the “Dead” bastion. Photo from the (IHMC RAS) sait

Archaeologists found even earlier fortresses preserved on this territory. One of these is Landskrona, from about 1300.

The north-east corner of the Landskrona tower. Photo from the St.Petersburg archaeological expedition of IHMC RAS

And here, a little closer to the end of the peninsula, should be located an ancient Novgorod outpost. The archaeologists haven’t reached it yet.

But probably the greatest success of the expedition was the discovery of the largest set of remains in northwest Russia from the Neolithic era. The site was used as a stopping place/ existed here for two millennia, and people first came here about 5000 years ago. The Neolithic is the late Stone Age. And – something sensationally rare in archaeology – the findings include not only work tools, weapons, dishes and decorative items, but also the remains of wooden construction.

They are twice as old as the Neva itself.

The Okhta-1 settlement. The wooden flooring is a platform from the Neolithic era.
Photo from the St.Petersburg archaeological expedition of IHMC RAS

Okhta-1 settlement. Slate fishing weights, flint arrowheads from the Neolithic era.
Photo from the St.Petersburg archaeological expedition of IHMC RAS

Okhta-1 settlement. Decorative amber buttons from the Neolithic era.
Photo from the St.Petersburg archaeological expedition of IHMC RAS

Archaeologists were long pressed to sign a paper that would admit that there is no monument here. And in return, they were promised the opportunity to continue excavations on this site and on the opposite bank of the Okhta, where another settlement from the middle ages is located. They were offered other benefits. When those asking for the signatures received a rejection, they began to seek out alternative opinions from other archaeologists. But for some reason, in contemporary Russia no strike-breakers could be found in this profession. So it was decided to get along without the archaeologists. On 27 August, the monument, which was already open, was removed from the protected list by a secret resolution of  Committee on State Control, Use and Protection of Historical and Cultural Landmarks.

Construction on the Okhta peninsula is a crime. In fact, an international crime. And at Gazprom they understand this—thus the secrecy. On the territory of Okhta-Center, neither the law on the rights of the press nor the Constitution of the Russian Federation has any effect. It’s not a very complicated trick, but still when Gazprom drives in ninety steel piles (each 70 meters long!), the five-thousand year history of our city will be destroyed. And in the eyes of our descendants, not only Miller and Matvienko but also all of us who allowed this crime will be the vandals of the 21st century.

View of the Bolsheokhtinskii Bridge

View across the MalayaOkhtaRiver at the construction site

View of the construction site across the MalayaOkhtaRiver

The archaeological expedition from IHMC RAS has been ordered to complete work by 1 April 2010. But in order to excavate everything, at least another entire season in the field is needed.

This cube with the openwork design is a demonstration model of the tower’s exterior materials.

The aluminum construction was brought from Frankfurt. Lovely, yes?

The apartment building on Krasnogvardeiskaya Square opposite the construction site. They say that Putin once lived here. They also say that the advertising billboards were put up to welcome Aleksei Miller.

In truth “it’s Miller time.”

This is how Smolny Cathedral looks from the other side of “the wall of Miller.”

In the opinion of archaeologists, the unique multilayered archaeological site at the mouth of the Okhta River is Petersburg’s equivalent of Troy. It should be preserved for posterity. Here you could create a historical-cultural landscape park and open-air archaeological museum. Something similar has been done in Turku (Finland) and in Kiev. A steady stream of tourists would be guaranteed. It would draw no fewer visitors than the Hermitage, and certainly more than would come to admire a third-rate skyscraper. The Swedes have already proposed restoring the fortress (out of earth and wood, as it was before) with their own kroners. But who in Rus’ wants to deal with the Swedes after Poltava?

To sum up: to build at the mouth of the Okhta is impossible – not four-hundred-meter skyscrapers, not fifty-meter buildings, not even five stories. This, at least, is what the law tells us.

Aerial view: At top left is Smolny Cathedral. At the lower right, the four white rectangles are the tents over archaeological excavations on the site of the proposed construction.

Petition against the Construction of the OkhtaCenterTower (Saint Petersburg)

Translated by Megan L Dixon
foto: vveshka

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