St. Petersburg is the largest and most influential non-capital city in Europe, Lev Lurye, Cultural Historian, St. Petersburg, stated at a 30 April 2012 Kennan Institute seminar. Lurye gave a brief history of generally Western-leaning and anti-establishment politics in St. Petersburg from the 1980s to the present day.

Historically, St. Petersburg has been one of Russia’s most Western-influenced cities, and Lurye noted that such a characterization is just as applicable today as it was during the city’s heyday during the tsarist period. For example, in the past year 800,000 Finnish visas were issued to Peterburgers, and almost 90% of Peterburgers have been abroad and experienced Europe. St. Petersburg is too large and too cosmopolitan to be considered a “provincial city,” though many Muscovites view it as such, Lurye argued.

Lurye depicted St. Petersburg as being known for its underground opposition movements, a subtle difference from Moscow which he characterized as a “city of dissidents.” Leningrad (as the city was called in the Soviet period) survived three major purges under Stalin’s reign: Zinoviev’s circle in 1926, Kirov’s in 1934-35, and Zhdanov’s repressions in 1949. Nevertheless, towards the end of the Soviet period, Leningrad emerged as a center of opposition as it was one of only three cities that opposed Gorbachev’s proposed referendum to reorganize the USSR in 1991. A few years later, in 1996, the city voted out of office the first democratically-elected mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, along with his chief of staff, a young Petersburg-native Vladimir Putin. In recent years, major “state” parties such as “United Russia,” notably led by Putin, and “Our Home – Russia” received fewer votes in St. Petersburg than in the rest of the country.

Lurye described the changes that took place in St. Petersburg over the last decade, which was dominated by the administration of the previous governor, Valentina Matvienko. Matvienko was elected governor by a small margin in 2003 and remained in office until last year, 2011. Lurye claimed Matvienko made her mark for two main actions: cleaning up the city (St. Petersburg used to be one of the dirtiest cities in the world) and her fondness of holidays, seemingly adding a new holiday almost every month. Lurye characterized her policies as fairly liberal, with the exception of the elections, which she tightly controlled. There was a turning point in 2007, however, Lurye noted, when St. Peterburgians began to protest more actively. For example, the “Strategy-31” movement, which emerged in Moscow, spread to St. Petersburg as well. Protesters have been gathering the 31st of the month to support Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which grants Russian citizens the right to freedom of assembly. The city authorities reacted negatively to such gatherings, with reported incidents of demonstrators being beaten by the police. Another form of protest has been through the group “Living City,” an internet group based in St. Petersburg that has been gaining popularity and now has approximately 4,000 members. Their main objective has been to protect the aesthetics of the city, and they vehemently opposed the Gazprom skyscraper plan that Matvienko supported.

Resentment against Matvienko grew stronger in the winter of 2009/2010, when the streets of St. Petersburg were covered with ice to such an extent that the city virtually came to a halt. During this time, Lurye asserted, Matvienko was having cosmetic surgery, and she and her staff were all out of the city. Meanwhile, many Peterburgers died from the cold, and a new movement called “Matvienko, Out!” collected 3,500 signatures to oust her from office. In May 2011, Matvienko was replaced as governor by Georgy Poltavchenko, “a man from nowhere,” according to Lurye. Lurye noted that none of Petersburg’s journalists knew anything about him prior to his appointment, but thus far he is more popular than Matvienko, mostly because he has not done much yet.

Lurye then described St. Petersburg’s role in the protest movement that arose in response to the 2011-2012 elections. The Petersburg protesters are largely young, well-educated people, who were born in the end of the 1970s and early 1980s. Many of them did not experience the Soviet Union first-hand, and don’t even remember the early 1990s, Lurye added. “If they purchase tickets to a destination, they expect the plane to fly there; if they buy cheese that is spoiled, they will bring it back to the store,” he expounded. In contrast, those Peterburgers who were born in the 1960s were at the peak of their working lives in the 1990s, and many of them faced the choice of either moving to Moscow or emigrating in order to prosper. At this juncture, Lurye sees Russian society as slowly moving in the direction of a period of stagnation similar to that of the 1960s and ‘70s. The main problem under Brezhnev, according to Lurye, was that younger generations were unable to move into positions of power, and this is what is happening again now.

Furthermore, the opposition movement is quite divided, which makes it largely ineffective, Lurye added. Nationalists and fascists have mixed with more liberal-minded people at the demonstrations, causing much tension and even physical violence at times. Due to this, as well as the extreme cold, the number of participants at the demonstrations slowly decreased, shrinking from 10,000 to 5,000 people between the first and third demonstration. At present, Lurye sees the Russian population and Putin as “hostages of each other.” Putin does not have grass-root support, but there is no realistic alternative yet. However, according to Lurye, “the citizens of St. Petersburg feel that if they are loud, they will get results.” If they could keep the Gazprom skyscraper out of the center of the city, they might have the social capital needed for deeper changes.

By Liz Malinkin
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute 

The Kennan Institute speaker series is made possible through the generous support of the Title VIII Program of the U.S. Department of State.


  • Lev Lurye

    cultural historian, St. Petersburg