Governor of St. Petersburg, Russia (May 2013)

Georgy S. Poltavchenko

Georgy S. Poltavchenko

1) In 1990, St. Petersburg was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. What kind of impact this event had on the city?

In 1988, after the Convention on the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage by the Russian Federation was ratified, our city – still called Leningrad – was the first Russian object included in the World Heritage List. The significance of this event cannot be overstated. Since then there have been projects covering almost all areas of the city, from restoration activities to which a significant amount of the city budget was allocated, to the creation of a variety of community organizations whose aim was to protect St. Petersburg’s antiques. In addition, residents became aware of their interest in history and there was a rapid growth of historical awareness. As soon as the political situation in 1991 allowed citywide referendum, the city reverted to its original name – St. Petersburg.

Worldwide recognition of St. Petersburg as “a unique artistic achievement” had international importance. The city became aware that it was one of the European Capital of Culture, along with Paris, London, Berlin and Vienna. There was a basis for cultural interaction with the major European cities allowing St. Petersburg to become an international tourist destination. And the fact that the 36th Session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee 2012 was the first session ever held in Russia is clear evidence of city honors given by the global community for the world’s historical and cultural heritage preservation.

2) What, in your opinion, is the main role of the leader of a city inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List?

In my inaugural speech, I promised that I would take care of and cherish as the apple my eye the unique St. Petersburg cultural heritage, our historical relics and monuments. This task remains the most important challenge for me personally and for the city government.

Leading the northernmost European city and the largest among the northern cities is not easy. The World Heritage Site status increases the extent of responsibility even more. After all, St. Petersburg gained this status due to the high rate of historic center preservation. But along with old buildings, unfortunately, many long-standing problems – engineering, transport and social issues – still remained.

For many decades, the city was stripped of necessary investments and did not actually develop its infrastructure at all. We have just recently started with improvements that all major European cities have already done. And we have no right to separate the task of historical heritage preservation from the task of improving the quality of life of St. Petersburg’s residents. First of all, I think of the residents of the historic center. So the main thing for the city leader is to find and to maintain a balance between conservation and development, between the interests of the current St. Petersburg citizens and the interests of future generations.

3) What specific actions are taken to protect and preserve St. Petersburg as a World Heritage site?

There are many. Above all, new laws were adopted to protect our historical heritage from arbitrary decisions or shortsightedness of property developers. These are not only city laws but also federal ones. Recently, for example, the State Duma, at our request, established new and very significant penalties for violations of the cultural heritage protection in Russia. Fines for businesses will increase to up to 1 million rubles, and people who violate the most valuable objects would be charged 20 million rubles.

Last year, the city administration took an important step by accepting the long-term “St. Petersburg Historical Center Preservation and Development” program. Its implementation will begin with a comprehensive survey of the historic quarters assessing conditions of buildings and their foundations, roads and embankments, underground utilities, etc. It is only after this survey that we will realize what the costs will be.

We have a very balanced approach to the adjacent historic center area development. I have in mind the infamous “industrial belt”. Investors have already proposed to the City Government to build high-rise condominiums at that place. In fact, the plan was to embrace the center with high “walls”. Old low-rise buildings that now stand out against the sky and enhance the feeling of “regular city” would be simply lost within these high “walls”. The so-called St. Petersburg celestial line would also be broken. Dismissing these plans, we have kept the historical panorama of our city intact.

Another important issue is to involve the residents of St. Petersburg in the historical heritage protection and preservation processes. For nearly ten years, the St. Petersburg Government has had two community boards – the Cultural Heritage Preservation Council and the Town Planning Board. Last year, the city government and civil society activists managed through their joint efforts to stop a few construction projects for lofts on monumental buildings.

Furthermore, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS specialists are currently actively participating in systematic work on the retrospective inventory of the world heritage site and the development of legal protection mechanisms.

4) Are there any activities aimed at the promotion of St. Petersburg’s historical and architectural significance?

St. Petersburg is traditionally both organizer and participant of various events dedicated to heritage preservation. For example, in November 2012, on 10thDenkmal – European Trade Fair for Conservation, Restoration and Old Building Renovation held in Leipzig, St. Petersburg was presented as one of the largest Russian restoration centers. In this exhibition, the World Heritage Site project “Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments” was presented.

In the summer of 2013, as part of the “Week of Restorers” the 9th Specialized Exhibition “Architecture. Town Planning. Restoration” project will be held in St. Petersburg, bringing together leading St. Petersburg restorers and architects on the same platform. And, of course, we will be happy to see representatives from other cities and countries.

Also, Doors Open Days at Cultural Heritage Sites held as a part of the International Day for Monuments and Sites became a traditional event. This year’s International Day for Monuments was dedicated to the cultural heritage of education, so the city government gave people interested the opportunity to visit St Petersburg’s academic and scientific institutions, which are St. Petersburg’s educational heritage located within the monuments of architecture.

5) UNESCO describes St. Petersburg as “a typical example of the Baroque and Neoclassical”. How does this affect the city development? How does St. Petersburg manage to remain a modern city?

St. Petersburg is rich not only with monuments of the Baroque and the Classicism style. All city development stages and different artistic styles made its shape divisive, but did not violate its integrity. So this city feature has made relevance and admissibility as the main criteria in dealing with urban development. We can say that the city educates by its very existence and the appearance of its buildings.

For example, in Russia we all know that residents of St. Petersburg distinguish themselves by their patriotism and strong sense of justice. I do not exclude that both aforementioned UNESCO style, Baroque and Classicism, have played and continue to play a significant role. Baroque as the style of the Imperial Capital reminds the residents of St. Petersburg of its glorious past. Rigor and harmony of Classicism bring harmony of thought and the logic of reasoning. And any injustice, if you think about it, is above all a lack of logic.

When Vladimir Putin became the President of Russia, the city began to receive investments, and St. Petersburg began to develop unevenly and therefore unfairly. Fortunately, we managed to escape the greatest injustice – the “Ohta-Center” construction project in the immediate vicinity of the historic center vicinity. And now we have come to the conclusion that the city development must be subject to a single logic. Therefore, the Government, together with the expert community, has begun to prepare a socio-economic development project that spans until 2030. The strategy will need to correlate all investment projects, all government development program areas and economy sectors. One of the main strategies will be the preservation and development of this historic center. Our heritage is the real basis of St. Petersburg’s aggregate capital and main competitive advantage.

6) What, in your opinion, distinguishes St. Petersburg from other cities?

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee members found very true words when they referred to St. Petersburg as “the only one of its kind and the perfect embodiment of the vast area within 200 years of the European idea of regular city harmonized with landscape”.

St. Petersburg’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it is a man-made city, designed and created by man, erected not spontaneously, but by strictly calculated plan. Our city is rich with individual styles and monuments and its integrity. Effects of different styles and periods have not violated this extraordinary integrity. And, I believe that our main goal is to carefully preserve this integrity and improve the quality of life of the residents of St. Petersburg.

I find immensely true the principle embedded into the framework of “St. Petersburg’s Strategy of Cultural Heritage Preservation”, which determines priorities and protection of St. Petersburg’s cultural heritage. The formula goes like this: “Preservation through Development, Development through Preservation”. This principle, in my view, is a fundamental one for St. Petersburg.

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