Eviction on Millionaires’ Street

Behind the baroque facades of St Petersburg residents live in squalor as they take on predatory property developers.

Filmmakers: Richard Setbon and Evgeny Rudnii

With its numerous canals, the Russian city of St Petersburg is known as the ‘Venice of the North’. Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, the city was built to rival the architectural gems of France and Italy. But in the 20th century, Lenin moved the capital to Moscow and the city entered a long period of decline. Blockaded for 900 days during the Second World War, it lost 800,000 of its citizens to hunger, disease and bombardment.

After the fall of the Soviet Union the city woke from hibernation with its baroque but crumbling architecture intact. The facades were cleaned up for tourists and visiting heads of state.

But behind the pretty exteriors the toll of nearly a century of neglect is hidden from view. In the once grand but now faded courtyards and entrances live many of the city’s poor, crowded into communal apartments; apartments that are now coveted by Russia’s new rich and aspiring middle class.

Galina and her neighbours live on Millionaires’ Street in St Petersburg, a once glorious row of palatial houses now in shocking disrepair and subject to the worst elements of predatory property developers and corrupt city officials.

She, like others in Russia, obtained ownership of her apartment when property was privatised in the early 1990s, unleashing speculation and property wars.

The poor residents behind the beautiful facades on the prestigious Millionaires’ Street live in squalor and in constant fear of sudden eviction by investors when the corrupt system allows unscrupulous developers in.

“Tourists come here but only see the facades. Nobody knows the terrible things that happen behind them,” Galina says. “The building is in ruins. People here live with the constant stress and fear of losing their homes because all these years nobody has taken care of this building. They’ve let it fall apart.

“They also understand that our laws can be circumvented. On the one hand you are told that you are the owner of your apartment, and it’s your responsibility to maintain it and the building. On the other hand you can be easily dispossessed … We are confronted with an evil, the greed of officials who don’t want to obey the law.”

The over-crowding and lack of maintenance, together with the sudden evictions, are taking a dreadful toll on the physical and mental health of the residents. They are fighting back with the law and also with street protests, but the odds are stacked against them as the rampant capitalism of modern-day Russia continues unabated.