On 4th February, at around 10pm local time, riot police brutally evicted a group of anarchists, community activists and local history enthusiasts who had been occupying a disused railway station, Warsaw station, in St Petersburg, Russia.
Hearing that the site would soon be demolished to make way for a multi-storey housing complex, the activists had turned one of the last warehouses attached to the historic train station into a community centre, hosting concerts, poetry readings and a photo-exhibition of the history of the station.
The neo-renaissance-style building was built in the middle of the nineteenth century, linking St Petersburg directly with Warsaw, then part of the Russian Empire. Closed as a station in 2001, it was briefly transformed into a train museum, before falling empty. Developers had submitted plans to develop the area in October, despite the fact that parts of the building are protected by conservation law. Furthermore, the city’s unique status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site means that the construction of buildings in the city centre that are out of keeping with the imperial style should be carefully monitored by the government.
In fact, the difficulties of the on-going preservation of historic buildings in St Petersburg became a focus for civic activism in 2006 when one of the country’s largest oil and gas companies, GazProm, announced plans to build a 395-metre skyscraper opposite the historic Smolny complex, once the first seat of the Bolshevik government. Demonstrations were held, a new grass-roots social movement was founded, ‘Living City’, public figures joined the campaign and, in 2010, the project was moved to a less controversial site. Protecting public space from the encroachment of capital runs deep in the veins of this city.
Warsaw Station lies on the edge of the historic city centre and its status as a site of historical and cultural significance had been labeled ‘disputed’ by the city administration. In 2007, however, this status was changed, enabling developers to submit proposals for the site. Currently the non-governmental organisation, the All-Russian Society for the Protection of Monuments of History and Culture (VOOPiK) is investigating the historical value of the buildings. According to the group, 15 historic buildings have historic or cultural significance. However, many fear that the developers themselves could demolish the buildings before the examination is finished: an unexplained incidence of ‘arson’.
So, in early January, activists occupied the last surviving warehouse of the Warsaw station complex. At first its owner appeared not to mind their presence and did not switch off electricity and other amenities for more than a month. However, on the 4th February things changed: at around 4pm activists found security guards ordered by the warehouse owner were attempting to use a sledgehammer to break down the inner wall of the warehouse. A fight broke out between the activists and the guards who then called the police claiming that the activists had been threatening them. Upon the arrival of the police some activists barricaded themselves in the building while others organized a human chain around the building trying to block police access to the door. The final stand-off between squatters and police and riot police lasted more than 6 hours.
Nineteen activists were arrested, with several hospitalized for concussion. The police also sustained injuries during the eviction, with two needing medical treatment for lost teeth and a fractured skull. Sixteen squatters received fines of around €40, but the remaining three are being charged for violence against police officers, an offence which could see them jailed for up to ten years. In fact the speed with which this has been rushed to the courts speaks for the probability of the maximum sentence.
Solidarity with the arrested squatters! Please publicize their bravery as widely as possible! They urgently need funds for legal assistance: to enquire about making a donation or to help get a fundraising action together please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Finally, although it is unlikely that the penetration of Warsaw station by private capital will evoke such a huge public outcry as the GazProm project, the battle to save it has certainly put the site on the map. Videos, articles and photo reports of the eviction have flooded Russian media over the past day – both at local and national level – and, although the squat itself might be gone, the snug relationship between city capitalists and local government is once again in the spotlight. The developers will no doubt have a long, hard road in front of them. It is a crime that three individuals may have to pay such a high price for their defence of social justice.
Photo reportage of the eviction: http://lenta.ru/photo/2013/02/05/squat/#0
Squat blog (in Russian): http://spasisohrani.livejournal.com/