Nov 062012
What tourists should know before coming to St. Petersburg

What links homosexuality, Nabokov’s novel “Lolita,” saying “good morning,” wheelchairs in the underground, political satire and creaking beds at night? They have all been officially outlawed by St. Petersburg bureaucrats and parliamentarians, according to the city’s bylaws and decrees.

St. Petersburg is thought to be the cultural capital of Russia: a city that is a museum, the cradle of three revolutions, and mecca for poets. Pushkin, Akhmatova and Brodsky all lived here. And, in our own time, the city on the Neva River remains one of Europe’s most prominent cultural centers.

Yet, the truth behind that claim becomes harder to establish with every passing year. Local officials and civic activists are engaged with the populace in a moral struggle, which is conducted primarily by way of banning things. Here are ten examples of the fine work the city’s paper-pushers have been doing.

1. Banning Nabokov’s”Lolita”

The promoters of Leonid Mozgovoy’s one-man show, which is based on Nabokov’s “Lolita,” were forced to pull the plug on the production. Citizens of St. Petersburg were denied the opportunity to see the performance of their fellow countryman’s classic novel because a group of teachers, students and Cossacks actively disapproved it.

Opponents sent a letter to the promoters and demanded that the spectacle be canceled. In their view, the work of the Nobel Prize-winning author was nothing more than wickedness masquerading as art. Mozgovoy subsequently said that he would “no longer have anything to do with narrow-minded people and their chauvinist views.”

The play was set to be staged on Oct. 21 at the Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art, whose management was ready and willing to fulfill its obligations and answer for the welfare of its audiences.

2. Detention for “Good Morning!”

Every morning, two young St. Petersburg residents appear at subway stations around the city and stand for one hour holding placards that read “Good Morning!” The couple, known as Esther and Jack, say the underground is the most miserable place in the city and is need of extra cheer.

The police detain them on a daily basis and lecture them extensively on why such activities are banned on the city’s underground system. Some police officers have even asked to see their license – without mentioning what kind of license would cover such activities, or where one could be obtained. Cheerfulness is banned, unless otherwise sanctioned in advance.

3. Scrapping Marat Gelman’s exhibition

In mid-October it became known that Vitaly Rizzo – the chairman of the Rizzordi Art Foundation – had made a request to reschedule an exhibition of works by Marat Gelman.The show, named “Icons,” had to be moved from its original opening date on November 2012 to late 2013. The reason given was “the bad atmosphere in the city.”

In response, Gelman announced that he would be canceling the exhibition all together, since it would have lost its contemporary relevance a year down the line. A number of sources indicate that the Foundation had been pressured by the city’s governor, Georgy Poltavchenko. The governor, in turn, had been pressed by civic activists who had collected 3,000 signatures calling for the exhibition to be scrapped.

Gelman’s exhibition is a collection of contemporary interpretations of icons, which are presented by artists as pieces of art, rather than as religious objects. The St. Petersburg exhibition was due to include featured work by the prominent British artist Damian Hurst.

4. Don’t move furniture at night

Deputies of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly recently signed a new law concerning “Administrative Offenses.” This means that those who enjoy moving furniture around at night face fines of between 500 and 4,000 rubles ($16–130).

If senior officials become involved, then the fines range between 5,000 and 10,000 rubles ($160-320); companies heard moving furniture or hammering at night can be fined from 25,000 to 50,000 rubles ($800-1595).

United Russia representative and member of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, Alexei Timofeyev, further suggested that owners of dogs that bark or whine at night also be fined. His suggestion was not included in the final wording of the bill, however.

5.Outlawing homosexuality

A ground-breaking amendment to the Law on Administrative Offenses was passed at the beginning of 2012. The amendment prohibits the promotion of “pedophilia, sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism and transgender behavior” amongst minors. It remains unclear why homosexuality (which is not illegal) and pedophilia (which is already covered under the Penal Code) should be included together in one law.

The leader of A Just Russia party, Alexei Kovalev, believes that the law has actually done pedophiles a favor. “Now, anyone who lures children into prostitution will get off with a fine of 5,000 rubles, instead of doing three years in jail. This is actually what lies behind this amendment – all the stuff about homosexuality is just a smoke screen.”

Vladimir Erkovich