On the morning of 24 December about 30 young men wearing hoodies and balaclavas forced their way into the airy halls of a dilapidated 18th-century mansion in the centre of St Petersburg. For a couple of years this mansion had been home to Chetvert, a creative space founded by a team of young locals who had made the abandoned building fit for public use before falling out of favour in recent months with the building’s legal owners. According to eyewitnesses, the unidentified men started forcibly ejecting out the artists and entrepreneurs based in the building, yanking out locks, pulling down doors and beating up anyone who tried to stop them. After a little while, a sign was put up — a classic of Russian understatement: “Closed for technical reasons”.
When the police eventually arrived after about an hour, all the artists and curators who had been driven out were wandering around outside, unable to enter their studios. There was a tense ceasefire. But not for long. In the evening, when the artists eventually started trying to go back inside, one of the invaders fired an airgun. Smoke grenades were set off and a fight began. It was stopped a couple of minutes later by policemen from the OMON special unit. The police said there were no injuries, but journalists and witnesses later insisted that several people had been wounded.
Tenants clash with the unidentified men who seized control of the building
It is still not clear who this mysterious band who attacked Chetvert were, what their relationship is to the legal owners of the building — many suggest the intruders were in their pay — and how they got away with the raid. Nobody was punished for this explosion of violence: the authorities said that the aggressors had the right documents and, therefore, the right to invade.
“We’ll sort it all out in court”
This was not the first problem that Chetvert has faced. Two years ago, at the very beginning of the project, its founders Roman Krasilnikov and Irina Zhivotovskaya almost had to abandon it due to a judicial technicality. They were offered the chance to set up a creative project in a different abandoned building near the Mariinsky Theatre. The owner of the site wanted to restructure it for offices and cultural functions. The new tenants began cleaning and painting the walls. Some projects opened their doors and clients and guests started flocking to this brand new creative quarter. Eventually, a problem arose: according to Russian law, landlords have to be given special permission by the authorities if they want to repurpose the building. As the owners did not have the appropriate documents, they were forced to ask the tenants to close the projects for a while. Ultimately, Chetvert upped sticks and moved to the former palace that it occupied until December.
Chetvert director Roman Krasilnikov (left) with co-founder Nikita Nekrasov
Legal problems have returned, however, in the new location. This latest violent clash was a striking escalation of the tense stand-off between Meridian, the company that owns the building and the management of Chetvert. Meridian insist that rent was not being paid on time. The Chetvert team, however, argue that they had negotiated a seven-year contract to lease the building and hadn’t breached any of the conditions, including timely payment of rent. Moreover, they point out that the building was in a terrible condition when they moved in and that they were required to spend a considerable amount of time and money clearing out the space and making it viable for further use. Nonetheless, many lawyers are convinced that the artists will lose the trial. “The rent documents have still not been approved by Russian authorities — which is crucial to Chetvert’s case,” said Sergei Kostyuk, the landlords’ lawyer. Speaking to local media resource The Village in early December, Meridian’s director Vladimir Maximenko said: “We’ll sort it all out in court.”
Whatever happens in court and on the streets, the ultimate outcome of these actions is quite clear: the creative project known as Chetvert is no more. What has St Petersburg lost with its closure? Above all, it was a place where creative young people with an interest in self-expression and entrepreneurship could meet and work together. It provided them with experience and a chance to build their own network of contacts. Secondly, Chetvert was home to many well-loved and financially successful creative projects, such as a vegan cafe Momo, art space Aperto Gallery and various co-working spaces, as well as small shops, architects and designers. Finally, it was also a space where people could openly discuss and share their opinions on important political and social issues. It was at Chetvert, for instance, that the Greenpeace activists who were jailed for protesting against Gazprom in the Arctic met with the public.
The courtyard of Chetvert became the scene of a scuffle between tenants and raiders
Unfortunately, this is not the first incident when a successful grassroots creative project in Russia has been forced to close after a legal dispute. Last year, On-theatre, an award-winning multi-disciplinary theatre lab for young performers from different creative genres and styles was shut after a lengthy battle. The space, which was in a basement in the centre of St Petersburg, failed an official fire inspection; impartial experts questioned this decision. Soon rumours emerged that the closure had been prompted by the displeasure of high-ranking official who lived in the same building. Now On-Theatre performs only rarely, at small city theatres and does not have its own rehearsal space.
“Current legislation offers creative tenants little or no protection, let alone any stimulus for growth”
Nor is this trend confined to St Petersburg. The same thing happened in the Ural city of Perm: specialist independent bookstore Piotrovsky was faced either with closure or relocation, after new owners demanded a sharp rise in rent. After some unsuccessful attempts to reach a consensus, the landlords decided to seal the windows in the building and force the shop to move out. This story, at least, had a happy ending: shop owner Mikhail Maltsev clubbed together with other local entrepreneurs and started a new project together — Apteka Bartminskogo. The owner of a building in the city centre of Perm, Dmitry Vergeles, asserted that he was interested in developing creative projects in Perm and promised that the rent would be affordable. A couple of weeks ago, Apteka Bartminskogo was recognised by local journalists and experts as the most successful start-up project in Perm. Possibly, finding a new location could a solution for the former inhabitants of Chetvert; discussions are already underway about finding a new site.
Piotrovsky bookshop, Perm, another venue forced to relocate. Photograph: Alexey Ponomarchuk
What causes these conflicts between owners and tenants? The root of the problem surely lies with the fact that the authorities have no interest in supporting tenants’ rights. Some have suggested that this is because such creative spaces allow for the open discussion of political and social issues, discussions that could challenge the status quo and entrenched elites. On the other hand, maybe they just don’t care: the Russian government just does not have a policy on this matter. Current legislation offers creative tenants little or no protection, let alone any stimulus for growth like the tax rebates or grant systems that help support young enterprises elsewhere. This notwithstanding, however, some criticism must be left for the young people who launch these projects with the purest intentions but with little business savvy. To combat this shortfall, perhaps, special training in the harsh realities of entrepreneurship is needed.
For their part, Meridian said that they didn’t want to close all the creative projects. According to an official statement, the landlords proposed a creative council which would decide on the viability of projects, try to help the curators pay off their debts and — inevitably — shut down some projects which were not profitable. One can have some sympathy with their position: such are the cruel realities of the free market — culture must function as a business too.
Nonetheless, it is vital for Russia, both economically and politically, that people with energy and ideas have a chance to share these attributes with a broader audience. These projects help citizens to communicate openly, unite people in developing creative communities and, finally, enable freedom of expression. They start, make mistakes, fall down, get up again, learn from their mistakes and maybe, just maybe survive to build a better future. This latest scandal demonstrates yet again not only the scale of the problems these creative start-ups face, but also the importance of their mission.