Rebuilding Russia

In the heart of St Petersburg lies an island which has been left to decay. Why is Roman Abramovich coming to its rescue?
August 24, 2011
The semi-derelict state of New Holland’s once majestic redbrick warehouses has become a symbol of urban decay across Russia

It is a mysterious island, closed off from the world, located in the centre of a bustling city. For a dozen generations, residents have walked past it every day, denied access to its striking redbrick buildings by the waterways that form a moat around its three sides. It sounds like something from the pages of Gabriel García Márquez or Salman Rushdie. Instead, it is New Holland, a triangular island in the heart of St Petersburg. Hidden in plain view for nearly three centuries and serving as a storage space for the navy, it has never been open to the public. In recent years, the semi-derelict state of its once majestic warehouses has become a symbol of urban decay across Russia.

Enter Roman Abramovich who, according to Forbes magazine last March, is the 53rd richest person in the world, with a fortune of around $13.4bn. Abramovich’s rise to riches in the chaotic 1990s was cemented when he acquired valuable oil assets from the Russian state. In 2003 he famously bought Chelsea Football Club, but these days Abramovich is also an enthusiastic investor in Russian public projects.

He has, of late, acquired an interest in contemporary art, apparently sparked by his girlfriend, Daria “Dasha” Zhukova. First, in 2008, there was Garazh, Moscow’s biggest contemporary art gallery—run by Dasha, funded by Roman—housed in a renovated constructivist bus garage in an unfashionable district of Moscow. Then, earlier this year, came plans for a bigger project—a redevelopment of Gorky Park, one of Moscow’s iconic spaces. For too long it has been a weed-strewn mess, inhabited by miserable hot-dog stands and tacky rides. Abramovich has stumped up the cash (his spokesman won’t say how much) to turn a ruined hexagonal building in the park into an additional space for Zhukova’s gallery, to be leased from the city. It’s a genuinely exciting project that could see one of the capital’s most depressing spaces born again.

Now, there is his biggest project of all: New Holland. With many of the country’s historic sites falling into disrepair, the Kremlin wants Russia’s super-rich to come to the rescue. “All these important buildings which are not museums, should all have owners who will take proper care of them,” said President Dmitry Medvedev in July. Abramovich’s investment company, Millhouse, has committed to spend “at least” 12bn roubles (£260m) to redevelop the island over the next seven years.

“I came here with Dasha last summer,” says Roxane Chatounovksi, who works for Zhukova’s Iris Foundation, the group running the redevelopment project. “We walked around, and we were just like...” She trails off and does a cartoon jaw-drop to convey the impression the crumbling warehouses left on them. “The space is just extraordinary, and there is a real chance to do something amazing here, to build a new city within the city.”

The plans for New Holland aim to reinvigorate a city that has become more associated with its past than its future. The most poignant symbol of St Petersburg’s history is Palace Square. The square is pure old Petersburg, one side of its cobbled expanse flanked by the baroque Winter Palace, long the home of Russia’s tsars, and the site where Bolshevik soldiers arrested Russia’s provisional government in 1917. The building now houses Russia’s most famous art gallery, the Hermitage.

New Holland should provide a counterpoint, representing radicalism instead of conservatism. “St Petersburg is great for classical museums like the Hermitage,” says Chatounovski, as a stern security guard lets us into the part of the island that will not be open to the public for some time. “But there’s nothing really contemporary or cutting edge here. Petersburg has always been a creative city—some of the best Russian artists have come from here; Russian rock and roll was born here in the perestroika era. But now most of these people move to Moscow, or abroad. We don’t want Petersburg to turn into Venice; into a place that’s just for old German tourists.”

In July, part of New Holland was opened to the public for the first time. The main part, with the warehouses, is still closed off, but the site boasts some temporary exhibits and a grassed-over area for playing games or simply lounging. A restaurant and café has also opened in the former prison, a three-story structure in the shape of a Polo mint. Fifteen thousand visitors came to the island on its opening weekend. They were not primarily tourists, but rather Petersburgers hungry to get a first glimpse. Among those who visited an exhibition outlining the eight proposed designs for New Holland, thousands left postcards with their views on what should be done with the island.

New Holland was built around the same time as St Petersburg itself, at the beginning of the 18th century. At first, the island was used to store lumber for shipbuilding, but in the 1760s wooden storage facilities were replaced by the vast warehouses which still stand today, linked by an imposing neoclassical arch where a small canal enters the island. A naval prison was added in the 19th century, and in 1892 Dmitri Mendeleev (who helped create the modern periodic table, arranging elements according to atomic mass) ordered the creation of a huge water tank on the island, where naval vessels could be tested, including all the first Russian submarines. Under the Soviet Union the most powerful radio station in Russia was also based on New Holland. It was through its airwaves that Lenin announced the start of the October revolution in 1917 with his legendary “To all regiments” address. After the revolution, the water tank was modernised and expanded, and again used for testing new submarines and naval boats.

During the siege of Leningrad, the warehouses were badly damaged. By the time of perestroika, most of the island’s buildings were semi-derelict, which didn’t stop navy officers illicitly leasing out space to private businesses during the 1990s. In 2004, the city administration finally turfed the military out. It was the peak of the construction boom, and Shalva Chigirinsky, one of the country’s most prolific developers, launched an ambitious project to revamp the island as a commercial and cultural centre. But Chigirinsky ran into trouble as the financial crisis struck, and the project was shelved, leaving the island strewn with debris and no closer to being fit for public use.

It was not until Zhukova became interested in New Holland last year that its prospects began to improve. This year eight architectural practices, two from Russia, were invited to draw up masterplans for the redevelopment. A multinational panel of experts gave advice, but in the end, the decision was down to Zhukova, who settled on WORKac, a New York firm led by the husband-and-wife team of Dan Wood and Amale Andraos.

Among the designs, the WORKac project was notable for the relative lack of new structures, leaving a large amount of space open. “Architects always feel that to give things a new life you need to create new buildings, but we wanted to make real use of the existing structures and spaces,” says Andraos by phone.

Andraos and Wood visited the site twice—in January and June—to grasp the wild variations of St Petersburg’s climate. Icy temperatures, face-numbing winds and murky days in winter give way to the “white nights” of summer, when the sun sets after midnight and a pinkish glow stays in the air until dawn. In a city where the winters are so grim and the summers so magical, any project needs to maximise external and internal possibilities. The blueprint for New Holland envisages everything from theatres to luxury retail outlets, offices and a boutique hotel. The centrepiece will be a branch of Zhukova’s gallery.


If Zhukova and Abramovich can deliver what they promise—a sensitive reconstruction of the island, informed by public consultation—then New Holland will become an important example for future renovations, after two decades of rampant disregard for architectural heritage in Russia.

Petersburg’s architectural trials and tribulations in the post-Soviet era have not been as horrendous as Moscow’s, where almost every street is blotted by examples of hideous, recently-constructed kitsch. A report by the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society (MAPS) has warned that the Russian capital is “in danger of becoming an ersatz city of cheap reproductions and mock heritage,” filled with “architectural mongrels that make a mockery of Russia’s great past.”

In Moscow and elsewhere across Russia, city centres were blighted with these new buildings, while historical buildings were left to decay or were demolished. In the gangster capitalism of the 1990s, there was little time to worry about buildings. History was a low priority, as people lived for the present. When renovations were carried out, they often resulted in “sham replicas,” such as the clumsy demolition and rebuilding of the elegant Hotel Moskva in the centre of Moscow. The new hotel, when it finally opens next year, will be far more luxurious than its 1930s predecessor, but without its charm.

“There is a feeling that after the 1990s, the issue of architectural preservation is on the agenda more,” says Clementine Cecil, one of the authors of the MAPS report. As people take stock after 20 years of capitalism, a new appreciation for historical and cultural memory has arisen. The government has suggested that private enterprise, for the past two decades the enemy of architectural heritage, should now be its saviour.

Dmitry Medvedev affirmed this position in July, claiming that “all over the world… most important buildings are privately owned.” It is up to these owners “to take care of the facades, the interiors, and their architectural feel.” By doing this, the investors “will help the town, and the region, and the state itself.”

Medvedev went on to claim that a country that takes good care of its historical legacy is able to feel national pride, a thorny issue for a generation confused about how to view its Soviet past. “Our country has gone through a very difficult period, and perhaps more than any other is in need of intellectual, economic, and national consolidation,” said the president.

In St Petersburg, residents have always been protective of their city. “The city centre has a real harmony, and if that gets out of kilter, it will be ruined,” says Cecil. Protests against bad architecture have been fiercer in St Petersburg than anywhere else in Russia. In 2007 and 2008, thousands took to the streets to protest against the construction of new skyscraper headquarters for the energy giant Gazprom, designed by Scottish firm RMJM, close to the historical centre. In the end, the proposed location was changed, a rare case of public protests paying off in Russia. “We need to find a golden medium, between destroying our historical heritage, and keeping everything exactly how it is without modernisation,” says Yulia Minutina, co-ordinator of the preservation group Living City.

According to the cultural historian, radio host and self-declared “Petersburg optimist” Alexander Pozdnyakov, the renovations could be what the city needs. “New Holland, if it’s done right, can put us back on the map as the cultural capital of Russia. Or even of Europe. Or even of the world!” he exclaims, over a cup of tea in a local cafe, rattling off numerous stories about the New Holland neighbourhood. The island is just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Mariinsky Theatre, across the canal from the house where Stravinsky lived. It is not far from the English Embankment, lined with handsome merchants’ houses that front onto the Neva River, and in the other direction the haunts of Fyodor Dostoevsky and his most famous character, Rodion Raskolnikov.

Construction is not expected to be finished until 2018 and the final plans may differ sharply from what WORKac has presented so far. The key goal for Zhukova is to make the island a creative hub, and plans include renting out studios at low rates to artists and to IT start-ups.

But communities of creative types and successful start-ups don’t normally come into existence by decree. Although top-down-ism has always been a Russian problem, in St Petersburg there is perhaps something strangely appropriate about pronouncing that creativity should flourish. After all, the place itself is an artificial creation, a new city set down on the mosquito-infested swamps of a northern nowhere. The “most abstract and intentional city on earth,” Dostoevsky called it; a repudiation of everything that Old Muscovy stood for and the centrepiece of Peter the Great’s desire to drag Russia westward; a vision of Europe as reflected in a Slavic fairground mirror.


What of Abramovich? In return for committing at least £260m over seven years, he has been given a long-term lease on the island. John Mann, his spokesman, says this sum is a “preliminary estimate,” which could easily rise. There is an “expected payback period of 14 years after construction is completed,” says Mann, but he admits that could be over-optimistic. “Maybe Roman and Dasha’s son will live to see the day it is profitable,” agrees Roxane Chatounovski. “But it won’t be in the next ten years.”

Why commit so much money to the project before the winner of the architecture competition was announced, or feasibility studies done? The answer may be found in the role of Russia’s richest men, the oligarchs. “In the 1990s, the state needed money, so a small number of people were given the keys to major factories in return for loans,” says David E Hoffman, author of the seminal book The Oligarchs. They have complex relations with the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, but president from 1999 to 2008, a post he may regain. “What has happened under Putin is that instead of being outliers, they became the state,” Hoffman says.

“Under Putin, the Kremlin rules by control—mostly informal control, over anything that could turn into an independent centre of authority,” says Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “This includes the legislature, political parties, television media, and of course big business too.” Putin allows the oligarch class to keep its wealth and to lavish money on yachts, property, art and football clubs. But they are expected to stay away from politics, and also to invest at home in major projects. “All big decisions in Russia are informal arrangements between the rich and powerful and are not done in public,” says Lipman. “Requests probably come with some kind of compensation, or mutually beneficial terms. But to what extent in each case there is scope to say no, or to bargain, nobody knows.”

In late 2009 Putin remarked that Russia’s wealthy might like to invest in their homeland: “If there are resources for investment, it wouldn’t be bad to invest them in Russia. For example, one could invest money into building hotels in Sochi for the 2014 Olympics.” When Russia was awarded the 2018 World Cup last year, Putin said, “I don’t rule out that Mr. Abramovich may take part in one of these projects. Let him dip into his pocket a bit. It’s no big deal; he won’t feel the pinch. He has plenty of money.”

Abramovich made his money in the 1990s by teaming up with Boris Berezovsky, one of the biggest oligarchs, to acquire control of Sibneft, a huge oil concern, at a bargain price. Berezovsky went into exile in London soon after Putin’s accession in 2000. Abramovich, however, has been involved in numerous public-spirited projects over the past decade, helping fund football in Russia, for instance, by investing in grassroots academies and the national team. In 2000 he became governor of the remote, impoverished region of Chukotka, a nine-hour flight from Moscow, and claims to have invested over £1.2bn of his own and his companies’ money there, despite never actually moving to the region full-time. He relinquished the governorship in 2008.

Abramovich’s spokesman says that New Holland is a normal commercial project, and denies that Abramovich undertakes any projects, including his time as governor of Chukotka, either on the orders of the Kremlin or to curry favour with leaders.

Although a £260m investment is huge by anyone’s standards, this is a man who spent £50m on the footballer Fernando Torres.

“You can’t just buy property, property, property, yachts…” explains Dasha Zhukova’s colleague, Roxane Chatounovski, as we emerge back into the public part of the island from inside the cavernous warehouses. “There was a chance to do something really nice and beautiful that will remain for your kids.”

She pauses, then adds: “And for your country.”