In the heart of St Petersburg lies an island which has been left to decay. Why is Roman Abramovich coming to its rescue?by Shaun Walker / August 24, 2011 / Leave a comment
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…