- Anna Pushkarskaya
- BBC, St. Petersburg
A court in St. Petersburg has postponed an appeal hearing against the decision to destroy graffiti with a portrait of Daniel Harms at the end of the house where he lived. Officials and homeowners have agreed to sign a global agreement to replace graffiti with light projection. It was not possible to save the unauthorized drawing even against the background of a loud scandal due to the dismissal of a teacher at a St. Petersburg gymnasium after reading in a lesson the poems of the Oberiuts, repressed during the years of Stalinist terror.
Harms looks at Mayakovsky Street as if from a corner – from a portrait on a narrow end between the facades of the house 11 “A”. If you google this address on the map, it will display a landmark icon with the caption “Portrait of Harms”. Late last year, a court in St. Petersburg ruled that graffiti residents should paint over graffiti within a month. On the day of consideration of the case in the appeal of the authorities and the manager of the Homeowners’ Association announced about a compromise option – an unauthorized landmark will be painted over in the summer, and after destruction will be replaced by a light projection. The project is promised to be agreed with the residents, but it is already clear that the graffiti defenders lost the six-year struggle for it.
Last week, Harms’ name hit the headlines. Seraphim Saprykina’s teacher said on Facebook that after the lesson with reading the poems of the Oberiuts, the school principal allegedly called them enemies of the people and accomplices of the Nazis. In response, the director and officials began to praise Harms. On the state channel “Russia”, the host Dmitry Kiselev called him “our most talented poet” and “the pride of domestic literature.” And journalist Alexei Pivovarov in the program “Editorial” on the channel on Youtube suggested that the scandal will allow graffiti to “get rid of” the destruction.
Who and why waged a six-year struggle over a street painting a couple of storeys high?
“Cool” or “scary”? The first attempt to paint Harms
Harms lived in this house before his arrest. Here he was arrested in 1941 before the blockade for “slanderous defeatist sentiments.” In the winter of 1942 he died of starvation in a prison mental institution, in 1960 he was rehabilitated.
Mayakovsky lived next door to Harms. After his death, the street, formerly Nadezhdinskaya, was named after the poet and a monument to Mayakovsky was erected on it. There is no monument to Harms on this street. On the anniversary of his death on February 2, 2016, street artists Pasha Kas and Pavel Mokic agreed with the residents of the house and the chairman of the Homeowners’ Association, cut a stencil, climbed on a car roof and “imprinted Harms” in history, they said.
The first persecutors of graffiti immediately after its appearance were St. Petersburg journalists Vadim Kuzmitsky and Dmitry Ratnikov. They sent a request to the city administration about the legality of the drawing on the facade.
Journalists on social media were accused of knocking. Kuzmitsky argued that the “frightening” silhouette of Harms, in his opinion, should not become the dominant feature of the intersection of historic streets. And “approve and pay such attention to him only because Harms is now in vogue. Like Brodsky.”
Ratnikov – at that time the editor-in-chief of the city’s defense media “Kanoner” – even likes graffiti on Harms’ house. But the fact that he is “cool” does not mean that on the facades in the city center you can paint everything that “someone wants”, he argued.
According to Ratnikov, the problem was not related to Harms at all, but to the appearance at the same time in the city under the auspices of the authorities themselves of monumental brightly painted “murals” – paintings on firewalls. For example, the then speaker of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly and the main United Russia Vyacheslav Makarov (now a member of the State Duma) personally opened by May 9, 2015, the patriotic “Angel of Victory” in the Petrograd district, which was considered his “patrimony”, despite the fact that the district authorities recognized the graffiti illegal. In paper interview Ratnikov then recalled the graffiti on the Bypass Channel – with the inscription “Sober Russia” and “President Putin’s congratulations”.
Authorities demanded that Harms’s portrait be painted over. Painted nearby and another job its co-author Pasha Kasa – the Mona Lisa in the image of a janitor. But at the same time in another, Petrograd district, officials without coordination with the city committee on town-planning and expert community themselves began to implement a large-scale program of drawing firewalls “Paints of the Petrograd side”.
The trial of the “beautiful picture”
Almost a year after the portrait of Harms appeared on the wall, the city government for the first time approved regulations for the approval of such “elements of landscaping.” Governor Georgy Poltavchenko was not against giving Harms a “residence permit” on the wall of his former home. However, it was not possible to agree on this issue with officials.
“We held a general meeting of owners, gathering the two-thirds required by law to preserve the portrait of Harms,” - told Novaya Gazeta the chairman of Homeowners’ association “Mayakovskaya 11” Ekaterina Shalukhina. But the Committee on Urban Planning and Architecture, to which the partnership applied for approval, refused to issue a task to develop a project of landscaping elements (placement of paintings).
After another – anonymous – complaint about this graffiti, the Central District Administration demanded to paint it through the court. The court ordered to “remove unauthorized inscriptions and drawings from the front facade of the house” within a month from the date of its entry into force.
The authors argued that the residents of the house and the leadership of the Homeowners’ Association have no complaints about the drawing, and the one who wrote to the administration does not live in this house and “most likely does not know who Harms is.”
“Our work is not vandalism,” they insistedrecalling that “the state destroyed many talented people in the 1930s” and is now “banned again”.
A large-scale public campaign was launched in defense of the graffiti with a portrait of Harms. The director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, said that “street art is an absolutely wonderful part of world art,” and in St. Petersburg it is “better than Moscow’s.” Piotrovsky called the graffiti with Harms a “beautiful picture.” Artists, writers and art critics also suggest preserving it. In November 2021, citizens held a flash mob near Harms’ house to read his poems.
About 32,000 people have already signed the petition in support of graffiti. It says that the drawing on the house where Harms lived has already become a landmark and does not spoil the architectural appearance of the center of St. Petersburg.
Even the head of the United Russia faction, Pavel Krupnik, called for its preservation. He offered to pay tribute to the memory Harms as “a famous Soviet writer and poet who died during the blockade.”
However, Yabloko MP Boris Vishnevsky said in Smolny that “the current legislation does not provide for the perpetuation of the memory of a prominent person in the form of a painting on the facade of the building” and reminded that the center of St. Petersburg is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Which, however, does not prevent the destruction of historic buildings in the city center and the emergence of new facilities that outrage residents. At a time when the public opposed the construction of the Okhta Center, former governor Valentina Matvienko called UNESCO’s protection status a “bow on the body of St. Petersburg” and asked Putin to delete St. Petersburg from the register of historic settlements.
The court’s decision to paint Harms could take effect today. But the appellate court postponed consideration of the complaint of Homeowners’ association “Mayakovskaya, 11” as the parties came to an amicable agreement. The graffiti with Harms is supposed to be painted over in the summer, and by this time to agree on a version of the drawing for the light projection on the same wall, which will be commissioned to implement the city of Lensvet.
In Smolny, this version of the alternative to unauthorized portraits of great people on the walls of houses has long been practiced: a similar story a year ago happened with a picture of Dostoevsky at the house in Kuznechny Lane, where he lived.
On the page of the community “Central district for a comfortable living environment the photo is laid out such a trial projection.
“It’s a collective farm,” “We lost,” said graffiti enthusiasts.