There was a squat in St. Petersburg

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When the Soviet Union collapsed and no one knew what was going to happen next, a bunch of politically extremly left-leaning artists, alcoholics, democrats and homeless squatted a building in the heart of St. Petersburg. This is how it usually start. But this squat was the first of it´s kind in Russia. And it is not what it used to be back in the 90ies any more. For a reason.

Ligowski Prospekt is a large noisy street. One of the busiest in the appealing city center of St. Petersburg. Walking along that street you will pass small and big shops, fast food restaurants and traditional cheburek houses, you will be asked for your change by beggars and given some prospectus by indifferent youngsters or weary women. And eventually you might notice an inconsiderable entrance between a clothes shop and a construction side. People say that the entrance to Pushkinskaya 10 always used to be inconsiderable.

Once upon a time there was a squat in St. Petersburg. During the 90ies it used to be the most artistic and inspiring place to hang around in Russia, or so they say. In 1989, when the Soviet Union was about to collapse and no one really knew what was going to happen tomorrow, a mixed bunch of politically left-leaning and democrat artists in company of the local homeless made themselves at home in an abandoned building. Very soon they were joined by a clan of big petersburgsky rats and happy alcoholics. The 6-floor building had been left to decay for some years already before the new inhabitants had their foot in the door. All that was known is that it used to be the domicile of some elderly Babushkas who were illegally making wine there. But since the building in what was at the time Pushkinskaya street, had been declared in danger of imminent collapse the Babushkas disappeared. The artists, the homeless and the homeless artists cleaned the building and it´s inner courtyard and settled in some of the apartments calling them studios. Because of the mortal lack of heating and the immense social warmth people were gathering every night around a big fire in the inner courtyard where they would celebrate life from dusk till down. Within few years Pushkinskaya 10 became home to a hundred dwellers. Communal life was not organized in the consensus decision making style Europeans are used to, but voting for representatives who would gather in a soviet to take decisions concerning the community and to carry out organizational tasks. For many years the squat was a socially proactive place hosting various self-made art exhibitions and being open to every traveller. If you try really hard you can still smell this spirit. It is gone, though. And this is where the story of a squat in St. Petersburg turns into a story about what can become of a squat.

Walking in you will find a normal commercial bar and some shops, but not the homemade handcraft ones you might expect. There are tourists with cameras sneaking around and all doors expect the museum of Nonconformist Art and some galleries are closed. And if you don´t come between 3pm and 7pm, you will find everything locked. Without the arty stuff on the walls one might think that it is better not to disturb and leave. What happened since the 90ies then?

During the very first years the exhibitions in Pushkinskaya 10 turned out to be so popular that visitors were queuing for up to an hour to get inside. People with money came to buy artworks and some “names” were made that way. The newly crowned stars of the underground art scene moved out of the squat and went to live in Moscow while the rest of the inhabitants registered as a nonprofit organization with the local authorities and started to pay rent for the building. Most of the artists wanted fame and recognition and it was more convenient to go the official way. Pushkinskaya 10 is calling itself an Art Center since a few years now. And the outside world is calling it the flagship of Russian underground and contemporary art. Today more than hundred people live and work in that place. And it is not a community any more, a resident artist explained. “No one goes to the meetings since no one cares about issues concerning the house. And no one cares about doing stuff together any more. We all have to pay the rent for our studio and so we all have to work.” He seemed to regret the way things developed. The doors are shut, but one may still ring the bell and see what happens. Mostly you will get invited for tea and talk about art.

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