When I chose the topic of my research way back in February I had no idea where the project would take me. Admittedly, I picked this project almost on a whim. I read one article, was curious, and the due date to pick something had arrived. But now, almost 6 months later, the project has become my primary academic work, and every day I see how much deeper the rabbit whole goes.
The Gazprom Tower is a planned urban development project in St. Petersburg, Russia. It is controversial because of its enormous height. In a city characterized by its palace embankments and scattered cathedral precipices, the Gazprom Tower would be 4 or 5 times as tall as the next tallest structure, be visible from almost anywhere in the city, and forever change the skyline of “The Venice of the North.” This skyline is cherished by many of St. Petersburg’s citizens, and they have staged marches, written articles, and gone to the courts in order to prevent the Tower’s construction.
Corporate Video Promoting the Tower Project
Of all facets of the project, interviewing has so far been the most difficult. When I arrived in Russia I, along with my professors, were concerned that the issue was too political and that no one would be willing to talk to us, being mere undergraduate researchers from a small college in the USA. On the contrary, EVERYONE was able and willing to talk about it. We went from having no contacts when we arrived to interviewing five people in relation to the Gazprom Tower. Of these 5, one was a politician, one a journalist, another an architect, one was an activist, and we even interviews the public relations manager of Gazprom! The hard part about these interviews is that they are all in Russian. It took a whole team of us (myself, our Russian fixer Masha, Sasha, Jes, Lena, and Sophie) to write up questions, translate them, arrange a meeting place and time, find the location, and take the interview. Masha was particularly helpful in helping me obtain contacts and arranging when and where to meet with them, and for that I am particularly thankful.
It is interesting doing a “Site of Memory” project on a site that does not actually exist yet. As of now the Gazprom Tower exists only in blueprints and CGI images; the construction site is nothing but sand and debris. Even so, the fact that this tower may harm the identity of the city has inspired many to rush to the city’s defense. Through their fight against the tower, both personal and cultural memories are activated. They remember Peter the First and his vision of the city. They remember the romantic beauty of Russia’s past imperial grandeur. They remember what they like about the city, and what about it has affected their lives directly. The participants in the debate are forced to think about what the identity of the city means to them, through the issue of the Gazprom Tower.
This project has helped me with my Russian skills, and helped me begin to understand Russian culture and the Russian mentality. I met interesting people involved in Russian politics. Through this project I also learned important technological skills, such as setting up and using a quality video camera, that you don’t often learn how to do in a standard liberal arts education. Overall, this project made my study abroad experience very academic, but also very cultural.