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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cleaning Up in Lenin's Wake

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This year St. Petersburg City Hall is again observing the old communist-era tradition of encouraging local residents to get out into the streets and help clean away winter's grime.

In March, the municipal maintenance committee issued a decree specifying the "cleaning season" as running from April 1 to May 19 and designating April 21 as the day when right-minded citizens can join in — the good old subbotnik.

It certainly comes as no great surprise that the present city authorities — most of whom worked under the communist system — have yet to find a way of keeping St. Petersburg clean all year round. Sovietskoye — znachit otlichnoye (if it's Soviet, it's excellent) — and the city administration clearly remains enchanted by the example set by workers at Moscow's Sortirovochnaya Station in 1919.

One misty spring evening, the story goes, these workers decided to stay very late after work in order to repair several broken steam locomotives all in one go. It was an example of dedication to one's job that surprised not only the station's management, but even Vladimir Lenin himself, who was inspired to write an article — "The Great Initiative" — in support of the action.

A year later, in April 1920, Lenin led the way by carrying a log around Red Square in order to — by the strength of his noble example — convince people that spring cleaning in general, and log removal in particular, was work to which everyone should aspire. The idea caught on, but with rather unexpected consequences. These days, we scrub the country bright and shiny in April. But if a log is blocking the road in May, it can damn well sit there until next April. Part of the reason for this is that the person who should be responsible for moving the log never seems to be personally inconvenienced by it.

Some lawmakers at the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly — who should probably be thinking about ways to really improve the situation — are still convinced that one general uborka (cleanup) per year is better than nothing.

Viktor Yevtukhov goes so far as to blame the problem on the Russian mentality. He believes Russians don't care about anything except the state of their own apartments and ignore their broken street lamps, dirty pavements and cluttered courtyards. "In the West, they start cleaning with the first rays of the sun and stop late in the evening," he told me recently. "They're just born like that."

Maybe Yevtukhov's right, but I don't think Europe flashed into existence already with an effective system of local self-administration. In any case, the reason the system works is that everyone employed in communal services knows what his responsibilities are. If they don't do their jobs or if they do them badly, they suffer financially.

City Hall — and the majority of the current Legislative Assembly — has done nothing to empower St. Petersburg's 111 local self-administrations, whose task it is to monitor the condition of the streets. Smolny and the Assembly prefer to run the entire city directly. To some deputies, the subbotnik is mildly ridiculous. Mikhail Brodsky pointed out during the debate that since the city pays people to clean buildings and the territories around them, citizens are unlikely to do the job for free.

Each spring St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev takes up Lenin's example, but adds his own special twist. Instead of carrying a dead tree around, Yakovlev publicly and symbolically plants a new tree somewhere in the city. Looks like progress to me.

Vladimir Kovalyev is a reporter for The St. Petersburg Times.