St. Petersburg has a new attraction: New Holland Island, once a shipyard built at the behest of the tsar, is currently becoming a hot tip for the international art, food and bohemian scenes – and at the same time, a place of simple pleasures for the locals.
A young woman in a summer dress trips across the grass, carelessly drops her purse onto the ground and quickly greets a few friends in the crowd. Moments later, the open-air cinema on New Holland Island in the middle of St. Petersburg – once the site of a prison – begins airing the American movie Give me Liberty. The organizers of the International Debut Film Festival clearly have a sense of humor. It’s a dark comedy that tells the story of a young ambulance driver who takes a group of elderly Russians to a funeral even though it costs him his job. As the credits roll, the applause is long and the mood of the audience, thoughtful. Even before the start of the discussion with the movie’s Russian director, Kirill Mikhanovsky, a man in the first row stands up and leaves; he’s Roman Abramovich, the oligarch whose money finances the festival, the neatly laid turf, the renovation of the buildings and basically everything that makes New Holland Island what it is.
Created in 1719 by Tsar Peter the Great, the island lies surrounded by narrow waterways, like an isosceles triangle right in the middle of the Hermitage, Admiralty Canal, Mariinsky Theater and the palace of Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich. Filled with nostalgia for his time as a student of naval architecture in Holland, the tsar chose the name New Holland Island and had a Dutch-style shipyard built there: massive, red-brick warehouses in which during the tsar’s reign, timber was stored for the building of ships; outside the shipyard, Tuscan granite pillars, and at the entrance, a monumental Neoclassical archway designed in 1788 by Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe.
Lovingly restored, today the island “floats” in the historical city center. At present, it is only accessible via a small bridge that’s guarded day and night. The imposing buildings along its banks bear witness to Russia’s former greatness as a maritime power and still leave space sufficient for a park that resembles a miniature version of London’s Hyde Park. Pavilions selling ice cream, a herb garden, an open-air stage, a small lake and a building housing restaurants and expensive stores are scattered harmoniously across it as though it were a toy landscape: the microcosm of a perfect city, an atoll that’s like a breath of fresh air. For everyone. It that possible in a country that doesn’t always identify fully with what we regard as freedom?
Visitors to the park on New Holland Island; the imposing waterfront building with artist Alicia Eggert’s motto in neon letters on the roof
The Winter Palace and the cultural island within sight of each other
The Kuznya restaurant
which in English means “foundry” – serves fine food within time-honored walls
“I know it’s hard to understand for you Westerners so used to democracy,” the young woman in the summer dress says later on at a private party thrown by Roman Abramovich, caviar and salt-baked salmon make the rounds. Her name is Anastasia Kutova and she works for the Garage Museum in Moscow, which Abramovich and his then girlfriend Dasha Zhukova founded as a private gallery and nonprofit project in 2008. Anastasia traveled to St. Petersburg especially for this evening. She says: “The Soviet era is still in our bones – and places like these help us to reinvent ourselves.” Group therapy is not what this particular party evokes, with Abramovich amid a throng of bohemians from Moscow and St. Petersburg. Officially, it’s being held to celebrate the start of the festival, but the young women staying close to Abramovich are all beautifully styled and Instagramming his every move – and giving away the real reason for the party, namely that the billionaire has resurfaced.
Is Abramovich planning to build his own New Amsterdam here since his company Millhouse, LLC bought the island at auction? The renovation work on the buildings still in progress is subject to the stringent requirements for historical monuments. The plans of the previous investor, also an oligarch – he hired star architect Norman Foster – failed in 2006 due to difficulties with heritage protection. The avant-garde architects of West 8 in the Netherlands followed. They gave the island its identity as a new cultural center for the city without doing away with old structures (as rumor has it Foster intended).
Our food isn’t expensive. We want everyone to be able to afford it
Abramovich talks about “social obligations” that were the reason for his buying the marshy island that had lain buried beneath rubble for decades. But his allegedly 300-million-euro investment won’t be a purely philanthropic one. Even so, young entrepreneurs can profit from it for the time being, the owners of the Dzamiko, for example, a small restaurant inside the former military prison, a circular building known as the “Bottle House.”
While seagulls swoop overhead, young families, couples and students crowd long wooden tables, enjoying beetroot carpaccio with prunes and ginger, khachapuri (cheese-filled puff-pastry parcels), spinach with walnuts and home-pressed sunflower oil, egg plants with chopped peanuts – in short, everything that’s so wonderful about Georgian fare. “Our food is not expensive. We want everyone to be able to afford it,” say the owners, Alexander Bugayevskiy and Klim Zhukov, both of them young and ambitious. “Soviet food was uninspired, heavy, high in calories, and everything was smothered in greasy mayonnaise. The motto was: Work hard, eat hard.” In Georgia, it’s the other way around: Every meal is a feast, cooked with love and eaten with love. Having the chance to serve these dishes is a contribution to humanism. Later on, in the afternoon, little children play in the grass, oblivious to their surroundings, beside their barefoot parents. Alcohol and smoking are banned here and young men in sand-colored fantasy uniforms discreetly roam the island: security, making sure the rules are obeyed.
In Russia, a park has always been more than a stretch of grass with an ice-cream kiosk. In Soviet times, they were “parks of culture and recreation,” which were entered through intimidating portals. Army bands would play marches in concert pavilions and people would even dance there. One particular example was Moscow’s Gorky Park with its planetarium, Ferris wheel and grotto-like restrooms. In Stalin’s integral artwork, the “New Man” was not only supposed to amuse himself, but also to educate himself and challenge himself physically. But the end of the Soviet culture meant that Gorky Park had to find a new role to play. The people running the Garage Museum emphasize the enlightening role the institution on park’s edge is supposed to play on behalf of contemporary art: Art should build a bridge across the fresh divide between East and West – a great dream.
In St. Petersburg, where life is evidently more carefree than in Moscow, Abramovich and his ex-girlfriend dream their own capitalist dream for the tiny island. For the hipsters showing their films here, and celebrating their own design and architecture, it’s not a problem that this dream island is in Russia. Even the couples and the families unpacking their picnic baskets beneath the endless sky want only one thing: simply to relax and breathe freely. Because as the artist Alicia Eggert, who provided the slogan for the project, says in her installation: “You are (on) an island.“