Russian activists are using a community website to fight local corruption

Russian graffiti. Image: Beautiful Petersberg.

How do you improve your neighbourhood in a country as corrupt as Russia? Well, in some of its biggest cities, activists are using a website designed to report and address corruption in their local community.

Beautiful Petersburg – or Красивый Петербург, if you prefer – was developed by activist Krasimir Vransko to highlight the way in which political officials were failing to use their community budgets effectively: by allowing rubbish to pile up in the streets, for example, or by failing to repair vandalised areas.

The site encourages users to upload photos of problem areas in their neighbourhoods; overflowing bins, lack of disability access to government buildings, parks used as dumping grounds, that sort of thing. Less than two minutes after submitting the problem, a request for action is forwarded to the relevant city department, after which the officials have 30 days to respond. These problems range from the minor (painting over graffiti and shovelling snow), to major structural changes (repaving roads and installing access ramps across an entire borough).

A map of some of the problems users have highlighted in St Petersberg. Image: Beautiful Petersberg.

Corruption is a serious problem for Russian politics. In its 2014 ranking, Transparency International rated the country 136th, down from 127th in 2013. Back in 1999, Transparency International Russia founded a number of centres dedicated to collating and investigating allegations of corruption:  including land parcelling, budget mismanagement, anti-corruption educational programs and election monitoring.

Run as a non-profit, non-partisan organisation, TI Russia has achieved a lot – but it’s been unable to prevent burnout in community activists. Politicians and protestors are regularly threatened and forced into exile; activists describe campaigns dragging on for decades with very little change; and as Russia’s Transparency ranking falls, disillusionment is common. 


That’s where Beautiful Petersburg comes in. “An individual’s environment is important,” explains Anatoliy Kanioukov, an assistant to the Deputy of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg, and a coordinator on the Moskovsky and Leningrad regions of Beautiful Petersburg. “When you see the area around your house full of litter, broken playground swings, cars abandoned on front lawns, untreated potholes, it impacts your mood and you start to wonder if it is worth taking care of your own home.”

The activists behind Beautiful Petersburg wanted a more consistent and reliable response to urban problems, while simultaneously demonstrating to citizens that it was worth following up on relatively minor issues. “Within 26 months, the citizens sent over 65,000 requests and over 20,000 issues were resolved. One request is a small good deed – but 20,000 small victories have changed the face of the city.”

The movement behind Beautiful Petersburg has grown year on year: activists have been offering on-the-ground support to local groups protesting park closures, and investigating funding misappropriation within government building projects. Success stories are displayed prominently on the website and the project has received attention from high-profile Russian activist, Alexei Navalny who recently sought political asylum in the UK.

Despite the name, Beautiful Petersburg has active groups in Moscow, Novosibirsk and many other highly populated areas. All requests are displayed on a map of the affected area; and citizens are able to see their neighbours reporting the same issues.

This is a game of strength in numbers. This constant affirmation that change is possible and that the government can be held to account is a new way of thinking for many Russian citizens.

When asked what’s next for Beautiful Petersburg Kanioukov, says that the website is only the beginning. By demonstrating how powerful individual voices can be online, activists are hoping to fundamentally change the way Russian citizens view public spending.

Many assume that the corruption within Russian politics is insurmountable. But as Kanioukov says: “Through caring for the surrounding space a person becomes a master in his backyard, his town and ultimately his country.”

 
 
 
 

Marseille and Paris are crawling with rats. But it’s your problem too

A Parisian rat. Image: Getty.

You can very easily have a fine time in Marseille, but it is likely to be interrupted by rats.

The bloated and brazen beasts are so utterly convinced they own the place that they barely register any human presence to distract from their hedonistic excesses – throwing wild street parties, burrowing holes in overflowing bins, and darting in and out of exclusive harbourfront restaurants. We only really intrude when the occasional, blissfully oblivious rat is splattered across the cobblestones by a scooter.

For many residents, the whiskery foes have gone some way beyond a nuisance to represent a genuine menace. Rats have infested schools and taken over canteens. Pest control services claim they have broken into cars and gnawed through cables, which may have contributed to accidents. It is also alleged that they have caused Internet outages by attacking fibre-optic cables – continuing the venerable horror movie tradition of cutting the power seen in Aliens and Jurassic Park. Rats are also infamous and prolific traffickers of disease and have raised the threat of Leptospirosis.

Rat populations are fiendishly difficult to quantify, given their nocturnal lifestyle and that many live off-grid in the sewers; but by some estimates they now outnumber Marseille’s human inhabitants. Distress calls from the public to the city’s sanitation department and pest control services have increased, and the unofficial fifth emergency service has expanded its operations in response, laying poison traps and sweeping the gutters.

Several factors have contributed to the rat supremacy. Marseille’s Mediterranean climate has always been hospitable to rats, and a series of unusually warm summers – often passing 30°C – have made it more so. (Rats tend to stop breeding when it’s cold.)

City officials also bemoan the wanton waste disposal habits of their citizens, which have allowed large and easily accessible piles of appetising trash to accumulate. Marseille’s councillor for hygiene Monique Daubet recently complained the city has become a “five-star restaurant for rats”.

Others have suggested a series of strikes by garbage collectors gave the rat population a turbo charge it barely needed. A single pair of brown rats can spawn more than a thousand descendants within a year.

That formidable birth rate is one indicator of what the city is up against: the urban rat is almost a perfect predator. Millennia of human ingenuity has failed to remove them from our midst or negate the threats they pose. Rats are supreme survivors – scientists marvel at their survival on nuclear test sites – and they thrive in the most inhospitable environments. They can eat practically anything, but are neophobic, meaning they shy away from all but the most devious poison traps. The rodents are intelligent, resilient, and their ability to colonise new habitats rivals our own.

Faced with this adversary, the local authority has assigned more resources to the fight, through both the city’s sanitation department and the private extermination service A3DS. Both are reluctant to discuss their tactics and whether they are having an impact. But officials are also taking a tough line on public responsibility, insisting that residents dispose of trash after 7pm in sealed bags or face fines. The city has also proposed measures such as mobile dumps and new model bins that rats should find harder to access.

The Marseillais are also keeping a close eye on events in the capital: Paris’ rat problem may be even more severe, driven by flooding from the River Seine that has forced the rodents to seek higher ground. In recent years, rats have overrun the Louvre and forced the closure of public parks, as well as starring in viral video nasties that do little for the city’s image as the capital of romance.


Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has sounded the alarm and invested millions of euros in a campaign against rats, which has seen thousands of raids in hundreds of parks and buildings, as well as the introduction of more secure bins, and fines levied against people accused of feeding the enemy. Her administration has also despatched an envoy to New York to study the city’s approach to its own notorious rodent community.

An international approach makes sense given that rats are on the march all around the world. Reported sightings have shot up in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington. One study estimated that rats inflict $19 billion of economic damage each year in the US alone. London has also seen an increase in reported sightings. Leading rodentologist Bobby Corrigan says the same patterns are playing out in the major cities of the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

And for much the same reasons. Contributing factors include “too few resources allocated an organised program for rat control,” says Corrigan. “Also, more people in our cities means more refuse, more overloading of the city’s sanitation budgets, less thorough removal of the kind of food shrapnel that escapes typical garbage collection. Each rat only needs about 30 grams of food per 24 hours to thrive and reproduce.” A warming climate also plays a part.

Poison traps and culls can only go so far, says the rodentologist, arguing that a holistic approach is required to head off the growing threat. “The best measure is a city organised in addressing the rats across all agencies,” says Corrigan. That means mobilising departments of sanitation, parks, housing, health, and sewers, as well as mayoral administrations themselves.

Society-wide civic participation is also essential. “Controlling rats takes everyone: every homeowner, shop owner, restaurant, grocery store, airport, and so on. Not to do so invites the risk of a “new and/or highly virulent virus” developing among our old enemies, he adds.

Research into sterilisation programmes offers some hope of a new weapon to repel and reduce the rodent hordes. But not enough for us to evade responsibility while rat populations grow and the threat increases. “If we don’t work together as the wise species we claim to be and present a scientific, multi-faceted organised effort against this very smart and organised smaller mammal, we can have no hope of defeating it,” says Corrigan. Time to man the barricades.