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.”