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Article

Grassroots urban protests in St. Petersburg: (non)participation in decision-making on the futures of city territories

Tykanova E., Хохлова А. М.

This paper considers the efforts of local activists to participatein public discussions on contested territories in St. Petersburg, Russia, and influence political decision-making on their (re)development and change. It also questions to what degree such grassroots efforts become political and analyzes different contexts for, and barriers to, politicization. Complementing sociological theorization on civic engagement and civic participation with French pragmatism, we examine how these activists constantly shift between informal, context-specific forms of protest and more institutionalized and politicized ones. Using a case-study approach, we describe and compare two recent conflicts in St. Petersburg where local residents resisted (re)development projects imposed by political and economic elites: the defence of the Yurgens House in the historic center of the city against its expected demolition, and the protest against renovation in Alexandrino, a park area on the city’s periphery. The analysis is based on semi-structured interviews with local activists, participant and non-participant observation at public rallies and other gatherings, and qualitative analysis of protesters’ communication practices on social networks. We demonstrate that external political and social constraints encourage activists to be flexiblein their forms of engagement, using a wide repertoire of tools of contestation, using local knowledge tactically, operating rationally within legal frameworks, and addressing broad audiences in search for public justification and support. We conclude that, whether theselocal activists remain at the level of informal place-based initiatives or opt for more institutionalized and professionalized forms of civic participation, they insistently reject the political rationale of their efforts.