Mikhail Fedotov on architecture, graffiti and his role in Russian politics

What do you think of preserving Moscow’s architectural heritage? Do you have a favorite architectural monument in Moscow that has to be preserved?

My favorite Moscow monuments are the narrow streets of the Arbat district, where I spent my childhood and youth, where I went for walks with my childhood friends, who later on became renowned dissidents, such as Vladimir Bukovsky, Alexander Ginzburg and others. I think Arbat’s alleys, with their unique atmosphere of small Moscow houses and their special ambience, could be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. I would like them to be recognized on the world heritage site in a special time format: evening, night and early morning, because in the daytime they look rather trivial, while at night and at dawn they cast a fantastic, magic spell. Yet, unfortunately, I realize that today it is impossible to recognize the Arbat’s cobbled streets as a world heritage site, since they have largely been distorted by new, extremely modern buildings, which may be very convenient inside, but on the outside they look absolutely out of place.

The ongoing debate over the construction of Gazprom’s skyscraper, Okhta Centre, in St Petersburg comes to mind. How and to what extent do you think public opinion should be taken into consideration when purely architectural issues are at hand?

I think it should be respected as much as possible, because this is the voice of the people who live there. Some may like it, and some may not. This is what democracy is all about; taking public opinion into account. I would simply hold a referendum in St Petersburg where all options would be put on the table and free campaigning for and against this skyscraper would be allowed. And we’ll see how things turn out. The people should be able to decide what they want and don’t want.

What do you think of graffiti artists? Artists working in this style have certainly become more professional, producing better quality works. We can see it on the streets of Moscow and other cities. Do they have an opportunity to work on Moscow’s streets?

Yes, certainly. I am very positive about graffiti. Moreover, a close friend of mine is a graffiti artist. I should point out, though, that he lives in Paris, France, not Russia. He is the son of my close friend, renowned Russian dissident Alexander Ginzburg; his pseudonym is Alex Popov. He is a well-known graffiti artist in France, and I know that he was invited to Moscow to decorate Moscow’s houses and fences with his graffiti works. A beautiful graffiti painting is much more pleasant to the eye than a painted fence or an empty wall.

And you wanted to say something about Nietzsche.

Right. I understand that by accepting the President’s invitation to chair the Presidential Council for Promoting Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights, and by becoming the presidential adviser, I did a rather strange thing, strange for a man from our intelligentsia circle, which tries to keep as much distance from the authorities as possible – in order to preserve their reputations. But here I will quote Friedrich Nietzsche, who said that scientists who go into politics usually undertake the comic role of being the politician’s clear conscience. I understand that my role is indeed comic to some extent, but I am doing my best to preserve at least a drop of good conscience in Russian politics.

Very well said. Thank you.

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