Grassroots Urban Protests in St. Petersburg: (Non-)Participation in Decision-Making About the Futures of City Territories


This paper considers local activists’ efforts to initiate public discussions about contested territories in St. Petersburg, and to resist political decisions about their (re)development. It also questions to what degree such grassroots efforts become political and analyzes different contexts of, and barriers to, politicization. By complementing sociological theorization about 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 defense of the Yurgens House in the historic city center against its expected demolition, and the protest against renovation in Alexandrino, a park area on the city’s periphery. Our 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 flexible in their forms of engagement, deploying a wide repertoire of tools of contestation: using local knowledge tactically, operating rationally within legal frameworks, and addressing broad audiences in search of public justification and support. We conclude that, whether these local activists remain at the level of informal place-based initiatives or opt for more institutionalized and professionalized forms of civic participation, they insistently reject claims that their efforts have a political rationale.

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  1. 1.

    When speaking about urban initiatives, we mean the locally based grassroots actions of urbanites who initially have no familiarity with the repertoire of tools of resistance, and are therefore bound to grope around for such tools in the course of conflict. Meanwhile, urban movements, in our eyes, are larger-scale networks of activists that go beyond local communities. But we admit that in practice the boundary between urban initiatives and social movements is rather blurred.

  2. 2.

    This welfare-state reform gave pensioners money directly to pay for their own care instead of the state providing them with benefits in kind (such as free public transport, free medication and state-funded treatment in health resorts). As a result, pensioners had fewer opportunities than before and engaged in protest.

  3. 3.

    These findings might resemble the conclusions of Gladarev (2012) who also applied the principles of pragmatic sociology to analyze urban heritage protection initiatives in St. Petersburg. However, while Gladarev interprets urban actors’ performance in various pragmatic regimes of engagement as sequential (protesters would necessarily start with the regime of familiarity, proceed to the regime of regular planned action and, when this proved ineffective, opt for the regime of justification), our observations demonstrate by contrast that local activists can operate in various regimes simultaneously, or shift frequently among them.


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The authors express their deep gratitude to Karine Clément, Anna Zhelnina, Laurent Thévenot, Nina Eliasoph, Kerstin Jacobsson, Elena Zdravomyslova, Svetlana Yerpyleva, Natalya Savelyeva, and three anonymous reviewers for their thorough reading of this manuscript and their numerous insightful comments and recommendations.


This paper benefited from the support of the Russian Science Foundation (research grant RSF No. 18-78-10054 “Mechanisms of interests coordination in the processes of urban development,” 2018–2021).

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Tykanova, E., Khokhlova, A. Grassroots Urban Protests in St. Petersburg: (Non-)Participation in Decision-Making About the Futures of City Territories. Int J Polit Cult Soc 33, 181–202 (2020).

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  • Urban protest
  • Grassroots
  • Urban space contestation
  • Politicization
  • Civic engagement/participation
  • Regimes of engagement