A Fresh start: petrol and motor oil – for watering plants in the University Botanical Garden

Since the summer of 2018, St Petersburg University has been conducting comprehensive research and survey work to develop a plan for the reconstruction of the University Botanical Garden. The famous landscape designer Artem Parshin has developed a conceptual design of the restoration and a strategy for the development of the territory.

In the autumn of 2019, public discussions regarding the University Garden reconstruction project were held. These stimulated a special interest in the history of the St Petersburg University Botanical Garden. Particular attention was given to recent events. During the period of 20 years, the garden had fallen into decay due to inadequate maintenance of the open grounds. Many people are perplexed: how could this have happened?

Let’s begin with a simple example. Members of the University staff who have summer cottages take care of their garden soil. And none of them would even think of watering their apple trees, plums and cherries with motor oil. Nor, after washing the car, would they pour the dirty water onto their vegetable beds. This is because they care for their plants. They appear to have had little concern about the University Botanical Garden. In the late 1990s, the University vehicle fleet was relocated into the Botanical Garden. I wish I could just ask those who did it what they were thinking.

We talked to Professor Igor A. Gorlinsky about the dramatic events of that time. At present, Professor Gorlinsky is the Vice-President of the St Petersburg University Academic Council. From 1989 to 2010, he was the Dean of the Faculty of Biology and Soil Sciences; and from 2009 to 2015, he was the Senior Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs and Research at the University.

Igor Alekseevich, was the University Botanical Garden part of the Faculty of Biology and Soil Sciences?

No, it was not. The Botanical Garden has always been a separate organisational unit of the University. However, given the nature of its work, it is dear to biologists. The director of the Botanical Garden reported to the Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs and Research and worked directly with the University Maintenance services unit. The director of the University Botanical Garden Valentina Nikitina sometimes addressed the Dean of the Faculty of Biology and Soil Sciences with requests for assistance and development proposals. Indeed, for biologists (botanists, geobotanists, and soil scientists), the University Garden was their experimental base.

Botanical gardens are collections of plants that can be utilised for scientific inquiry, and botanical and horticultural education. In fact, for university botanical gardens, educational provision is a primary mission. From the late 1940s to the late 1980s, in the University Botanical Garden there was a Systematic Collection of Garden Plants that was actively used for educational practice. It was grown on the plot alongside the building of the Mendeleev Centre. Later, however, overgrown poplars and willows shaded the plot, and many of the plants could not tolerate the shade. The collection should have been moved to another sunny spot. The director of the Botanical Garden repeatedly addressed the issue with the University administration. Alas, the administration failed to resolve the problem. Eventually, the plants died, and the collection ceased to exist.

Did the Botanical Garden often need help?

Yes, it did and whenever possible we did help. For instance, as you may know, in the 1990s, one of the challenges that the University had to overcome was inadequate funding. The University scientists were especially affected by the budget cuts. The overall investment from the government in science was reduced considerably, and the former non-competitive system of financing scientific research no longer applied. No budget was allocated to pay the researchers’ salaries. Some of the staff members who worked in the Botanical Garden had been employed as researchers. How did we manage to save them? Under the authority of the Dean of the Faculty, after discussing the issue at a meeting of the Academic Council of the Faculty, we agreed to set up an Office of Applied Botany within the structure of the Faculty of Biology and Soil Sciences. Thus, a considerable part of those who worked in the University Botanical Garden were transferred to the teaching and support staff positions in this office.

Were there other issues that concerned those who worked at the University and in the Botanical Garden in the late 1990s? Did the proverbial ‘misfortune never comes singly’ occur?

For many years the University vehicle fleet was located in the courtyard of the building at 11 Universitetskaya Embankment. This is how it happened: in the courtyard of the Palace of Peter II there used to be an old coach house. Later it was converted into a laundry facility, and then into a garage. In 1998-1999, the then Dean of the Faculty of Philology Sergey Bogdanov (Lawsuit against Bogdanov; Salaries paid to philologists and the bonus given to Sergey Bogdanov; What happened to the restaurant at the Faculty of Philology? Water Tower in Pavlovsk) took the initiative in this matter. He proposed to relocate the garage and redesign the courtyard. To implement the project, the University Maintenance services unit started looking for a new place for the University vehicle fleet. Soon the place was, indeed, found…in the Botanical Garden! Adjacent to the cyclotron, a garage was erected to accommodate the vehicle fleet (about a dozen cars) on the Garden lawn, with all the ‘ensuing’ consequences. Arriving and leaving cars would pump exhaust gases into the air, old petrol and used motor oil would be dumped in the site. There was also a car washing facility, and the wastewater containing harmful petrochemicals contaminated the soil in the Botanical Garden that houses collections of plants, a greenhouse, a pond, etc.

Prior to construction of the garage in the Botanical Garden, a trench was dug in the ground and construction waste (collected after the dismantling of various structures on the University grounds) was buried in the foundation of the garage. It fact, construction waste was generously scattered around the Garden. A large amount of garbage was dumped in the plot of the Systematic Collection of Garden Plants.

Was it only the workers of the Botanical Garden and botanists who were outraged by this situation?

I remember how Valentina Nikitina, the director of the Botanical Garden, came to me and said that she had been subjected to arm-twisting when the University vehicle fleet was relocated to the Garden. What was she to do? If she had continued to object, they would have ‘cut off her oxygen supply’. She believed they would have stopped funding the Garden at all as they did not allocate any money for greenhouse repairs or tree maintenance. To help her save the Botanical Garden, I submitted a complaint to the heads of the University maintenance services (including the Vice-Rector for Administrative and Economic Affairs Lev Ognev). I also spoke at a meeting of the Academic Council of the University. The issue was discussed with no outcome. I suggested finding another place for the garage, but they wouldn’t listen to me.

In response to my call to action to save the Botanical Garden, I was told that there was a plan to turn the Garden into an ‘exclusive’ pedestrian zone reserved for customers of the Bellini restaurant (situated then at 13 Universitetskaya Embankment.). Apparently, the restaurant owners got on very well with the management of the University maintenance services. According to the plan, access to the Garden was to have been open to the restaurant guests, as well as to the scientists. The administration believed that the scientists should welcome such a project, since it was a potential moneymaker. They could see no point in opening the Garden to townspeople.

As we know, the problem eventually found its solution, but much later.

It was only in 2009 – under the new administration – that the vehicle fleet was relocated to 20 Korablestroiteley Street.

Yet, in the 1990s and 2000s, the Botanical Garden was still under threat.

In 2006-2008, engineering utility lines to the administration building (the Alexander Collegium building) were laid through the territory of the Botanical Garden. And once again, the Garden workers, botanists, and other members of the University staff objected to this. Nonetheless, the Garden was excavated. The logistic and maintenance managers did not think that they had to consider the potential damage to soils and tree roots. Furthermore, steam tunnels for the central heating system were laid across the territory of the Garden.

In the second half of the 1990s, the building at 7/9 AK Universitetskaya Embankment, where our geneticists work, underwent a major renovation. Part of the construction waste and discarded equipment were stored on the territory of the Botanical Garden. The garbage remained there for quite a long time, which also polluted the soil and harmed the plants.

On the territory of the Botanical Garden there used to be many outbuildings and utility structures: greenhouses, orangeries and sheds for storing tools and equipment, a special greenhouse for taking care of cacti and succulents in summer, and so forth. Since the late 1990s, they began to fall into disrepair. One of these structures (a shed near the vivarium) was utilised to store precursor chemicals and chemical substances that had been removed from various University buildings. They were ‘left’ in the shed in the Botanical Garden for many years. It was only in 2019, when volunteers were turning the compost heaps during the Garden clean-up, that they found huge bottles with acid under a pile of garbage. The University maintenance services reacted promptly, and by the end of 2019, a disposal services agreement was concluded and the works were completed. A whole truck of ‘chemical’ waste was taken out (Dozens of tons of hazardous waste, including potent chemical poisons, have been removed).

At present, a project for the restoration of the St Petersburg University Botanical Garden is being developed. There must have been other projects. Igor Alekseevich, do you know why one of the streets on the Peterhof University campus is called Botanical?

In the late 1960s, when I was a student of the Faculty of Biology and Soil Sciences, a large-scale model of the Peterhof campus was exhibited in the Twelve Collegia building. The campus master plan contained provision for a new University Botanical Garden. As soon as our botanists and soil scientists, employees of the Botanical Garden, arrived at the location, they realised that the soil is heavy, with low nutrients – none of their plants will thrive in it. The simplest solution would have been to build a drainage system, and bring in loads of new fertile soil. Eventually however, after almost two years of efforts, our experts’ work was wasted. The project documentation for the new Botanical Garden was ready; the ‘relocation,’ however, was cancelled. The plan gradually faded out, as the funding ended.

This is how the Botanical Street appeared on the Peterhof campus. It was planned at the very beginning, when the Peterhof campus master plan was developed. Just like Universitetskiy Prospekt or Astronomicheskaya Street, where the University Astrophysical Observatory was built.

At present, a master plan project for the reconstruction of the St Petersburg University Botanical Garden on Vasilyevsky Island is underway. The conceptual design of the Garden restoration and the long-term development strategy have been presented for public discussion. This has no precedent in the recent history of the University.

What conclusions can be drawn now about ‘tending the Garden’ of 20 years ago?

The renovation of the courtyard of the Faculty of Philology at 11 Universitetskaya Embankment was welcomed by philologists and orientalists. However, the implementation of this project had serious damaging effects on the ecological well-being of the Botanical Garden. I strongly believe that projects that benefit some of the University units whilst disrupting the projects of other units should not be developed and realised. Clearly, such situations are unacceptable.

At that time, decisions on the territorial development of the University were taken by a circle of senior University officials behind closed doors. There was no public debate or discussion. Today at St Petersburg University, a situation like that would be simply unthinkable. The transparency of action, openness and accountability of the University administration, open public discussions of projects underway gradually became the norm for the University community. This is to ensure that there won’t be a repetition of the recent dramatic events.