A fresh start for the Garden once used as a junkyard: the director of the St Petersburg University Botanical Garden about the 1990s and 2000s

The 1990s were a hard time for the whole country. For the Botanical Garden of St Petersburg University, the difficult period lasted much longer — almost until the end of the 2000s. It was a miracle that the Garden survived through those years. Aleksandr Khalling was an employee of the Botanical Garden during that period and is now its director. He recalls what was happening to the Garden for almost 20 years: plants were ‘fertilised’ with petrol from the University vehicles; chemical waste was buried in the beds; and worms were grown in its greenhouses and cellars for sale.

Mr Khalling, you have been working in the Botanical Garden for more than four decades and saw the Garden go through a very difficult period of its existence: the 1990s and 2000s. Please, tell us what the difficulties were during those years.

The difficulties, by and large, began even earlier. During the Soviet years, the Garden’s director Dmitrii Zalesskii took an active stance. However, the Garden existed more in spite of rather than thanks to the policies pursued by the University. The diaries of Dmitrii Zalesskii show that there was not a mutual understanding between him and the University administration. The Garden was constantly going through restructuring or fell into the hands of ‘enthusiasts’ with the Communist subbotniks trampling plants and demolishing fences...

In the Soviet times there was a vivarium on the territory of the Garden; sometimes, it was called a dogsty instead of the foreign word ‘vivarium’. Dogs, rabbits, chickens and goats were bred in it, and as a result, there was excrement and dirt. Rabbits and goats were grazing right in the beds of the Garden... When the animals were moved to a new place, all their ‘goodies’ were left behind — the Garden staff had to clean them up.

When a cyclotron was built, the engineering systems were stretched out through the new plants in the Garden without any discussion with the botanists. In short, I don’t recall the Garden living well at the time.

It’s true that in the 1970s, there were more employees. In 1971, the Garden became a scientific subdivision of the University, and there were about 20 full time positions. What did it actually mean, though? The number of workers was high, but the wages were very low. Besides, in the Soviet times the employees of the Botanical Garden were obliged to cultivate flowers for the needs of the University and the city, and almost all the resources were thrown at this job. Such planting occupied almost a quarter of the entire territory, if not more! Until 1973, there was even a kiosk, as I remember, to sell plants to the residents and the University staff. What kind of science and education could we talk about? The director barely had the resources to handle greenhouse plants, to say nothing of the outdoor beds.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, I assume the situation only worsened?

Of course — the Garden was used as a dump, a junkyard. In the late 80’s to early 90’s, with the beginning of the Perestroika, the courtyard of the Faculty of Philology housed garages. At the request of the Dean of the Faculty, the administration of the University decided to relocate them. They began to look for a place to transfer the garages to. They found nothing better than to move them here, to our Botanical Garden. The Faculty of Philology, using ‘extra-budgetary funds’, as they said then, built a garage right in the Garden. The construction took place in the part of the Botanical Garden that was close to the local flora plot, near the pond. This was done as a part of the ‘initiative’ called ‘The Courtyard of the Faculty of Philology of St Petersburg University’ (Little boy and big problems) in the late 1990s. Now many people like the courtyard very much, and the author of the project is very proud of it (‘Retrograde’ with a philological bias). I wish people would understand the price that was paid... In order to renovate the courtyard of the Faculty of Philology, unique plants were sacrificed in the Botanical Garden (Lawsuit against Bogdanov; Salaries paid to philologists and the bonus given to Sergey Bogdanov; What happened to the restaurant at the Faculty of Philology?).

What damage was caused to the garden by the vehicle fleet?

Unbelievable damage! All the maintenance waste was dumped in the soil, in the pond, and buried right in the Garden; it became almost impossible to work here. Part of the territory was seized and polluted with construction debris and other garbage. The collection of local flora, located unfortunately between the garages and the pond, was destroyed. Luckily, at least some of the plants were preserved. Do you see the hills? They are all formed from the construction debris of the demolished garages, buried right among the plants.

Does it mean that there are still remains of the vehicle fleet in the garden?

Not only that. The Garden was used for storing garbage from the nearby chemical labs, and also the University’s daily waste. According to the official documents, the garbage was transported to the proper places and disposed of in accordance with the established procedure (Chemical waste was transported in tens of tons, including virulent poisons). Waste utilisation, however, was expensive and, apparently, there was no money for it. Both in the years of Perestroika and in the 1990s, when there was a shortage of everything, garbage was often thrown into the garden and covered with earth. If you dig around the garden in different corners, you can still find garbage heaps. Look, the ground level is high up there, and lower down here? The place that is high is garbage. In the 1990s, and almost until the end of the 2000s, all of the garbage was brought here. It was delivered by tractors and levelled — I saw all this happening with my own eyes. Not so long ago, during one of the Saturday clean-ups, we found bottles of hydrochloric acid (Petrol and motor oil — for watering plants in the University Botanical Garden) under a layer of such ‘soil’. They were quickly taken away, but how many more discoveries like this can we possibly make?

Was it possible to prevent the destruction of the Garden?

How could that be prevented? Valentina Nikitina, the director of the Garden in those years, complained of an ‘arm-twisting’ attitude. It was hard to do anything about it, even though she tried to seek justice. Funding for the Garden in those years was minimal, so we had to be humble, not to lose the crumbs that came.

Did the staff start leaving?

Some people left — the number of employees officially working in the Garden was reduced by two thirds. There were about five employees left. Some tried to make a ‘business’: breeding worms for sale, for example, or opened companies to sell plants. For a period of time there was an enterprise for the cultivation of edible mushrooms. Fortunately, all those ventures quickly went bust.

What has the Garden lost over those years?

A systematic collection, a collection of local flora, and pre-war palms were destroyed. Six palm trees had survived the war! Now there are only two in greenhouses. There’s also an Australian sago palm from the pre-war collection. However, a lot has been lost.

Plus, the glasshouses were damaged. In the beginning of 2000s, the repairs of the old glasshouses were supervised by the Vice-Rector for Facilities Management, Associate Professor Lev Ognev (A Vice Rector of St Petersburg University receives an 8-year suspended sentence; The accomplices of the former Vice Rector convicted for the embezzlement of funds). The glass was replaced with polycarbonate, although this material should not be used for greenhouse glazing under any circumstances! All over the world, greenhouses are built with glass — and this is how we used to do it. But times changed and the wood started rotting and the glass was shattering. The greenhouse was covered with double-glazed cellular polycarbonate, which doesn’t let the cold through — like in a glass unit. Of course, it’s warm and doesn’t let the heat out, but this leads to another problem: less light permeates the polycarbonate, and in winter snow stays on the roof. The snow falls and doesn’t melt. When snow falls on glass, the glass is heated from below and the snow melts and slides away immediately.

During the decades of neglect, the garden became filled with unnecessary trees that were self-seeded. They are of no scientific value, and are weedy trees. There are a lot of them in the city, and they need to be cut down because they create a lot of shade in parks (The St Petersburg University Botanical Garden renewed after winter).

What is necessary for the Garden to approach the level of a world-class garden? Is it possible?

Every botanical garden, and especially university gardens, should have a different collection of plants to use in the educational process. First of all, we need local flora and a systematic collection of plants that were destroyed in the 1990s and 2000s. These are very important collections and should be shown to students. In winter, we use greenhouse plants for learning purposes and we have a good collection of greenhouse plants today, but many greenhouses are in a poor condition. Both ventilation and polycarbonate on the roof require renovation.

According to the latest plan, or sketch design, which we now have, some of our plant collections will be located in other, more appropriate spots. This is, in my opinion, a very good project and one of its goals is to make the garden a public place, accessible to all. We need to make the garden open, because we have a lot to show (‘The Garden must be open to the public’: the difficult fate of St Petersburg University Botanical Garden).

We have Manchurian walnut, Amur cork tree and a large collection of coniferous plants growing outdoors. The greatest asset in the Garden, however, is the white robinia (or Robinia pseudoacacia). In north-west Russia, in this very place, on this part of the city, there is a special warm microclimate and a well-drained area. Many southern plants grow in our garden, which will never grow outside in the city, especially in the Leningrad region. This is one of the warmest places, protected from moisture and wind, so in St Petersburg it is the only place to see 15–17 metre high white robinia. I believe that the white robinia should become a symbol of our Garden.