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Russian oligarchs at the bedside

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Sculptures from the Cracking Art Collective in front of the Commander's House on the Island of New Holland, St. Petersburg. KATYA

On July 26, on the great lawn of the island of New Holland, St. Petersburg, several hundred spectators attended the screening of Give Me Liberty, by Kirill Mikhanovsky, opening film of the first edition of a new film festival devoted to young artists. At 7 pm, the sun was still high, but the technology of the screen, nestled in the alcève of a beautiful gray wood scene, offered an acceptable image. Farther on the grass, children ran after in a ship-shaped play area, hipsters faced table tennis, others sipped cocktails at the edge of the a basin … Protected from the noise by a screen of wildly domesticated foliage, customers, seated at the terrace of a gourmet restaurant, placed an order.

Ten years ago, the island was abandoned, handed over to second-hand cars, traffic, drunks and the homeless. Until the end of the Communist era, ordinary people did not have access to it. This piece of land of almost eight hectares was created in the XVIIIe century in an artificial canal dug in the center of the city, to meet the needs of the tsarist navy. In just a few decades, it has acquired a remarkable architectural ensemble: large warehouses for storing wood for boats, workshops (corderie, foundry, carpentry, binding, etc.), a prison that provided them with the manpower, a beautiful house for the commander, as well as a large basin where ships and submarines were tested under the sea. In the Soviet Union, Krylov State Research Center has turned it into a testing ground for the navy.

A high-end leisure oasis

After several failed projects (including that of the tandem formed by the oligarch Shalva Chigirinsky and the architect Norman Foster), the revitalization of the complex was entrusted in 2011 to Millhouse Capital, the the company that manages the assets of Roman Abramovich, the wealthy owner of the Chelsea football club. Under the leadership of his ex-wife, Dasha Zhukova, grown up in the United States, the buildings have been restored with great care (and continue to be), and the site turned into an oasis of high-end cultural leisure, open to all. You can picnic with your family, play pétanque, attend outdoor shows and concerts, conferences and masterclasses, skate on the ice in winter, all for free.