At the start of 2022, St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov seemed under more pressure to step down than ever before. In addition to facing constant criticism, Beglov was quarreling with local elites and struggling to resolve endemic issues related to snow and garbage removal. But after Russia began its all-out war against Ukraine on February 24, everything changed. Beglov became one of the most outspoken supporters of the invasion and started giving bellicose speeches about fighting purported Ukrainian “Nazis.” In addition, the St. Petersburg undertook to rebuild Mariupol — a city that has become emblematic of Russian war atrocities after Moscow’s forces effectively razed it to the ground. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev unravels how the Kremlin’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine helped Alexander Beglov shore up his position in St. Petersburg and get back in Putin’s good graces.
“For Russia this is an era of victories. Peter the Great dreamed on the banks of the Neva. He gathered Russian lands, created a strong and great power. And today Russia is strong like never before,” Governor Alexander Beglov proclaimed at the Scarlet Sails celebration in St. Petersburg on June 24. Earlier in the month, President Vladimir Putin had brought up Peter the Great not once, but twice — praising the 18th century Russian emperor for “reclaiming” territories and “strengthening” the state.
Listening to Beglov’s speech were dozens of schoolchildren from Mariupol, a Ukrainian city that Russian troops captured in May after a nearly three-month siege. They were all wearing identical “Petersburg + Mariupol” t-shirts — and they weren’t allowed to talk to anyone else during the celebrations.
St. Petersburg had officially adopted Mariupol as a “sister city” and pledged to rebuild it. Beglov even paid a visit to the destroyed city at the beginning of June, donning a khaki uniform for the occasion (an outfit that has become fashionable among Russian officials since the start of the escalated war).
Beglov has also taken to giving hawkish speeches about purported Ukrainian “Nazis” and the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine (Kremlin parlance for the full-scale invasion). In fact, in just four months, this once floundering politician has turned into Russia’s most bellicose governor.
“Today, Mariupol is going through a difficult stage, and we are prepared to assist in its revival. The Leningrad Blockade and the occupation of Mariupol with its heroic liberation from fascist invaders during the Great Patriotic War left a deep mark on the fate of the people and our cities. We are connected by a common history and future,” Alexander Beglov stated in May 2022.
Neither the governor nor St. Petersburg officials gave any specifics about the amount of assistance the city would provide Mariupol, or how much this would cost the municipal budget. Instead, Beglov talked about plans to establish “industry ties between enterprises” and “contacts in construction, housing and utilities, healthcare, education, culture, and many other fields.”
Konstantin Ivashchenko, who Russia installed as Mariupol’s collaborationist “mayor” in April, told the St. Petersburg news outlet Fontanka that the city’s reconstruction efforts were lacking dozens of garbage trucks, public transport vehicles, and construction vehicles.
“We need the 20 percent of housing stock that’s slated for demolition to be demolished; 80 percent of houses need to be repaired or rebuilt from scratch. We need to put up prefabricated housing for 50,000 people — several micro-districts need to be rebuilt,” Ivashchenko said.
“In addition, we need drama theaters, at least nine culture centers, and to restore sports facilities. And most importantly — all the electrical substations. Gas facilities [also] need to be put into operation.”
According to two Meduza sources close to the Putin administration, the St. Petersburg authorities wouldn’t be able to take on such a load without the consent of one man — First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko, the Kremlin’s domestic policy curator and point man in the Donbas.
As Meduza reported previously, the task of recruiting Russian officials to work in occupied regions of Ukraine has fallen to one of Kiriyenko’s subordinates: Boris Rapoport. A “crisis manager” turned Kremlin official, Rapoport was dispatched to St. Petersburg in 2019 to salvage Alexander Beglov’s gubernatorial campaign. “Beglov offered for him to stay on in the post of lieutenant governor for policy, but [Rapoport] turned it down,” one of the sources close to the Putin administration told Meduza.
Beglov’s position in St. Petersburg was on very shaky ground before Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In early February, Meduza reported that Putin didn’t meet with the governor during a visit to the city. Around the same time, the Beglov claimed that “influential people” had launched a campaign to discredit the St. Petersburg authorities. Although he didn’t name names, Meduza’s sources close to the Putin administration said that the governor had clashed with members of the president’s inner circle, including Kremlin-linked oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin and the Kovalchuk brothers.
At the time, there was serious talk about Beglov stepping down, but the war changed things. After February 24, the Kremlin put all personnel decisions “on pause.” Beglov had time to rehabilitate himself — and he took full advantage of it. According to sources close to the Putin administration, Beglov pragmatically chose the “Mariupol issue” in the hopes of shoring up his position and playing a part in the “special operation” — a topic that really worries Putin (before this winter, Beglov was considered a close ally of the Russian president).
“In the city everything’s bad, it’s just gone to hell, there’s nothing to brag about. But the governor is a fine Orthodox fellow at the forefront in Mariupol, promising to raise the city from the ruins. He knows the president well, he knows that this image will suit him. The president is [his] main target audience,” explained a Meduza source close to the Kremlin.
Another source close to the Putin administration added that according to the results of private opinion polls, Beglov is one of Russia’s most unpopular governors. And the level of support in St. Petersburg for the so-called “special military operation” is much lower than in neighboring regions.
“[For Beglov] this is also a way to raise [his] ratings among a particular segment of the population. Attention to the ‘special operation’ and patronage over cities [in occupied territories of Ukraine] works on them. In his speeches, Beglov often appeals to pensioners and he doesn't hide that he does this intentionally: there are about 1.5 million of them in St. Petersburg, that’s enough to win the elections. Pensioners support Russia's actions,” one source explained.
Moreover, it was Beglov who made sure that the Kremlin entrusted St. Petersburg with rebuilding Mariupol — according to Meduza’s sources, the governor personally chose this city for “patronage.” As a source close to the Putin administration underscored, when St. Petersburg adopted its “sister city” in late May, Mariupol was a “household name” and the “hottest spot” in the war.
According to a source close to the St. Petersburg authorities, the city administration was originally planning to send experienced municipal officials to Mariupol, but they refused to go. “[These] people already have everything — a Porsche under their ass, connections. What do they need a frontline city for? So they started recruiting young people, [offering] double salaries, bonuses, and career prospects. There are those who want [to go],” the source assured.
Choosing Mariupol “may come back to bite” Alexander Beglov, a Meduza source close to the Putin administration warned: “Communications are destroyed there, it’s not clear how to get the heating season started. By winter, all the bravado may turn to failure.”
Two sources close to the Kremlin noted that Beglov’s “bravado” even extends to the question of financing the work being done in Mariupol (there isn’t even a rough estimate of the cost). “Major businessmen came [to Beglov] and offered assistance. He refused,” one source said. The governor, he explained, doesn’t want to depend on or be indebted to anyone.
The source close to the St. Petersburg administration underscored that Beglov’s narrow circle of associates who hold important positions in the city like that the governor is acting this way. However, mid-level officials who have been working in St. Petersburg since before Beglov’s time are quite skeptical about his plans. “They understand that there are plenty of problems in St. Petersburg itself, and they’ve [never] held the governor in high regard,” he explained.
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Be that as it may, Beglov has already achieved his main goal: according to Meduza’s sources, the warmongering governor’s relationship with Putin has improved amid the ongoing invasion. Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin said that Beglov now enjoys “carte blanche” in St. Petersburg — despite his ongoing conflict with oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin.
“Prigozhin is currently on the rise — his PMC [the Wagner Group] is supposed to seize the entire territory of the ‘LNR’ and they're succeeding. Prigozhin has a direct line to the president [...] But now he can’t do anything with Beglov — his relations with the president have also improved,” explained a Meduza source close to the Putin administration.
This person added that the St. Petersburg governor is no longer relying on his political advisors. “Beglov is his own director. Hence the khaki [clothes] and sneakers that don’t suit him and the constant references to the ‘[special] operation’ in his speeches,” the source said. Another source close to the Kremlin even claimed that Beglov is modeling his new image on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has been sporting olive green since the start of the war: “To be fair, Zelensky can allow himself this. Obviously, he’s been hitting the weight room, unlike Beglov.”
Political scientist Konstantin Kalachev told Meduza that before, Beglov was “torn” between wanting to be liked by St. Petersburg’s residents and wanting to be liked by the president. But after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, he chose the latter once and for all. “Putin needs to like [you]. Then ratings are no problem,” Kalachev underscored.
The way he sees it, Beglov clearly understands that there’s no shortage of Russian officials who would like to become governor of St. Petersburg — and he’s not about to give them any reason to criticize him for being insufficiently pro-war.
Speaking to Meduza, political scientist Alexander Kynev succinctly characterized this as “a manifestation of bureaucratic instinct” and “the ability to survive inside the system.” Three sources close to Putin assured that thanks to this skillset, Beglov “will govern” St. Petersburg at least for the foreseeable future.
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart