In the Hedge Hall office of Jane Costlow, the Clark A. Griffith Professor of Environmental Studies, hangs a framed photograph of a Russian woman holding a protest sign in one hand and her snacking child in the other.
The woman in the picture had joined others to protest a construction project in St. Petersburg, explains Costlow, who took the photo in 2009 while co-leading a Bates Fall Semester program in St. Petersburg.
In their fight, citizens were trying to “use what available legal processes there existed in post-Soviet Russia to try to protest and stop the project,” says Costlow — hence the message on the woman’s sign: “All Power to the Laws.”
The slogan is a play on words, Costlow says, because it “echoes the Bolshevik slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets.’ She has re-appropriated it, by putting bars over the word ‘power’ and making the word ‘laws’ so prominent.”
For Costlow, the photograph “resonates with other situations in Russian and Soviet history, where women have been the bearers of conscience. I love that it’s a picture of this woman holding her child and maybe symbolically hoping for a better future.”
Costlow’s co-leader of the Bates semester abroad was Áslaug Ásgeirsdóttir, associate professor of politics, and the subject in her photo was the homestay mother of one of their Bates students.
During their stay, a conflict erupted over plans by the Russian energy giant, Gazprom, to build a huge skyscraper — the tallest in Europe — in the center of St. Petersburg, an extraordinary city that has retained its 18th- and 19th-century architecture.
The protest that Costlow photographed “was really lively and really creative.” In retrospect, she adds, it was like some of the post-inauguration protests in the U.S. “because of the creativity and the spirit, the humor, irony and parody that were displayed in the signs that people were carrying.”
The 2009 protests worked, and Gazprom decided to move the proposed building to a different site, though it has yet to be built.
“I was really excited to see people acting as citizens and publicly raising their voices.”
Costlow’s academic training is in Russian literature and culture, and she has traveled extensively to Russia and the Soviet Union. Her publications include the book Heart-Pine Russia: Walking and Writing the 19th-Century Forest.
Beyond the creativity she witnessed in St. Petersburg in 2009, something else grabbed her. “I was really excited to see people acting as citizens and publicly raising their voices and trying to do what they could as citizens to protect a city that they love.”
They spoke up in part to preserve a historical and culture treasure, in part to protect their neighborhoods. “They were really fed up with corruption and money controlling everything,” she says.