Conservation Heritage Russian Federation

Cultural heritage activists warn against the destruction of Russian monuments

A slew landmarks have been destroyed; preservationists blame a Kremlin-controlled patriotism

Cultural heritage activists raced to save the linden trees at Arkhangelskoye estate, honouring the heroes of Russia’s War of 1812 against Napoleon, but dozens have been chopped down

Cultural heritage activists in Moscow, St Petersburg and across the rest of Russia are warning that a string of important architectural monuments are falling prey to a dangerous combination of Soviet-style brutality and capitalist greed, and might soon be irrevocably lost.

Landmarks such as the Bolkonsky House, which inspired scenes in Leo Tolstoy’s novels, and a seminal 1850s roundhouse railway depot that inspired similar depots in Europe and the US are hanging by a thread, they say, or have, for all practical purposes, been destroyed.

Their warning calls also underscore a growing activism, or at least a sense of an active preservationist community linked by social networking resources such as Facebook.

When Yevgeny Sosedov—a 25-year-old preservationist who has been battling for years to save Arkhangelskoye, the Yusupov family estate—recently raced to save an historic avenue of linden trees nearby, he was surprised by the intensity of the reaction.

“This happened at the same time as events in Turkey,” he told The Art Newspaper, referring to the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, which were sparked by plans to build a shopping mall on one of the last green spots in the centre of the Turkish city. “I photographed what was going on, and wrote about it on Facebook. I wasn’t making a parallel with Turkey, but several hundred stories were written about [the trees], some referring to the situation in Turkey. People started calling, offering to help.”

The lines of trees honour heroes of Russia’s War of 1812 against Napoleon, a war that was celebrated recently by president Vladimir Putin as part of a new campaign to promote Russian patriotism. Despite this, Putin made no attempt to save the trees from destruction; dozens have since been chopped down.

For activists like Sosedov, the problem is that while Kremlin-controlled patriotism is the order of the day, they are waging what more often than not seems like a futile battle to save Russian landmarks—natural or manmade. “Historic parks are the last corner where people can walk with their kids,” Sosedov says.

In late June, Sosedov, who is chairman of the Moscow branch of the All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments, posted a call to arms on his Facebook page, which ended up being widely shared.

“These are black days for our cultural heritage,” he wrote. “I’m not able even to process and publish the bad news. The collapse of the Bolkonsky [House], new attacks on Arkhangelskoye, Radonezh and New Jerusalem [the last two are historic religious sites in the Moscow region], as well as a list of threats to historical sites in other locations near Moscow, St Petersburg and in Pskov, one of Russia’s oldest cities.”

Ironically, Sosedov’s efforts have been recognised by Putin, who honoured him recently as one of Russia’s young cultural leaders at a Kremlin ceremony. The accolade, and Sosedov's speech at the ceremony, resulted in his appointment as an adviser to the ministry of culture and a reprieve on some of the threats to Arkhangelskoye, although Sosedov is still embroiled in a battle with Leroy Merlin, the French home-improvement retailer owned by the Auchan Group that is trying to build an outlet near Arkhangelskoye.

Konstantin Mikhailov, a journalist who is one of the co-ordinators of the Archnadzor movement, which has battled to save the Bolkonsky House and the railway depot, has also been granted some official status, with a presidentially approved seat in the Public Chamber, a Kremlin civil society oversight group.

Mikhailov says that his organisation is happy to work within the boundaries of the law, which appears to have helped in getting police to respond to construction violations at the site of the Bolkonsky House, which is being reconstructed by a foundation with Kremlin ties. In late June, the building’s façade collapsed, injuring workmen, but the project continues. Archnadzor says that the building is effectively being destroyed by having further floors added to it; members of the activist group occupied the house in a desperate bid to save the building.

The Russian Railways (RZD) said in a statement in May that it is aiming for “civilised European practice” in restoring the Krugovoy roundhouse railway depot, which was built by Konstantin Ton, the creator of the original 19th-century iteration of Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral. Ton’s railway depot is said to have inspired similar structures in Europe and the US.

Vladimir Yakunin, the president of RZD, is known for his decades-long ties to Putin. He responded earlier this year to concerns about plans for the depot by blogging about his respect for historical preservation and plans to save the depot.

A spokesman for RZD told The Art Newspaper by email in June, after Archnadzor warned that nine of the depot’s 20 locomotive bays had been demolished, that the preservationists were engaged in “wishful thinking”. According to the spokesman, RZD is preserving the depot following “international examples of adaptations of historic railway sites for modern use”, citing, among them, “the Gare d’Orsay in Paris, the Roundhouse in London, or, for example, the façade of the Anhalter Bahnhof in Berlin.” The spokesman said that RZD “had not received any offers of co-financing the restoration project or other forms of co-operation from Archnadzor.”

Mikhailov said it would be strange if Archnadzor had offered to co-operate in this case, given the number of laws that had been violated by the project. “The law called for preserving [the depot], but all the laws were ignored,” he said. “Co-operation with the RZD is a wonderful idea, but it must be on a lawful basis, as well as in the interest of the preservation of historical monuments. How can we discuss co-operation when two-fifths of the roundhouse depot has been pulled down?”

Lev Shlosberg, a journalist and preservationist who serves in Pskov’s regional legislature, has been fighting to save Izborsk, a Medieval fortress near Pskov, and against the construction of high-rises in the city. “Protection of monuments is an attempt to preserve roots,” he says. “If the state isn't based on culture and cultural heritage, or has no respect for them, it cannot be a successful state. It will be inadequate and repressive, which is what is happening in Russia. Putin is the enemy of culture,” he says.

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