Conservation Russian Federation

Experts criticise Kremlin-backed monastery restoration

Multi-billion-rouble project a "discredits" Russia and diverts much-needed fund, experts say

The New Jerusalem Monastery

Russian experts are warning that unnecessary works and questionable techniques are being used in the restoration of the 17th-century New Jerusalem Monastery near Moscow. They say that the Kremlin-backed, multi-billion-rouble project not only poses a threat to the monument’s preservation, but is diverting funds from other much-needed restoration projects across the country.

Activists called the latest turn in the New Jerusalem project “yet another action that is discrediting our state and society” in a letter published on the news website Chastny Korrespondent, addressed to the All Russia People’s Front, an organisation created in 2011 by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to drum up support for patriotic civic initiatives. Several high-ranking Russian officials have embraced the project, including Putin and the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, whose wife, Svetlana, is a patron.

The New Jerusalem Monastery, located 60km from Moscow in the town of Istra, is revered as a symbolic spiritual centre. It was built in 1656 by Patriarch Nikon, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, who envisioned Russia as the New Jerusalem and the monastery as a model for church-state relations. Bartolomeo Rastrelli and Matvey Kazakov, two of Russia’s most famous architects, worked on the complex in the 18th century.

The letter’s signatories, who include a dozen of Russia’s leading restorers, are especially concerned about the decision to dismantle the tent-roofed dome protecting the rotunda of the Cathedral of the Resurrection. The original dome collapsed after Nazi forces attempted to blow up the monastery. Two post-war attempts to build temporary domes over the rotunda were much maligned, but a third, metal structure was built in 1992 after years of debate among experts. The activists say they were surprised by the sudden decision, announced at a round-table discussion in 2011. A report written by the ministry of culture’s Central Research and Restoration Design Workshops, the project’s main designers, describes the metal structure as “temporary from the outset”.

In the letter, dissenting experts, who feel there is another motive behind the decision, say the structure could have served indefinitely. Alluding to the corruption and misallocation of funds that have become an increasingly sore point in Russian society, they say: “This assertion doesn’t correspond to reality. It has been thought up to open the door [so that they can create a structure of] their own design and carry out expensive building work on a new tent-roof.”

Viktor Zubkov, the chairman of the charitable foundation overseeing the project and, until recently, the country’s deputy prime minister, has estimated that the project will cost between Rb13bn and Rb20bn ($399m to $613m). It is due to be completed in 2016.

Yevgeny Sosedov from the Moscow regional branch of the All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments has told The Art Newspaper that there are also concerns about an Italian subcontractor’s plans to use wood chipboard to reconstruct the dome, saying that it is unclear how this material will fare in Russia’s weather.

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