Conservation USA

Moscow’s monuments under threat

The destruction of the Russian city’s architectural heritage has contributed to recent anti-government protests

Dynamo Stadium, before demolition

Preservationists are voicing growing concerns about Moscow’s architectural heritage and the state’s role in ensuring it survives. The controversial destruction of monuments has contributed to recent anti-government protests in Russia, even though a number of preservationists believe that Moscow’s authorities are doing a better job of saving landmark buildings under Sergei Sobyanin, who was elected as the city’s mayor in 2010, than under his predecessor Yuri Luzhkov, who was notorious for allowing historical architecture to be demolished.

The disputed sites include two that are now controlled by the state-owned VTB Bank: Dinamo Stadium, which is being redeveloped as a potential venue for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in a project worth at least Rb20bn ($635m), and Detsky Mir, a children’s store in Lubyanka Square, next door to the former headquarters of the KGB.

According to Natalia Samover, a co-ordinator of the Moscow-based Archnadzor movement, which monitors threats to architectural heritage and organises protests and lawsuits in its fight to save endangered buildings and monuments, officials ignored the fact that Dinamo Stadium was listed as a monument. The stadium, built in 1928 by the architects Arkady Langman and Lazar Cherikover as a homage to athleticism in the Stalin era, was “the last major sports facility in the constructivist style that was still preserved in Russia,” she says.

“Sobyanin’s new government has made numerous politically correct statements about the importance of cultural heritage,” Samover says. “In those places where the city makes decisions, there is progress. Where vandalism is to the advantage of a powerful state bank, they meekly obey everything they are told to do,” she says.

The new stadium, provisionally called the VTB Arena, will have a capacity of up to 45,000 people. The plans include an arena that can hold 15,000 people and a large area devoted to retail outlets, while a neighbouring park is earmarked for property development. The Dutch architect Erick van Egeraat was originally commissioned to create a design that would preserve part of the stadium’s original walls, but Samover laments the loss of these walls in the final project. It is being carried out by the American architect David Manica, who has worked on major arena projects in China.

VTB Arena’s website describes the project as a “harmonious unity of modernity” that carries out “preservation of the best athletic and historic traditions”. Russian football fans who want a modern facility cite the demolition of the original Wembley Stadium in London as a precedent.

Natalya Dushkina, a professor at the Moscow Architecture Institute, fought for years to save the intricate interiors of Detsky Mir, which was designed in the 1950s by her grandfather, Alexey Dushkin. The store was known for its sculptural reliefs of children, arches and marble decor. She says that Russia is grappling with how to handle its recent architectural heritage, a process made more difficult by Soviet ideology and the transition from communism to capitalism. “The authorities don’t understand that these are monuments,” she says.

Natalia Samover says that Detsky Mir is also a victim of the global financial crisis, which hit Russia hard in 2009. Sistema-Hals, the real-estate development branch of AFK Sistema (a private company with close links to Yuri Luzhkov, the former mayor), which had been planning to redevelop the property, failed to make payments on its loans from VTB Bank. The bank suddenly found itself with major Moscow real estate on its hands, and is now seeking to maximise the potential profit. Its involvement with Dinamo Stadium and Detsky Mir amounts to a “destruction of cultural heritage”, Samover says. “A state bank doesn’t have to think of its reputation. A commercial bank has to think.”

Anton Merkurov, a web entrepreneur and new-media expert with almost 35,000 Facebook subscribers and some high-placed connections of his own, set out to raise interest in the stadium’s fate after discovering that some bas-reliefs by his grandfather—the Soviet sculptor Sergei Merkurov, who was known for his monuments to Lenin and Stalin—had survived the initial demolition.

He met representatives of VTB Bank, who had ignored Archnadzor’s protests and had refused to comment on the project. Merkurov says that they promised to include him in further discussions but quickly forgot their pledge. The bank plans to restore his grandfather’s sculptures and use them in the new arena, but Merkurov is not impressed. “The conclusion is very simple,” he says. “They couldn’t care less about architectural heritage.”

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