Putin dresses-down culture department over state of monuments

Chief cultural adviser leaves post shortly after Russian president takes aim at his art and culture council and praises efforts of heritage activists

by Sophia Kishkovsky  |  17 February 2016
Putin dresses-down culture department over state of monuments
The presidential council for culture and art was accused of ignoring Unesco’s advice to halt construction of a museum complex near the Solovetsky Monastery. John Spooner  
At a meeting of his presidential council for culture and art in December, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, chastised officials about the state of the country’s rich architectural heritage and listened to the impassioned activists who have been fighting to save Russia’s monuments. Putin called cultural heritage a cornerstone in “the preservation of historical memory” and expressed regret about recent conflicts over construction in historic areas and the destruction of monuments. He told officials to identify “gaps” in legislation and to work more closely with activists.

“[Activists] are usually the first to raise the alarm about the loss of or threat to monuments, but they are not always heard,” he said. “I ask the culture ministry to submit clear proposals for protecting monuments of federal, regional and local significance against destruction and barbaric treatment.”

Galina Malanicheva, who chairs the central council of the All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments (VOOPiK), told the meeting that the loss of historic sites far exceeds the average annual loss of ten to 15 officially registered monuments. A complicated listing process means that just over 10% of Russia’s monuments are registered. She also described violations against listed sites, such as the removal of protective zones around 80 monuments in Kazan, one of Russia’s most historically significant cities.

Unesco’s warnings ignored

Konstantin Mikhailov, from the preservation group Arkhnadzor, warned Putin that unchecked construction was threatening the country’s Unesco-listed sites. He holds the president personally responsible for dealing with unsightly construction around Zaryadye Park, a project proposed by Putin to replace a demolished hotel near Moscow’s Red Square.

Mikhailov also accused the ministry of ignoring Unesco’s warnings to halt the construction of a museum complex near the Solovetsky Monastery on a small archipelago in the White Sea; the Russian Orthodox monastery was turned into a Soviet Gulag prison camp in the 1920s. Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s culture minister, who was at the meeting, denied that construction is ongoing.

The Russian media blamed the subsequent reported resignation of Mikhail Bryzgalov, the culture ministry’s top cultural heritage official, on Putin’s dressing-down. (Bryzgalov was reappointed as the director of the Glinka Museum of Musical Culture.) Vladimir Tolstoy, Putin’s chief cultural adviser, says that Bryzgalov’s departure had nothing to do with Putin’s reprimand. Both Tolstoy, and Bryzgalov in an interview with the  newspaper Izvestia, said that Bryzgalov’s department was not in charge of protecting monuments.

In 2015, more than 80 monuments were lost due to negligence or demolition. In a television interview on 8 January, Medinsky defended the ministry’s track record in regard to restoration. When quizzed about plans to erect a monument to St Vladimir of Kiev, a tenth-century prince who is regarded as the founder of Russia, near the Kremlin, Medinsky labelled those who oppose the project as “people who have not found themselves in life, from either indolence, idleness or absence of demand”. Unesco has objected to the monument because it would ruin views of the Kremlin.

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