The battle for Russia’s heritage resumes

When Moscow’s Mayor Yuri Luzhkov was dethroned in late September, heritage campaigners breathed a collective sigh of relief. Luzhkov’s crude architectural vision was, after all, one of the official reasons for his dismissal. Yet just a few weeks later, campaigners have a new fight on their hands. Clementine Cecil is disappointed that so little seems to have changed.

Clementine Cecil
7 December 2010

On 22nd December, the Cultural Committee of Russia’s State Duma will consider two amendments to Russia’s heritage law. Experts have already written to President Medvedev to voice their concern with the proposals, arguing they would “place tens of thousands of monuments of cultural heritage under threat of irreversible distortion and even destruction” (link in Russian). Taken alone, either change would severely jeopardize Russia’s cultural legacy. Together they have the potential to be catastrophic, effectively providing two legitimate ways of destroying an authentic historic building and replacing it with a sham replica. 

 Before and After: Voyentorg department store archival photograph and the building after 'reconstruction' in 2008. The Vozentorg store redevelopment is a just one example of former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov's crude approach to heritage. 

The first amendment suggests legalising the “reconstruction” of architectural monuments, and the second would make it possible for the Ministry of Culture to de-list a building.  At the moment it is only possible to remove a Federal Monument from the Single Register by a special act of government. This offers a high level of protection: only one building has been de-listed in this way in the last three years. Once a building is removed from the Single State Register, it is easy to get permission for it to be demolished.

In the run up to his dismissal in September, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov was widely criticised for his illegal practice of employing crude reconstruction techniques on major buildings such as Tsaritsyno palace in south Moscow, and the Moskva hotel. The change being proposed would appear to legitimise this approach. 

“Real estate developers in Russia’s historic cities have been waiting for this amendment. Having the right to remove a building’s protected status is a dream come true”

Natalya Samover, Arkhnadzor pressure group

Crucially, the term “reconstruction” implies the use of everyday construction practices like rebuilding and redevelopment, at present outlawed on architectural monuments (Federal Law No.73-F3, Chapter VI). It is an approach far-removed from professional conservation and restoration practice as understood in Russia and internationally.

The amendment that relates to reconstruction was officially put forward by the chairman of the State Duma Property Committee, Viktor Pleskachevsky. However, Rustam Rakhmatullin, from the conservation pressure group Arkhnadzor, believes that in reality the St Petersburg city administration stands behind the initiative. The Vice-Governor of St Petersburg, Igor Metelsky, and the Chair of the Committee for State Control for the Use and Protection of Monuments of History and Culture (KGIOP), Vera Dementieva, both support the amendment. As in Moscow, the construction lobby in St Petersburg has strong ties to the local administration. And the St Petersburg administration certainly has a reputation for turning a blind eye to illegal demolitions and developments. Between 2003 and 2009, over 100 historic buildings were demolished, many of which were architectural monuments.

The second amendment, which would give the Ministry of Culture the power to remove a Federal Monument from the Single State Registry, was prepared and put forward by Denis Davitashvili, who is the son of a former deputy-governor and member of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR party (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia). According to Mikhail Silantiev, deputy of the Arkhangelsk Regional Assembly, Davitashvili runs a property agency, and his family has been linked with repeated arson attacks on a priest’s house in Arkhangelsk. (link in Russian). Earlier this year, deputy Davitashvili’s Ferrari and motorboat were confiscated by a Moscow court, in lieu of debts of 200,000 million roubles. (link in Russian).  

Natalya Samover is co-ordinator of Arkhnadzor. She believes that Davitashvili is acting on behalf of property developers. “It is not even important which commercial structures are behind it,” she says, “real estate developers in Russia’s historic cities have been waiting for this amendment. Having the right to remove a building’s protected status is a dream come true”. Samover believes the new amendment could lead to “a great wave of ‘accidental’ building collapses, and a queue of people asking the Ministry of Culture to remove these ‘damaged’ buildings from the Registry of monuments.” At present, the Ministry of Culture takes decisions on what buildings are given protected status. It is widely felt that the same institution should not have the authority to remove said buildings, since it breaks down the system of checks and balances that has been established to protect them. 

"While the campaign to save Moscow’s buildings has always been hard going, it had at least always had the law on its side"

The first reading of the two amendments in the State Duma Cultural Committee was in March, after which a Working Group of experts was created with the task of discussing the proposed corrections. The Working Group rejected the corrections, but nevertheless, it went through its second reading on the 25th of November. The Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Cultural Committee, Yelena Drapenko, said that “direct pressure” was placed on them to approve the amendments. (link in Russian). The amendments were not supported by any representative from the Ministry of Culture, Rossokhrankultura (the federal service for the supervision of the observation of the law in the field of the preservation of cultural heritage) or Moskomnasledie (the Moscow Heritage Committee). “This makes us think that this is not a political initiative, but more likely stems from the developers’ lobby in parliament”, said Samover. 

The Rimsky-Korsakov Quarter was illegally de-listed just before demolition in 2004. It reopened in 2006 as the exclusive Turandot restaurant. Campaigners believe that the proposed amendments will give more green lights to insensitive developments of this sort. 

It is clear is that these amendments would render Russia’s sophisticated heritage laws impotent. While the campaign to save Moscow’s buildings has always been hard going, it had at least always had the law on its side: “We have not had to fight this kind of battle before,” admits Rakhmatullin. Tthese developments come at the end of what had otherwise been  a euphoric month for preservation campaigners. Following the dismissal of Mayor Luzhkov, several high profile reconstruction projects on Moscow’s architectural monuments have been frozen. Indeed, members of Arkhnadzor have even been invited on to official boards and committees to help monitor the treatment of Moscow’s architectural monuments. However, the threat of these two amendments marks the end of this positive counter-reaction to Luzhkov’s practices, and demonstrates a desire, on the contrary, to enshrine his methods in law.

Last week, over twenty of Russia’s leading restorers, preservationists and architectural historians sent an appeal to President Medvedev, asking him to veto the proposed changes (link in Russian). This week a second letter is to be sent to the President from international conservation pressure groups, restorers, academics and cultural organisations, expressing support of this position. These include SAVE Europe’s Heritage, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (UK), Docomomo International, The World Monuments Fund, and professors from Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard. Both letters point out that Russia ratified the 1972 UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. This was based on the Venice Charter of 1964, which does not allow reconstructions.

Rakhmatullin is aware that this issue, while crucial to saving Russia’s heritage, is difficult to explain to the man in the street: “the trouble is, reconstruction is often used in Russia today as a synonym for restoration,” he said. Nevertheless, a series of demonstrations is being planned across Russia on the 11th December to protest the amendments. Deputy of the St Petersburg Legislative Assembly, Alexei Kovalyov is also conducting a series of talks with author of the amendment on reconstructions, in search of a compromise.  

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