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Greed, corruption and impotence: Samara battles for its architecture

A city with a grand architectural heritage, Samara is today under threat, pincered by the greed of corrupt developers and impotence of government agencies. Clementine Cecil, co-founder of the MAPS architecture preservation society, writes on the spirited campaign to save Samara’s buildings.
Clementine Cecil
24 September 2010

“I advise you and your colleagues to stop defending this building,” a local businessman with strong links to the city government in Samara said to me this summer. “It would be better if the building just burnt down. Yes, that would be a lot simpler.”

The building being referred to was the Maslennikov Factory Canteen, built 1930-32 by Yekaterina Maximova, with a ground plan in the form of a hammer and sickle. Factory canteens were intended to free women from the shackles of domestic duties, allowing them to devote their energies to the building of the Soviet Union. Food was cooked in the “hammer” and transported on conveyor belts to the “sickle” part of the building. Cheap hot meals were served all day and there were also rooms where the builders of the Soviet Union could relax: a reading room and a gym.

Maximova’s factory canteen has a reinforced concrete building frame, due to a lack of metal. This was one of the first in the city, an example of how shortages forced architects to test the boundaries of their materials.

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The iconic Maslennikov Factory Canteen, shaped in the form of hammer and sickle, finds itself under threat from developers linked to Samara's criminal underworld
Samara, over 500 miles south east of Moscow on the Volga river, is Russia’s sixth city. Its great flowering came at the end of the 19th century when the city’s merchants, rich from trade plied on the Volga, built themselves Neo Renaissance and Art Nouveau mansions of great elegance and grandeur. These still grace the city, although many are in desperate need of repair.

The 20th century gave Samara a fine legacy of Constructivist and Stalinist Neo Classicism. During the Second World War, the Soviet government and many military factories evacuated to Samara. Stalin’s bunker is still here, deep beneath an administrative building at the top of a steep hill overlooking the Volga. The city was closed to foreigners, being a centre of military production and the space industry. Every third family worked in armaments or for the space programme. The city to this day is surrounded by high aerials, which once blocked out foreign radio broadcasting - the Voice of America and the BBC. They are now defunct but have not been removed.

Since the end of the Soviet Union, Samara has become famous for its criminal underworld that has slowly taken grip in all aspects of the city’s administration, from the Mayor’s office to the FSB. The activities of one of the biggest semi-criminal groups, SOK Companies (an abbreviation of Samara United Capital) have been documented and analysed on kompromat.ru, a a Russian news site that publishes uncensored material about Russian businesses and people for a fee.

According to kompromat.ru, SOK was founded by former criminals and grew throughout the 1990s, forming methods of coercion and bullying that they continue to implement. The same source links them to several murders and cases of physical threats. It was SOK that bought the plot of land on which the Maslennikov Factory Canteen stands. It is a newly-declared architectural monument - ie has been put forward to be listed as a monument but the decision has not yet been made. It has had this status for 17 years, which even in Russia, is a very long time. This lack of clarity makes the building vulnerable. SOK, who have now handed over the factory to a company called Samara Passage (but remain involved with it) wants to demolish and build a multi-storey residential building, to ensure maximum returns on the small plot of land.

In 2007, the Hammer and Sickle Factory Canteen Movement was launched, a grassroots group formed by young architects and campaigners to defend the building from demolition. In 2009, the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society (MAPS) and SAVE Europe’s Heritage published a bilingual report on the state of Samara’s architecture called “Samara: Endangered City on the Volga.” The press conference in Samara for the launch of the report was full to bursting, attended by two deputy mayors, representatives from the local and Ministry of Culture, architects, students and the press. The discussion was political: there was a strong sense that the city’s inhabitants felt that local business, together with the authorities, were using the city’s heritage for their own ends, either to embezzle money intended for restoration, or by condemning buildings for demolition to allow rampant new development.

This year, the local prosecutor’s office asked the regional Minister of Culture, Olga Rybakova, to send the owners of the Factory Canteen, notice of their duty to preserve the building, detailing exactly what aspects of the building were to be protected. This appeared to be a significant step forward, belying rumours that a deal had been struck between the Ministry of Culture and the building’s owners. However, Ms Rybakova’s notice was returned unopened: nobody from Samarsky Passage had been in to take the letter. “And so it will continue,” said one campaigner who wished to remain anonymous. “Rybakova will continue to obfuscate, covering her back but not allowing anything to change. The law continues to be ignored and the building continues to suffer as a result.”

However, even when the law is observed, it often works against the building in question. Subbotin-Shikhobalov’s House, otherwise know as the Governor’s House, a late nineteenth century Neo Renaissance mansion of great elegance, at No.3 Alexei Tolstoy Street, has been lying exposed to the elements for over a decade. This fine building, one of only 50 federal monuments in the city (equivalent to UK listing Grade 1), is empty and boarded up, encircled by a rough wooden fence, daubed with graffiti. Its plaster facade covers a brick building, giving it the appearance of a grand stone palace. The ground floor is rusticated and the piano nobile semi-rusticated supporting a playful and elaborate frieze below the deep cornice, filled with griffins and circular bulls-eye openings. A cartouche tops the facade, flanked by an elegant man and woman swathed in togas, but now blunted and blinded by decades of harsh winters and strong summer sun.

How has it happened, that this handsome, playful building has been abandoned, and is not being celebrated for the wonderful architectural gem that it is? Aliya Chebutaryova, Main State Inspector of the Administration of the Russian Cultural Protection Committee in the Volga Region, explains the system to us. The office was opened 2 years ago when the Federal Authorities decreed that the regions should monitor Federal monuments. The staff then numbered 7, but today consists of only her. She monitors the region’s 57 Federal Monuments and is permitted to inspect them every 3 years. If Chebutaryova finds the state of a building unsatisfactory she can write to the Ministry of Culture, who in turn informs the owners (if they can be found) that they must repair their building. If nothing continues to be done, she can apply to the Public Prosecutor for permission to inspect the building again

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Subbotin-Shikhobalov’s House: Even when preservation legislation is used, the sanctions applied are feeble, and many owners choose to ignore warnings.

Ms Chebutaryova inspected the Governor’s House a year ago, and found holes in the roof. She wrote to the Ministry of Culture to ask them to contact the owners. They did so but the owners did not respond. Fines for the neglect of an architectural monument are tiny, and rarely imposed. If the building continues to be neglected, it will be absorbed by the Ministry of Culture which has an appalling restoration record. There is one restoration architect working in Samara, and his standards are woefully lacking. Due to a lack of competition in this field, it is unlikely that the quality will improve in the near future.

During Soviet times, most old housing stock was exploited, rather than maintained and restored. Those semi-ruined buildings that survived Soviet times are still perceived as ruins, with no potential future, even ones with such fantastic decoration as this one. Many were converted into uncomfortable, cramped communal flats, creating negative associations that persist to this day. Ms Chebutaryova said that most of the buildings she monitors are in a poor state of repair and there is very little she can do about it.

The present system does not give the Russian Cultural Protection Committee the powers it needs to effectively protect the country’s monuments, and allows the buck to be passed between local and government bodies with no demand for active intervention. This institutionalised indifference means that nobody benefits from the city’s wonderful buildings, a waste for everyone involved, from the Ministry of Culture to the inhabitants of Samara. And the Committee’s powers may yet be further reduced: in August, Prime Minister Putin instructed the Minister of Culture Alexander Avdeyev, to absorb it into the Ministry, effectively closing it down it as an organisation. Some believe this is due to the Committee’s active opposition to the Okhta-Centre in St Petersburg. The results of this decree, reported by Kommersant, have yet to be felt.

However, there are those who love Samara’s buildings. This weekend, on the 25th September, there will be an architectural tour of the city’s sights, organised by enthusiasts, by bicycle. It is free of charge and is expected to be well-attended, pulling in visitors from as far away as Moscow. The situation has inspired a techno song by local poet and musician Fyodor Zhadny, which can be listened to on the website dedicated to the bike ride. T-shirts are being made showing Karl Marx riding on a bicycle under the slogan: The Factory Canteen or Death. While there is still such imaginative resistance and celebration of the city, there is hope that some of its wonderful buildings will be saved.
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Clementine Cecil is co-founder and trustee of MAPS, The Moscow Architecture Preservation Society

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