Style over kitsch: the four lives of David Sarkisyan

Russia has lost a great dissident campaigner for Moscow’s built heritage with the death of David Sarkisyan, museum director, film impresario, scientist and aesthete
Clementine Cecil
24 March 2010

David Sarkisyan’s office:  great sanctuary for Moscow’s heritage campaigners and weary travellers

David Sarkisyan, a leading cultural figure in Russia who worked in the frontline of the campaign for Moscow’s beleaguered heritage, died of lymphoma in Munich at the beginning of this year at the age of 62. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov refused permission for him to be buried in the Armenian cemetery in central Moscow, because of his defiant stance against the city’s building policy that has seen hundreds of historic buildings demolished since the fall of Communism in 1991. Instead, Sarkisyan was laid to rest in Troyekurovskoye Cemetery on the edge of the city. This gesture of contempt by Luzhkov, and Sarksiyan’s sustained work during his time as Director of the Moscow Shchusev State Architecture Museum, places him among the ranks of great dissident campaigners for Russia’s built heritage.

Sarkisyan always joked that he had “four lives”: pharmacology was the first. He was born in Yerevan and came to Moscow to study physiology and began a doctorate in pharmaceuticals, which he never completed. He developed a drug called amiridine, which was used in Japan for illnesses including Alzheimer’s. His “second life” was directing and producing feature films directed by his friend Rustam Khamdamov. Khamdamov is a famously difficult man, but Sarkisyan, with his great diplomatic talents and ability to put himself at the service of art, ensured that the films were completed, including “Anna Karamazoff” (1991), directed by Khamdamov and Sarkisyan and starring the French actress Jeanne Moreau. The “third life” was that of a documentary film maker, using material from the newly opened national archives. He was particularly proud of “Comrade Kollontai and her Lovers” (1996). Sarkisyan said that he read all of her 10,000 letters to make this documentary, which fed his love of story-telling, intrigue and his fascination with unusual women.

In the 1990s, Khamdamov and Sarkisyan lived in a basement flat in central Moscow: it became a salon where you were likely to bump into anyone from leading actresses to Anatoly Chubais or Tatyana Tolstaya. The then Minister of Construction Anvar Shamuzafarov, frequented the beautifully decorated basement flat. It was his decision, in 1999, to appoint David as Director of the Moscow Shchusev State Architecture Museum (life number four), Russia’s chief repository of architectural photographs, drawings and models. There was huge opposition to his appointment but he quickly won over his detractors who were charmed by this handsome, good humoured, quick-witted Armenian.

Sarkisyan - museum

During his time as director, over 263 exhibitions took place in the Museum

During his time as director, over 263 exhibitions took place, often three at any one time. He needed more room, and rather than restoring the ruined wing of the museum (for which there were no funds), he re-branded it The Ruins, and created a romantic exhibition venue in which the bare bones of the building were visible: the vaulting of the room beneath, the wooden cross beams and the exposed brick work of the stripped walls. Visitors would walk on wooden boards, clouds of steam floating from their mouths in cold weather. It was one of the most atmospheric venues in Moscow. It also summed up David’s ideas about beauty as opposed to the prevalent fashion in Moscow today, to replace old buildings with shiny new replicas: “art consists of a system of violations that cannot be systemised. A big Moscow civil servant on first visiting Venice said, ‘what neglect!’ These people will always think a new chair is beautiful and an old chair ugly.”  Unlike them, Sarkisyan saw the beauty in authentic old buildings, and in people. He had that rare ability to see the potential in anyone. He was particularly respectful of the old: one event was held to mark the 100th birthday of the avant-garde architect Lydia Komarova. Sarkisyan had ordered a huge pink cake in the form of one of her Constructivist designs: she blew the candles out from her wheelchair.

He had a gift for friendship and collected friends as he collected everything else. He was adored by women, and thanks to him, international cultural figures such as Peter Noever and Zaha Hadid were press-ganged into the fight for Moscow’s historic buildings. Besides his hundreds of friends from among the leading lights in art and architecture, Russian and foreign, perhaps his closest friend and confidant towards the end was his driver Valeri Pisarev, a testament to his unpretentiousness.

I first met him for interview him for an article for the Moscow Times. I walked into his famous office, full of wonderful books, extraordinary objects, photographs and glittering baubles, with just enough room for two chairs before his overflowing desk and constantly ringing telephones, and fell under his spell. I left with a fantastic interview, walking on air: Moscow suddenly felt more manageable, more fun. Two years later, I wrote to him when we were starting up MAPS (the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society) and told him about our initiative, started by three foreigners.

The situation at the time was critical: we launched in May 2004, just after a fire had raged through the Manezh, a large neo-classical building constructed as a monument to celebrate the Russian victory over Napoleon.  For a long time Mayor Luzhkov had been talking about giving it an underground car park, but construction on the site of an architectural monument is illegal in Moscow. And then suddenly, on the day of his and Putin’s re-election, there was a fire. Although it was never proved, it was thought to be arson, a common way for developers to deal with bothersome architectural monuments in Moscow. After the fire it transpired that a project to give the Manezh underground floors had existed for three years. Because the Mayor wanted the building finished in time for the celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the Second World War the following year, the reconstruction of the magnificent roof was rushed and corners were cut: modern building materials were used, the proportion of the building was changed.

Sarkisyan, b&w photo

 David had a gift for friendship and collected friends as he collected everything else

Sarkisyan made sure that MAPS had a good start and that our first press conference was attended by the great and the good. He immediately understood that a foreign-led initiative to bring attention to the plight of Moscow’s built heritage, would give the local movement a boost, perhaps more prestige and some protection in the form of increased transparency through international press. He remained the mentor and chief supporter of MAPS until the day of his death. He was our first port of call in any crisis, or when a tactical decision had to be made or an important piece of decision passed on. He supported many other groups and individual campaigners in this way.

This kind of support is crucial to any campaign: without encouragement and support it is very difficult to continue in such an unequal struggle as the one in Moscow. Few of the battles are won, but Sarkisyan, with his love of a good challenge, was able to make it fun, and glamorous. His network of contacts and journalists was as formidable as that of the authorities - sometimes we would get an important article to the press that, we felt, scored us a goal or two.

There was a wave of new preservation organisations at this time and Sarkisyan put the museum at the service of the campaign to save Moscow’s endangered architecture.

Only 200 metres from the Kremlin, the museum an oasis of independence in a deeply feudal city: Mayor Luzhkov has “hyper-mayoral powers”, i.e. is able to legislate by executive directives on any question pertaining to the city’s services or socio-economic problems. He can veto Duma bills, and also has absolute control of all executive appointments. This power extends to planning, and Luzhkov is not shy about using his rights, even when he trespasses into federal territory. His tastes also dictate the city’s building policy, especially of landmark buildings. Few people dare oppose him. Sarkisyan was an exception to this. He initiated a letter, to the Russian authorities in April 2004, which reads, “Commercial profit cannot excuse the systematic destruction of our own history, culture and national identity. The construction politics in Moscow is criminal, anti-social, anti-cultural and anti-state, and deprives future generations of Russian citizens of historical monuments.”   The letter, still on the homepage of the Museum’s website, gathered hundreds of signatures; the Mayor answered it by taking out a whole page of a national broadsheet in which he outlined his building policy.

Sarkisyan was not only an independent voice, he was also an imaginative and resourceful campaigner. He believed that if a building was going to be demolished, it should at least be kept alive through preserving the memory of the building: through keeping fragments, photographs etc. He salvaged fragments of the interior of the Moskva Hotel which are preserved in the Museum.

Sarkisyan was a great friend to Viktor Melnikov and Yekaterina Melnikova, the son and granddaughter of the avant-garde architect Konstantin Melnikov. With his death she has lost an important ally in the fight to open a state-owned museum in the celebrated Melnikov House.

Children Dept. Store demolition

Sarkisyan’s last attempt was to secure architectural elements of the interior of Children’s World department store (Alexei Dushkin, 1953-1957) 

On his deathbed Sarkisyan ensured the completion of the recent letter to the Russian authorities concerning the future of the El Lissitzky’s Printing House (1930) and was attempting to secure architectural elements of the interior of Children’s World department store (Alexei Dushkin, 1953-1957) presently being gutted, to be sent to the museum to be preserved.

It is this unstinting campaigning in the face of impossible odds that infuriated the city fathers. Thus Sarkisyan joined the distinguished ranks of preservation campaigners whose activities made them dissidents. These include restorer Pyotr Baranovsky (1892-1984) who served three years in the Gulag in the 1930s for his uncompromising defence of Moscow’s historic buildings, and Alexei Komech (1936-2007), former Director of the Art History Institute and veteran campaigner who was taken to court by Mayor Luzhkov for slander in 2004 over comments about the reconstruction of the Manezh.  Komech had said that the Ministry of Culture must approve the reconstruction project; Luzhkov denied this, saying responsibility for all decisions about the building lay with the city authorities. The charges were dropped against Komech after a court hearing.

Mourners at Sarkisyan’s funeral whispered about an article in that day’s Moscow Times about the Mayor’s refusal to allow him to be buried in the Armenian cemetery. It had been translated into Russian and was being posted all over the internet. It was wryly observed that Sarkisyan would be delighted to be still at the centre of the campaign, even in death, and that he would have seen the Mayor’s refusal as confirmation of a life well lived.

The establishment of a foundation or prize is being discussed, to commemorate Sarkisyan’s huge contribution to architectural conservation in Russia. His extraordinary office, that great sanctuary for Moscow’s heritage campaigners and weary travellers, is to be preserved, although it is not yet clear where: in situ or in a Moscow museum. Whatever the decision, it is unlikely to receive much support in official circles.

Clementine Cecil is a journalist and co-founder of MAPS, the Moscow Architectural Preservation Society 

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