While teaching students about the architecture of his native Perm, Roman Yushkov has seen many of the Russian city’s finest buildings become history. He laments their passing, criticises the officials who let it happen, and wonders what the future holds for a place with no visible past.
The Social Ecology course that I teach at Perm State University includes a subject that I find very depressing: current tendencies in European urban planning. The start is not so bad. That is when I outline the most important of these current tendencies: the development of environmentally and historically sensitive policies in today’s cities.
Then comes the depressing bit: the students and I look at how these tendencies are reflected in Russian planning, and in particular in our own Perm, a large city in the Urals. How do they “green the city” in Europe? They increase the amount of land given over to forest, parks and green zones. We, however, lose our green areas to filling stations, car parks and so-called elite housing developments.
'Looking at my vandalised Perm, I realise that this is the provincial face of globalisation, impassively sweeping away any distinctive local cultural colour in its path and replacing it with a universal and lifeless norm.'
What else do they do in the West? They create artificial reservoirs, fill them with fish, water plants and swans, and lay out leisure zones around these lakes. And here? At the end of last year Nikolai Dyomkin, billionaire property baron, member of the Perm Region Legislative Assembly and of the Presidium of the Regional Political Council of the ruling party, United Russia, filled in Gagarin Pond, which had existed for more than a century. Now his construction company is sinking piles into the former pond and the green zone surrounding it, and the whole area will be built over.
Two years earlier, in similar fashion and with a similar aim, the Styx, the most historic of Perm’s small rivers, which flowed round the Yegoshikhinskoe Cemetery, was channelled into pipes and vanished below the ground. This was the work of another businessman and Legislative Assembly member, Viktor Suetin, and his construction company Stroipanelkomplekt.
And when we come to talk about how the city should protect its historical heritage, to embody the sense of continuity of human habitation throughout the generations, my spirits, and those of my students, sink completely. The last 20 years of “democracy” have seen the destruction of whole streets and neighbourhoods, building by building. In the last few years this has come down to individual houses, since there are so few old building complexes left, even in the historic centre.
But the present rulers of our lives are still not satisfied, and it is now the turn of our cultural heritage: in other words, legally protected buildings. Several listed buildings have been deliberately torn down in the last few years: the wing of the Berezin mansion, for example, which stood right in the geographical centre of the old city, beside the Central Post Office. The Mechanic’s House of the famous Perm Cannon factory, the enterprise around which the city began its growth in the 18th century, has gone too. Although the destruction of protected buildings is a criminal offence in Russia, no one has been called to account for this. New buildings have sprung up on the sites, and we constantly hear about similar developments in nearby Yekaterinburg and other cities.
If this is what is happening to listed building, what can you expect for buildings in the next heritage category down, so called “environmental objects of value”? These are mostly19th century two-storey merchant and bourgeois houses, either stone-built or with a stone first floor and wooden second floor, with decorative wrought iron fences, fretwork window frames and roof ridges, ornamental brickwork and old doors with carved bosses. Once they were Perm’s standard domestic architecture, so they have no claim to monument status. But I believe these buildings preserve the essence of the city, its distinctive local character. A few years ago the St Petersburg Research and Planning Institute made an inventory and identified 340 such buildings that it believed should be protected. Perm, after all, is still officially classified as a historic city. Last year we looked for all these houses, armed with notebooks and cameras. More than half had disappeared.
We often hear the press and television telling us this is all to be expected. Russian capitalism is in its infancy. This is the period of the primary accumulation of capital. Life is bound to be lawless. It is inevitable that there will be killing, theft and destruction of all kinds.
'My regular encounters with mayors, governors and big business have made me realise that these are people who lack any appreciation of culture. They have no taste. Their aesthetic ideals for the city are defined by such concepts as height, width, area, sheen and glow.'
But lawlessness and crime have names and faces and there should be personal responsibility. Some businessmen, it must be said, behave in an almost civilised manner. It is not essential to destroy a building without warning, under cover of darkness, as they did with the house of the eminent mining specialist Pyotr Yarutin in Yekaterinburg in April. If you want to be civilised, you can start by removing a building’s protected status and then you can demolish it as and when you like.
A change in official ideology provides excellent cover for this. That at least was presumably the pretext for removing legal protection from the house of Yevgeny Puzyrev, leader of the Perm League of the Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class at the end of the 19th century, and its subsequent immediate demolition. The Soviet Union has collapsed, so that must mean communism is irrelevant to us now, right?
The Perm Red Guard Headquarters suffered a similar fate. The local bigwigs couldn’t care less that the building had a rich history. It was the last “free staging post” of pre-revolutionary Perm, and an infirmary during World War One. It was also the last well-preserved example of a typical Perm house with a mezzanine, of which there are no more. Where it stood there is now a car park.
It was only at the last minute that local conservationists managed to kick up enough fuss to prevent the demolition of a listed building in the city centre that had been the home of Lenin’s personal secretary Lydia Fotiyeva, a cult figure from the Soviet period who spent time in internal exile in Perm before the 1917 revolution.
Our current city fathers, both political and commercial (often in fact the same people), are equally indifferent to buildings of the early Soviet period. At present, on Komsomol Prospect, a number of glass-walled skyscrapers are being crammed with sadistic abandon into a harmonious and well-preserved Stalinist Classical ensemble. The grandiose and noble Imperial style is being consigned to oblivion together with the Empire that spawned it.
The situation is even worse with the protected zones around cultural monuments: areas that by law should be in stylistic harmony with the buildings in question. In Soviet times this rule was strictly observed, but now it is ridiculous to even talk about it.
Even places of worship, the largest and most outstanding historical monuments, are submerged in chaotic concrete jungles. One of Perm’s main Orthodox churches, the Church of the Ascension, has been surrounded by a long, high, wall-like building that cuts it off from the city centre. From one side the church gets lost against this wall; from the other side, it has completely disappeared behind it.
The city’s old central mosque has also lost its natural surroundings. It used to rise like a symbol of the great and inaccessible Absolute over the modest carved wooden houses of the Tatar merchant community. Now there’s a glass box beside it, as well as an enormous warehouse for bulk products, higher than the mosque, with completely ridiculous metal wing-like structures.
Perm’s ancient synagogue has also suffered. A skyscraper has appeared not just within its protected precinct, but five metres from its walls. The synagogue, the dominant building in its neighbourhood for a century and a half, now looks like a dog kennel beside its owner’s house. On top of that, when they sank piles for the new building right next to the synagogue, in contravention of every building regulation, ominous cracks appeared in the walls. The leaders of the Jewish community were distraught as they showed them to me.
Given the endless debates today over how entrenched corruption is in Russia, I would like to say that I do not think that the local regulatory body – the Perm Region State Inspection Agency for the Protection of Cultural Heritage – is corrupt. I am in constant contact with it, and have never had that impression.
In the present situation it is simply powerless. No one pays any attention to it. The Agency asks the police to find the criminals who have demolished a listed building, and the police just shrug their shoulders, as if to say: “we have a pile of murders to investigate, and you go on about old houses…”
If the Agency refuses permission for the demolition of an “environmental object of value”, then the owner of the land immediately knocks down another merchant’s house, and leases the site for a shop. Laws in Russia only work if there is political will behind them.
Speaking of which, politics, with its personal fiefdoms and degrees of influence, inexorably intrudes into the area of aesthetics and urban planning. Take the enormous damage caused to Perm’s historical heritage by local businessman Yuri Borisovets, who is naturally a member of the Russian parliament from United Russia. He is also a personal friend of Yuri Trutnev, who is not only Russia’s Minister for Natural Resources and the richest minister in the country, but also a native and ex-governor of Perm.
With such personal accomplishments and friends, Borisovets can do what he likes in the city. He can totally disregard the listed Sverdlov Palace, an outstanding example of Stalinist Classicism, and construct a huge phallic office-hotel complex immediately behind it, ruining the view of the palace from all directions.
He can demolish the historic house of the winemaker Tonchenko, a building awarded the highest protection status by the heritage authorities, but which happened to stand next to a hypermarket owned by Borisovets. The site is now a convenient parking area for his goods vehicles. Yes, he can do a lot of things, and no one can stop him.
Or take the story of the Izhevsk Beer Cooperative Society’s brewery, a fine example of industrial architecture in Perm dating from the middle of the 19th century. It was scheduled for demolition, but after a public and media campaign they announced that it would remain standing.
That meant they demolished everything except the façade, which they preserved as a decorative element attached to a totally new building. We conservationists took the construction company to court to try to prove this action was illegal. At the hearing, the regulatory authority began by wittering on inarticulately and then in effect took the developer’s side. The judge was also less than sympathetic to our cause, and we lost the case.
The company is well connected; you need only look at its name, BST. The B stands for Borisovets, the S for oil magnate Sukharyov, one of the directors of Lukoil, and the T is our old friend Minister Trutnev.
'In the present situation Perm Region State Inspection Agency for the Protection of Cultural Heritage is simply powerless. No one pays any attention to it. The Agency asks the police to find the criminals who have demolished a listed building, and the police just shrug their shoulders, as if to say: “we have a pile of murders to investigate, and you go on about old houses…”
Alongside these serious problems caused by the irresponsibility of our parvenu rulers, we must not forget one more small detail. My regular encounters with mayors, governors and big business have made me realise that these are people who lack any appreciation of culture. They have no taste. Their aesthetic ideals for the city are defined by such concepts as height, width, area, sheen and glow.
They are simply incapable of appreciating a carved window frame or the subtle patina on a 200-year-old panelled oak door. “It’s just old stuff,” they say, baffled. That means any public initiative to change the city’s policies on architectural and historical heritage is doomed from the start. Local history enthusiasts protest that they do not want to turn the city into a museum and exclude historical buildings from normal commercial considerations. On the contrary, they argue, these old houses could be used as mini-hotels, restaurants, shops, even offices.
But it is all in vain. No one listens. Why faff around with this old stuff when you can take a bulldozer to it and build a 20-storey glass and concrete tower, a showpiece of architectural banality, which will net you 600 percent profit? Who is going to bother with your mini-hotels?
At the same time the city fathers go on about developing Perm’s tourist potential and particularly about attracting tourists from abroad. “But what,” we shout at them, “will you show them if you demolish everything that is distinctive, local and authentic?” But these are serious blokes. They don’t listen to criticism from below. So their prime goal as far as developing tourism is concerned is to knock down all this old junk and replace it with high-rise hotels “like in the West”.
Developers and officials joke about what we call the essence of the city, saying it is just mould and dry rot. And they are often right. After decades of neglect many houses are in a fairly dilapidated state. To return them to life requires major restoration work. Even stone houses with metre-thick brick walls can need their wooden floors and ceilings replaced.
But this is not always the case. Sometimes a house will have been lived in by several generations of one Perm family, and they lovingly maintained and cared for it. Sometimes there is nothing that needs replacing, even in wooden houses. These were built of larch, a very durable wood and the same Urals larch on which Venetian palaces have stood in their canals for centuries.
These Perm houses were as solid as cliffs, and their owners never wanted to leave them. But the developers used the courts to evict them, after buying the freehold on their sites by fair means or foul. They built in their places yet more architectural monstrosities. Sometimes at night as I walk through the streets of my pillaged city I feel I can see the ghosts of these innocent victims: an ornamental brick facing appears to me out of the dark, or I catch sight of a white larch joist poking through dead concrete. And the ghosts are not all inanimate.
Vladimir Mamayev, 65, had no desire to move out of the wooden house his family had lived in for half a century at Pushkin Street, 12, and refused offers to move from Stroipanelkomplekt.
On the night of August 29, 2007 he was abducted by persons unknown and disappeared without trace. A criminal case was opened, but police investigations led to nothing. A day after his disappearance, the house burned down and, within a couple of weeks, its remains were cleared away.
The regional prosecutor’s office investigated the demolition of the remains of Pushkin Street, 12, by Stroipanelkomplekt and officially pronounced it illegal, but nothing came of it. Stroipanelkomplekt denies any wrongdoing and is at present busy building a high-rise block on the site.
I feel that here in Perm we are all, both houses and people, condemned and scheduled for demolition. What is being built in place of our murdered history and culture is a somewhat separate matter, but one that can’t be ignored. Having visited a dozen or so European countries and caught a glimpse of the New World, I have everywhere had a similar impression: contemporary architecture is pretty awful wherever you go. It is a glaring testament to general cultural decline.
From Berlin to the famously innovative and sustainable Brazilian city of Curitiba, all new architecture is mediocre and lifeless. Everywhere enormous boxes are piled on top of one another, interrupted by the odd pyramid or glass dome. Gleaming and shimmering materials are used to mask the poverty of the cityscape, but you can’t really hide how primitive it all is. Everything is being reduced to dull, uniform geometry. And this culminates in bare walls of transparent glass. Architecture is reduced to nothingness. All form is annihilated.
But provincial Russia has outdone them all. Borisovets has crammed Perm’s historic centre with huge hideous hangars, ugly glass boxes and pathetic imitations of American skyscrapers. The last old buildings are meanwhile gradually collapsing behind the advertising hoardings that hide their crumbling facades from sensitive eyes.
Similar things happen in places like Frankfurt, but here in Russia it is all even more tasteless and screamingly mediocre. For a native of Perm who can remember that just a few years ago there were streets full of historic buildings it is simply unbearable.
'The last 20 years of “democracy” have seen the destruction of whole streets and neighbourhoods, building by building. In the last few years this has come down to individual houses, since there are so few old building complexes left, even in the historic centre.'
Looking at my vandalised Perm, I realise that this is the provincial face of globalisation, impassively sweeping away any distinctive local cultural colour in its path and replacing it with a universal and lifeless norm.
Meanwhile my course on Social Ecology is coming to an end. A couple of students have come up to me and said that they don’t really understand me. They like the broad avenues, the enormous glass facades and the big shopping centres with their vast range of goods. And it makes me even more depressed when I realise that a new generation has grown up, that these are children of the new reality that hems us in on all sides. They are happy with this new mediocre world. Perhaps I should not confuse them with unnecessary information and disturb their harmonious fusion with their environment.