2 September 2021
Larger towns, especially major cities, have an urgent problem to which their city’s historic preservationists are trying desperately but often in vain to draw attention: the destruction of cultural heritage sites. Current legislation in Russia is inadequate for their protection, activists in the Arkhnadzor movement believe. Therefore they have drawn up a Lawmaking Сharter—recommendations to deputies about what should be go into the laws so that historic buildings in Russia aren’t destroyed by the dozens. Today, Arkhnadzor’s “Black Book” lists 220 lost sites, and that’s just in Moscow!
Mariana Torocheshnikova: On a video call with Radio Svoboda is a historian and human rights activist from Nizhny Novgorod, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize Stanislav Dmitrievsky […].
I looked for some general figures on the damage from lost cultural heritage sites in Russia. In response to a 2019 survey done by a Ministry of Culture publication, over the last 50 years in Russia, 3,118 cultural heritage sites have been lost, including monuments of the federal, regional, local, and archeological heritage.
Mariana Torocheshnikova: Stanislav, when you helped organize a tent city in the centre of the city in order to stop Metro open construction through the city centre, you had great success. But right now, one gets the feeling that officials in Nizhny Novgorod have simply joined in and are no longer conceding anything to the city’s historic preservationists. On the other hand, if an outsider were to visit and look at what they are trying to protect in Nizhny, then it’s just some minor wooden buildings.
Stanislav Dmitrievsky: The law says: “A cultural heritage site is an authentic source for the development of culture and civilization.” But Russian wooden architecture is as unique a phenomenon as the Russian avant-garde or the Russian ballet. The cultural heritage is a feature of the culture and civilization of any country, any people.
Before the World Cup, we had the administration of Governor Shantsev. He was a simple man, a collective farmer, and he frankly did not understand the value of our heritage. He said: “All these huts of yours should be torn down. There is no heritage in Nizhny except for the Kremlin and fifteen or so churches.” Then came the administration of Governor Gleb Nikitin, a supposedly educated man, from Petersburg. And a completely unique period began when all of a sudden they took us seriously. At the time, before the World Cup, nearly 40 sites were scratched off the demolition list, and a great deal was promised us.
After that began what is happening right now in Russia in many other branches: “syphoning” and “diverting.” On the eve of the city’s 800th anniversary, enormous sums were allocated to reconstruct, to restore the historic center. That money was not just stolen, it was spent on destroying those sites or spoiling them substantially. For example, instead of three monuments they built replicas out of the plywood used to build cheap dachas. And the officials tell us: “Make no mistake, this is the home of Prince Chegodaev.” All our complaints to the Prosecutor’s Office and the Administration for Landmark Preservation, which is basically covering for this outrage, disappear into a black box, or else we receive merely formal replies. This simply shows their indifference toward the city and its residents, their own people, their own country!
Stanislav Dmitrievsky: I am in favour of improving legislation. But in a non-rule-of-law state, you can improve the law ad infinitum, but it will have no effect on the situation. Russia has completely ceased to be a rule-of-law state, legislation is applied selectively or not at all. Well, it’s impossible to imagine impunity reigning in a sphere like political prisoners, say, and the state persecuting its own citizens, and at the same time love for our cultural heritage flourishing and restoration going on.
Here we’ve put 40-plus sites under protection. Hurrah! But this protected status means zilch. It actually stimulates site destruction because you can get budgetary funds for restoration and siphon them off to a firm that doesn’t know how to do anything at all.
The only solution lies apart from the state. Here I’ve bought an early twentieth-century house in a village, I’m trying to preserve it, I’m restoring it, I’m connecting restorers to other people who are acquiring landmarks.
Mariana Torocheshnikova: What cultural heritage landmarks in Russia are under the greatest threat of disappearing right now?
Stanislav Dmitrievsky: The very aspect of Russia’s cities as a historical environment. In Nizhny, right during its anniversary, the last preserve of wooden construction was destroyed. They demolished several sites, after which the entire composition fell apart. Gorky, Korolenko, Chaliapin, Chekhov, Kerensky, Vera Figner, and others used to go there. The street and neighborhood is a landmark. What a marvelous district it was around the small parish church! Three sites were destroyed by a builder and one by a restorer who built a plywood rabbit warren instead of a landmark of wooden architecture. The preserve has nearly vanished.
Translated by Marian Schwartz