St. Isaac’s Cathedral Belongs to All Petersburgers

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Winter View of the Bronze Horseman with St. Isaac's Cathedral in the Background. Image courtesy of Artnet
Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Winter View of the Bronze Horseman with St. Isaac’s Cathedral in the Background. Image courtesy of Artnet

Natalia Vvedenskaya
Facebook
January 14, 2017

I realize everyone is already sick to death of the topic of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and that today is a weekend day to boot. But I’ve been mulling this text over in my head for three days and struggling with the desire to write it down. I’ve been persuading myself there are lots of smart people aroiund who will write what needs to be written. But I can’t get the arguments out of my head, so I’ve given in to my desire.

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Folks, especially non-Petersburgers, who note melancholically, “Just give it back to the Church. Can’t you spare it?” really amuse me.

Well, no, we can’t spare it.

1. The ROC [Russian Orthodox Church] is not the Vatican, and all comparisons of St. Isaac’s Cathedral with St. Peter’s Basilica are irrelevant in this context. The ROC not only doesn’t know how to preserve architectural landmarks. It doesn’t want to preserve them. It wants to use them, and it preserves them the same way you maintain your apartment, for example. Imagine you’ve decided to put in parquet floors or throw out old furniture. Who is going to stop you? It’s your own business. You can figure out yourself what’s best for you: the new parquet or the old linoleum. This is basically how many church leaders and believers look at it. They believe an icon, however timeworn and whatever the destructive effects shifts in humidity, vibrations, etc., have on it, it should be in a church, not in a museum. Yes, it is has to be handled carefully and respectfully, yet it can be carried in a outdoor religious procession and venerated by parishioners kissing it. If something has happened to it, it means it was God’s will. A new copy of the icon will have to be ordered. I’m not exaggerating. I’m trying to explain that notions of “humanity’s heritage” and “universal value” are empty phrases for most members of the church community. They don’t understand how church property can be the business of unbelievers. Moreover, from their perspective, the right government should be Orthodox. It should maintain churches the way it maintains hospitals and schools.

The problem is not that we know of numerous cases in which the ROC has treated architectural landmarks and museum communities barbarically. The problem is the Church’s leadership has not publicly condemned any of these incidents. It doesn’t condemn them, because it doesn’t consider them important or it even approves them. So it will happen again and again, and heritage preservation authorities are basically powerless.

This is an answer to the exclamation, “Give back to the Church what was taken from it in 1917!”

Parents are given the right to raise their children. But if they treat them irresponsibly, hit them, don’t get them medical care when they’re ill, don’t feed them, etc., society acknowledges the need to restrict the rights of such parents. A hundred years ago, however, this would not have occurred to anyone. But our notions of violence, the value of human life, and children’s rights have changed. Our notions of culture and its right to protection have also changed. The ROC does not guarantee the safety and security of architectural landmarks in the sense regarded as normal in modern society. We cannot hand architectural landmarks over to the Church, at least not until the Church changes.

2. Why should the ROC be the main user of St. Isaac’s Cathedral? If we leave aside money and “historical justice,” the only reason could be to hold services on a full scale—not in the chapel, but in the central nave, for example, with the museum closed on feast days and so on. But think about it. Since the Patriarch can force [Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko] to give back a church, then of course the Patriarch could also obtain the best conditions for church services. Meaning this is not the issue.

The issue, of course, is money and “status.”

So we have a public museum. We know everything about it: how much money it earns, how much money it spends and what it spends its money on, and how much it pays in taxes. And we have the Church. We don’t know anything about it, and that will go on being the case. No, we do know one thing: it doesn’t pay taxes. So we won’t be able to find out whether the Church has the money for routine repairs and restoration work or not. Going back to my first point, the Church might not think that restoration is necessary. So the city will always have to have the necessary sum of money for repairs on hand. Plus there are the taxes, the taxes the cathedral museum pays now and won’t be paying in the same amount after the cathedral’s transfer to the Church. All this means that the “free” entrance with which the church community has been tempting us, will be free for everyone except Petersburgers. Every Petersburger will pay (via the city’s budget), regardless of whether he or she has visited the cathedral or not.

It would be nifty, beautiful, and right if entry to St. Isaac’s Cathedral were free to everyone. But we can’t afford it. A normal family doesn’t sell its only home to buy a Mercedes to show off to the neighbors, but drives a car it can afford or takes public transport. Similarly, Petersburgers cannot afford, for the time being, We should recognize this and live within our means.

P.S. I’ve come across a reference to Clamoring Stones: The Russian Church and Russian Culture Heritage at the Turn of the Millennium (2006), a book by the archaeologist and art historian Alexander Musin. It is about how restitution of church property has taken place and the consequences this has had for Russia’s cultural heritage. I haven’t read it yet. I haven’t even found where I can buy it. But I think it’s a must read. (Here’s a review.)

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Hundreds Protest Giving St. Isaac Cathedral To Russian Orthodox Church
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
January 14, 2017

Several hundred people rallied outside a St. Petersburg landmark cathedral on January 13 to protest plans to give it to the Russian Orthodox Church.

The local governor this week announced the city was transferring the iconic St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Orthodox Church, sparking a rash of protests in the former imperial city.

Protesters flocked to Isaakiyevskaya Square near St. Isaac’s to protest the move on the evening of January 13. The cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has been an important museum since Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. More than 3.5 million tourists visit it every year.

“The Church should know its place!” one placard read.

Police confiscated one poster but did not otherwise block the protest.

TASS reported that activists have gathered as many as 160,000 signatures on a petition to revoke the local government’s decision to give away the cathedral.

The signatures include people from Moscow, Yekaterinburg, and Krasnodar as well as St. Petersburg, TASS said.

The church takeover of the landmark is part of a growing trend toward social conservatism in Russia. President Vladimir Putin has appealed to traditional values and urged citizens to eschew Western liberalism.

 

Leningrad Then, Petersburg Now

Leningrad Then

Even with the Soviet visual propaganda, the city remained spacious and limpid. But the current [powers that be] have killed everything, although they did restore the gate of the Winter Palace.
—Comment on Facebook

Leningrad 1974. Footage courtesy of Footageforpro.com

Leningrad (Alexei Uchitel, dir., 1978)

Petersburg Now
What follows is a annotated, partial pictorial record of a long walk I took recently in the northern parts of inner Petersburg with a group of local psychogeographers and historical preservationists. The immediate impulse for our walk was the news developers had begun constructing a block of flats cheek by jowl with the renowned power station for the Red Banner Textile Factory, designed by the Jewish German architect Erich Mendelsohn. Worse, it transpired that the developers had the moxie to dub their little contribution to catastrophic urban redevelopment the Mendelsohn Housing Complex, as if they had received the great architect’s blessing for their vandalism from beyond the grave. Continue reading “Leningrad Then, Petersburg Now”

Moscow District Deputies Beaten as Constructivist Quarter Demolished

A scale model of the Pogodinskaya Quarter. Courtesy of Archnadzor
A scale model of the Pogodinskaya Quarter. Courtesy of Archnadzor

Moscow Municipal District Deputies Opposed to Demolition of Pogodinskaya Quarter Beaten
Radio Svoboda
June 6, 2016

Pogodinskaya was built in the 1920s and has been recognized as a constructivist landmark. 

On Monday, municipal district council deputies Alexandra Parushina and Andrei Voronkov were beaten in Moscow’s Khamovniki District while trying to prevent the demolition of several buildings in the Pogodinskaya Quarter, a recognized constructivist landmark. Radio Svoboda got the news from Parushina herself. She was forced to seek medical attention after the assault: her leg had been injured.

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Khamovniki Municipal District Council Deputies Alexandra Parushina and Andrei Voronkov. Courtesy of mo-hamovniki.ru

Parushina said the demolition of the buildings in the Pogodinskaya Quarter had begun on Monday without warning. According to here, when the deputies arrived at the scene and demanded that the company carrying out the works show them permits for the demolitions, they were assaulted by security guards.

At the same time, the demolition continued “literally right over the heads” of the deputies, Parushina added.

The authorization for demolition of the Pogodinskaya Quarter, built in the 1920s in the constructivist style by architects V.I. Bibikov and Ya.E. Ostrovsky, and engineer A.N. Volkov, was issued in late 2015. Donstroi plans to build luxury housing on the site. In January, architectural preservationists from Archnadzor demanded the authorization be rescinded.

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Vandalism’s Next Address: Pogodinskaya Street
Archnadzor
May 11, 2016

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There has been a strange media buzz around the constructivist Pogodinskaya Quarter (Pogodinskaya Street 2/3, blgs. 1–4). It is obvious Moscow public opinion is being prepared for the quarter’s demolition.

Articles about a shelter for homeless people and asocial elements having suddenly arisen in Pogodinskaya have been published one after another in the media and blogosphere, and the articles have all followed the same pattern. According to their authors, there is only one means of solving the problem: a speedy demolition and a foundation pit in place of the constructivist buildings. For some reason there is no talk about how it would make more sense to fix up the buildings and at least provide for their normal conservation, just as there as is no talk about a “flophouse” somehow emerging on premises strictly guarded by the developer, premises that journalists could not even infiltrate. If a landmark is turned into a trash heap, it is not the landmark’s fault.

The widespread practice of conversion, successful examples of which exist in Moscow as well (in particular, the recent and current restoration projects of the constructivist complexes on Suvorovskaya Street, Matrosskaya Tishina, and Preobrazhensky Val) show that constructivist residential developments can and should be saved. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

In January 2016, despite the decision by the Moscow Municipal Commission on Urban Development in Conservation Areas (the so-called Demolition Commission), recognizing Pogodinskaya’s historical and architectural value and  disallowing its demolition, the developer was suddenly issued authorization to prepare for the quarter’s demolition. Due to public outcry, a quick demolition did not come off. The Moscow Department of Cultural Heritage confirmed that the commission’s decision remained in force.

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The issue of Pogodinskaya’s conservation status has not resolved yet. We hope the decision will take into account the opinion of the members of Department of Cultural Heritage’s Research and Methodology Council, and the negative verdict on the Taganskaya Automatic Telephone Exchange building will not be repeated, a verdict publicly contested by the presidium of this esteemed advisory body.

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As long as the houses at Pogodinskaya 2/3 are not declared landmarks, they could be demolished in the near future, demolished despite the decision of the Commission on Urban Development in Conservation Areas, which can no longer reaffirm its verdict, as it was itself abolished by city authorities in early 2016, demolished due to the lack of venue for discussion in Moscow where the issue of historical architectural preservation could examined openly and with invited experts. In the legal vacuum formed in the wake of the Demolition Commission’s disbanding, destruction of Soviet avant-garde buildings, of which demolition of the Taganskaya Automatic Telephone Exchange was a flagrant instance, will proceed apace.

The Taganskaya Automatic Telephone Exchange was destroyed despite the protests of residents and experts. There was no dialogue among the authorities, the developer, and residents. This scenario must not be repeated in the case of Pogodinskaya. It is not possible to continue deciding the continue of whether to preserve or destroy historic buildings at the closed sessions of the Urban Planning and Land Commission. We need an open dialogue in which all stakeholders would be able to voice their arguments. The example of Saint Petersburg, which managed to resolve the issue of preserving the so-called Siege Substation, shows that such dialogue is possible as part of the Heritage Council.

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Archnadzor calls on the Moscow authorities to execute the president’s instructions and establish a Moscow Mayoral Council for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, thus ensuring an open dialogue and discussion of the most important urban development issues, including the problem of preserving Moscow constructivism, with the broad involvement of experts on historical preservation. A similar appeal was made by leading experts and architects, outraged by the demolition of the Taganskaya Automatic Telephone Exchange. We fully share their position.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photographs by Maria Korobova and Natalya Melikova. Courtesy of Archnadzor. For more on this latest bit of bad news, see Ola Cichowlas, “Deconstructing Moscow’s Constructivist Legacy,” Moscow Times, June 9, 2016You can also read my numerous posts on what I have termed “catastrophic urban development” in Russia’s major cities. 

The Hipster’s Dream Debased (Portlandia)

A while back, I came across this curious sounding prospectus for a new convenience store in Petrograd.

Portlandia

About the Place:
Portlandia is a new project in the convenience store format.

Project creators: Natalia Davydova and Julia Zenka

The idea to create Portlandia* sprang from a love of fellowship, food, the art of cooking, and shared experiences, as well as an acute shortage of quality products (in the broad sense) in St. Petersburg.

It is very important that our customers are always satisfied with not only the quality of the goods but also the range, which boils down to the basics, but things sufficient for comfort: farm-fresh produce, popular high-end products, household goods, and kitchen utensils.

The first thing we care about is the location of the store. Since many neighborhoods in the city center suffer from a lack of hypermarkets, and there are not enough grocery stores with high quality products, we decided to take up residence in apartment buildings.

* Portland is a city in the state of Oregon in the United States. It is considered the undeclared capital of foodies and hipsters. Authentic and incredible gastro festivals and lots of interesting things happen there. Young creative people bent on healthy eating and self-realization live there. They are always coming up with strange pastimes for themselves and are proud of the result. That, in short, is Portland.

In 2011, the American TV series “Portlandia”, which we could not help but fall in love with, premiered. This series, in fact, is our whole life in a nutshell: para-gastronomical insanity, awe over the topic of bars, as well as sketches about the creativity of the silly Portland hipsters with their passion for music festivals, DJ-ing, and all the things that we in Russia (especially in St. Petersburg) are just beginning to go crazy over.

Founding date: November 11, 2014

It sounded odd but potentially interesting, only the address put me on my guard.

portlandia

That address (Ulitsa Paradnaya 3/Vilensky Pereulok 35) suggested this “hipster’s paradise” was at the heart of a newish high-rise housing estate, Paradny Kvartal, that had been erected a few years ago on the bones of another old neighborhood that should have been wholly protected by city and federal preservation laws and the city’s status as an UNESCO Heritage Site. But this is what went down instead, as reported at the time by Sergey Chernov of the now-defunct St. Petersburg Times, with a little assistance from the now equally defunct Chtodelat News (whose better intentions live on in this blog).

Legality of Demolition of Historic Barracks Contested
By Sergey Chernov
The St. Petersburg Times
May 11, 2011

Another planning controversy is developing in the city, as more historic buildings in the center were demolished last week to make way for luxury apartment and office buildings.

Built by architect Fyodor Volkov in the early 19th century, the demolished buildings on the corner of Paradnaya Ulitsa and Vilensky Pereulok are known as the Preobrazhensky Regiment’s Barracks and used to house one of the Russian army’s oldest regiments, formed by Peter the Great in the late 17th century.

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Following a public outcry, Governor Valentina Matviyenko ordered an internal investigation into the legality of a construction permit issued by the St. Petersburg State Construction Supervision and Expertise Service (Gosstroinadzor). The agency is subordinated directly to Matviyenko.

Matviyenko’s orders were based on a memorandum sent to her by City Hall’s Heritage Protection Committee (KGIOP) after the last building was demolished on May 3.

Yulia Minutina, a coordinator of preservationist group Living City, said that Gosstroinadzor issued the construction permit that contradicted the protected zones law.

The local press suggested that the investigation may result in the dismissal of Gosstroinadzor’s head Alexander Ort. Preservationists and public figures such as film director Alexander Sokurov asked Matviyenko to dismiss Ort in a petition in January.

The developer failed to show the demolition permit, according to Minutina.

“Demolition is a separate type of work that requires a separate permit,” Minutina said Tuesday.

“Nevertheless, it was not presented to us, nor have they seen it at the KGIOP and I’m not sure it ever existed. Of course this is a violation.”

“Besides, buildings in the center can only be demolished if they are in a poor condition, but we haven’t seen any document stating that the building was in a poor state and impossible to restore either.”

Minutina said the demolition was one of the issues the preservationists are planning to raise during a planned meeting with Matviyenko on Thursday.

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While the last building was being destroyed during the May Day holidays, the authorities did not react to the appeals of concerned residents. At the same time, police reportedly harassed activists who picketed the demolition site, rather than checking whether the developer had the necessary permits.

“We waited for two hours for the police to arrive,” Living City’s Pyotr Zabirokhin said.

“But instead of stopping the demolition, they started checking our passports, copying our placards into their notebooks and threatening to disperse us if we didn’t go away.”

St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly Deputy Sergei Malkov has written a complaint regarding the police actions to the St. Petersburg police chief Vladislav Piotrovsky.

The tactic of demolishing historic buildings during public holidays was recently used when a large portion of the 19th-century Literary House was destroyed on Nevsky Prospekt during the Russian Christmas holidays in January, Zabirokhin pointed out.

“It has turned into a bad tradition that not entirely legal cases of demolition start during or just before holidays, when people are not ready to get mobilized quickly, and while officials are on holiday and nobody can be reached,” he said.

According to the project’s web site, the area previously occupied by the Preobrazhensky Regiment Barracks will be home to an “exclusive” Paradny Kvartal, an isolated “mini city” of 16 office and residential buildings.

parad_kvartal_stroyka2-1Call Now!

“The true adornment of the quarter’s center will be a square with a fountain, comparable in size with that in front of the Kazan Cathedral,” the web site said.

However, apparently as a result of the controversy, the site was no longer available on Tuesday, redirecting to the web site of the developer, Vozrozhdeniye Peterburga. The original site can be viewed as files cached in Google.

Anna Mironovskaya, the marketing director of Vozrozhdeniye Peterburga, a subsidiary of the LSR Group, said Tuesday her company was only a sub-investor and was not in charge of legal matters and permits, citing the Ministry of Defense as the project’s developer and the Pyotr Veliky Construction Company as the commissioner.

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http://paradny.ru/questions/

— Who acquires real estate in Paradny Kvartal?

One of the main advantages of Paradny Kvartal is the social homogeneity of [one’s neighbors]. Our buyers are people of high social status. That is why we will be able to create “our own world” in which it will be pleasant and comfortable to live.

[…]

— What does the phrase “noblesse oblige,” which is frequently applied to Paradny Kvartal, mean?

The well-known phrase has rightly become not just the slogan but the authentic motto of Paradny Kvartal. It translates as “[one’s] station obliges [one].” For in Paradny Kvartal each detail underscores the project’s elitism, its exclusivity.

Photos courtesy of Zaks.Ru and Chtodelat News.

“‘Noblesse Oblige’ as a Wrecking Ball (Paradny Kvartal, Petersburg),” Chtodelat News, May 13, 2011

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I had not been back to that site of class warfare camouflaged as “redevelopment” since that grey unpleasant day in May four years ago, although whenever I was in the vicinity it had been hard to avoid catching sight of Paradny Kvartal towering on the horizon over its older neighbors. Not only had the elitist high-rises probably been built in violation of the height regulations for the historic center, but the whole estate, I disovered when I revisited it a few weeks ago, has been erected on a one-storey-high pile of landfill, probably to accommodate lots of subterranean parking.

Hipster convenience store Portlandia proved quite hard to find amid the vast pseudo-Petersburgian, semi-ghost town that is Paradny Kvartal.

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Part of the problem was a lack of sensible signage and maps, but mostly it was hard to find anything when many of the first-floor commercial spaces were still awaiting occupants.

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This, by the way, seems to be the “square with a fountain, comparable in size with that in front of the Kazan Cathedral,” mentioned above.

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Since the dubious reign of Valentina Matviyenko, who presided over the destruction of the Preobrazhensky Barracks, as well as much else of architectural merit, the city has been fountanized to the point of bursting, with two of its major Lenin monuments also having been juvenilized as water fun parks of a perverse sort. But Paradny Kvartal’s (perhaps non-functioning) fountain had been wisely boxed up for the winter.

I finally found Portlandia the hipster convenience store. I can say that the picture from the prospectus, above, does it justice. It is as empty and pointless as the picture suggests, and “convenient” only if you have been locked inside this mini city and desperately want to buy local craft beer and designer aprons at a heavy mark-up. That is, if you want stuff readily available elsewhere, probably just outside the gates of this noblesseobligeville, but for many fewer rubles.

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Even at its most gentrified, the real Portland, Oregon, is a delightful, gritty socialist paradise compared to the soulless, Putinesque anti-Petersburg on display inside Paradny Kvartal.

And the connection with Portlandia the TV show I just don’t get at all. Portlandia is often mildly funny and at least slightly in touch with the city it sends up and where it is filmed. I cannot even imagine a comparable program dealing with Petersburg’s foibles and sillinesses being made here nowadays, in this dark-as-pitch and utterly humorless period, although there were such programs in the “lawless” nineties (e.g., Gorodok and Ostorozhno, modern!).

It’s frightening to think that much greater swathes of the inner city would look like Paradny Kvartal now were it not for the spunkiness of the tiny, embattled, and nowadays almost totally extinguished gradozashchitniki (city defenders) movement, which only six or seven years ago set the entire country on its ear by defeating Gazprom and its planned skyscraper.

But the city’s real salvation, such that it has been, has come from timely economic crises and sheer bureaucratic corruption and incompetence.

And yet Putinism in architecture and city planning has managed to do a lot of damage to this fine city, while signally failing to fix almost any real problems, of which there are almost too many to count.

As I happily exited Paradny Kvartal, a sign reminded me I was leaving the “first fashionable quarter in Saint Petersburg.”

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As I dashed down the ramp into the “unfashionable” Petersburg, it was like returning to life after a longish period in cryogenic refrigeration.

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One of the first things I saw there in the real city, warts and all, was a memorial plaque, reminding me that once upon a time people in this city had big ideas, and had dreamt of and fought for better futures.

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Vladimir Ilyich Lenin lived in this house from August 31 to early October 1893. The period marked the beginning of his efforts to establish a revolutionary Marxist Party in Russia.

Of course, we can argue the merits of different political ideas and the methods of realizing them. But places like Paradny Kvartal are idealess vacuums, pure embodiments of the blackest political reaction and the lack of any vision of the future on the part of Russia’s wildly corrupt ruling classes.

Even the sometimes justly maligned Russian hipster deserves better than Portlandia the inconvenience store and its airless environs.

With a little elbow grease and imagination, the old Preobrazhensky Regiment Barracks could have been transformed into a real hipster’s paradise, into a little village of low-income housing and affordable shops and cafes. Minus the hipsterism, it almost was like that back in the “wild” nineties. At any rate, it was at least as shabbily livable as any other part of the central city back then. Which despite its shabbiness was a hundred times more beautiful than it is now.