Don’t Protest Here

miting
Petersburg historic preservationists gathering for a “sanctioned” protest near the Sports and Concert Complex (SKK), a late-Soviet era landmark in southern Petersburg that recently collapsed while being illegally dismantled, killing one worker. Photo by Sergei Yermokhin. Courtesy of Delovoi Peterburg

Don’t Rally Here: It Will Be More Difficult for Petersburg’s Historic Preservationists to Protest
Svyatoslav Afonkin
Delovoi Peterburg
March 11, 2020

The Petersburg Legislative Assembly is amending the city’s law on protest rallies. The rules for holding protests have become more complicated, especially for historic preservationists.

The city parliament passed in the second reading a new redaction of the law on protest rallies. Thanks to amendments introduced by the parliamentary majority, the minimum number of “Hyde Parks” [locations where it is legal to have public protests] has been reduced from eight, as stipulated in the first redaction of the draft law, to four. Moreover, the parliament’s legislative committee added another restriction: a ban on public events outside dilapidated buildings in danger of collapsing.

Several sites designated as “dangerous” have inflamed the passions of historic preservationists in recent months. The roof on the Petersburg Sport and Concert Complex (SKK) was deemed dangerous. The Basevich tenement building on the Petrograd Side, which has been threatened with demolition, is also considered dangerous. Protest rallies have recently taken place on more than one occasion at both sites. The resettled houses on Telezhnaya Street, which the Smolny [Petersburg city hall] wants to sell, have also been the focus of public attention once again.

Drone footage of the collapse of the Sport and Concert Complex (SKK) in Petersburg in January 2020. Courtesy of Fontanka.ru

Alexei Kovalyov, leader of the Just Russia faction in the legislative assembly and deputy chair of its commission on municipal facilities, urban planning, and land issues, argues that new language in the bill appeared for a reason.

“Of course this will be an obstacle for historic preservationists. Our faction opposed these cretinous amendments. There is no doubt that this is why the new norm was introduced. It was done deliberately,” Kovalyov told DP.

Anna Kapitonova, a member of the presidium of the Petersburg branch of VOOPIiK [Russian Society for the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Landmarks], noted that the amendments could make life more difficult for protest organizers: small protest rallies, such as a series of solo pickets, sometimes take place right on the sidewalks, after all. According to Kapitonova, the authorities were also able earlier to prevent even solo pickets on the pretext that scheduled maintenance or construction work was taking place nearby.

“Last year, I held a solo picket at the entrance to the Smolny. After a while, an official with the law enforcement committee came out of the building. Although the Smolny is hardly a dangerous site, scheduled maintenance of the facade was underway over fifty meters from my picket. But the official told me it was dangerous for me to be there, and asked me to move away,” Kapitonova said.

Denis Chetyrbok, head of the legislative assembly’s legislative committee, told DP that the amendments were introduced in connection with a Constitutional Court ruling, and parliamentarians had no other motives.

“If there is a dangerous building that might collapse located next to the place indicated in the [protest rally] application, then it will be difficult to secure approval for a public event,” Chetyrbok confirmed.

Translated by the Russian Reader

A History of Violence

autumn colors.jpgSpontaneous car park amidst the rubble on the corner of Kirochnaya and Novgorodskaya Streets, Petersburg, 12 October 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

Since I had made nearly a dozen trips to and from the Interior Ministry’s Amalgamated Happiness Center this past summer to get my papers in order, I must have passed through the nearby intersection of Kirochnaya and Novgorodskaya Streets just as many times. So, when I happened on the bizarre autumnal scene, picture above, at the same corner yesterday evening, I was befuddled. What had happened here? I could not recall its having looked like this, as if a bomb had been dropped on it a month or two ago.

Fortunately, my friend AC came to the rescue, sending me the following, all-too-typical journalistic account of what happened on the corner of Kirochnaya and Novgorodskaya this past summer.

This is only a single episode in a much larger history of violence, the story of how Petersburg’s bureaucrats-cum-capitalist sharks-cum-property developers have demolished large parts of its historic center, a Unesco World Heritage Site, to satisfy their greed, and how the city has been turned ugly by their lawless exertions in so many spots that all of us who love Petersburg have long ago lost count of the dead and wounded. {TRR}

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Demolition of Garages near Nevsky Town Hall: As If a Mongol Horde Had Swept Through Petersburg 
Have Officials of the Smolny Trashed a Car Park for War Veterans That Existed 60 Years on Behalf of Oligarch Samvel Karapetyan?
Nikolai Pechernikov
Interessant
August 31, 2018

A conflict over the car park on the corner of Kirochnaya and Novgorodskaya Streets that had lasted for years ended recently in a total victory of officials over ordinary citizens. The garages in the car park, allocated to World War Two veterans in the 1960s by the Smolny District Party Council, were not merely demolished. They were swept from the face of the earth, as if they had been located on enemy territory, in a fortified area that was finally mopped up by friendly forces.

Garage Owners? Get the Hell Out of Here!
In photos taken by an Interessant correspondent from a neighboring block of flats, the pogrom unleashed in the car park by the tough guys from the St. Petersburg Center for More Effective Use of State Property is apparent. A quiet corner in downtown Petersburg has been turned into gigantic rubbish heap. The pavement is chockablock with pieces of wrecked garage roofs, tires, car parts, and broken furniture.

The garage owners, who had not wished to exit their car park meekly, but had filed lawsuits, have been punished with all severity. Their belongings have been tossed out of the garages, broken, and dumped in heaps. The people who carried out this mopping-up operation had probably wanted it to be demonstrative: this is what happens to anyone in Petersburg who gets it in their head to take the moral high ground and try and defend their rights.

The rubbish heap that residents of Kirochnaya and Novgorodskaya Streets can see from their windows is a distressing sight. It looks as if Mamai and the Golden Horde had swept through Petersburg. Most important, over the last few days, it has occurred to none of the responsible parties to clean up the area they mopped up. Apparently, the rubbish heaps will now lie there for several more months.

This barbaric, shameful rubbish heap, the aftermath of a car park’s demolition, testifies to the fact that Petersburg city officials care not a whit for the city’s reputation or their own reputations. Photo courtesy of Interessant

There had been several previous attempts to squeeze out the war veterans and their heirs from the land plot on which the now-demolished garages had stood. In 2016, for example, a tractor demolished the entrance gate to the car park. When the gate was lying on the ground, the tractor drove back and forth over it, flattening the gate ever more convincingly, as if it were doing a victory lap. But the special op ended in mid-sentence as it were. Now, however, it has finally been completed.

Samvel Karapetyan? Welcome!
On whose behalf have officials of the Smolny [Petersburg city hall] been making such efforts? Who means more to them than the people who built garages on the plot back in the day on completely legal grounds?

Allegedly, the plot will be ceded to companies belonging to Samvel Karapetyan, president and founder of the Tashir Group, one of the largest property developers in Russia. Unlike the mopped-up veterans and their heirs, Mr. Karapetyan is quite wealthy. As of late 2017, according to Forbes, he had an estimated net worth of $4.5 billion. Bloomberg recently included him in its index of the world’s five hundred wealthiest people.

Petersburg officials cannot directly gift the plot on the corner of Kirochnaya and Novgorodskaya to Mr. Karapetyan, of course. According to our information, it will probably be transferred to Dargov Cultural Center LLC or Slovak House LLC, companies linked to a network of commercial organizations directly connected to RIO, a chain of shopping malls owned by Mr. Karapetyan’s business empire.

What Will Be Built on the Lot? A Shopping Center? Or a Huge Block of Flats?
The lot at the corner of Kirochnaya and Novgorodskaya would be a quite attractive site for yet another shopping center. It is literally a stone’s throw from Nevsky Town Hall [Nevskaya ratusha], where a considerable number of officials from Petersburg city hall will soon be moving. The entire neighborhood now consists of luxury blocks of flats in which only very wealthy people can afford to live. Thus, a RIO Shopping Center on Kirochnaya (if Mr. Karapetyan actually plans to build one) would not only be located close to city officials but would also be a kind of tool for influencing them.

According to other sources, the plot could be redeveloped into a huge block of flats. Officials, businessmen, and lobbyists no doubt would like to move in next door to Nevsky Town Hall. It would be a question of prestige to many of them.

Either project would be highly profitable to the people who implement it, and experienced officials are also probably eagerly poised to pounce on it. They have a nose for such deals.

When so much moolah is at stake, no one has the time of day for the rubbish heap left in the aftermath of the car park’s destruction, a sight that brings shame on Petersburg.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The Toponymic Commission Strikes Back

smolninsky rayonThis is part of a 1967 public transportation map of Leningrad’s former Smolny District. The red lines and numbers indicate tramlines. Nearly all of the line were decommissioned in the late 1990s and 2000s, although they were an important lynchpin in the entire tram system, which was once the largest in the world in terms of the sheer length of tracks. In the late noughties, Tram Park No. 4, located at the spot marked by the encircled red number five on the map, was demolished to make way for a flying-saucer-topped monstrosity known as the Nevsky Rathaus, developed by a company owned by Sergei Matviyenko, son of then-Petersburg Valentina Matviyenko. The Rathaus’s ostensible purpose was moving all of the city government’s far-flung committees into a single office building, but since many of the most powerful committees occupy prime downtown real estate in their own gorgeous 19th-century buildings, there is no evidence that things have gone to plan. In turn, the completion of the Rathaus has set off a storm of redevelopment in the immediate vicinity, much of it involving the construction of needlessly large and invariably ugly “elite” housing blocks. Map from the collection of the Russian Reader

“Today, November 24, the [Petersburg] Toponymic Commission will decide whether the Soviet [Sovetskye] Streets will again be called the Christmas [Rozhdestvenskye] Streets, and Insurrection Square [ploshchad Vosstaniya] will be redubbed Church of the Sign Square [Znamenskaya ploshchad]. It will finally become clear who won the Russian Civil war, the Whites or the Reds,” wrote Petersburg’s best-known pop historian in the business daily Delovoi Peterburg the other day.

Forgive me for restating obvious historical truths, but most sane people know the Reds won the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks emerged victorious from the October Revolution, and the Soviet Union, in concert with its allies the United States and Great Britain, won the Second World War, known in Russia as the Great Fatherland (or Patriotic) War.

The reactionaries on the Petersburg Toponymic Commission could restore the “old” names to every street in the city, including streets that appeared on the map only during the Soviet period, but they cannot alter the outcomes of historical events, especially events such as the ones I have just mentioned, which had overwhelming consequences for Russia and the world, however negatively, positively or indifferently we evaluate them today.

Besides, real local historians and history enthusiasts know that the names of many streets changed several times even during the city’s tsarist period (1703–1917), not to mention the Soviet regime, where the same thing also happened quite often as the Party line and public sentiment changed from one decade to the next.

First Soviet Street, for example, had several names during the period 1766–1923: New Carriage Street [Novaya Karetnaya], Carriage Street [Karetnaya], Old Carriage Street [Staraya Karetnaya], First Christmas Street [1-ya Rozhdestvenskaya], First Street, and, finally, First Christmas Street again, before it was renamed First Soviet Street by the Bolsheviks in 1923.

If historical justice were the Toponymic Commission’s real concern they would restore the street’s original name, New Carriage Street. Right?

Twenty years ago or so, perhaps, the Toponymic Commission was doing vital work, but nowadays it is a tool of the blackest, most virulent political reaction.

Indeed, it was also a tool of reaction twenty years ago, too, and I thus am eternally gratefully to my late father-in-law, who never deigned to call Sophia Perovskaya Street and Zhelyabov Street by their newfangled “old” names of Greater and Lesser Stable Streets [Bolshaya Konyushennaya and Malaya Konyushennaya].

Officially empowered experts who can seriously contemplate changing Insurrection Square’s name after a hundred years (a decision they ultimately nixed, although they did rename Insurrection Street [ulitsa Vosstaniya], which runs north from Insurrection Square and Nevsky Avenue to Kirochnaya Street, Church of the Sign Street [Znamenskaya ulitsa]) are sending an unambivalent message to Petersburgers that from here on out their God-given right to rebel and rise up tyrants and thugs has been confiscated, as it was, however murderous and criminal the current and subsequent regimes are.

But it is ludicrous to think it will never occur to people to revolt simply because there is no longer an Insurrection Street or Insurrection Square in their city, one of whose nicknames, in Soviet times, was the Cradle of Three Revolutions.

It is just as queer to feign that, by redubbing the Soviet Streets the Christmas Streets, there was never any Soviet period in the city’s history. The signs and symptoms of the Soviet regime—good, bad, neutral, and controversial—are literally everywhere you look. Completely erasing these signs and symptoms from the collective memory and the visible cityscape will not accelerate real democracy’s advent. On the contrary, it will probably push that happy day farther into the future.

It is the Toponymic Commission itself that should be abolished. It has long been busy rewriting history, not engaging in the non-science of toponymy. In this respect, it has aped the current regime, doing its dirty deeds under the guise of restoring what was lost or doing rhetorical combat with nonexistent malevolent forces that, allegedly, have wanted to revise the outcome of the Second World War or something equally hilarious, impossible, and utterly imaginary.

What the Toponymic Commission and the current regime really want to do is transfigure history, the study of history, and collective and individual historical memory into a total, inedible muddle. If they succeed in pulling off this trick, or so they imagine, it will be easier for them to manage and manipulate people and society, and diminishing their will to write and make their own history.

nevsk rathausThe Nevsky Rathaus and its telltale flying saucer, as seen at the far end of one of the now officially former Soviet Streets. Photo by the Russian Reader

P.S. It was oh so vital to immediately rename Petersburg’s long-suffering Soviet Streets. Of course, all good Christian men and women have rejoiced in this collective decision on the part of corrupt city officials and the city’s loyal opposition. But did anyone even peep when Tram Park No. 4 on Degtyarny Alley (in the same part of town, the Sands neighborhood, that was home to the now-disappeared Soviet Streets) was demolished and, before this, nearly the entire tram network there was dismantled?

What have Petersburgers received in compensation for the deliberate destruction of public transportation in their city? What will they receive to make up for this clear attempt to erase the Soviet past while preserving Soviet decision-making methods and leaving all of the least progressive aspects of the Soviet mindset firmly in place?

First, there was the UFO aka the Nevsky Rathaus, built by the former governor’s son. Now we have been gifted with a gift none of us really wanted, the Christmas Streets, as if this city of five million or more were populated solely by wildly devout Orthodox toponymic history enthusiasts.

In the near future, like a triple layer of icing on a sickly sweet holiday cake, we will be treated to the total “reconstruction” of the Church of the Nativity of Christ in the Sands. This is yet another unwanted gift, a gift made possible, once again, through demolition, in this case, the destruction of the cozy, pretty square at the intersection of Sixth Soviet Street and Krasnobor Alley. Local residents campaigned against this so-called urban planning decision. But who the hell are local residents, and what are their opinions worth when the current reactionary regime has been intent on beating it into everyone’s head that its own provenance is nearly divine?

What is worse, the city’s semi-official historical preservation mob indulges the regime in its “religious” aspirations.

This is yet another amazing story about how the nearly perpetual muddle in the heads of the city’s “finest people” (as one commentator called them when I published an earlier version of these remarks on Facebook) produces circumstances in which Petersburg is practically defenseless against urban planning stupidities and revisionist toponymic interventions. You can visit whatever truly satanic outrages on its tender flesh you wish, and most of the so-called opposition and its mostly silent, invisible supporters will either sign on to your crazy undertaking, keep its mouth shut or immediately surrender without putting up a fight.

One of the few exceptions in recent years (the bleak years of Putin 3.0) was when a bas-relief sculpture of Mephistopheles was removed from the façade of a building on the Petrograd Side, apparently on orders from a local housing authority official. A full-fledged public hullabaloo kicked off, featuring a well-attended opposition rally outside the offended building and, ultimately, the restoration of the demonic sculpture.

You see, that was a real crime against history and historical preservation. TRR

See my previous post on the same topic: “The Toponymic Commission” (June 22, 2016)

We’re Celebrating the 1917 Revolution by Staging a Counterrevolution

Overview of the Moscow renovation program’s showroom, opened yesterday, July 6, 2017, by Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Photo courtesy of Sergei Vedyashkin/Moskva News Agency & Meduza

Authorities Plan to Divide Moscow into Private and Public Areas
Anna Trunina
RBC
June 26, 2017

Moscow’s renovation program provides for the complete redevelopment of residential building courtyards. The mayor’s office argues that these spaces should not be passages, so for the first they will delineated into private [privatnye] and public spaces.

By autumn, the Moscow authorities expect to adopt new regional urban planning norms that will divide residential districts into private and public areas for the first time. The mayor’s office has proposed rejecting the idea of communicating courtywards, Marat Khusnullin, Moscow’s deputy mayor for urban policy and construction, said in an “interview” published on the mayor’s official website.

According to Khusnullin, the renovation program not only consists in updating the city’s housing stock but also in creating a “full-fledged integrated urban environment,” in redeveloping and landscape the courtyards.

“The concrete jungles, as Moscow’s bedroom communities were rightly dubbed, were erected over decades. Now they must become a thing of the past,” Khusnullin argues.

According to preliminary calculations by the authorities, says Khusnullin, after neighborhoods are replanned and space is freed up by the demolition of five-story houses in Moscow, the number of parking spots will double. The project for public spaces will not be uniform, but will be unique in each of Moscow’s districts. The standards of comfort and improvement will be identical, however.

The space in the renovated neighborhoods, Khusnullin notes, will be divided into residential and public areas.

“For example, when they go into their courtywards, residents will enter a zone of a peace and comfort where there will be minimum of strangers and cars. Naturally, the entrances to the shops on the first floors will be located on the streetside. There will be no walk-through yards [prokhodnye dvory]. We will provide convenient pedestrian walkways from residential buildings to subway stations and bus stops, so that residents won’t have to blaze their own trails through lawns,” claims Khusnullin.

“Five-Storey Russia: An RBC Major Investigation of Renovation,” Published June 22, 2017 on RBC’s YouTube Channel

Khusnullin says that development and construction in Moscow during the Soviet era was “very uneven and disorganized.” It was this that caused the emergence of “strange, unused spaces” within neighborhoods.

City authorities also plan to increase the number of green spaces in the districts.

“Our proposal is to construct gardens, lay down paths, and set up benches on the same sites. But this in no way means all the old trees will be cut down. There will be more greenery. Planners have been tasked with taking care of the existing green areas while finding places for the additional planting of trees and shrubbery,” says Khusnullin.

Currently, the law bill on renovation has passed its third and final reading in the State Duma. Subsequently, the Moscow mayor’s office summed up the votes of Muscovites, which showed that 90% of the buildings initially slated for the program would be demolished and rebuilt.

Translated by the Russian Reader. See Leonid Bershidsky, “Why Putin Is Tearing Down My Childhood Home,” Bloomberg, May 4, 2017, for an excellent, brief explanation of the whys and wherefores of Moscow’s urban planning counter-revolution.

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.

parushina-voronkov
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

IMG_20160130_134857

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. 

Barbarians at the Gates: The Demise of Stroyburo House

The Demise of Stroyburo House
Nadia Plungian
March 8, 2015
Facebook

Tonight, an illegal criminal operation has completely destroyed Alexander Langman and Leonid Cherikover‘s Stroyburo (“Construction Bureau”) House, a monument to the Bolshevo Commune. A fresco, The Working Class, by artist and communard Vasily Maslov, will remain forever buried under its ruins. The fresco had been slated for restoration and measures had been taken prevent its further deterioration. A few days ago, the building had been listed in the Russian Federal Unified State Cultural Heritage Registry.

Along with its fresco, Stroyburo House was a landmark of international significance. During 2013–2014, the ruination of the building was halted through the efforts of architectural heritage activists and experts, including myself, and the facade and the room containing the fresco were left intact. The authorities promised to restore the building and turn it into a museum, and the scandal led to dismissal of Korolyov’s mayor. The media wrote extensively about Maslov, there were programs about him on national TV, and a large show of his graphic work opened at the Avant-Garde Center in Moscow. Quite recently, there had been another exhibition of his works in Bolshevo from the collections of the Korolyov Museum.

Then there was a pause, the restoration was delayed, and the building was given official landmark status. Last night, a group of unidentified criminal raiders, operating practically under the supervision and direction of Korolyov city police officers, brought in wrecking equipment and commenced finishing off the building’s supporting structures. At present, they have destroyed the facade and all the remaining walls. Alexandra Selivanova went there in the morning, and there can be no illusions. According to dozens of observers from Archnadzor and the Korolyov branch of VOOPIK (All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Monuments of History and Culture), the Maslov room no longer exists.

You can talk about impotence and rage, but in fact that would mean saying nothing. The destruction of architectural landmarks is today implemented with methods resembling a real civil war. This war is waged not only against people but against also our right to historical memory. The terrible ruins of Stroyburo House, the ruins of the illusory independence and self-governance of the 1930s communes, reveal to us the reality of the historical stage where we find ourselves. I will say one thing. Criminal lawlessness and official relativism are based on fear of losing power, and in a state of increasing fear it is impossible to act rationally. If the regime strikes out indiscriminately against its own culture, if it forgets the rulings it made yesterday and does not know what to do today, then it has completely lost control of the situation.

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“The Islamic State is already outside Moscow”: Korolyov landmark demolished to cries of “Allah Akbar!”
March 8, 2015
Regnum.ru

Today, March 8, Stroyburo House, a cultural landmark in the suburban Moscow town of Korolyov, was demolished to the accompaniment of extremist and neo-Nazi slogans, VOOPIK activists have informed Regnum.

“The Islamic State is already here. The gangsters who were guarding tonight’s demolition of an architectural landmark containing a world-class fresco cried ‘Allah Akbar!’ and ‘Red-assed commies!’ The local police looked on in silence. The Moscow Region police, the Russian Interior Ministry, the Governor of Moscow Region, and the Moscow Region Prosecutor’s Office have remained aloof. At the moment, the demolition is being completed in daylight. The authorities continue to do nothing,” said VOOPIK Moscow Region branch chairman Yevgeny Sosedov.

Sosedov had spent the last twenty-four hours trying to contact Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov through official channels, but to no avail.

“One of the men surrounding the building was drunk and screaming ‘Douse him with gasoline and set him on fire!’ in reference to a local city councilman’s aide. As soon as the police left, he shouted, ‘I’m going to start shooting!’ There were neo-Nazi slogans and swearing,” recounted VOOPIK activist Yevgeny Rybak.

Police who were called to the scene left without taking any action. Attempts to summon the police again through the Moscow Region police’s main directorate and the Interior Ministry’s central office were fruitless.

3-17-bigStroyburo House in November 2014

The illegally demolished, regionally listed cultural landmark was the first brick building at the Bolshevo Commune, which operated in the 1920s and 1930s. Until now, the building contained the world’s only examples [sic] of Soviet avant-garde monumental painting. Activists had managed to save only one fresco by artist Vasily Maslov.

[…]

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Building on Bones
Fresco from 1930s Discovered in Constructivist Landmark Threatened by Illegal Destruction
Nadia Plungian and Alexandra Selivanova
November 11, 2013
Colta.ru

Detailed_pictureStroyburo House, November 2013. Photo by Nadia Plungian

In the town of Korolyov, a building that could be a museum is being destroyed. Nadia Plungian, senior researcher at the Institute of Art Studies, and Alexandra Selivanova, a senior researcher at the Research Institute of Theory and History of Architecture and Urban Planning and director of the Avant-Garde Center at the Jewish Museum, visited Korolyov and tried to get to the bottom of the situation.

On the morning of November 8, another arson took place in the suburban Moscow town of Korolyov, and later that night, the first phase in the illegal demolition of the building at Ordzhonikidze Street, 34/2, commenced. One of the first communal houses in the world, the building, known to historians as Stroyburo House (Alexander Langman and Leonid Cherikover, architects), is part of the impressive constructivist campus of the Bolshevo Commune (1928—1935), which has been almost completely preserved to the present day.

In the mid 1930s, the commune’s campus was an interesting complex, which today gives us a complete picture of the early Soviet social and educational experiment in organizing collective living. It included a factory kitchen, a hospital complex, a shopping center (the so-called ship house), dormitories, a kindergarten, a workers club, a building for assemblies of communards (the so-called airplane house), and the residential building, discussed in this article. Among other reasons, it went down in the art history annals thanks to Nikolai Ekk’s famous 1931 movie Road to Life, the first Soviet feature sound film, which deals with the re-education of a teenaged communard.

According to the draft master plan for the town of Korolyov, the entire campus of the commune, except for the shopping center, has been slated for demolition, and apartment buildings will be constructed on the vacated lots. Activists of the Korolyov branch of VOOPIK are currently making every effort to preserve the complex as a whole and Stroyburo House as part of it.

The question of demolishing the house was raised about six months ago. According to Maria Mironova, chair of VOOPIK in Korolyov, a letter writing campaign to various authorities managed to get the entire complex placed on the waiting list for eventual cultural heritage status. After the house was vacated of residents, however, it was not put under protection, and for reasons unknown, municipal documents limit the period prohibiting all work on the premises to the present day, November 11, 2013. During this time, the empty house has been the target of seven arson attempts.

Stroyburo House, Bolshevo Commune. 1930s

Now, while the house is under attack from backhoes and fire, a poll on whether or not to demolish the house is underway on the website of the Moscow Region Culture Ministry. Many local residents support demolition. According to them, the developer, Development 21, Ltd., told them its terms: if the historic building were not demolished, the residents would be evicted from their new municipal apartments. The practice of “building on bones” is not new in Korolyov. A neighboring high-rise has been built on land once occupied by a cemetery used during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which Development 21 ripped up, discarding and destroying the gravestones. The developer’s manipulative rhetoric is seemingly so well established that the senseless demand to chose between the town’s history and its improvement has long been taken for granted by the residents, who obediently support the destruction of their own memory.

It was in these catastrophic circumstances that a week ago, on November 2, architectural heritage activists discovered wall paintings from the early 1930s in two rooms in the house during an inspection.

“[Yevgeny] Rybak phoned me on the second,” recounts local historian and history buff Vladimir Kultin, head of the Podlipki-Kaliningrad-Korolyov Club. “He was at the house with his young son. You know the layout yourselves. Down the hallway to the right, there are two rooms, then a kitchen. If you noticed, there is not a single unbroken window in the house right now, and the terrible draft has caused the wallpaper to peel from the walls. That is how [Rybak] discovered the painting. Our jaws dropped, of course. People have been searching and searching, and there the Amber Room drops into your lap. I even dubbed [Rybak] Schliemann. His son was in the second room. He says, Dad, there are some men here. We take a look, and it is true: it’s a Maslov, a portrait of three workers. There is no doubt it is him: the part of the fresco featuring the bridge is repeated in other works by the artist. We explored further and found geometric shapes, a bright crimson triangle, and a circle, which we later recognized as a locomotive.

“By tapping the wall between the rooms, we realized it had been installed latter. The molding at the top is different, and the doors give the impression of a latter do-it-yourself job. (You can see that laths have been plastered above the opening.) All these partitions are already in the Technical Inventory Bureau plan for 1947. But if we mentally removed the wall and the doors, we would see a large room with identical windows, which was painted with a fresco all round the perimeter.”

fileFresco in Stroyburo House, former appearance. Image © Vladimir Kultin

Fresco in Stroyburo House, former appearance. Image © Vladimir Kultin
Fresco in Stroyburo House, current appearance. Photo © Vladimir Kultin

The discovery in Stroyburo is completely sensational, not only because very few pre-war frescoes have survived, and not only because the work’s provenance is obvious: the daughter of one of the communards, artist Vasily Maslov (born 1905—executed 1938) had kept pre-war photographs of the fresco. It is also sensational because the fresco was known from archival materials and was previously considered lost, since inaccurate information had led historians to believe that the fresco had been painted in another building at the complex, the Spark (Iskra) communard club, which burnt down in 1943.

Vasily Maslov’s personal background is interesting as well. A Yekaterinburg artist who left home as a teenager and earned his living as a painter, Maslov later studied in the mid 1920s at art colleges in Gorky and Baku before arriving in Moscow, where on the recommendation of Commissar of Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky he was given a room in a dormitory and enrolled in a remedial arts college for workers [rabfak]. In 1928, Maslov met Bolshevo Commune organizer Matvei Pogrebinsky through Maxim Gorky and thus became a Bolshevo communard. Even now, Maslov’s frescoes can be put on a par with the works of many of his famous contemporaries such as Vladimir Malagis, Israel Lizak, and Vasily Kuptsov.

Vasily Maslov in the art studio at the Bolshevo Commune

It was decided that information about the frescoes should be temporarily kept on the back burner to prevent deliberate vandalism until experts arrived: activists had already started receiving threats from supporters of the developer. However, on November 8, fire broke out at the house for the eighth time. According to architectural heritage activist Olga Melnikova, everything pointed to the work of a professional arsonist. The roof was destroyed, and the building was burned from top to bottom on several sides. Firefighters privately confirmed that the building had been doused with a flammable liquid, but refused to comment on the record.

Pyotr Shubin, chair of the Korolyov Council of Deputies, who managed to stop Stroyburo House from being vandalized on Friday night, says that the town’s master plan, according to which the buildings are slated for demolition, has still not been agreed with either the Ministry of Culture or the Ministry of Natural Resources. However, the grounds of the former commune continue to be redeveloped.

Almost immediately after the fire was extinguished, Stroyburo House was again subjected to another attempt at rapid demolition. On the night of November 8, a front loader arrived to begin demolishing the left wing. On November 9, a second, much larger loader arrived. In the presence of the police and fire department, the building continued to smolder. We got the impression that constant, repeated attempts at arson were taking place, now under the strict control of the authorities. In between these stages of the demolition, we were able to get inside the house and partially photograph the already heavily soaked fresco in both rooms, as well as disseminating information about it on social networks. It is quite likely that similar frescoes could be discovered under layers of wallpaper in other rooms in the house, but this can be ascertained only when all work has been halted on the premises. Access to the rooms is now forbidden. This has to do with the desire to prevent art historians and architectural experts from carrying out inspections before the building is totally ruined.

To divert the attention of activists from Stroyburo House, another criminal offense was committed: an arson attack on the first floor of the so-called 38th Store—a neighboring constructivist landmark, which had served as the Bolshevo Commune’s shopping center and had been known as the “ship house.” Even the master plan did not call for demolishing this building, but the tacit support of the police and the Emergency Situations Ministry appeared to encourage further unlawful acts.

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“The store is closed”

Over the weekend, the vandalism reached its absurd climax. Yevgeny Sosedov, council chair of VOOPIK’s Moscow Region branch, held negotiations with Moscow Region police, city police, the local fire chief, and a spokesman for Development 21, Ltd. On his Facebook page, Sosedov writes that it was obvious the local authorities, firefighters, police, the ESM, and the developer were in cahoots.

“Under the guise of fighting the fire (which has been out for nearly a day already) it has been decided to inflict maximum, irreversible damage to Stroyburo House. Allegedly in order to extinguish smoldering floor slabs (although there was not even any smoke), it is necessary to smash yet another wall (this is done with a crane) and breach the walls of the house between the first- and second-floor windows in six to eight spots (this is done with a backhoe). No one takes any responsibility for this decision. Everyone refers to a certain committee decision made during a morning meeting at town hall.

“And yet, last night and this afternoon, the firefighters did not deem it necessary to extinguish the smoldering floor slabs, but this evening it was for some reason necessary to smash half the walls in the building to accomplish this same purpose. They tried to begin making the breach earlier today, but the big backhoe broke down and a new one had to be found.  The building is almost completely waterlogged: what else is there to put out? (And why can’t it be put out through the windows?) And what is this new method of putting out fires in historic buildings by breaching half-meter brick walls? Residents say they can see chopped trees and branches through the windows of some first-floor apartments, which apparently have been placed there so that the burning continues and smoke keeps appearing. The work on breaching the walls is done by the developer, who has a stake in destroying the house. The developer is allegedly doing the work on behalf of the local Emergency Situations Commission. And yet spokesmen for the developer and the police unanimously assure us that they will not allow the building to be demolished, because ‘the governor forbade’ them to do it.”


Stroyburo House on November 10, 2013. From the Facebook page of the Korolyov branch of VOOPIK

The building now being destroyed is not only the first building at the commune, the historically most significant part of its campus, and a good example of residential constructivist architecture. It is the semantic heart of the complex, uniting the daily lives of former homeless children and the artistic experiments of the communards with the memory of their tragic lives, arrests, and purges. The personal belongings, photographs, archives, memoirs, and artworks still preserved today would make it possible to turn Stroyburo House into a magnificent, innovative museum that would provide visitors with a clear idea of the social and architectural experiments conducted during the avant-garde period and show them Korolyov’s tremendous importance as the flagship of early Soviet communal culture.

The history being destroyed in Korolyov as we speak is no abstraction. At issue is the material evidence of the lives of the 1920s and 1930s generation, the people who built this town and created its manufacturing base, especially considering that the commune did not run on state subsidies but on the money it earned. Among the communards and the teachers were well-known academics, musicians, athletes, and artists. The building’s facade could be strewn with memorial plaques. The wave of purges in 1937—1938, which killed most of the communards, has prevented this memory from being preserved. Development 21, Ltd., also wants to prevent it.

However, the entire complex of Bolshevo Commune buildings would be a surefire draw for tourists, as completely different types of constructivist buildings have survived there. Strung on a central axis, Communards Avenue (now Ordzhonikidze Street), each of them could accommodate a minimum amount of museum items and tourist infrastructure. The kitchen factory, kindergarten, hospital, department store, education building, and residential houses could accommodate, respectively, a cafe, a children’s center, a pharmacy, commercial zones, open lecture halls, educational spaces, and hostels, which would gradually reveal not only the history of the Bolshevo Commune but more generally the aesthetic and concept of the new organization of daily life in the 1920s. Stroyburo House, which encloses the complex from the right side, could accommodate a hotel on its upper floors, galleries and art studies on the middle floors, and a Bolshevo Commune Museum on the first floor, thus becoming a new cultural center for that entire district of Korolyov. Needless to say, there is no such complex in Russia, just as there is still no Museum of the Soviet Union.

Bolshevo communards. Junior competitions: “Best boy.” Kostino, 1937

Given the rapid growth of “red” tourism around the world and efforts in this direction even within Russia itself (e.g., the Ulyanovsk Region), the suburban Moscow town of Korolyov had every chance to occupy a dominant position in the field. In the 1930s, thousands of foreign tourists flocked to see this “plant for re-education,” and they could easily have returned in even greater numbers in the present day.  The commercial attractiveness and social relevance of this cluster are obvious. A thoughtful and high-quality approach to the complex could have brought economic self-sufficiency and new vectors of development to Korolyov. It could have rejected its lot as just another faceless appendage to the capital, filled with new housing estates.


Track and field athletes from Bolshevo Commune No. 1, women’s team. Metal Worker Stadium, 1934

“I don’t know whether we will save Stroyburo House or not,” writes Yevgeny Sosedov. “But I know for sure that this ‘rout’ will go down in the history of the town and Moscow Region, and the names of those involved will be on a par with those who purged the communards in the 1930s. Those men killed people, while these men are destroying the last memory of them, but the methods are the same.”

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The Bolshevo Commune fresco: discovery of the year or loss of the decade?
Mural from time of the Bolshevo Commune discovered in suburban Moscow town of Korolyov during demolition of 1920s building
Maria Semendyayeva
November 26, 2013
vozduh.afisha.ru

Demolition of the Bolshevo Commune began in November. In the early 1930s, thirteen constructivist buildings, designed by architects Alexander Langman and Leonid Cherikover, were built for the commune in what is now the town of Korolyov but was then the village of Kostino, near the station of Bolshevo. Eleven of the buildings have survived. The Korolyov master plan calls for demolition of all the buildings. The Bolshevo Commune was seemingly doomed—until November 2, when a mural was accidentally discovered in Stroyburo House.

The fresco was identified through photographs as the work of artist Vasily Maslov. It had been considered lost, since, according to historians, it was located in the commune’s House of Culture, which has not survived to the present day. The fresco was produced in 1930–1931: painted in oils, it featured images of industrialization, typical of the 1930s. Stroyburo House was the first brick building at the commune, and it housed managerial staff and communards, explains Alexandra Selivanova, architectural historian and director of the Avant-Garde Center at the Jewish Museum. The early 1930s were a brief heyday at the Bolshevo Commune. Founded in 1924 on the initiative of Dzerzhinsky as an experiment by the OGPU in reforging juvenile offenders, in 1938 nearly all the senior management and teaching staff were executed or imprisoned. 655 people lived in the commune in 1933, but by the late 1930s that number had grown to around four thousand. The communards were former street kids: all of them received an education and worked in the commune’s manufacturing facilities, the income from which allowed the commune to operate autonomously. Bolshevo produced sports equipment that was sold throughout the Soviet Union and brought in a steady income. Until a club was built, the first floor of Stroyburo House was the center of the commune’s cultural life. It was there that Vasily Maslov produced his fresco, which was meant to inspire the communards to work and self-improvement. Then the commune’s population increased, and the room on the first floor was partitioned; the fresco ended up in two different rooms and was later wallpapered over.

98ff540b004345298e4d2138df483366Vasily Maslov’s wife Muza in front of his later fresco at the Bolshevo Commune House of Culture. Photograph courtesy of the Korolyov branch of VOOPIK

Maslov was a fairly well known artist in the thirties, but his name has been absent from the official art histories until recent: in 1938, he was shot along with many other communards. Maslov was born in Yekaterinburg province. After his mother died, he became homeless and earned money drawing portraits on the street. After brief stints at art colleges in Baku and Nizhny Novgorod, he came to Moscow, were Lunacharsky and Gorky intervened in his life. On the recommendation of the latter, he went to the Bolshevo Commune. He almost left to study in the workers faculty [rabfak] of the Vkhutein, but quickly returned.

“Apparently, the regular instruction at the Vkhutein was too academic for him,” says Alexandra Selivanova, “but he was actively engaged in self-education, mainly at the Museum of New Western Art. In addition to cubism and expressionism, ‘revolutionary artists of the west’ were exhibited there. Maslov’s graphic work can be compared with that of Frans Masereel, and his paintings with those of the red artist Heinrich Vogeler. I personally see parallels with the artist Vasily Kuptsov from Pavel Filonov’s school: the same disintegrated space, fragments, and local color. Maslov is a very emotional artist. All his watercolors and oil paintings are quite vivid. Even the faded mural under the half-torn wallpaper makes it plain that it was a painting rich in contrasts.”

Vasily Maslov, Industrial Landscape, 1930s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum
Vasily Maslov, Prostitutes, 1920s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum

Vasily Maslov, On the Quay, 1930s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum
maslov-socialist building sitesVasily Maslov, Building Sites of Socialism, 1930s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum

Vasily Maslov, Men’s Faces, 1930s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum

In 1933, an artistic commission visited Bolshevo. It concluded that the “decorative panels and murals are ill conceived. They suffer from compositional chaos and unsuccessful attempts to introduce decorative elements in the form of garishly colored crystal shapes, as well as the complete absence of an overall tone.”

The opinion of today’s experts is radically different. Selivanova is certain that the mural found in Korolyov is a genuine museum masterpiece. She even draws an analogy with the fresco produced by Diego Rivera at Rockefeller Center. It also depicted Lenin, which is why it was plastered over a year after it was produced.

It is possible that the only surviving wall painting from those years has been found in Korolyov.

“These murals can still be found, under layers of oil paint, in constructivist buildings in Minsk, Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Samara. But no one has done it yet. Maslov did a number of murals in Korolyov. He painted murals in the club house and the factory kitchen. The factory kitchen has survived, but there are offices there now, and we don’t know what is under the plaster,” says Selivanova.

The fact that the wall at Stroyburo House containing the mural has stood fast until now can be considered a miracle. Since the beginning of the demolition, the building has caught on fire eight times, and on several sides simultaneously. The fires were also extinguished in an unusual way—with excavators, which were used to break the floor and ceiling slabs in several places. According to restorers, there are also paintings from the 1930s in one of the rooms that has been caved in, but the developer, Development 21, Ltd., has been scrambling to halt even the examination of the painting that has been uncovered. According to the building’s defenders, staff from the development company are on duty near the ruins every day and even call the regional culture ministry to inform them when the restorers do not come to work on time.

Текущее состояние росписи в Доме Стройбюро в КоролевеCurrent condition of the mural at Stroyburo House in Korolyov (November 2013). Photograph by Konstantin Maslov 

The discovery of the Vasily Maslov mural, argues Selivanova, could help preserve the entire Bolshevo Commune complex. After a long meeting at city hall, a temporary moratorium on construction work has been announced. Restorers are working on the mural, and an official expert analysis to get the building on the protected list is being prepared. Generally, Selivanova is convinced that the constructivist landmarks could draw foreign tourists and help Korolyov find a new identity. The situation is unique in that the Bolshevo Commune campus has almost entirely been preserved: tours have been conducted on similar constructivist streets in Yekaterinburg, for example, for many years. At one time, all foreign travelers who came to the Land of the Soviets visited Bolshevo; George Bernard Shaw, for example, wrote about the commune. If an effort is made to develop the infrastructure and a minimal amount of money is invested, Bolshevo could be made into one of the key tourist spots in suburban Moscow. Korolyov is half an hour’s drive from Moscow, closer than Gorki Leninskiye, which still draws visitors. Korolyov city hall does not even need to make a special effort to build a constructivist museum in the town. It merely needs to preserve what is left, and let engaged professionals do their job.

But the situation could develop in a different way. The mural will be hurriedly transferred from the wall to a canvas and sent for restoration, because six days at most remain until the end of the moratorium on demolition. The expert analysis of Stroyburo House is still underway. Meanwhile, the building, of which only the foundation and facade remain, could be demolished within a week by the developer, Development 21, Ltd., with the complete consent of the local administration. A cookie-cutter residential complex will arise on the site of the constructivist landmark, and people who cannot afford a flat in a high-rise within the Ring Road will eagerly snap up the apartments there. Theoretically, there is the prospect of making more money on a living architectural landmark, transformed into an international museum, than on sales of apartments. In the Luzhkov days, before the emergence of urban planning councils, Archnadzor, and progressive municipal departments of culture, this alternative would never have even occurred: the building would have been demolished long ago, no questions asked. And if Korolyov city hall goes for the easiest option now, it will not just mean the loss of yet another constructivist landmark. It will also be a sign that the reconstruction of old Soviet houses of culture or Ivan Melnikov’s buildings is only a temporary measure, which will last until another company like Development 21, Ltd., comes along and begins digging a foundation pit.

All translations by The Russian Reader

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Recommended further reading and viewing:

1484716_799130750140923_8512887158632087521_nStroyburo House. Image courtesy of Korolyov Branch, VOOPIK