Historical Amnesia in Chelyabinsk

AKG1423992Exhumation of a mass grave in the area of Pit No. 5 aka Zolotaya Gorka (Golden Hill), which was supposed to be transformed into a memorial cemetery for victims of Stalinism in the 1930s. The mass graves are located in Shershni, a suburb of Chelyabinsk. The photo was taken in 1990. Courtesy of the Elizaveta Becker Collection, Gulag Museum, International Memorial Society

The Security Services Don’t Like Plaques: Chelyabinsk Officials Say Plaque Commemorating Executions Would Discredit Police
Yulia Garipova
Kommersant
August 31, 2018

Chelyabinsk city hall has refused to assist community activists who have been trying to mount a plaque, commemorating the victims of political terror, on the walls of the city’s Interior Ministry [i.e., police] building. The site used to be the home of a building in which executions were carried out in the 1930s. According to officials, the inscription on the plaque could cause people to have “unwarranted associations about the work of the police” and undermine its authority in the eyes of the populace.

In 1932, a building was erected from the bricks of the demolished Christ’s Nativity Cathedral on Vasenko Street in Chelyabinsk. It was handed over to the OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate), later known as the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). Historians claim that, during the Great Terror, the building contained an execution room.  In 1937–1938, nine Chelyabinsk priests were murdered in the room. In 1995, a memorial plaque was mounted in the courtyard of the building at 39 Vasenko Street.

The inscription on the plaque read, “During the period of mass repressions in the 1930s and 1940s, innocent people convicted of political crimes were executed in this building.”

In the early 2000s, however, the plaque vanished.

This year, Yuri Latyshev, coordinator of the local history group Arkhistrazh, launched a campaign to restore the memorial plaque. He asked Yevgeny Golitsyn, deputy governor of Chelyabinsk Region and chair of the regional commission for restoring the rights of victims of political repression, for help. Chelyabinsk city hall’s culture department sent him a reply.

Mr. Latyshev was informed the building that had once housed the secret police had been completely dismantled due to dilapidation. The land plot was handed over to the Interior Ministry’s Chelyabinsk Regional Office. A new building had been erected on the plot, and a new plaque mounted on the building. It reads, “In memory of the victims of the 30 and 40 years [sic]. Their memory will be preserved as long as we remain human beings.”

Citing the local Interior Ministry office as its source, the Chelyabinsk city culture department explained in its letter to Mr. Latyshev that the whereabouts of the old plaque were unknown. Restoring a commemorative plaque that claimed people were executed in the building during the period of mass repressions in the 1930s and 1940s  would be a distortion of historical reality, the officials argued.

“There have not been any repressive actions of a physical nature [sic] carried out in the buildings used by the [local Interior Ministry office],” they wrote to Mr. Latyshev.

Chelyabinsk culture officials also stressed the inscription on the previous plaque could “provoke unwarranted associations about the work of the police in the minds of people, even as the Russian federal government has made considerable efforts to strengthen the police’s reputation.”

Mr. Latyshev, however, is convinced part of the old building survived the reconstruction.

“The [old] plaque was absolutely fair, correct, and decent, but someone clearly did not like it. It would be fair to hang it on the street side of the building,” says Mr. Latyshev.

He claims he has sent inquiries to the FSB and Interior Ministry, but has only been given the runaround.

“I’m surprised by the wording used by city hall officials—’unwarranted associations’—and how they immediately project these ideas into the minds of the people of Chelyabinsk,” Ivan Slobodenyuk, coordinator for the project Last Address in Chelyabinsk Region, told Kommersant.

Mr. Slobodenyuk stressed that restoring the memorial plaque would be consistent with the state policy for commemorating victims of political repression, as adopted by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in 2015.

“Regional authorities have so far neglected this topic. The memorial on Golden Hill has virtually been abandoned. Part of the area containing mass graves has been redeveloped, and another section has been slated for redevelopment. Now the story with this memorial plaque comes to light,” said Slobodenyuk. “In my opinion, putting up a memorial plaque that begins with the phrase, ‘This was the site of a building in which, during the period,” and so on, in keeping with the wording on the original plaque, would not damage the police’s reputation. On the contrary, it would be a manifestation of courage and would make people respect law enforcement.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

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How the Cheka Became the FSB

Мonument to Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky on Shpalernaya Street, near the Smolny, Petersburg city hall. Photo courtesy of yakaev.livejournal.com

How the Cheka Became the FSB
The notion of the Cheka’s superiority is one hundred years old
Pavel Aptekar
Vedomosti
December 20, 2017

On December 20, 1917, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (VChK) aka the Cheka was established. Its successors will mark its centenary today. Numerous reforms of the secret services and the transition from socialism to capitalism have had little impact on how the leaders and officers of the secret services view their mission and social standing. The notion of Chekism, the superiority of state and official necessity to the law and justice, have proven tenacious. But if they were previously justified by the interests of the Party, they are nowadays often used to achieve personal ends.

Initially, the Cheka’s powers were insignificant. They were supposed to conduct preliminary investigations of crimes and refer the cases to tribunals. Soon, however, the Chekists were endowed with the right to carry out extrajudicial actions.

As Cheka deputy chair Martin Lācis said in 1919, “The Cheka is not a court, but the Party’s combat unit. It destroys [criminals] without trial or isolates [them] from society by imprisoning [them] in concentration camps. Word and law are identical.”

But we should not exaggerate the degree to which the Chekists were independent. As follows from a 1919 Central Committee decree, “The Chekas [sic] have been established, exist, and function only as direct agencies of the Party, guided by its directives and under its oversight.”

After the Russian Civil War, the commissars of justice, first Dmitry Kursky and later Nikolai Krylenko, spoke of the need to limit the powers of the Cheka. (In 1921, it was renamed the Joint State Political Directorate or OGPU.)

Dzerzhinsky insisted, however, that “our right to shoot [people] is our reserve. On the ground, we must conspire with court chairmen.”

The interests of state and revolution were placed above the rights of Soviet citizens to freedom of opinion and protection from illegal prosecution. Specific notions of revolutionary duty and the good of the revolution generated numerous provocations and trumped-up cases against “socially dangerous elements.” The Chekists honed the techniques of mass arrests and falsified cases during the trials of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The scope of the work done by the secret services gradually expanded. In April 1930, the OGPU established the Gulag (Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps) and was given control of the militia (i.e., the Soviet regular police). In July 1934, the OGPU was transfigured into the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs or NKVD, which was given control of the archives and civil registry offices. In 1936, Genrikh Yagoda, a career Cheka officer, was replaced as the People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs by Nikolai Yezhov, a Stalin appointee and Party functionary who would play a key role in carrying out the Great Terror of 1937–1938.

Yagoda_kanal_Moskva_Volga

Yagoda (middle) inspecting the construction of the Moscow-Volga canal. Behind him is Nikita Khrushchev. Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Chekists competed in their cruelty to detainees and demanded that quotas on executions and arrests be raised. Moscow’s directives were magnified by initiative from the regions.

“The Central Committeee has explained that the use of physical coercion in the practice of the NKVD has been allowed since 1937 at the behest of the Central Committee. […] The method of physical coercion was contaminated by the scoundrels Zakovsky, Litvin, Uspensky, and others. […] But this in no way discredits the method itself, since it is applied correctly in practice,” Joseph Stalin noted in a signed coded telegram, dated January 1939. So when Laventri Beria replaced Yezhov, the overall crackdown abated, but not cruelty to defendants.

In February 1941, the NKVD was divided into two people’s commissariats, the NKVD per se and the People’s Commissariat for State Security. Led by Vsevolod Merkulov, it took over foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, and protection of high-ranking officials. The NKVD remained in charge of interior troops, border troops, and prisoner escort troops, as well as the concentration camps and the militia. The organizational reforms were kept up even during the Second World War. In July 1941, the two people’s commissariats were merged, but in April 1943 they were divided once again.

The powers of the security forces were considerably limited after the death of Stalin and execution of Beria in 1953. In 1954, the Ministry of State Security or MGB was replaced by the Committee for State Security or KGB, formally overseen by the USSR Council of Ministers. In the reality, the security services were subordinated to the Politburo, but they were stripped of their control of Interior Ministry troops, the penal enforcement agencies, the state archives, and the civil registry offices. During the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods, crackdowns were selective and isolated, but this had no impact on the confidence of Chekists in their own rightness in the battle against dissidents and the prevention of potential “anti-Soviets.” The KGB was still the “armed detachment of the Party” that the VChK had been under Felix Dzerzhinsky.

In the early post-Soviet years, the secret services underwent a number of large-scale reorganizations. The KGB was initially renamed the RSFSR Federal Security Agency, and then the Russian Security Ministry, and an attempt was made to merge it with the Ministry of the Interior or MVD. (The Constitutional Court overruled Boris Yeltsin’s decree to this effect in January 1992.) It was then split up into a foreign intelligence service, a border guards service, a counterintelligence service, a government information service, and a bodyguard service. More important, however, were not these structural changes, but their implication that the lack of oversight over the secret services had been called into question, as well as their alleged right to intervene extrajudicially in the lives of people and the life of society. Numerous documents, demonstrating the lawlessness and tyranny of the Chekists during the Soviet years, were declassified.

However, after a cohort of former secret service officers came to power, the circumstances changed radically, and the new leaders of the secret services have once again claimed exclusivity. Former Federal Security Service (FSB) director Nikolai Patrushev’s statement about a “new gentry,” uttered long ago, in 2000, was implemented with extreme alacrity. Former FSB officers have taken up key posts in many sectors of the government and economy. The FSB has regained control of the border guards and FAPSI (Federal Agency for Goverment Communications and Information), has stripped juries of the right to hear terrorism and espionage cases, and forced the adoption of new, expanded interpretations of laws governing the violation of state secrets. Today’s Chekists have learned to protect state interests in a way that bolsters their own standing and material well-being. They will mark their professional holiday today with complete confidence in the future.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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To Remember: Last Address Returns to Petersburg

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To Remember
Natalya Shkurenok
June 27, 2015
Novaya Gazeta Saint Petersburg

Last Address’s installation of memorial plaques brings us back to real history, to understanding the past and the present, without which the future is impossible.

In Petersburg this past weekend, memorial plaques appeared on six more houses, memorializing nine more people and reminding the living about the terrible turns Russian history has taken. It would be no exaggeration to call these people the cream of the crop, the salt of the earth: academics, engineers, artists, teachers, and physicians. Without people like them, no society can survive, but these people do not even have graves.  But there are relatives, friends, and kindred spirits whose hearts are moved by the ashes of the innocent victims.

On the Basis of Ethnicity

“I am attending my father’s funeral after seventy-eight years,” says a tall elderly man holding a bouquet of red roses and barely hold backing his tears.

Then he falls silent, places the flowers on the pavement next to the wall of house No. 1 on Maly Prospect, Petrograd Side, and steps away, covering his face with his hands.

When Stanislaw Kozlowski, an engineer at the Plastics Factory, was arrested in the summer of 1937, his son had been born only a month earlier. Two weeks later, his father was shot. His mother’s sister, who took him in, saved little Henryk from life in the camps. His mother was released only in 1947, followed by the 101st kilometer, a ban on living in Leningrad, and a life in Volkhov, an industrial town 122 kilometers east of Leningrad. During Khrushchev’s Thaw, as former victims of political repression, they were given a room in Leningrad, but by that time Henryk had already graduated from the Polytechnic Institute, and sharing a room with his mother was uncomfortable. He first worked at Krasnoyarsk, Bratsk, and Ust-Ilim hydroelectric stations, then in Syria.

“My father was a Pole. He went to the Polish school at Saint Catherine’s Church on Nevsky,” Henryk Kozlowski told Novaya Gazeta. “Eight of them were shot dead all at once. They had gone to school together and maintained relations. They were declared spies, just like everyone else then. But if it had only been them! Do you see that stadium over there? Imagine that in just two years, 1937 and 1938, two such stadiums of people were shot, nearly 42,000 people.”

Before the war, the well-known Leningrad artist Bronislaw Malachowski had lived in the same building. He was the same Malachowski who conceived and drew Smart Masha, the heroine of very popular children’s comics strip. The prototype of Smart Masha was the artist’s own daughter Katya. Malachowski also modeled Malvina and Buratino, for Alexei Tolstoy’s new book, on his own children, Katya and Dima.

On Saturday, the corner house, Maly Prospect, Petrograd Side, 1/3 (at the intersection with Zhdanovka Embankment), looked like a street exhibition on opening day, complete with stands containing photos, original graphic works on easels or simply propped against the wall, and a dense ring of viewers, perusing photos and works that few of them had seen before.

“That is my grandpa, and that is Nappelbaum, and here is my grandmother,” says Vasily Malachowski, Bronislaw’s grandson, pointing to the photographs. “Leningrad artists, actors, and writers often gathered at their house, and Grandpa was friends with Alexei Tolstoy.”

In the summer of 1937, when parents and children were vacationing in the Pushkin Hills, Bronislaw was taken, never to be seen again by his family.  His wife, Maria, and son and daughter were deported from Leningrad, first to Kazakhstan. Later, they moved to the Perm Region. Soon Malachowski was shot. His descendants never returned to the apartment on the Petrograd Side. The NKVD confiscated the artist’s entire archive, including his artworks, sketches, and architectural designs. What happened to the archive is still unknown. Maria died in 1948. She was back in prison again for violating passport regulations.

The children were adopted by the famous artist Natan Altman and his wife, who was the aunt of the Malachowski children. Katya studied at a ballet school in Moscow, while Dima stayed with the Altmans. A graduate of the geography department, he defended his doctoral dissertation. His son, Vasily, the artist’s grandson, studied at the Leningrad State University geology department. But his daughter Stanislava has followed in her great-grandfather’s footsteps. A graduate of the Stieglitz Art and Industry Academy, she has collected a huge amount of material on her family’s history and its Polish roots.

“Grandfather and grandmother were innocent victims,” argues Vasily. “Unfortunately, their lives were short and tragic. But now people who never knew them have taken an interest in them and begun to love them, and this is an instance of immortality. If the soul is kind and good, it always manifests itself and will go on living in kind hearts.”

Science? Kill It!

Perhaps only a few people now remember the name of Arkady Borodin, a professor of history and law. Scant records of his life have been preserved in the archives of the Library of the Academy of Sciences (BAN), where he worked in his final years, and in the case files of the so-called Academic Affair, a tragic page in the history of Russian scholarship. Between 1929 and 1931, the OGPU fabricated a criminal case against a group of scholars in Leningrad. In 1924, Borodin was dismissed from the university as a hereditary nobleman, and from 1925 to 1929 he was in charge of the alphabetical card catalogue at the BAN. In 1931, Borodin was sentenced to ten years in prison. He served part of his sentence in the Solovki prison camp before being transferred to construction of the White Sea Canal. He died near Medvezhyegorsk in 1932. Borodin’s last address was Bolshaya Pushkarskaya, 1. Now, at the behest of his granddaughter, a memorial plaque has been erected there.

A memorial plaque has also appeared on the 11th Line of Vasilyevsky Island, No. 44, whence the famous mathematician and meteorologist Boris Izvekov set out on his final journey.

“I saw my father for the last time from way over there, on the 10th Line,” says Tatyana Bulakh-Izvekova, the scientist’s daughter, pointing. “We left the house, and Dad saw us off, gazing out the window. We never saw each other again. This was his last address. He was arrested here. The two windows on the third floor were his study.”

Case No. 555 is a terrible testimony to the destruction of scientists in Leningrad at the very beginning of the war. This story began in the late 1930s, however. In the mid 1990s, the famous Russian writer Yaroslav Golovanov published an article entitled “Executioners and Victims: Case No. 555” in the magazine Ogonyok. The article discusses NKVD staff informant Yevgeny Merkulov, also known as TV. In the late 1930s, his insinuations led to the arrests and imprisonment of over thirty scientists. But at the beginning of the war, in late 1941, the Leningrad NKVD launched a massive case against the “counterrevolutionary activity” of corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences Ignatovsky and his “group” in order to prove its need to stay in the rear. Based on TV’s denunciations, between the fall of 1941 and the winter of 1942, over 130 scientists, professors, and lecturers (physicists, mathematicians, and geophysicists) were arrested, shot, tortured, and sent to labor camps.

“I don’t know where father died. Golovanov wrote that it happened during transportation to the camps, but I never have found out where and when,” says Tatyana. “Most likely, he died in an internal NKVD prison. I am so glad that I have at least some memorial in place of a grave.”

Rereading Him Again

Grigory Gukovsky, a prominent Soviet literary scholar, university lecturer, and Pushkin House fellow also has no grave. Gukovsky was arrested twice: in 1941, for “counterrevolutionary propaganda” (but was soon released for lack of evidence), and in July 1949, as part of the fight against “cosmopolitanism.”

“There was an arrest and search,” recounts Gukovsky’s great-granddaughter Kira Dolinina, a well-known Petersburg art historian, critic, and lecturer at the European University. “The case was closed due to his death. All this papers were destroyed, including manuscripts of articles and books he was working on. Our family doesn’t have a single document about the family. The man was left to rot, the documents went missing.”

Dolinina and her mother read Gukovsky’s case file in the FSB archives. The telling interrogation reports produced a terrible impression: the interrogation lasted eight hours, but the minutes take up only two pages.

“What were they doing the rest of the time? Torturing him, beating him?” asks Dolinina. “What we were able to read confirmed our guess: my great-grandfather and his brother Matvei Gukovsky were arrested as part of the Leningrad Affair. Hence the investigator for special affairs, and the fact the case was investigated in Moscow. All the case material makes it clear the NKVD was interested in Alexander Voznesensky, rector of the university. So it was not a matter of ‘combating cosmopolitanism.’”

Yuri Lotman, Georgy Makogonenko, and Grigory Byaly were Gukovsky’s students. When information spread on the internet that a memorial plaque to Gukovsky would appear on the house that now stands at 13th Line, 56, his relatives began receiving poignant letters.

“Hello, Kira! My name is Nelly Venskaya. I am eighty-seven years old and studied with your renowned great-grandfather. […] It was not easy to get into Gukovsky’s lectures in 1949. Places in the auditorium were occupied in advance, because, in addition to Leningrad University students, students from all the institutes of higher learning tried to cram in, students from the construction institute, the medical schools, the pedagogical institute, and the polytechnic. They sat on the windowsills, the floor, and the piano, under the piano. The lectures were broadcast in the corridors and the lobby. […] The last cycle that we were lucky enough to hear were his brilliant lectures on Pushkin. The next subject was Gogol, and we were looking forward to the explosion of wit, unexpected comparisons, and profound revelations. […] But no one ever heard that cycle.”

“In Russian literature studies Gukovsky was the principal researcher of eighteenth-century literature,” says Andrei Kostin, academic secretary at Pushkin House. “He got the collected works of Radishchev published, and was a brilliant researcher. Gukovsky shaped the Soviet view of the entire eighteenth century. His death and the loss of his manuscripts are an enormous tragedy for Russian scholarship.”

Family Saves the World

The Belenky-Bogdanov family has preserved the memory of their forebears, who lived at Bolshaya Pushkarskaya, 39, on the Petrograd Side, in the late 1930s. One summer morning in 1937, first the father, Pavel Belenky, a bookkeeper, was taken away from their small room in a communal flat, then the mother, Lydia Bogdanova, a housewife. Their son Vladimir survived. He is is now eighty-five years and lives in Moscow. Because of poor health Vladimir was unable to attend the installation of the commerorative plaque. Instead, his grandson Arseny, great-grandson of the murdered Lydia Bogdanov and Pavel Belenky, came to Petersburg for the ceremony.

“I remember this. I think it is impossible to forget,” said Arseny Belenky during the installation ceremony. “I have a son, whom I will definitely bring to Petersburg and show him the house where his ancestors once lived.”

Almost the entire Dauman family gathered in Petersburg for the first time since 1937 for the installation of a plaque commemorating their forebears. Abram Dauman, who received his education as a surgeon in Germany, operated on the wounded on the front during the First World War. For this he received personal nobility and personal arms, and was awarded the Orders of Saint Stanislaus and Saint George. Learning about the awards, his colleagues commissioned the orders from respected jewelers at their own expense and presented them to Dauman as a token of their profound respect.

Ilya Dauman practiced shorthand. He had his own technique on which he wrote a textbook.

The Dauman brothers moved to Nekrasov Street, 6, in 1924. The whirlwinds of the revolution had brought them from Harbin.

“From my father’s stories I know that when they came to arrest grandfather, my father, who was still little, was told, ‘And you, boy, go to sleep,’” recounts Alexei, grandson of the murdered Abram Dauman. “My dad was taken in by his aunt’s family, although her husband was also arrested, interrogated, and tortured. They cut off four of his fingers, but he did not confess to anything, signed no papers, and was ultimately released.”

First, the older brother, Abram, was arrested. The younger brother, Ilya, was on a business trip in Yekaterinburg at the time.

“His relatives wrote to him not to come back, that his brother had been arrested,” recounts William Rozenson, nephew of the murdered men. “But he replied that he hadn’t done anything and he came back. He was arrested immediately. His wife, although she had divorced him, did not abandon her husband and was also exiled.”

Descendants of the family live in different Russian cities and different countries. One of them could not make the trip to Petersburg from Brazil. But for all of them this house on Nekrasov Street is one of the most important places on earth.

Photos by Yelena Lukyanova

Translated by The Russian Reader. You can read about the Last Address project’s first visit to Petersburg, in the spring of this year, here.

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