Why Soviets restore Czarist splendor to Leningrad

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

TOURISTS come by the thousands, and are stirred by the scarred beauty and the painstaking efforts to restore it. And many leave with the same question: Why do the Soviets do it?

Why should a communist government spend millions each year on the architectural monuments of czarist-era splendor? Why memorialize the hated regime that the communists overthrew?

The answer is probably no less complex than the intricate parquet floor patterns or the Delft-tiled walls of Menshikov's palace that fronts on the Neva River in the center of Leningrad.

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The restoration of the palace, home of Alexander Menshikov, the first governor of the city, is one of the latest accomplishments in a restoration effort that continues. Forty years after the end of the second world war that laid waste to Leningrad, this most special of Russian cities is still rebuilding.

When it was named St. Petersburg, the city was Peter the Great's ``window on the West.'' It was later the seat of the Russian Revolution which brought Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power.

But if Leningrad's glories have been outsized, so has its suffering. The 872-day siege of Leningrad by troops of Adolf Hitler, from 1941 to 1944, led to the deaths of 11/2 million people, and the damage, destruction, or pillaging of many of the city's architectural treasures. Damage is officially estimated to have been some 20 billion rubles (about $23 billion) at war's end.

One American tourist, after visiting Leningrad recently, professes wonderment at the progress that's been made since the war, but, at the same time, bafflement.

Why do you suppose, he wonders aloud, a communist government would go to the trouble?

``I think they want to show just how much the czars lived it up at the expense of everyone else,'' ventures a companion, ``to show why there was a revolution.''

``Maybe they're just proud of their Russian culture,'' says the original questioner, an American from Miami.

``Or maybe,'' he says, ``they want to show they can rebuild what the Nazis destroyed.''

The real answer to the question is probably ``all of the above.''

``Why do we restore everything?'' asks Vladimir Popov, deputy director of Leningrad's architecture and planning directorate.

``We take an important historical principle into account: Those who reject the past don't have a future.''

The Soviet state spends some 30 million rubles (about $34 million) a year on architectural restoration in Leningrad, employing some 5,000 workers.

In addition, the city has a set of tough regulations -- akin to zoning ordinances -- that regulate development in the center of the city or near historic sites.

And a new vocational college is now being established simply to help meet the demand for craftsmen trained in restoration.

Leningrad's rebirth took root in the closing days of the war.

The city's main restoration enterprise, ``Restorator,'' was chartered in 1944. That same year, even before the war's end, the Soviet government passed decrees on the restoration of Catherine the Great's Winter Palace, home of the Hermitage art collection.

While those decrees might prove an early intent to rebuild, the actual effort has been under way in earnest only for the past 25 years.

``After the siege,'' says Pyotr Ivanov, general director of Restorator, ``people did not recognize the city. They suffered a culture shock.''

The center of the city did suffer from bombs and shrapnel, but it was in the outlying areas -- where many of the czarist-era summer palaces were located -- that the devastation was most complete. The Soviets claim that an entire Nazi platoon had the task, not of fighting, but of destroying architectural monuments around Leningrad.

Since 1960, however, the Soviets have opened one restored palace after another to the public. Some, like the grandiose Pavlovsk Palace, took over 15 years to rebuild.

Still, there are some 3,000 summer palaces around Leningrad -- and restoration at many of them has barely begun.

Officials are now considering a plan to create a historic preserve stretching hundreds of miles into the countryside around Leningrad in order to control encroaching development.

``Any new construction,'' says Renovator's Mr. Ivanov, ``would be strictly prohibited.''

That attitude is born from hard experience and not a few mistakes -- some admitted, some still unrecognized. The massive, modern Sovietskaya Hotel, for example, clearly detracts from the nearby Troitsky Cathedral.

``Unfortunately, it was a mistake. It was too high. And so close to such a beautiful cathedral,'' says Popov. ``We would never make such a mistake again.''

However, there seems to be no similar regret at turning the magnificent, colonnaded Kazan Cathedral into a ``Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism.''

Today's restorers, like the Russian royalty before them, sometimes have to scour the globe for materials. Ivanov says only original materials are being used in the restoration process, despite substantial savings if modern materials could be substituted.

This year, for example, he says some 6 million rubles (nearly $7 million) were spent on imported wood from Tunisia. The amount of scarce foreign currency allocated for restoration materials each year, he says, is ``substantial.''

In addition, craftsmen have been brought from across Europe to restore damaged or destroyed interior work -- especially the delicate rococo plaster or the intricate amber mosaics fancied by Catherine the Great.

It is a painstakingly slow process.

``Why is it so slow?'' asks Ivanov. ``It's not a lack of money. We have money in abundance. And we have materials, the best available in the world.''

``What hinders us,'' he says, ``is lack of information.''

Indeed, the original drawings of many of the palaces have been lost. And some structures were so devastated that craftsmen have had to rely on chunks of plaster to recreate the dimensions, decor, and color schemes of entire rooms.

``Sometimes it takes years. Sometimes it's only a small part of the whole. But the work must be done,'' says Ivanov.

In one instance, says Popov, a woman spent virtually every working day of an entire year making a plaster model for an elaborately carved linden-wood door at Peter's Palace at Petrodvorets, near Leningrad. At the end of each day, he says, she destroyed the model because it wasn't right.

``Can you imagine destroying everything you've done every day for an entire year?'' he asks.

Still, he says, the task was finally completed -- and it was done right.

Perhaps such labors carry their own rewards. But they are clearly shared by such people as that Miami tourist who couldn't quite understand why a communist would so lovingly restore a czarist treasure.

In the end, he concludes, ``I don't know why they're doing it.''

But, he adds, ``I'm just so grateful that they are.''

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