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Why Soviets restore Czarist splendor to Leningrad

By Gary ThatcherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 1985


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?

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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.

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.''