Notes from the picket lines
IMAGINE a stately house made of stone, whose classic 18th-century lines are clean and pure. Its elegant moldings are painted white, but the paint is peeling. Its gentle wash of pastel green is splotched with dark patches of decay. Around a corner, chunks of plaster and wooden boards lie scattered on the ground: One whole wing has been demolished to make room for a subway entrance. But the site has been silent for several days; demolition has not gone forward, and work on the subway is at a halt. A group of young men and women stopped it by cordoning off the house. Now they rotate the watches of a 24-hour patrol to make sure work does not start up again. This house is in the Soviet Union, in Leningrad. It belonged to Andrei Delvig, a good friend of the poet Pushkin. The demonstrators sing ballads to pass the time and recite poems using microphones donated by the Communist Youth League.Skip to next paragraph
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In Moscow, plans for a vast encircling highway, like the Beltway in Washington, threatened a whole historic neighborhood. About 30 houses built between the 15th and 19th centuries were to be destroyed - old buildings even more precious in Moscow than in Leningrad, whose center is largely preserved.
Then, the night before wrecking was scheduled to begin, citizens from around the city gathered at the first house on the list. They put up a fence and hung it with poetry and articles from Pravda. When the bulldozers came crawling in at dawn, the people literally stood in their path. The bulldozers ground to a halt.
Until now, picketing was absolutely unheard of in the Soviet Union. Only given a really new atmosphere could a group of Muscovites even think about staging such a startling protest of government policy. Its initial success was equally surprising. Later, as the movement gathered momentum, its leaders challenged the chief architect of the State Commission for the Preservation of Historical Monuments to a debate (and got it televised). By all accounts, he did not appear in very good light, showing neither a flair for long-term strategy nor expertise in the details of construction techniques. In the meantime, plans for the highway have returned to the drawing board, and for the moment at least, the historic buildings are safe.
I heard about this from someone who was on the picket lines: the young man detailed by the National Academy of Sciences to accompany me in Moscow. I mentioned his story to another Academy guide, Grigory, who met my train in Leningrad. We were sitting on top of the Hotel Moscow in the gray dawn, waiting for Leningrad to come to life.
``I know about that group,'' he said. ``I am part of the same movement here.''
Grigory is a chemical engineer, but apparently by accident. He is much more interested in ``humanitarian subjects,'' which he pursues on the side. I asked him whether the changes of the Gorbachev regime had affected him. ``Oh, enormously,'' he said.
For several years he has been making his own study of the cultural and architectural history of his city - call it Leningrad or Petrograd or St. Petersburg, as you please. He spent hours riding around on his bicycle locating buildings and taking photographs; befriending librarians who could produce any document he wanted from the polished walnut cases arrayed along gilt corridors; winning the confidence of a priest of the Old Believers, for example, a group that has been persecuted since the 16th-century reform of Russian Orthodox rite. (He touched him by bringing pictures of five of the eight Old Believer churches that were functioning at the time of the Revolution.)
Grigory is particularly interested in Leningrad churches, only a fraction of which are now functioning. Most have been abandoned and are falling to ruin, or else have been incorporated into administrative installations and serve as headquarters for some bureau or func-tionary.
GRIGORY is compiling a list of all of them: their founders and parishioners, the date they fell into disuse, and their current functions and conditions, with photographs and plans. He hopes to induce the government to relinquish control of them so that as many as possible can be reconverted into places of worship. Those unable to support a congregation, like the monastery on the outskirts of town that was founded in thanksgiving for Alex-ander Nevsky's victory over the Tatars, should be made into museums or used for other cultural purposes, he says.