Saving Russia's soaring wooden cathedral

Many of Russia's historical landmarks are crumbling because of budget

It has more onion domes than Russia's famous St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square and is considered one of the greatest wooden buildings ever erected.

Built entirely without nails during the reign of Peter the Great in 1714, the Church of the Transfiguration on this remote island, some 500 miles north of Moscow, has hundreds of aspen shingles covering its 22 domes.

Yet over the years, this church has become a symbol of neglect and has turned into one of Russia's most endangered cultural monuments as the country grapples with a severe economic crisis. Millions of people, from Siberian coal miners to teachers to army soldiers, routinely go for months without pay because of budget shortfalls.

Many of the cathedral's spruce logs are rotting or being eaten by insects. Its interior was gutted in the early 1980s by Soviet restorers, who also erected a gigantic indoor metal frame and dismantled its priceless iconostasis (a partition decorated with icons; the most holy part of the church). Before that, a different researcher tested the strength of its walls by firing a bullet at it.

"This church is one of the most important in our national heritage, yet it's undergone decades of abuse," says Yuri Piskunov, an engineer from the Vyatka Technical University in central Russia. "And it's now our task to save it."

For years, debate has swirled in scientific and cultural circles about how to do that. A number of proposals have been discussed, including one drawn up by Mr. Piskunov, that would replace the interior metal frame with an all-wooden one in a $2 million, five-year project. Other experts say the church must be rebuilt log-by-log, or an exterior metal frame built to prevent it from falling down. This would essentially destroy its aesthetic value.

But Russia's tight financial situation has relegated cultural institutions to the bottom of the to-do list. Less than half of the promised budget allocated last year to the Ministry of Culture was delivered.

"We do what we can with what money there is," says Irina Markina, head of the department of preservation at the Ministry of Culture. "This is the reality we face. Things are getting a bit better, but very slowly."

The Transfiguration Church is the centerpiece of a collection of historic wooden buildings located on Kizhi Island, originally a ritual site in pre-Christian times. Another nearby chapel dates back to the 14th century.

The buildings were declared a World Heritage Site in 1990 by UNESCO - the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, which oversees funding for sites in need of preservation. They are also on a list of the world's 100 most endangered monuments drawn up by the World Monuments Fund, based in the United States.

Even Red Square's restoration delayed

Kizhi Island isn't the only cultural site in Russia facing challenges. Even in Moscow, which receives the lion's share of all foreign investment in Russia and is undergoing an unprecedented building boom, restoration work can take years because of delayed funding. On the other end of Red Square from St. Basil's Cathedral, the purple-red brick building of the State Historical Museum reopens section-by-section as renovation continues. The museum first closed in 1986.

In another part of town, Moscow's most important art museum, and one of the most famous in Russia, the Tretyakov Gallery, also had to shut its doors for almost 10 years. It reopened with great fanfare four years ago, complete with a new underground lobby sporting shops and a small cafe. Despite its stature, the Tretyakov has also been squeezed by the budget crunch.

This resulted in a mini-crisis when police guarding the museum threatened to go on strike because their salaries had not been paid. "We should have paid them out of the funds which we never received from the government," says Lidia Lovleva, the Tretyakov's deputy director.

"We made a direct appeal to Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who made sure there was no strike," says Ms. Lovleva, referring to Moscow's popular mayor. Often mentioned as a future presidential candidate, Mr. Luzhkov has become famous for raising money from corporations and newly rich Russians for pet projects, most notably the reconstruction of a cathedral in Moscow, which was inaugurated last year.

The sight of new buildings going up in record time in Moscow has caused resentment among those struggling to find money to restore existing buildings elsewhere in the country, such as the Kizhi church.

"Businesses and wealthy people are always ready to donate lots of money to highly visible projects in Moscow, for it helps boost their profile," says Galina Korobova, the deputy head of the preservation department at the Ministry of Culture. "But Kizhi is too far removed to bring any such return."

Signs of change

Some museums, including the Tretyakov Gallery, have started to reach beyond government-supplied funding. In the Tretyakov's case, support from foreign corporations and one of Russia's largest oil and gas companies has allowed the museum to publish new catalogs and mount special exhibitions.

Such strategies weren't even dreamed of during Soviet times, when state funding was almost limitless. Perhaps the biggest testament to this - at a time when state funding was almost limitless - is the elegant 18th-century palace of Tsarskoye Selo near St. Petersburg, one of several imperial palaces that were rebuilt almost from scratch after they were destroyed during Nazi occupation in World War II.

Now, the Versailles-like palace is also forced to adapt to the "new" Russia. Administrators have begun selling more souvenirs such as T-shirts to supplement funds from the government.

They've also turned to another unique resource: handicrafts made of Baltic amber by the team of restorers working on the palace's legendary Amber Room, where wall paneling and furniture made entirely of amber disappeared with the retreating German troops in 1944. Skilled craftsmen have now finished a good portion of the room. But they also suffer from a backlog of unpaid salaries. This situation should change soon, however, since the German government recently pledged to help fund the final stages of restoration with a special grant.

The core problem remains

Back at Kizhi, no such unexpected help has appeared, despite a direct appeal to President Boris Yeltsin when he visited the island two years ago during his summer vacation.

"He came, saw the church, and promised that more money would be forthcoming," says Tatiana Vahrameeva, the federal architect of the Kizhi monuments. "Despite the time that has passed, we're still hopeful that he'll fulfill that promise."

While corporate sponsors aren't stepping forward, some hope has come in the form of indirect support from George Soros, head of the Soros Fund, a philanthropic foundation that assists projects throughout East Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The fund helps finance a special school to train carpenters who will do the restoration work. Mr. Soros also says the fund is interested in helping set up a national trust organization to support cultural institutions around Russia, an idea that comes from the director of the Yasnaya Polyana museum-estate of the writer Leo Tolstoy, several hours south of Moscow.

But the core problem remains: Until Russia overcomes its current economic crunch, funds for culture will be sparse, making the maintenance and restoration of many historical landmarks and institutions difficult.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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