Cash-strapped St. Petersburg sells part of its soul

18 Dec '09
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor

Reportedly too cash-strapped to preserve historical buildings, and facing pressure from private business to cede sites for commercial purposes, St. Petersburg is selling some of its 18th – 19th century landmarks. Some are likely to be rebuilt to government order and lose their historic beauty; others, like the Kushelev-Bezborodko Palace, are being auctioned off to anonymous Russian and foreign buyers. Attempts by politicians and academics to “save the city” may slow things down, but it seems certain that part of St. Petersburg’s soul will be forever lost.

Kushelev-Bezborodko Palace “gone” to Moscow

Last week Russian Auction House announced St. Petersburg’s Kushelev-Bezborodko Palace had been auctioned off to “a sizable Moscow-based investment fund” for $24.7m.

The 18th century palace, a unique architectural monument located in St. Pete’s historical center close to Peter the Great’s famous Summer Garden, was reportedly sold in one lot that included the main building on the Neva Embankment, and an outbuilding. The anonymous buyer acquired the entire 6,500 sq. m complex.

The once glorious palace is in rough shape today. According to Russian Auction House CEO Andrey Stepanenko, “the cost of restoration is comparable to the purchase price.” Since the Revolution, the palace has been a residential building. Its future use, because of its location, will surely be commercial.

Survival of the most commercially viable

St. Petersburg officials have long neglected the city’s invaluable pieces of architecture; including some monuments that date back to the times of Peter the Great himself. When Vladimir Putin was president, some city buildings and infrastructure got an expensive, glossy makeover to impress visiting global financial leaders who came here during the G-20.

St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko, a close friend of Putin and a long time, well-connected career politician, has run the city and the region since 2003. Critics of the current historic property sell-off are quick to point to her public support of the controversial Gazprom City project, which includes a 77 storey “twisting” skyscraper, complete with a blue flame on top, in front of the historic Smolny Cathedral.

Despite current regulations forbidding construction of buildings with more than 12-15 stories in the area and a bitter feud between supporters and foes, the project is still moving forward.

Although many of the city’s historically significant buildings can still be rescued and restored, benign neglect has made the cost prohibitive. Publicly, the government claims it’s committed to preserving architectural monuments, but it looks like the commitment only covers St. Pete’s most internationally recognized masterpieces like the Winter Palace or the Kazan Cathedral.

Critics point out that less conspicuous buildings of the 18th and 19th centuries are simply being left to rot, making them easier to sell or auction. Either way, because many of these properties sit on prime real estate, they are eagerly sought after by well-connected developers.

Governor Matviyenko claims that auctioning off historical monuments to private business is a way to save them. As practice shows, however, the result is often starkly different. The buildings are demolished and the ground cleared for new commercial construction.

If only Pushkin could see this…

The Kushelev-Bezborodko Palace is not the only historic landmark slated for eventual commercialization. Some St. Pete residents fear the stage has been set for full-blown privatization of the city’s cultural legacy and have begun to lobby for more preservation.

Action groups from the Russian Academy of Sciences have focused their attention on saving the famous Delvig House, located in the very heart of St. Petersburg. The group has written to Ms. Matviyenko that “reconstruction” by local company Fastkom for commercial purposes will “ultimately tarnish the city’s historical look and is likely to ruin the building completely.”

Built in the early 19th century, the Delvig House has never been rebuilt (though repaired twice in 1961 and 1990) and presently looks exactly the way it did in 1813. It is named after Anton Delvig, a gifted poet and publisher, and a great friend of Alexander Pushkin’s. Pushkin himself visited the house many times between 1829 and 1831 when Delvig died.

The building has survived through all revolutions and wars, including the 1941-1944 Leningrad blockade. It may now suffer its first defeat at the hands of a bulldozer.

Ironically, it is the second time the Delvig House is under siege. City authorities first attempted demolition as far back as 1986, but local activists did not allow that to happen. Russian academicians now say their current crusade is to “prevent barbarous disdain for history.”

Whatever outcome the current standoff may have, the Delvig House is already endangered from creeping commercialism. A modern reinforced concrete building was recently erected right next to the historical monument, which some officials have already declared to be “an urban-planning and engineering mistake.”

Paving the way to “success”

Another landmark under attack in the city center is the Merchant Rogov House. Architects refer to it as the Delvig House’s “brother”, a pearl among the architectural treasures of old St. Pete. Built at the turn of the 18th century and badly neglected over the past decades, the Rogov House is now rapidly deteriorating.

Years of verbal bickering between those willing to preserve it and an alliance formed by authorities and developer Prestige, purportedly affiliated with Gazprombank, have only prolonged the building’s decay.

Even a move to save the Rogov House by Chairman of the RF Council of the Federation Sergei Mironov has failed.

Now city officials have decreed that the house should be removed from the city’s list of monuments to be preserved, literally paving the way for Prestige to build a business center and underground parking lot on the site.

The developer claims the project will be a “full replica of the original,” but local architects argue the new building will simply “look like a dummy.” Even if the developer delivers its promise, a projected seven-storey complex right behind the rebuilt house is unlikely to keep Rogov’s historical character.

Losing historical weight?

The Rogov House is just one on a long list of houses, small palaces and public buildings--including the former Children’s Orphanage at the outskirts of St. Pete--that used to be considered architectural jewels of Russia’s second capital.

Waiting to either fall apart, or be sold and torn apart, it’s becoming easier and easier for city authorities and even St. Pete’s governor to argue that once historic buildings are “too burdensome” for the city to continue to support.

Developers are lining up to make their move. One of the newest entries, RIA Novosti reported this month, is a “sizable” U.S.-based investment fund that plans to buy some of St. Petersburg real estate next year for as much as $1bn.

As with the Kushelev-Bezborodko Palace, the fund has not been named, but the trend is clear. St. Pete appears to be for sale to the highest bidder.
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Locations: St. Petersburg


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