Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Remembering the Man Who Saved St. Basil’s on Red Square

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 7 – A remarkable conference took place in Moscow last week devoted to an even more remarkable man: the preservationist and restorer Petr Baranovskiy who almost single-handedly took on the Soviet leadership and saved some 90 churches, including St. Basil’s on Red Square, from almost certain destruction.
The meeting, which took place October 31-November 1 as the result of the efforts of preservationists and Orthodox Church figures, brought together his daughter and others who knew the late Baranovskiy, to talk about his achievement and to urge that a monument to his work be erected (
During his life, they said, Baranovskiy (1892-1984) often came into conflict with senior communist party officials and like so many others was dispatched to the camps and then exiled as a result. But on several occasions, his resistance to their plans helped preserve some of the most familiar and beloved Moscow buildings.
In the early 1930s, Stalin’s ally Lazar Kaganovich approached the then young preservationist and said that the Kremlin wanted to “sell” St. Basil’s to the Americans or failing that to tear it down to make it easier to stage May Day and Revolution Day anniversary parades.
Baranovskiy, his daughter said, reacted with horror – “What right do You have to do that?” he supposedly inquired – and fired off a telegram to Stalin asking that the Soviet leader prevent the destruction of the Cathedral of Basil the Blessed lest its demolishment “bring political harm to Soviet power.”
Stalin’s shadowy aide Aleksandr Poskrebyshev brought the letter to the atttention of Stalin who in the course of a Politburo meeting told his colleagues to leave the famous church alone. But someone on the Politburo did not forget what Baranovskiy had done and later had him dispatched to the camps as a spy and enemy of the people.
While in the camps, he somehow managed to organize a museum that, his daughter recounted, recalled in its outline the shape of a church -- albeit without the cross. And after he was released, he was banned from living in major cities like Moscow but continued to commute in to help restore architectural treasures.
During one of these visits, the preservationist secretly photographed the Kazan Cathedral from the window of the History Museum, and it was on the basis of his photo that that architects were able to restore the church in1994 after the fall of the communist regime that had desecrated it.
On yet another occasion, his students and supporters said, Baranovskiy intervened to prevent the Soviet government from undermining the foundations of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in the Kremlin when the regime decided to build a new auditorium for party congresses and other mass meetings.
Had he not done so and convinced the party leadership to shift the building slightly, it is entirely possible that the tower, which among other things is the subject of a classical Russian observation about the nature of wishes, would have ended up as Moscow’s answer to the leaning tower of Pisa.
But in addition to this work with historical monuments, Baranovskiy played another and quite possibly even more important role: he was one of the founders of the Rodina Club in the early 1960s. That organization brought together and promoted the emergence of one straine of unofficial Russian nationalism in the late Soviet period.
Asked whether Baranovskiy did what he did because of a deep religious faith, his daughter responded that he was not a “churched” believer, but those who say he was an atheist are telling “an untruth.” “He was a believer,” she said, “but at that time, he did not have the right to demonstrate his faith.”
According to her, in his reflections about his efforts under the atheistic Soviet regime, Petr Baranovskiy, the man who saved St. Basil’s, said with conviction, “I serve God in another way.” Those who live in Moscow today or visit that city remain in his debt because he did just that.

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