Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Historical Preservation Activism Again on the Rise in Moscow

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 14 – Ever more Muscovites are getting involved in the defense of cultural and historical monuments, the latest indication of the growth of civil society in a sector often ignored by outside monitors and an echo of the historical preservationist movement of late Soviet times that often became a school of broader and more political activism.
Moreover, the likelihood that the current involvement of residents of the Russian capital in such activities will have that effect is undoubtedly increased by two things. On the one hand, activists have been encouraged by a few recent victories on the preservation front. And on the other, several opposition parties already have linked up with the activists.
In an article on “Chastny korrespondent” today, Natalya Malysheva argues that “the defense of architectural monuments [in the Russian capital] has become yet another means of manifesting one’s civic position” even if those engaged in it appear to be far removed from politics (
According to Malysheva, “the illegal destruction of two historic buildings in the center of Moscow was stopped thanks to the actions of several social and political organizations,” and their success has ‘inspired” others, some of whom “before defending a monument have to find one.”
The journalist recounts the case of the house of Moscow merchant F.V. Alekseyev that a commercial enterprise wants to demolish to make way for a hotel complex. In response, representatives of “Arkhnadzor,” the youth organization of Just Russia, the Moscow City Council and the Social Coalition in Defense of Moscow organized “a civic raid.”
The activists demanded that those engaged in work on the property show them the documents permitting them to do so because, Malysheva continues, “the activists had a suspicion that work in the house is being conducted illegally.” Their fears were only intensified when workers blocked them from coming onto the property to check.
Rustam Rakhmattulin, coordinator of the architecture watch group “Arkhnadzor,” said that “it is necessary to determine now what formal rights [those working on the property’ have and which documents they are in possession of.” Artyom Khromov, the head of the Just Russia youth group, doubted that the people working there have “any official papers.”
At another location, activists couldn’t gain entrance or generate much interest among the local militia to check the papers of those working there. Finally, Khromov reported, papers were found permitting “reconstruction” but not “demolition,” and he demanded that the company stop work.
The activists are learning how to use the bureaucracy even as they struggle against the roadblocks that bureaucrats are all too willing to throw up, Malysheva continues. The preservationists have discovered that they can stop some demolition simply by getting the requisite official stamps on papers declaring the property to be under condition for special status.
The preservations have also learned that it is sometimes necessary to stand guard outside properties, and at present, there are “10 to 15 people” doing so at various locations “where there is the danger of illegal reconstruction.” Often, activists say, neighbors of buildings under threat call the preservationists in the hopes they can do something.
After several recent successes in blocking demolition, Khromov remarked, “we understand that if such illegality could take place [in Kadashi where there was so much publicity], it could take place anywhere and that we must keep track of such activities” throughout the city.
That may be beyond the capacity of the preservationist groups at present, and as a stopgap, they are hoping to convince the city to expand the borders of the “preservation” zone so that there will be a presumption against demolition in that region rather than a presumption that property owners can do what they like.
But city officials often are among the least helpful, activist said. One steep the Moscow city government has taken is to declare that it will not consider any request for the designation of a building as an historical monument more than once. Thus, if officials turn down such a request once, they need not take it up again.
Rakhmatullin and other activists are convinced that “this contradicts the law” and that a renewed or repeated request is something entirely “normal.” But as Malysheva points out, the Moscow mayor’s office is simply trying to defend its friends and itself from law suits and attacks.
Such experiences with officialdom and the occasional successes against it may fuel the rise of historical preservationist groups now as they did 40 years ago. More important still, these groups may both protect Moscow’s priceless historical legacy and provide the basis ultimately for Russia’s political transformation.

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