Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more


  • Comment
In the face of corruption and ignorance, the great buildings of Russia's capital are being destroyed and replaced by poor pastiches, writes Adam Wilkinson

In the 17 years since I last visited Moscow, much has changed, with the city becoming an essentially Western one with Western problems, such as a road infrastructure designed for a 1930s Communist state struggling to cope with the traffic brought by the newfound wealth of the city. This wealth, and the desire to add to it, is evident everywhere, from the advertising hoardings that despoil streets and squares which have the potential to compete with those in the most beautiful Western cities, to enormous pressure to redevelop every inch of the city.

Some things, however, do not change;

in particular, the patronage of architecture.

From Peter the Great's dictum banning the use of stone as a building material outside of St Petersburg, to Stalin's announcement of the adoption of the Soviet Imperial style, the Big Man in Russia has always directed architectural development. Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, is just such a Big Man, responsible for the illiterate Post-Modern excrescences from his favourite architect, Mikhail Posokhin. It is ironic that his father was one of the most talented architects of the Soviet era, whose work is much admired. The profession - or rather its patrons - have, in the main, lost the plot over the past 15 years.

Luzhkov's lack of architectural sensibility and sensitivity is having disastrous effects on Moscow's historic environment. Many buildings that have not been maintained since the collapse of the Soviet Union are often at risk of destruction (as well as those that have been destroyed), with impunity.

The planning system is, in theory, capable of producing the right results for the historic environment, but it contains wild cards, all held by Luzhkov. In this respect, he is above the law. If he likes a plan, it gets built (frequently by his wife's companies, which officially control 11 per cent of construction in Moscow, though probably more), in spite of the professional committees established to ensure that conservation is given a chance.

The architects, engineers and historians who give their time to these committees continue to do so out of the often futile hope that they will have a positive outcome. The State Committee for Scientific Methodology, which assesses the effects of plans on the historic environment and should be able to block plans if they are damaging, meets every week, considering, on average, 10 cases in detail. It is a thankless exercise in damage limitation, made no easier by the power of the mayor and occasionally the interests of committee members themselves.

Don't repair - demolish Historic buildings are put at risk for many reasons. The first is the way in which property in Moscow works. Only 49-year leases are available on land and buildings. A developer can buy the land on which a building sits, but not the building. The developer can then apply to demolish the building in spite of the wishes of the owners of the building, and can then buy them out. This is a long way from the intention, which was to stop mass property speculation.

Secondly, the mechanism for declaring a building structurally unsound is flawed, with the solution being demolition not repair.

Many thus declared are blatantly not so.

Thirdly, 15 years without proper maintenance does no favours to any building, let alone one that has to withstand an annual temperature range of -20ºC to 30ºC. Buildings are in need of proper investment, and so cannot compete in pure economic terms with massive new blocks.

Fourthly, there is a complete lack of vision on the part of the authorities regarding the future appearance of the city. Moscow's new General Plan (up to 2020) envisions it as a great world city and is slowly de-industrialising its centre. But on a more practical level, there is no recognition that historic areas attract tourists or that visual continuity of historic buildings, areas and sense of place can provide the foundations for a safe and confident society. There is no understanding of the value of historic fabric.

And, fifthly, the planning system is open to corruption at every level.

Not all the destruction is down to grasping Russian capitalism. Much of it is a result of a misinformed attempt at conservation on the part of the mayor. Entire 19th-century streets are torn down and rebuilt, with bad attempts at copying the original facades.

This destruction is in the name of tidying up areas and meeting the expectation of modern retail, and some of the most charming streets and lanes in Moscow have become places that are only good for oligarchs' Gucci-bagged wives. The roots of this unfortunate trend can be found in the reconstruction in the 1990s of three central Moscow monuments destroyed by Stalin: the church of Christ the Saviour, the 16th-century Resurrection Gate leading onto Red Square, and, on Red Square, the church of Our Lady of Kazan.

Almost as insidious as the destruction is the upward extension of historic buildings.

This most frequently requires the complete destruction of the original building and the construction of a new 'old' building. It results in a poor pastiche of the original, and the scale and rhythm of the surrounding area is interrupted: 19th-century and early 20th century Moscow is a place of domestic scale and low horizons. Likewise, new buildings rarely respect the established scale in historic areas. The third horse of this dreadful troika is destruction of historic buildings and their replacement with a Dr Frankenstein-style attempt at what the original architect might have done, had he been asked to build something twice the size.

Muscovites do not like what is happening.

But the civil society that is so well embedded in the West has yet to be realised in Moscow.

For a politician to grant an audience is a favour not a duty. There have been a few dissenting voices over the past 30 years, such as Alexei Klimenko, who somehow survived the Soviet era while campaigning against the destruction of historic buildings. But there is some hope. Historic walks of the town organised by Sergei Nikitin are immensely popular with the Moscow youth (www. moskultprog. ru).

The website www. moskva. kotoroy. net (which translates as 'the Moscow that is no more') attracts thousands of visitors and has resulted in direct action to save several buildings, such as flashmobs at threatened buildings. Innovative as this campaigning may be, it is tackling the symptoms, not the disease.

At a tactical level, the Moscow Architectural Preservation Society (www. maps-moscow.

com) is acting to tell the wider world about the fate of the city, and Muscovites are rallying to its call. The Architects' Union has written to the newspapers, deploring the destruction, and the architectural magazine Project Russia contains in-depth discussion of the issues in their broadest terms. SAVE Europe's Heritage, a sister body of SAVE Britain's Heritage, will launch a report on the situation in summer, and is helping to advise campaigners in Moscow. To turn the tide will require a huge effort, but where Moscow treads, Russia follows.

Adam Wilkinson is secretary of SAVE Europe's Heritage

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.

Related Jobs


Do you want the latest jobs emailed to you?
Sign up for job alerts.

AJ Jobs