By Kenneth Powell
Moscow Heritage at Crisis Point.
MAPS/SAVE Europe’s Heritage, 2007. 128pp. (Available from SAVE for a minimum donation of £5)
The Lost Vanguard: Russian Modernist Architecture 1922-1932.
By Richard Pare.
Monacelli Press, 2007. 348pp. £45
‘Under the Communists, if you pushed hard enough you could make a difference, but there’s no battle now. People either ignore you or buy you.’ This was the dispiriting conclusion of scholar and conservationist Alexei Komech, one of the founders of the Moscow Architectural Preservation Society (MAPS), on the current planning regime in the Russian capital.
Komech, who died earlier this year, was regularly vilified by the new Russian establishment and its media stooges. But according to MAPS and SAVE in their Moscow Heritage at Crisis Point, Moscow’s mayor, Yury Luzhov – charitably described as ‘a wild card’ and married to the head of one of Russia’s largest construction companies – has presided over nothing less than a ‘carnage’ of the city’s heritage comparable to that of Stalin’s. It’s a chilling catalogue of loss.
Not so long ago, the collapse of Soviet Communism was seen as the beginning of a new age in Russia. For most Russians little has changed, while the new rich, allowed to asset-strip the country, have shifted much of their wealth abroad. Conserving Moscow’s rich patrimony is not a priority.
There have been some creditable restoration projects, notably of churches, though the most famous of them, St Basil’s on Red Square, remains in need of major repairs. Elsewhere the picture is deeply depressing: historic buildings of all periods flattened, gutted or replaced by feeble replicas. Buildings disappear behind hoardings, with restoration promised. Eventually a totally new structure emerges on the site.
Photographer Richard Pare’s book, the outcome of more than a decade of travelling and research, makes for equally depressing reading. While there is something of a vogue in Russia for the architecture of the Stalinist era, the legacy of Modernism has been treated with contempt. Pare has uncovered many buildings previously virtually unknown, but most of those illustrated here are neglected and under-maintained, while many are derelict and ripe for demolition.