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The East: A Rich Architectural Heritage At Risk

  • Lindsay Percival-Straunik



Washington, 12 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Decades of neglect, misuse and now the threat of commercialization have left much of the rich architectural heritage of Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union in tatters.

While some countries, notably the Czech Republic and Estonia, have made an impressive start in restoring some of their treasured sites to their former glory, in Central Asia and the Caucasus many historic sites may soon be lost forever.

The New York-based World Monuments Fund (WMF) is one of the most prominent non-profit organizations that helps raise money and awareness of endangered historical sites.

Over the last 30 years it has supported more than 150 projects in 46 countries.

John Stubbs, WMF Head of Programs, says that since the collapse of the iron curtain the organization's workload has tripled.

In addition to work in Africa, Asia and the Americas, the WMF now supports projects in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Georgia .

Stubbs said in an interview with RFE/RL that the WMF sees itself as a matchmaker between public and private bodies, bringing them together to help preserve historic sites.

One of the cornerstones of the WMF's work is the World Monuments Watch program. Established two years ago, it is the first program to comprehensively list monuments and sites throughout the world that are in imminent danger.

Every year grants are awarded to projects selected by a panel of experts which appear on the WMF's List of 100 Most Endangered Sites.

Initial funding of more than $5 million was provided by the American Express Company. Other donors include private banks, leisure companies and industrial firms.

In Russia, money will go towards restoring the Alexander Palace, home to the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, and to convert it into a museum dedicated to the Romanov family.

In Georgia, a 13th century monastic complex in the Tetritskaro district that was damaged by an earthquake in 1988 is to be restored.

In former Yugoslavia, several projects aim to revitalize and restore war-torn areas. They include the old harbor in Dubrovnik, Croatia that was struck by more than 2,000 missiles during the war with Serbia.

Stubbs says that citizen initiatives to preserve historically important sites have sprung up in many countries since the collapse of communism. Often, he says, the groups are started by women. Their motivation is always the same: love, not money.

Stubbs believes that preservation has a vital role to play in assisting countries in transition to a market economy because it helps promote tourism.

"Tourism is a huge money-spinner," he says, "bringing in vital revenue and creating new jobs."

Another organization which supports conservation work in the region is the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). A non-governmental professional organization based in Paris, it has over 85 committees worldwide. For more than a decade the U.S. branch of the organization has offered internships for preservationists from Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Gustavo Araoz, executive director of USICOMOS in Washington, says the program offers a unique opportunity for students to learn first hand about the technical and legal methods the United States uses to preserve its cultural heritage.

Araoz said in an interview that while ICOMOS does have committees in many parts of eastern and central European countries and the former USSR, there are no committees in Central Asia.

"We are conscious of the great heritage in these countries that is so valuable and in immense danger," he said.

"I would urge them to join the ICOMOS network so that their cultural heritage may be preserved," said Araos.

The World Bank has recently become involved in supporting preservation projects. In April it approved a $31 million loan to start the rehabilitation of St. Petersburg's crumbling city center.

The project aims to create an attractive business environment for investors and in the process restore some of the city's architectural gems.

(This is the first in a series of four articles on historic preservation in Central and Eastern Europe and the former USSR. See Saving The East's Architectural Heritage.)
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