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The Death Of St. Petersburg?

The frozen Neva River in St. Petersburg (photo by A. Belenky)
The frozen Neva River in St. Petersburg (photo by A. Belenky)
"Why are you bothering to try and save old Moscow?" an old friend in St. Petersburg asked me back in 2004. "As an historic city, it's a lost cause."

This was the same friend, incidentally, who had told me not 12 months earlier that St. Petersburg was "a museum city" where little ever changed.

Five years later, both his optimism and his pessimism have proven unjustified. Despite the ongoing depredations, Moscow is not yet a complete write-off and now can boast examples of sustainable redevelopment based on historic buildings that point the way to a brighter future.

But it is also obvious that the destructive redevelopment of historic areas is not a problem resulting from Moscow's unique status as Russia's capital city, as previously thought. Capitals are trendsetters, and reckless development in Moscow has set a negative trend that is spreading to cities throughout the country, including St. Petersburg -- with its UNESCO-listed center.

Gazprom's plans to build the 396-meter Okhta Center opposite St Petersburg's Smolny Convent produced more column inches in the press than any other construction project. But while that effort is currently hamstrung by financial constraints, work has continued on numerous other destructive and insensitive schemes. The panorama of the headland of Vasilyevsky Island -- with its 19th-century rostral columns and stock exchange, and the elegant 18th-century Kunstkamera -- has already been blighted by the Oil and Commodities Exchange (67 meters) and the Finansist residential tower (65 meters) that now rear up in the background.

And that is not the only part of Petersburg's skyline to have been wrecked.

Personal Fiefdoms

Top-rank historic monuments are fair game for property developers. The Chicherin house (1768-71) on Nevsky Prospekt and the Lobanov-Rostovsky house (1817-21), located next to St Isaac's Cathedral, have both been eviscerated during excessively heavy-handed reconstruction work to turn them into luxury hotels. The Palace of Culture named for the First Five Year Plan, a decent piece of constructivist architecture subsequently remodeled in the Stalin classical style, was demolished along with the last surviving remnants of Giacomo Quarenghi's Litovsky Market from the 1780s, to make way for the still-unbuilt second stage of the Mariinsky Theater.

Many historic monuments in less-celebrated locations -- the buildings that form the backdrop vital to the tourist magnets -- are disappearing with frightening speed. All in all, more than 100 historical buildings, many of which were supposedly state-protected, have been destroyed in the last six years. Without them, St. Petersburg loses its integrity as an historic city.

The excuses offered are manifold, but the root cause is always the same: an attitude on the part of a cartel of property developers and politicians that the city is their personal fiefdom, theirs to exploit for as long as their stars are ascendant.

The governments of both Moscow and St. Petersburg accuse preservationists of being blind to the need to develop and of trying to preserve cities in aspic. They are wrong. Preservation and economic progress are by no means mutually exclusive. Heritage conservation is an integral part of the life of any modern metropolis.

Precedent To Draw On

This is a lesson that was learned slowly and painfully in America and Western Europe in from the 1960s to the 1980s. London's historic Covent Garden area could easily have been lost to the property men in the 1970s -- much else was -- but instead survived and was regenerated to become one of the city's biggest tourist draws. Historic buildings are an asset to any city, while little of what is going up in Moscow and St. Petersburg now will be similarly treasured by future generations.

The governments of both cities must first understand properly that sustainable 21st-century development is as much about capitalizing on existing assets as it is about attracting new investment. The historic environment is prey to the property trade in any country, but elsewhere more effective checks and balances exist to safeguard it. For instance, many countries offer tax incentives to encourage developers to restore and adapt instead of demolishing.

Russia can draw on a wealth of native and international expertise that could lead the way forward. But for the moment, the odds are stacked against the conservation lobby. Russia's conservation legislation has many strong points, but is poorly enforced. The national government needs to send a clear message to local governments and property developers that infringements of this legislation will be severely punished.

Yet, at the moment, little more than lip service is paid to conservation.

St. Petersburg and, especially, Moscow suffered too much from the depredations of the 20th century to be able to afford to squander what remains of their priceless, irreplaceable heritage in this way. Like oil and gas, historic buildings are a finite resource and cannot be exploited forever without inviting catastrophe. Russia, with its vulnerable economy dependent on the export of natural resources, ought to understand that better than anyone.

Edmund Harris is a trustee of the Moscow Architectural Preservation Society (MAPS) and editor of the new, revised edition of "Moscow Heritage At Crisis Point," a joint report by MAPS and SAVE Britain's Heritage on the crisis facing the historic heritage of Moscow and St Petersburg. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL