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'Sick' Or 'Outstanding'? Dostoyevsky Project Caught Between St. Petersburg's Past And Future


A visualization of the new wing of the Dostoyevsky museum in St. Petersburg. The old building is to the right. The facade of the new, modern wing can be seen to the left, in a space where a small green space now exists.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Beauty will save the world. It's one of the most often-cited and widely discussed quotations from 19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Now his museum in the country's tsarist-era capital is caught up in a controversy that is putting that maxim to the test.

The museum has announced plans to build a new, starkly modern wing that is intended to bring one of the UNESCO-protected city's most popular attractions into the modern age.

"For us, the new building is an outstanding decision," museum Director Natalya Ashimbayeva told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "It is a chance, a stimulus into the future."

She contrasted the new materials and technologies now available to the state-owned museum with its sparse beginnings, in 1971, when "we had almost no extra exhibits; almost everything was on display.

"But now, we need a modern collections storage facility."

To mark Dostoyevsky's 200th birthday in 2021, the museum plans to construct the new, 1,600-square-meter wing on a leafy lot next door to the current building in the heart of the northern capital's historic district. The projected cost is 650 million rubles ($9.8 million).

Museum Director Natalya Ashimbayeva disputes the notion that the proposed site (above) is a "square" at all, calling it a vacant lot that is used primarily as a smoking space by local students.
Museum Director Natalya Ashimbayeva disputes the notion that the proposed site (above) is a "square" at all, calling it a vacant lot that is used primarily as a smoking space by local students.

The current museum is in a 19th-century building where Dostoyevsky lived twice -- once briefly in 1846 when he wrote his early psychological novella The Double, and again from 1878 until his death in 1881 when he wrote his chef-d'oeuvre The Brothers Karamazov.

Few writers anywhere are as intimately connected with a city as Dostoyevsky is with St. Petersburg. Charles Dickens and London or James Joyce and Dublin are perhaps the closest analogs. It is a truism of Dostoyevsky criticism to note that the gloomy northern city is a full-fledged character in many of his novels, particularly his widely read classic Crime And Punishment.

The museum's proposal, however, has drawn sharp opposition from people who feel the modern gray box will detract from what remains of St. Petersburg's Dostoyevskian charm.

"They have selected the most radical architectural decision, an absolutely modernist facade that not only does not fit in Dostoyevsky's Petersburg but doesn't fit in with any of the other historical surroundings," said Aleksandr Kononov, deputy head of the local branch of the All-Russian Society for the Preservation of History and Culture. "Of course, our society thinks this project is completely inappropriate."

"The government, instead of organizing new parks and squares, is destroying the existing ones," says Yaroslav Kostrov of the NGO Central Region For Comfortable Living about plans to build a new Dostoyevsky wing on this leafy plot in the city.
"The government, instead of organizing new parks and squares, is destroying the existing ones," says Yaroslav Kostrov of the NGO Central Region For Comfortable Living about plans to build a new Dostoyevsky wing on this leafy plot in the city.

Kononov argues that a more appropriate decision would be to use preserved photographs and drawings to restore the facade of the 19th-century building that previously stood on the spot and which was torn down by the communist government in the 1970s.

Other opponents of the proposed expansion have called for the revival of a 1988 government plan to expand the museum by purchasing the remaining private apartments in the current museum building. This variant, they argue, would preserve the existing green space in a neighborhood that is already too aggressively built up.

"Our organization has already been opposing construction on downtown squares and parks for two years," said Yaroslav Kostrov, coordinator of the nongovernmental movement Central Region For Comfortable Living. "But the government, instead of organizing new parks and squares, is destroying the existing ones, which we think is a mistake. How can they build on the last [undeveloped] square on Kuznetsky Pereulok, the last oasis in a stone district?"

Kostrov is particularly irked because the architect of the proposed expansion, Yevgeny Gerasimov, has already earned a reputation for building modernist structures over city green spaces.

"It was Gerasimov who built over the square at Nevsky Prospect No. 152 with his wretched concrete box with a little glass cap on top," he said. "This is his sick imagination, which he managed to bring to life on Nevsky. I'm amazed they are giving him permission to build anything at all after that."

The current museum is in a 19th-century building where Dostoyevsky lived twice.
The current museum is in a 19th-century building where Dostoyevsky lived twice.

Museum Director Ashimbayeva disputes the notion that the proposed site is a "square" at all, calling it a vacant lot that is used primarily as a smoking space by local students.

"There aren't even any benches there," she says.

Gerasimov, a prolific architect and head of the firm Gerasimov and Partners, which submitted designs for high-profile projects including the Russian Olympic Committee headquarters and a new Russian parliament, is unapologetic in defense of his concept.

"Some people won't like this project, but they will be in the minority," he told RFE/RL. "The Dostoyevsky Museum has to develop and work into a new stage of its development. It was founded 50 years ago and now it is getting a new, modern, high-quality, well-equipped space for activity that is varied and much-needed, both for locals and for visitors to the city. That is why this project is needed. As for how the facade looks -- that is a professional question.

"I hope this building will not spoil the impression created by its surroundings," he added. "Whether it is pretty or not -- that can only be discussed after it is built. Time is the best judge."

To support the project, a charity foundation called Dostoyevsky's Petersburg has been created. The founders of the organization are Ashimbayeva, Gerasimov, and Andrei Yakunin -- the 43-year-old son of former KGB officer, intimate of President Vladimir Putin, and former head of Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin. Andrei Yakunin, who holds dual Russian and British citizenship and lives in London, describes himself on the website as a "philanthropist."

The controversy comes five years after a similar dispute over the expansion of the city's legendary Mariinsky Theater on the other side of town. Local preservationists ultimately failed to stop that modernist construction, which was pushed through by Mariinsky Artistic Director and Kremlin insider Valery Gergiyev. Hermitage Museum Director Mikhail Piotrovsky called the building "an architectural mistake."

Although a city planning commission has given preliminary approval to Gerasimov's vision for the Dostoyevsky expansion, the project is far from being finally green-lighted. And activists have pledged to resist, already organizing one-person pickets and holding talks with opposition deputies in the city's legislature.

If necessary, activist Kostrov said, "we will stand as a living shield to block construction."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson, based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Tatyana Voltskaya

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