Paul Goble reports:
Just as he worked to disband Russia’s forest protection service, the consequences of which have now become all too obvious, Vladimir Putin is seeking the liquidation of the federal agency responsible for ensuring that Russian laws protecting historical and cultural monuments are observed, an action that may have equally far-reaching effects.
The proximate cause of this latest action, Kommersant suggested, was the opposition of Rosokhankultura, the agency’s Russian acronym, to the construction of the 403-meter Okhta Center for Gazprom in St. Petersburg, a project Putin supports but that most preservations argue would destroy the integrity of the North Capital’s landscape. But beyond that, Putin’s latest move, just like his destruction of the forest protection service five years ago, reflects his desire to promote business development at any cost and to push out of the way experts and activists who raise questions about the impact of what he and the Russian powers that be want to do.
Not surprisingly, Kommersant focuses on three aspects of the case: the role of various business interests in the taking of the decision, the murkiness of the process, and especially the way in which the struggle over Rosokhankultura and the Okhta-Center reflects divisions between Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. As the paper’s reporters make clear, Gazprom very much wanted the cultural protection agency pushed out of the way, given its consistent opposition to the firm’s Okhta Center plans. But because Moscow was trying to win points with UNESCO and its cultural protection programs, Putin moved quietly lest it appear he was behaving duplicitously.
And because President Medvedev had supported UNESCO and, according to Sergey Prikhodko “guaranteed Russia’s observation of international norms” in this area, and had opposed the Okhta Center, the paper suggests, this decision is yet another test of strength within the tandem, a test Putin appears to have won. As important as that outcome may be politically, the destruction of this agency is only part of a broader attack on the preservation of cultural and historical monuments. According to a report in “Svobodnaya pressa” this week, the Russian ministries of culture and regional development plan to slash the number of legally protected places by 90 percent.
Under existing laws, that journal’s Anton Razmakhnin says, agencies and firms seeking to develop an area must meet high standards before they can demolish or even change objects on this list. Once cities are taken off the list, preservations fear, there will be a “barbaric” attack on many historical buildings.
That will compound the current situation, preservationists say, because even with formal protections, many monuments are being destroyed. Architect Vitaly Lepsky says that “every year, [Russia] is losing 300 to 400 monuments of architecture; that is, one monument every day.” And with the planned changes in the protected list, that number will grow.
Obviously, the issue of historical preservation is not a simple one, Razmakhnin and others point out. Sometimes officials must choose between economic development and historical preservation. Consequently, in tough economic times, they are under pressure to choose the former over the latter. But if Putin’s move goes forward and if the two ministries agree on the much-reduced list of protected objects, that balance between development and preservation will swing even more toward the former and against the latter, a trend that will cost Russia much of its remarkable architectural landscape.
In addition, such changes in law and policy are certain to spark more preservationist activism, the very kind which nearly a half century ago became the hot house in which Russian nationalism emerged. Consequently, Putin’s victory in this case may prove Pyrrhic, ultimately energizing Russians to oppose what he and his business allies are doing.