Capturing Russia's glory

Monday Book Reviews

January 13, 1992|By Antero Pietila

IMPERIAL SPLENDOUR: PALACES AND MONASTERIES OF OLD RUSSIA. Text by Prince George Galitzine, photography by Earl Beesley and Gary Gibbons. Viking. 188 pages. $50. EVERY weary traveler coming to a destination has a favorite view. One of mine is the sight of the Winter Palace and the Neva embankment in St. Petersburg. If approached from the direction of Finland -- after several hours on the road through a desolute countryside -- it fairly glitters in the afternoon sunshine of a summer day.

"Imperial Splendour: Palaces and Monasteries of Old Russia" does full justice to that and other sights of St. Petersburg. It also contains some striking photos of landmarks of Novgorod, Pskov, the historic Golden Ring towns of Suzdal and St. Sergius (formerly Zagorsk) and Moscow. The timing of this coffee table book's publication is excellent because of the keen interest in things Russian.

During the Soviet Union's existence, generations of Western travelers got accustomed to Soviet-produced picture books that were pretty but lifeless. Like those books, this one rarely shows any people. Yet its two English photographers, Earl Beesley and Garry Gibbons, have managed to avoid the lifeless look. Through painstaking search for angles and lighting conditions, they have captured the eternal Russian qualities of the churches and palaces they depict.

Indeed, their pictures make those ancient landmarks look as if they had just awakened from a long slumber during the 74 years of communist rule. The vista around the Izborsk Fortress, for example, is that of overgrown fields and a decrepit village of traditional Russian wooden houses. Equally effective are many Suzdal shots, which depict not only the town's priceless landmarks but place them into their current surroundings -- unkempt ramparts and river piers that years ago fell into disrepair.

One of the great achievements of communism was that time stopped in many great cities. Places like Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) became veritable museums of ancient folk life. Thus, St. Petersburg's main street, Nevski Prospekt, is little changed today from the way it looked at the end of the czarist rule. Of course, the use of most buildings was changed: The Singer Sewing Machine Co.'s famous corner store is now a book store, and many of the city's desecrated churches are now being returned to their original use.

Prince George Galitzine's explanatory remarks are useful but often incomplete. In writing about the summer palaces around St. Petersburg, for example, he fails to note that Petrodvorets (Peterhof) and several others were almost completely destroyed in World War II and that what we see today are more or less faithful reconstructions that were hurriedly built at a great cost and sacrifice by an army of Soviet people and prisoners of war. Is this important? One would think so.

The Soviet government's attitude toward preserving historical landmarks, like so many other of its actions, was haphazard. I remember watching a frail old woman sweeping away puddles of water from the walkways of Petrodvorets one rainy morning. Yet such things as broken balustrade columns had not been replaced.

As a result, many of these irreplaceable historic sites are in a very bad condition today. The whole core city of St. Petersburg, declared by the United Nations Educational and Cultural Organization to be one of the world's great historic places, is threatened by wholesale destruction unless restoration can be launched quickly. The same is true about Moscow and other cities.

Prospects for saving these landmarks are mixed. On the one hand it is encouraging that many of the churches now are being returned to congregations which presumably will take care of them. A new-found interest in historical preservation is also evident in a Moscow publishing house's decision to manufacture small cardboard replicas of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a Moscow landmark which Stalin mindlessly dynamited during his first anti-religious five-year plan. (A giant outdoor swimming pool now stands at the site near the Kremlin. Many people, whether religious or atheistic, are now demanding that the cathedral be reconstructed).

On the other hand, it is quite clear that Russia will have neither the money nor the skilled builders to repair all the neglected landmarks now falling down. Already the priceless wooden churches of the Kizhi Island in Karelia (not covered in this book) are in danger of total destruction.

"Imperial Splendour" is a welcome record of this endangered past. It is a spectacular work of photography.

Antero Pietila, former Moscow bureau chief of The Sun, writes editorials for The Sun and The Evening Sun.

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