A monumental cause in Russia


Birthday: As St. Petersburg spiffs up for its 300th anniversary next year, it's seeking donations to restore many buildings and statues.

February 10, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois confesses that she always relies on the kindness of strangers. Now Russia's former capital, another faded beauty, hopes to do the same.

St. Petersburg celebrates its 300th anniversary next year. Seeking to beguile the world, the city is busily renovating some of its hundreds of worn palaces, mansions and monuments.

To help pay for this makeover, the Committee for the State Inspection and Protection of Historic Monuments is asking for donations from Russian and foreign businesses, foundations and well-heeled people.

Some of the city's monuments were rescued on a case-by-case basis during the 1990s with the aid of corporate giants such as Coca-Cola and American Express. But in recent years, the city's leaders have begun an organized effort to persuade donors to repair sculptures, replace street lamps, restore monuments and rebuild fountains.

To do this, they're lobbying diplomats and corporate executives. And to reach other potential donors around the world, they've created an English-language Web site, listing a menu of 131 adoptable historic structures, ranging from humble gravestones to the facades of mansions - at prices ranging from $3,000 to $1.7 million.

The task facing the officials in charge of repairing St. Petersburg is staggering. The city decayed badly in the decades the Soviet Union spiraled toward collapse. Today, there is not enough money to do more than a fraction of the work needed.

Alexander Vorobyov, a cab driver, points out a hotel where Aleksandr Pushkin once stayed. It houses the city's largest communal apartment, in which 55 residents share a single kitchen. He ticks off a list of other important buildings, all of them dilapidated. "It's good that our forefathers spent so much and built so well," he says. "We are destroying it all."

In seeking aid, St. Petersburgers don't want to sound like beggars. Olga W. Taratynova, deputy chairwoman of the monuments committee, says most of the work planned in preparation for the anniversary will be paid for by the government. (President Vladimir V. Putin, a former deputy mayor of the city, has pledged $67 million for the effort.) "The most important monuments, which demand critical repairs, will be repaired by the state," she says.

Everything won't be finished in time, officials acknowledge. But Taratynova says the city is proud of its worn look. "As for European towns, well-polished and well-paved, they get on my nerves. I would rather compare St. Petersburg to Venice, which is not as well renovated. The Japanese approach to beauty is that real beauty should have a touch of the ancient in it."

Still, the monuments committee has its hand out. It's seeking $5,000 for the restoration of two glass windows at the mansion where the celebrated novelist Vladimir Nabokov spent his youth. It wants $300,000 to re-create two soaring stained-glass windows that depicted traders through history and once graced the Yeliseyev Brothers Trade House.

An American woman is considering paying $6,700 to restore the grave of the poet Anna Akhmatova in a village outside St. Petersburg. Akhmatova, whose husband was shot by the Bolsheviks and whose son was arrested by Josef Stalin, was one of Russia's leading literary figures. But she was banned from publishing for 15 years by Soviet authorities. She died in 1966.

The committee has found only a few sponsors for projects on its wish list, Taratynova says. A Japanese tobacco company is paying to repair the cast-iron railing around the Mikhailovsky Garden. A Russian savings bank will pay about $1 million for work on the Summer Gardens, and a Turkish construction and entertainment company has donated $400,000 to help restore the Alexander Column on Palace Square.

But, she says, the committee is negotiating with many others.

One high-profile project that has had no trouble attracting donors is the renovation of the Konstantinovsky Palace in Strelna, south of St. Petersburg. Putin plans to use it as a presidential retreat and has pressed businesses in Russia to contribute to the cause. In the past year, he has raised more than $15 million of the estimated $150 million cost, a presidential spokesman says.

Drive around St. Petersburg, and it looks as if repairs are well under way. Scaffolds cover the colossal St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Alexander Column and the Naval Museum, built to resemble a Greek temple, as squads of renovation workers repair cracks and scrape off grime.

But those looks are deceiving, says Albert Magalashvili, general director of the city's Cultural Center, which is in the once-sumptuous Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace.

The eclectic 19th-century palace has cut-glass chandeliers the size of Christmas trees, oil paintings on the ceilings and plaster cupids lining the walls. Each room is decorated in a different style. "This is really the pearl of the city," Magalashvili says.

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