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Rising prices imperil Russian mansions

Preservationists fear for city’s historical sites

Some fear rising St. Petersburg property values mean historical buildings will go for sale.

Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg News

Some fear rising St. Petersburg property values mean historical buildings will go for sale.

ST. PETERSBURG — From a deep second-floor window of a Russian noble’s old mansion on the west side of the square, you look straight on at the dark, looming majesty of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, stolid under its huge golden domes.

Beyond, at a slight angle, lies the fabled Hotel Astoria, a Style Moderne red-brown northern stone masterpiece from 1912.

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To the right, past the statue of Nicholas I on a rearing horse and across the Blue Bridge, your eye catches the imperious Mariinsky Palace, flying the gallant anchor-and-grappling-hook flag of St. Petersburg. To the left lies the spring-green Alexander Garden, and past it flows the broad Neva River.

You are in the Red Hall of what is now the Institute of Art History, a magnificent embodiment of the 19th century’s finest decorative arts.

If you’re a developer, you might think: Does a square that is so historically appealing and beautifully intact really need this much culture? Couldn’t the scholars who study here go somewhere else so that this handsome old marble house could be put to more, shall we say, lucrative use?

That, at least, is what Tatyana Klyavina worries about. Until June 18, she was the director here, but she made such a fuss over what she believes to be plans to destroy her institute, and to turn the mansion into a hotel or banquet hall or addition to the new Gazprom building that towers right behind it, that finally the Ministry of Culture fired her.

That, of course, did little to reassure the institute’s up-in-arms employees that her fears were groundless. Developers and preservationists tussle the whole world over, but feelings run especially high in the city founded by Peter the Great as Russia’s window to Europe. In a country studded with concrete apartment houses, St. Petersburg is a riverside jewel — once dreary and dusty after decades of Soviet neglect but now spiffed up again.

‘It’s a fight for property for investors and developers.’ — Sergei Gorbatenko International Council on Monuments and Sites

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Yet with all that spiffing comes a dizzying increase in property values. Which leads Klyavina and others to worry that St. Petersburg won’t survive its real estate potential.

Add to that a government and bureaucracy that are notoriously corrupt and almost universally disbelieved. So when the Ministry of Culture announces that of course it has no plans to eject the institute and make money off a new use for the mansion — well, that would seem to spell trouble. ‘‘The minister says that, his deputies say that,’’ said Klyavina, who left after 21 years. ‘‘But what they actually do does not provide any grounds to trust them.’’

Fears of a broader assault on St. Petersburg’s legacy are brewing. Last month, Russia prepared a draft document for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s world heritage conference that looked like the beginning of an attempt to remove great swaths of protected historic Petersburg property from the organization’s list. Definitions became much more vague, and preservationists were in an uproar.

‘‘It’s a fight for property for investors and developers,’’ said Sergei Gorbatenko, who runs the St. Petersburg branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. ‘‘A fight for money — that’s the root. And, of course, corruption. Corruption penetrates the whole question.’’

The great czar-era countryside palaces are not threatened, but lesser known historic sites are in real danger, Gorbatenko said — the 18th-century landscaping on the grounds of the former Alexander Dacha at Pavlovsk, for example, or the nearby Samoilova Dacha.

The foreign ministry, which represents Russia at UNESCO, said in a statement that the document is still only a draft and that no action is imminent. But there was enough of an outcry in St. Petersburg that the city has set up a special working group to thrash out the question. The problem, from Gorbatenko’s point of view, is that most of its members are city bureaucrats with no particular expertise in architecture, history, or preservation.

“UNESCO designation creates a moral background and an ethical background,” he said. Removing properties from the list, even minor ones, sets a bad precedent, he said, because it lets developers get a foot in the door. What, he wondered, will they ask for next time around?

Russia has moved to exclude certain parts of the western Caucasus region from UNESCO designation as it prepares for the 2014 Winter Olympics with a frenzy of construction.

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