Naprawianie historii

The City and the Museum

Corrected History

Publication: 17 August 2021

NO. 3 2011



The rebuilding of destroyed monuments typifies the desire to symbolically right a perceived historical wrong – the desire connected with the need of a national reaffirmation through an architectural visualisation of one’s own history. But there are many other reasons which explain why reconstructing historic buildings is so popular in Eastern Europe.

Reconstruction of destroyed buildings, more or less faithful to the original, has been one of the branches of architectural production for several centuries. After romanticism and historicism, with their fashion for idealising and quite liberal reconstructing of monuments heavily loaded with symbolism, the 20th century saw a lot of projects aimed at healing the wounds of war destruction (after 1918 and 1945). From the 1980s onwards we have been observing the emergence of a new commitment to rebuilding ruined structures in various parts of Europe. This tendency is particularly strong in the young countries established after the collapse of the Soviet Union, where reconstruction activities are closely linked to the mission of staging a glorious past of the country and the sense of national identity.

A showcase instance of this is the Christ the Saviour Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow – belonging to the most politically charged places of memory in Russia. The story of the raising, destruction and reconstruction of the church embodies the ideological and political assumptions of the successive regimes. It was built after extensive preparations in the second half of the 19th century as a symbol of the victory over Napoleon. It became the central Orthodox place of worship, as well as one of the most prominent representative buildings of the Tsardom, combining religious and secular power. This largest building in Moscow, raised in the eclectic Russian-Byzantine style, was blown up in 1931 on Stalin’s orders to make place for the cathedral of communism – the Palace of the Soviets. The new edifice, planned as the biggest in the world, did not go beyond the foundation’s stage. During the period of liberalisation under Khrushchev another superlative building sprang up there – probably the largest swimming pool in the world called “Moskva.”

It seemed that the Saviour Cathedral had been consigned to oblivion. The authorities went as far as banning the publication of its photographs. Yet, as early as the period of Gorbachev’s perestroika, the first appeals for its reconstruction were voiced. They came mostly from church-going intellectuals, who saw the rebuilding of the cathedral as a kind of spiritual purification for Russia and an act of repentance for Bolshevik crimes. But the project soon lost its dissident and civic character, and its initiators were no longer listened to. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the President of Russia Boris Yeltsin officially turned the idea of rebuilding the cathedral into a national cause. In this way the initial bottom-up idea was given a top-down mandate. The undertaking became one of the most important historical policy missions for a former Soviet functionary, who ironically had been personally responsible for the destruction of another historic monument not twenty years before. As the Party Secretary in Yekaterinburg, in 1977 Yeltsin ordered the demolition of the Ipatiev House, where members of the last tsar’s family had been murdered in 1918.

The rebuilding of the Saviour Cathedral was to serve as an expiation for the Stalinist act of destruction, an expression of overcoming the legacy of the Soviet regime and restoring the marriage of State and Church from pre-revolutionary times. Moreover, the Orthodox Church as the anti-Napoleonic symbol of victory was to highlight the temporarily threatened great-power aspirations of Russia. The reconstruction project was actively supported by the long-standing Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov. Displaying great commitment to the project, he was pursuing his personal goals. Art historians Konstantin Akinsha and Grigory Kozlov believe that his active involvement in the project was aimed at strengthening his position as a potential presidential candidate. He used all available means to speed up the construction work. The original 19th-century church took forty years to raise, while the copy was built in three years, starting from 1994. The richly decorated interior was finished by 1999. This breath-taking pace left no room for thinking about fidelity to the original. It was not even considered. Original brickwork gave way to reinforced concrete, bronze elements were partly replaced with imitations made of plastic, the gilded domes contain a fraction of the gold used in the 19th century and the interior was covered with modern acrylic paint. On the other hand, the church is more accessible now – it looms above a huge underground parking garage.

Luzhkov praised the reconstruction, which was supported with a multimedia advertising campaign, as a “unifying symbol of the nation’s rebirth.” Part of this wishful picture of national unity was the fiction that the Saviour Cathedral was a product of the masses. It was constantly emphasised that the project was not financed by the government, but from the donations of countless church-goers and patriots from Russia and abroad. But much more important than the donations of the “common people” were the enormous contributions of shady Russian businessmen, who wanted to buy the favours of Luzhkov and the city authorities. The new church, just like the old one, hosts pompous state and religious rituals, with representatives of secular power demonstrating their closeness to the Orthodox Church. In 2007 the funeral service for Boris Yeltsin took place there. The false opulence of the reinforced concrete church, and above all exploiting it for nationalist propaganda and the furthering of private interests of the new political and economic elites, have been sharply criticised, especially by liberal intellectual circles. “The intellectuals wanted faith. They got Christ the Saviour Church instead,” mocked one commentator. And yet all actors of the reconstruction scored a huge success. Despite the criticism, the church has attracted the masses, for such is the popular taste.

Little wonder that in Moscow and many other parts of Russia the reconstruction has found numerous followers. It became a symbol of the political transformation, inspiring not only the reconstruction of churches, monasteries and other tsarist monuments, but also some pseudo historical new buildings in the service of an invention of tradition. For example, in Kaliningrad, the former German Königsberg (Polish Królewiec), a small simplified replica of the Saviour Church was raised, suggesting a non-existent Orthodox tradition in the city.

The reconstruction of the Moscow church also served as a model for one of the most important reconstruction projects in the Ukraine – the rebuilding of the St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv. The story of the destruction and reconstruction of these two monuments bears many obvious similarities, although the former pays tribute to the allegedly glorious past of the Russian state and nation, while the latter is a symbol of national identity and independence from Russian power. The 12th-century Kyiv monastery, later enlarged in the so-called Cossack-Ukrainian baroque style and ascribed a central role in the religious and state tradition of the Ukraine, was blown up in the 1930s on the orders of the Stalinist regime. This nationally hallowed place had to give way to an ambitious project for a government complex, which was never built just like the Moscow Palace of the Soviets. The demolition of the church was a part of the campaign of “purging the new capital from counter-revolutionary and anti-Soviet elements.” It was a humiliating symbol of Soviet dominance over a country which after World War I nurtured hopes of lasting independence. In the minds of the Ukrainians, this atrocity functioned as a symbol of the enslavement of the national culture and the mass murders perpetrated in Stalinist times.

The reconstruction of the St. Michael Monastery, carried out in the years 1997–2000, was aimed much more at superficial splendour than faithfulness to the original, just like the Moscow project. It was to serve as a forceful sign of overcoming the decades of Soviet oppression and restoring the tradition of the Ukrainian nation from before the Soviet occupation. The reconstruction campaign, initiated by Leonid Kuchma, then President, and by the Kyiv authorities, was also intended to promote the old-new Ukrainian nomenclature. As Wilfried Jilge pointed out in his studies of postcommunist politics of history in the Ukraine, the former Soviet functionaries wanted to cut themselves off from their past and to bestow legitimacy on the new national leadership by highlighting their personal contribution to the rebuilding of the monument.

The glorification of the tsarist era and the resurgence of Christianity in Russia has been accompanied by a partial rehabilitation of the Soviet epoch, which according to Isabelle de Keghel commenced during the last years of Yeltsin’s presidency and was continued and developed further by his successor, Vladimir Putin. Instead of an unambiguous rejection of the communist dictatorship, we see attempts at combining the pre-revolutionary heritage with the legacy of the Soviet Union. In this marriage of two contradictory traditions, places of worship such as the Saviour Church and the Lenin Mausoleum provide a strikingly obvious cohabitation. Since Victor Yanukovich’s victory in the presidential election of 2010, we can also see the tendency to exalt the Soviet period in the Ukrainian politics of history.

In the Baltic states a similar historical and political turn-around would be unthinkable. The Soviet past is perceived there not only as the era of communist dictatorship, but above all as the time of a foreign – Russian – rule. In the official opinion of many historians from the three Baltic republics it was an occupation matching the Nazi aggression in its brutality. The allegedly indomitable national struggle against the Russian-Soviet oppression is a myth, on which the regeneration of today’s Baltic states was founded. Thus, restored monuments from pre-Soviet times are explicitly or implicitly anti-Russian in their symbolism. An example of this is the Blackheads House at the Riga Town Hall Square, once a meeting place of wealthy merchants. This magnificent building raised from the 14th to the 17th century, which is seen as an expression of ancient pride of the citizenry, was severely damaged by Wehrmacht artillery fire during World War II and then completely destroyed in the Stalinist times. The reconstruction in the 1990s proceeded under the banner of national resurgence and reclaiming the heritage of Latvian culture, repressed in the Soviet times. The anti-Russian symbolism of the rebuilt edifice is not very distinctly marked, but the house is pointedly adjoined by the Museum of Occupation, documenting the suffering of the Latvian nation under the Soviet rule.

Particularly, in countries which cannot claim a continuous existence as a state, reaching back to distant national history by rebuilding monuments is part of the mission to provide a historical legitimisation of the newly gained sovereignty. It can be clearly seen in the reconstruction of the Royal Palace in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. This medieval complex, expanded in the renaissance era, from the sixteenth century onwards housed the centre of power of the Lithuanian state, which together with the mightier Poland formed a commonwealth with a huge territory. The decline of the Vilnius residence began with its looting by Muscovite troops in the mid-seventeenth century. After the third partition of Poland in 1795, with Vilnius coming under Russian jurisdiction, a merchant had the dilapidated building demolished and sold the bricks as building material. He did that on orders from the new Russian administration. So the responsibility for this act of destruction falls on the tsarist Russia, the imperial predecessor of the Soviet Union. Needless to add, this fact is particularly meaningful for the present symbolism of the Royal Palace. Perhaps, it was one of the main reasons behind the Lithuanian parliament’s decision from 2000 to rebuild this monument using government funds, although after two hundred years of its non-existence the available records and documents concerning its former appearance were scant.

Was the demolition of the Vilnius palace a politically motivated act, like the blowing up of the Moscow Christ the Saviour Cathedral, St. Michael Monastery in Kyiv or the Berlin Castle? Lithuanian scholars answer this question with a forceful “yes.” Vydas Dolinskas sees in the demolition a deliberate policy of destroying the monuments of Lithuanian statehood carried out by an occupying power. This claim is undermined by the fact that removing derelict and disused monuments, even the most important, was a common practice until the late 19th century. But the allegation of a political motivation for the demolition is crucial for the symbolic message of the reconstruction. Its advocates praise it as a retrieval of a national symbol, and as a “compensation for historical losses,” meaning of course losses suffered under the tsarist and then Soviet rule. The rebirth of the palace is perceived as a late triumph of the Lithuanian David over the Russian Goliath.

However, even more important is the function of invoking the history of the Lithuanian state reaching back to the Middle Ages, and thus reinforcing the symbolic power of today’s independence. The opening of the rebuilt palace was deliberately timed for 2009, exactly one millennium after the first mention of Lithuania in historical records. But the plan was thwarted by the financial crisis which severely affected Lithuania. The reinforced concrete structure, with interiors whose character is a matter of conjecture, for historical records are missing, was brought to a stage allowing only a provisional unveiling. It happened on June 6, 2009, a national holiday commemorating the crowning of the only Lithuanian king.

The rebuilding of the Vilnius Palace typifies the desire to symbolically right a perceived historical wrong – the desire connected with the need of a national reaffirmation through an architectural visualisation of one’s own history. But there are many other reasons which explain why reconstructing historic buildings is so popular in Eastern Europe. One of them is the social fears arising from the transition. Poverty and worries about the future, combined with fundamental changes of the urban world, strengthen the everlasting longing for the “good old times.” Reconstructed monumental buildings from epochs of alleged stability provide a sense of order and direction.

Added to that is the reawakening of regional identities, marginalised or regarded as taboo in socialist times. The towns in formerly German areas of northern and western Poland are rediscovering their long-denied past. Reconstruction and loose imitation of architecture which was previously disliked for political reasons is now widespread. In the Russian part of the former East Prussia we also see attempts at re-appropriating history: in Kaliningrad more or less serious plans of reconstructing the castle – demolished in the 1960s – and the adjoining district crop up from time to time.

Another – sometimes even the most important – incentive for reconstruction is the hope for economic profit through the development of tourism. Both politicians and investors know that a historical ambience, or at least one clad in a historical costume, attracts more visitors than modern urban spaces. And the residents react in the same way as the tourists. The misery of living in monotonous and unpleasant modern cities seems to be particularly pervasive in post-socialist countries, where urban space has been degraded not only by masses of dreary prefab blocks, but also by the proliferation of shabby architecture from the period after 1989. But this misery, not only in Eastern Europe, it must be said, is one of the main reasons for the ongoing enthusiasm for reconstruction.

About authors

Arnold Bartetzky

Ph.D., lecturer, architectural critic. Studied art history, German literature, history and philosophy at the universities of Freiburg, Tübingen and Krakow. Expert on architecture, urban planning and visual culture of Central and Eastern Europe from the Renaissance to the present. From 1995 works at the Geisteswissenschaftliches Zentrum Geschichte und Kultur Ostmitteleuropas in Leipzig. Currently takes part in the project Imaginations of Urbanity in the 20th Century.


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