Preservation of cultural heritage or lucrative business: Making money on restoration
Restoration of historical architectural heritage is a gross temptation for bureaucrats working in the sphere of culture. Budget funds are generously allocated for such a noble cause – while numerous corruption schemes allow to embezzle significant amounts. Many officials impudently run shady deals and don’t care of historical monuments – which are restored with gross violations, dilapidate and fall into disrepair. So what are the outcomes of this false care about our historical heritage?
Cultural values and their preservation
Virtually any Russian city has old buildings diligently preserved by past generations.
Currently the Integrated State Register of Cultural Heritage Objects (Historical and Cultural Monuments) of Nations of the Russian Federation includes 30,197 items. Two thirds of those are masterpieces of old architecture.
Most valuable cultural heritage, having special significance for the whole world, is preserved by UNESCO. The official UNESCO World Heritage List includes 26 monuments in Russia – mostly old buildings and unique natural objects, including the Moscow Kremlin, Kazan Kremlin, historical centers of St. Petersburg, Veliky Novgorod, Vladimir, Suzdal, Derbent citadel and fortress, the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, Novodevichy Convent, and many others.
Ideally, all these treasures inherited from our ancestors must be preserved and carefully restored for future generations. But in reality the preservation is often limited to nice rhetoric – while governmental officials responsible for the cultural heritage just line their pockets.
The Federal Law № 73-FZ of June 25, 2002 (version of March 9, 2016) “On Cultural Heritage Objects (Historical and Cultural Monuments) of Nations of the Russian Federation” regulates activities of state authorities in this area. According to Article 13 of this law, preservation, promotion, and protection of historical and cultural monuments is funded from the federal, regional, and local budgets as well as from non-budgetary sources. Authorities of all levels have the right to assign funding for these purposes.
In order to receive federal funding for restoration of a cultural heritage object, the respective officials only need an expert historical and cultural assessment stating that certain works are required. Good connections and official powers make it easy to obtain such a document. A few approvals at the local and regional level – and voila, hundreds of millions rubles become available.
The Federal Law “On Cultural Heritage Objects (Historical and Cultural Monuments) of Nations of the Russian Federation” also imposes liabilities for violations of its provisions. According to Article 61 of the Law, for neglect of duties related to preservation of cultural heritage, officials and organizations can be prosecuted criminally or administratively in accordance with the applicable legislation. Persons inflicting damages to an architectural monument must compensate the cost of restoration – which does not release them from liability for such actions in accordance with the applicable legislation.
“At least, do not damage”
Candidate of historical sciences Dmitry Belozersky told the CrimeRussia that many experts are concerned with the current situation:
“Basically, no one restores cultural heritage. Very often companies – winners of tenders for reconstruction of old architectural monuments – do not even have skilled builders, not to speak of professional restorers. After such restoration works, local lore experts and museum workers just lift their hands in dismay,” – Dmitry laments.
According to the historian, the worst thing is that corrupt officials and their subordinate organizations are trying to conceal the absence of real restoration and commit arsons. These vandals (how else can you call them?) think that fire would allow them to write off millions of budget rubles – and set on fire real pearls of the Russian history and culture.
“There are plenty of examples. All experts are aware that the Izborsk Fortress, one of the oldest architectural ensembles of Russia, was severely damaged by improper restoration,” – the historian complains.
Belozersky knows from his sources, close to officials, that there are many ways of making illegal money on reconstruction of cultural heritage. The most common tricks are:
- kickbacks from businesses for awarded tenders;
- depositing budget funds to foreign banks in order to pull down high interest rates;
- direct larcenies;
- purposive overcharging the contract cost;
- allocation of budget funds for affiliated businesses to compensate their losses allegedly sustained due to the restoration of a historical or cultural monument.
“There are dozens of tricks. Usually the tenders are won by the same – ‘friendly to certain officials’ – organizations owned by relatives or friends of the state servants. People working in museums or historical centers got used to it: Let them steal as much as they can – but at least, do not damage our cultural heritage,” – Dmitry says.
Izborsk Fortress failed Deputy Minister
Speaking of the Izborsk Fortress, the expert meant a high-profile corruption scandal with the restoration of this monument. The following persons have been charged of machinations with budget funds by law enforcement authorities: Grigory Pirumov, Deputy Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation; Boris Mazo, Director of the Department for Property Management and Investment Policies of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation; Oleg Ivanov, Head of the Tsentr Restavratsii (Center for Restoration) Federal State Unitary Enterprise; and some businessmen involved into the corruption schemes.
The suspects in this criminal case are currently jailed in Lefortovo pre-trial Detention Facility. The high-ranked officials have been arrested in March 2016. According to the investigation, the suspects embezzled funds not only during the reconstruction of the Izborsk Fortress, but also during restoration works in Novodevichy and John the Baptist convents, Kaluga Space Museum, and Pskov Drama Theater. The total damage incriminated to Grigory Pirumov, Deputy Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation, and his colleagues is 100 million rubles.
Three years ago, under pressure from local historians and Izborsk residents unhappy with the restoration results, law enforcement authorities started an investigation of machinations committed by the officials. In May 2013, the Investigations Directorate for the Pskov Region of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation has initiated a criminal case under part 1 of Article 286 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (Exceeding of Official Powers). According to the investigation, in November 2012 the high-ranked governmental officials have signed an acceptance certificate for the repairs and restoration of the Izborsk Fortress Ensemble cultural heritage monument – although nothing was actually done there.
Izborsk is one of the oldest towns in Russia, it is located in the Pskov region. The first reference to it in the famous “Tale of Bygone Years” chronicle is dated 862 AD. Celebration of the 1150th Anniversary of Izborsk was officially approved by President Dmitry Medvedev (Decree № 685 of June 7, 2010). In conjunction with this anniversary, the Federal Ministry of Culture has decided to perform large-scale restoration works in Izborks State Historical, Cultural, Architectural, and Landscape Museum-Reserve.
The official web-site of the Ministry says: “In the framework of activities related to the celebration of the 1150th Anniversary of Izborsk, conservation (restoration) works have been performed with the Izborsk Fortress Ensemble and the Cross of Truvor; a complex of museum buildings – historical and cultural heritage objects – have been restored. The Museum-Reserve infrastructure updated: capital renovation of Peasant’s Manor has been completed, a stationery parking lot put into operation. New museum exhibits opened”.
But if everything was fine, why were the Deputy Minister Grigory Pirumov and his colleagues arrested? As it turned out, local lore experts, historians, and residents were outraged by the poor quality of restoration works performed by the contractor – Baltstroy company – for 300 million rubles from the Federal Budget. No professional restorers were retained for the works – instead, Gastarbeiters crews had been hastily hired right before the jubilee and did the best they could. The results of this restoration were so awful, that the law enforcement authorities started an inquiry into operations of some Ministry of Culture officials.
Only friendly companies get the job
Some civil servants managed to wash their hands in proper time. For example, Irina Tarasova, Director of the Department for State Support of Art and People’s Arts of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, has resigned from her post in September 2015. Interestingly, in the period of spring 2009 – fall 2014 she was the Minister of Culture of the Astrakhan Region, and some her activities had also raised questions.
Maksim Polyansky, an Astrakhan historian and local lore expert, told the CrimeRussia that Irina Tarasova used to lobby interests of two Moscow companies: MOSSIB and Liana.
“Upon becoming the head of the regional Ministry of Culture, she immediately sprang into action and started reconstruction of many historical monuments in our region. Take, for example, restoration of the Astrakhan Kremlin and Museum of Local Lore. And the contractors were her friendly companies; Tarasova assisted them in securing budget funding,” – Maksim says.
According to him, people involved into the cultural heritage preservation in the Astrakhan region are very well aware of machinations committed by the regional ex-Minister. For example, the restoration completion date for the Museum of Local Lore had been postponed several times because MOSSIB retained as a contractor some Stabilnost (Stability) Limited Liability Company having neither skilled specialists, nor required construction materials.
“The difference between the actually-performed works and parameters set in the cost estimate documentation was glaring. Although all Astrakhan Museum of Local Lore employees had to say that they are satisfied with the restoration. But what could they do? The authorities, in the person of Tarasova, would not tolerate any other reaction,” – Polyansky states.
He says that an employee of Nasledie (Heritage) State Autonomous Institution of the Astrakhan Region – the developer of the Museum reconstruction project – was outraged with the poor quality of works. Neither was the expert satisfied with the restoration of the Annunciation Monastery in Astrakhan:
“Walls and ceilings had been plastered in a hurry, by very unskilled construction workers. After the official acceptance of work, cracks started to appear; everybody was shocked. Not only historians and local lore experts were outraged, but also ordinary people, pretty far from our sphere,” – the historian says.
Razing to the ground
Maksim Polyansky told the CrimeRussia that, as per instructions from ex-Minister Irina Tarasova, a number of old homes located in the center of Astrakhan have been deprived of the regional cultural heritage status. This trick allowed to demolish them and use the land for commercial development. Some buildings have been razed by the fake restorers to the ground – and new hotels and malls replaced historical and cultural monuments.
For example, the Mansion of Ivanov dated the 19th century (46 Fioletova st., Astrakhan) used to be a two-storey building as recently as in August 2012 – while after the reconstruction it became a four-storey house. The Guest House of Yagulov dated the beginning of the 19th century (12 Kirova st., Astrakhan) has collapsed during the restoration. The new building, which is currently under construction, will have one extra storey to increase its interior space.
“But the most intolerable is that the new owners of these modern buildings receive generous compensations from the budget for allegedly performed reconstruction of the historical and cultural monuments,” – Maksim says.
He believes that businessmen, who have received land lots in the center of the city and erected new buildings for themselves at the expense of the government, must be, at least, grateful to the regional Ministry of Culture. Furthermore, Irina Tarasova could not perform such machinations alone – which means that people close to Aleksander Zhilkin, the Governor of the Astrakhan Region, must be somehow involved into these schemes, while high-ranked law enforcement authorities were closing eyes on what was happening there. It was a well-established business.
A similar story occurred with a federal cultural heritage monument – the Moscow Trading Company building – built in 1790 (4 Sovetskaya st./18 Kirova st., Astrakhan). The historical building was demolished to the ground, and Novomoskovskaya hotel erected on its place.
Unfortunately such a disastrous situation with restoration of architectural monuments is typical for many Russian regions. Corruption among bureaucrats working in the sphere of culture has reached unprecedented levels. Governmental officials handle buildings of great historical value as their own property. The only solution is to introduce independent public control procedures for all restoration works performed in any part of the Russian Federation.