By Jane Slate Siena and M. Kirby Talley Jr.

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The most majestic and beautiful of all the world's cities, it seems, has dozed off the banks of a fast-flowing river . . . resting from storms scudding overhead and the apparitions of the past, hardening into these colonnades, these bronze lions, these eternally smiling sphinxes, into the black angel on the top of Peter and Paul's Fortress . . . And through this drowsiness, waiting for new, even unexpected shocks that will open its granite eyes onto a second life. —Alexei Tolstoy

St. Petersburg has certainly experienced numerous shocks, the first being its unexpected inception at the will of Russia's most determined and inspired czar, Peter the Great. On May 16, 1703, he imperiously declared on Zayachy Island in the Neva River, "The city will be here!" Several hundred thousand serfs were to sacrifice their lives to the realization of Peter's dream, which was rapidly achieved, even by modern standards. It must have shocked both the locals as well as those few privileged foreigners who witnessed throughout the 18th century the rise of an awesomely beautiful architectural phantasm on the marshes of the Neva.

In 1839 the Marquis de Custine spent three months in Russia, and his record of that experience, Empire of the Czar: A Journey through Eternal Russia, is filled with insights into a people who survived and suffered, suffered and survived. Of Peter's city on the Neva, de Custine wrote: "Never, since the construction of the Jewish temple, has the faith of a people in its own destinies raised up from the earth a greater wonder than St. Petersburg. And what renders more truly admirable this legacy, left by one man to his ambitious country, is, that it has been accepted by history."

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History has not always been easy on St. Petersburg. Troubles escalated to the Decembrist uprising of 1825. By today's standards, these proto-Russian dissidents, made up of discontented aristocrats and intellectuals, were a rather civilized and conservative lot. Things grew worse when the only enlightened monarch the Romanov dynasty produced, Alexander II, the "Liberator Czar" who freed the serfs, was murdered by terrorists in a bomb attack in 1881. Alexander III's early death did not help matters, and Nicholas II's well-intended though uninspired personality sealed Russia's fate. Through the upheavals of 1905 and 1917, the dark years of civil war, the ideological "cleansings" of V. I. Lenin (which became the butcheries of Joseph Stalin), and the indescribable traumas of the 900-day siege of the city during World War II, which cost more than half a million lives, St. Petersburg survived with a strength and dignity that masks the sufferings endured by the lively and courageous citizens of Peter the Great's dream.

The Post Soviet Challenge

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Perhaps the greatest shock—one embellished with the sort of irony dear to the Russian soul as dissected by Dostoyevsky—is the realization in Russia today that release from oppression creates its own dangers to human freedom and dignity. When the Soviet Union collapsed, many evils were laid to rest. At the same time, however, certain beneficial aspects of Soviet life—including support for quality education and maintenance of cultural repositories such as museums, monuments, and libraries—came under immense pressure. Modern economic realities suddenly threatened the preservation of the cultural heritage.

The lack of development capital for the city, capitalist or communist, from the 1930s through the late 1980s, resulted in the survival of St. Petersburg's historic architecture. Now the city faces the prospect of a sudden, uncontrolled influx of foreign capital ready to "develop" rather than maintain and preserve this UNESCO World Heritage city, a potential disaster for Peter's dream and his successors' achievements. Whatever their shortcomings, the Romanovs were among the most successful urban developers of all time. Their largely unspoiled legacy is the St. Petersburg of today, an extraordinarily beautiful city still in remarkably authentic condition.

Sadly, this authenticity and so much of the city's vast cultural heritage—which includes museums, universities, libraries, and historic buildings—is threatened by a lack of resources, complex preservation problems, and in some cases neglect. Despite the efforts of St. Petersburg's committed cadre of museum and library professionals, scientists, architects, restorers, and cultural authorities, who have worked in isolation for most of this century, a number of important museums and libraries have reached a state of crisis. Some experts state publicly that if preventive measures are not taken quickly, many collections could disappear within 20 years and their buildings—among the city's architectural jewels—could vanish within 50 years.

Conditions are exacerbated by the historic city center's location along the Neva River and its 86 canals and channels. Damp air, flooding basements, and an antiquated plumbing system are just some of the threats to buildings and collections. Outmoded electrical wiring and a lack of security and fire alarm systems further threaten an irreplaceable heritage. Buildings have gone without routine maintenance for decades, and collections are often crowded into spaces not intended for storage or exhibition.

The challenge for St. Petersburg is to find a way, with respect and sensitivity, to adapt the past for the present and future. No city with such a "Grecian" history can be frozen in time by those who confuse mummification with preservation. But when this great metropolis is temporarily beleaguered by circumstances beyond its control and exposed to forces antithetical to its long-term interests, it needs assistance in preserving its unique heritage, not simply for the sake of its own identity and cultural enrichment but for that of the world well beyond its boundaries.

A Center for Preservation

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The Getty Conservation Institute was among the first in the international cultural community to perceive that St. Petersburg was again experiencing those unexpected shocks endemic to its history. The Institute's involvement with the city's cultural institutions began with the international effort to help save the collections of the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences (then the USSR Academy of Sciences) following a horrific fire in 1988. According to Library Director Valeri Leonov, the 1988 misfortune was "the most disastrous library fire of this century. It claimed over 400,000 books and seriously damaged another 3.6 million. Our recovery would not have been possible without the international assistance we received from the U.S. Library of Congress and the Getty Conservation Institute."

Like the Florence flood of 1966, the library disaster drew world attention. It saddened many, among them Esther Coopersmith, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Carter. "My son is a Russian scholar who used the library frequently for his work," said Mrs. Coopersmith. "He remarked to me that he'd lost a lot of friends in the fire—meaning the documents that had burned."

The Institute's effort to preserve the library's collections in the wake of the disaster led to an appreciation of what needed to be done to protect St. Petersburg's world heritage from further loss. In 1994 the Institute joined with the Russian Academy of Sciences and the city of St. Petersburg to establish the International Center for Preservation. The Center's purpose is to apply the latest findings in conservation science, education, and technology to the preservation of the region's cultural heritage and to provide an active interdisciplinary center for preservation study and practice. Chaired by Mrs. Coopersmith, the Center is now registered as a noncommercial partnership in Russia and incorporated as a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization in the United States.

An inaugural ceremony for the Center was held in June 1995 at its temporary headquarters, made available by then-mayor Anatoly Sobchak, in the 18th-century Lavalle Palace, today home to the State Russian Historical Archives. Lending her help in drawing international attention to the plight of St. Petersburg was Tipper Gore, wife of the vice president of the United States. After leading a three-day conservation tour of the city's museums, libraries, and palaces, Mrs. Gore described at the inaugural ceremony the reasons for her involvement: "In December 1993, when I was here for the first time," she said, "I fell in love with St. Petersburg."

A love of St. Petersburg's historic and cultural treasures permeates the lives of the people who live there. "If you call any family on the weekend and ask where they've been, they'll tell you they've been to a museum, a park, the Hermitage," says Tatyana Alexandrova, a St. Petersburg native and now a member of the Center's staff. "People elsewhere should realize that this is a great city. . . . Every morning I see something different, something more beautiful."

Need and Priorities

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The conservation needs of St. Petersburg, like those throughout the Commonwealth for Independent States, are varied. Required are new ways to prevent further deterioration of objects and to protect entire collections and groups of buildings. Research and training are needed in environmental standards and monitoring, adaptation of old buildings for modern use, sensitive urban development, fire prevention and other emergency preparedness actions, collections management, and safe handling and storage of artworks and archival and library materials. Conserving the city's outdoor marble, bronze, and stone monuments in its numerous historic parks and public places and protecting cathedrals and palaces from pollution present additional challenges.

The first priority of the International Center for Preservation is to provide Russian conservation professionals with information that can assist them in dealing with the conservation problems they confront. A state-of-the-art information facility for the Center is planned; it will include a conservation library of Russian and foreign resources, on-line access to conservation information worldwide, and computer and media laboratories for access to the international cultural community. In addition, there will be exhibitions and publications designed to bring information to and from Russia on a regular basis.

The Center's programs are guided by the philosophy of preventive conservation, a strategy developed in the West that is based on collections-wide care rather than on the less efficient object-by-object treatment approach used in many parts of the world. The Center's seminars cover topics central to preventive conservation, such as disaster prepared-ness, collections management, cultural-heritage tourism development, adaptive reuse of monuments, development of protective legislation, and environmental issues.

The Center is working to take advantage of the scientific expertise found throughout the many institutes of the St. Petersburg Presidium of the venerable Russian Academy of Sciences. Zhores Alferov, vice president of the Academy, is particularly enthusiastic about the Center serving as a catalyst for cooperation between science and the arts. "In my opinion, the Preservation Center has enormous potential because it is located here, where the sciences and culture can unite to save world treasures." (See "The Right Place: A Conversation with Zhores Alferov ")

Under way are programs in security, disaster preparedness, and historic city conservation. In March 1996 the Center launched its first program, "Security Seminar I." (See "The Security Challenge: Preserving Russia's Collections in Changing Times") The importance of the seminar was summed up by Oleg Boev, director of security for the Hermitage Museum and a seminar leader: "In our restless time, we realize the world importance of the unique collections that are gathered under the roof of the Hermitage. The main task undertaken by security officials is the safeguarding of treasures from theft, vandalism, fire, and environmental disasters with the use of the latest findings in technology and, mainly, professional people. . . . When this task—the preservation of past centuries—is completed, we may hope for the future."

Leveraging Resources

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The Center's independent structure, as represented by its board of directors, allows for active fund-raising to support the Center's activities. It was among the first nonprofit partnerships in Russia whose operations and finances are essentially independent of the country's large governmental bureaucracy. Its official registration in June 1996 was itself a milestone in the country's move toward modernization and internationalization.

As with many of its activities, the GCI is attempting to use its involvement in the St. Petersburg Center to leverage additional resources for conservation. The Institute's director, Miguel Angel Corzo, said at the time of the Center's opening, "Our objective is to help stabilize the Center's operations in Russia and to implement an exciting program of work that will attract other contributors who care about the cultural heritage and new partnerships in Russia."

This approach is already showing results. On September 13, 1996, Aad Nuis, State Secretary for Culture for the Netherlands, pledged $200,000 to the Center to establish and administer the Peter the Great Trust Fund. The fund commemorates three hundred years of Russian-Dutch relations, which began with Peter the Great's 1697 visit to the Netherlands, where he studied shipbuilding. In the spirit of this long relationship, Secretary Nuis said he was eager to "match resources with the Getty Conservation Institute to assist in preserving St. Petersburg's cultural and historical heritage." The trust fund follows one and a half years of Dutch collaboration with the GCI to help establish the new Center and almost three years of direct support to the Hermitage Museum.

In June 1996 the Center hosted its first annual White Nights Delegation, organized by the GCI and the Fondazione Memmo, an Italian foundation with an international art program. The seven-day study tour for private individuals who wish to support conservation in St. Petersburg included visits to the city's major cultural institutions for a behind-the-scenes look at their conservation needs. (See "White Nights Delegation").

During the delegation's visit, the newly elected governor of St. Petersburg, Vladimir A. Yakovlev, met with the Center's board of directors. He thanked the board for its efforts and told them, "I am personally committed to supporting ongoing international activities that promote St. Petersburg's cultural heritage." Referring to the recent changes in the city's political leadership, he added, "Please be assured that we will honor our commitment to this important project that brings future benefits to our city." Mr. Yakovlev's first international agreement as governor was signed with the Center, assuring the city's continued cooperation and support.

A Second Life

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The great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin described Peter the Great standing on the banks of the Neva River in 1703 and looking out "over empty marshes with great thoughts." Today a visitor to the same spot looks out at a stunning monument to civilization and urban development. If that visitor desires an insight into human achievement in art, architecture, literature, and science, the city of St. Petersburg offers much. And appropriately so, given the words inscribed on the personal seal of the city's founder: "I belong to those who seek knowledge and are willing to learn."

One modern visitor, U.S. President Bill Clinton, termed St. Petersburg "a city so alive with promise and possibility." But if the city's great promise is to be achieved, those now working hard to preserve its past will need support and encouragement. The International Center for Preservation is an important building block in the creation of a conservation infrastructure that can help ensure the survival of the remarkable cultural wealth amassed in St. Petersburg over the course of three centuries. If its efforts and those of many others engaged in preservation succeed, then this great beauty of a place will endure, in the words of Alexei Tolstoy's poem, the latest "unexpected shocks" and "open its granite eyes onto a second life."

Jane Slate Siena is head of Institutional Relations for the Getty Conservation Institute and president of the St. Petersburg International Center for Preservation. M. Kirby Talley Jr. is an executive counselor with the Ministry of Culture of the Netherlands and a member of the Center's board of directors.

TIME LINE: St. Petersburg International Center for Preservation

1988 February - Fire breaks out at Library of USSR Academy of Sciences; GCI joins international recovery effort

1990 September - Conservation and Disaster Recovery: International Collaboration at the Library of the USSR Academy of Sciences, international conference cosponsored by GCI and U.S. Library of Congress 1992

1992 July - GCI technical mission to St. Petersburg on environmental monitoring and preventive conservation of collections

1992 October - Russian Academy of Sciences Vice President Zhores Alferov and Library Director Valeri Leonov visit GCI to discuss preservation center in St. Petersburg

1993 June - Collections at Risk; second international seminar in St. Petersburg, sponsored by GCI, Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Russian National Library

1993 November

  • St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor for Culture Vladimir P. Yakovlev heads delegation from city in GCI-sponsored tour of U.S. conservation facilities
  • GCI, Russian Academy of Sciences, and city of St. Petersburg establish partnership to develop St. Petersburg International Center for Preservation
  • Partners delegate Task Force to outline issues for creation of new Center

1994 March

  • Center's Task Force meetings in St. Petersburg
  • Photographic survey by GCI of cultural heritage in St. Petersburg
  • Survey by GCI scientists of conservation laboratories in St. Petersburg
  • City of St. Petersburg commits to finding home for Center

1994 May - Incorporation of Center in United States

1994 September - GCI office established in Washington, D.C.to promote Center's development

1994 October - Delivery of Getty Grant Program-supported equipment to Library of the Russian