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Saving Stalin's Imperial City: Historic Preservation in Leningrad, 1930-1950

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Saving Stalin’s Imperial City is the history of the successes and failures in historic preservation and of Leningraders’ determination to honor the memory of the terrible siege the city had endured during World War II. The book stresses the counterintuitive nature of Stalinist policies, which allocated scarce wartime resources to save historic monuments of the tsarist and imperial past even as the very existence of the Soviet state was being threatened, and again after the war, when housing, hospitals, and schools needed to be rebuilt. Postwar Leningrad was at the forefront of a concerted restoration effort, fueled by commemorations that glorified the city’s wartime experience, encouraged civic pride, and mobilized residents to rebuild their hometown. For Leningrad, the restoration of monuments and commemorations of the siege were intimately intertwined, served similar purposes, and were mutually reinforcing.

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1 Old Petersburg, Preservation Movements, and the Soviet State’s “Turn to the Past”

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ONE

At the turn of the twentieth century, european intellectuals were becoming increasingly interested in locating their nation’s past in historic monuments. Across the continent, institutions, organizations, and interest groups formed to protect and preserve the “tangible links” to their nation’s revered history.1 In 1903, Alois Riegl, a prominent Austrian art historian, wrote an essay on what he called the “modern cult of monuments.” He focused on the way people assign meaning and value to the built environment, and argued that there are essentially two types of monuments: deliberate and unintentional. Deliberate monuments are those sculptures, statues, buildings, and other forms of expression that are meant from the moment of their creation to mark an occasion or preserve the memory of a person or event. Unintentional monuments, on the other hand, are those which are attributed value as monuments, or defined as such by viewers, at a later date; their commemorative value is assigned only after they are created. While unintentional monuments are not built to commemorate, they nevertheless have historical value as witnesses to a bygone age, event, or individual. Such places are infused with meaning by later generations and become “stone documents” which tell a certain story.2

 

2 These Monuments Must Be Protected!: Leningrad’s Imperial Cityscape at War

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TWO

On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany Invaded the Soviet Union with the largest invasion force ever assembled – more than three million German soldiers aided by another five hundred thousand troops from countries allied to the Third Reich. Although a pact of nonaggression had been signed between the two states in August 1939, Hitler had no intention of adhering to it. During the first two years of war, his ultimate goal remained the destruction of the “Judeo-Bolshevik” state in the east and the conquest of territory that would be used as Lebensraum, or living space, for the German people.1 Stalin and the Soviet leadership had no doubt that Hitler’s forces would eventually attack, but they (Stalin in particular) were unprepared for the assault when it came, in spite of evidence that clearly outlined German plans.2 Stalin refused to believe that Hitler would invade before he had conquered England; indeed, the Soviet leader was certain that Hitler would not risk a two-front war, which would put Germany in the same disastrous situation it faced during the First World War. Yet Hitler’s plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union developed as early as the summer of 1940, during the Battle of Britain. In late July, Hitler told his army commanders to consider an attack on the Soviet Union, and on 18 December, when ill-fated attempts to conquer Britain were put on indefinite hold, Hitler issued a directive calling for the destruction of the Soviet state – Operation Barbarossa.3

 

3 Playing “Projecting Soviet Power: Historic Restoration as Commemoration in Postwar Leningrad

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THREE

After lifting the siege of leningrad, soviet forces continued to better the Wehrmacht in battle after battle. The Red Army recaptured Sevastopol and forced the Germans out of the Crimean Peninsula in May 1944, and by July, Stalin’s troops had liberated Minsk from occupation and pushed Hitler’s armies from Soviet territory. The areas of the country which had been occupied were utterly devastated. When the Wehrmacht retreated, it massacred civilian populations, drove thousands more westward as slave laborers, and burned whole villages to deprive partisans and Soviet forces of resources. As a result of occupation and war, 25 percent of the Soviet Union’s physical assets had been destroyed, and 14 percent of its population was lost to death and displacement.1 The housing shortages that were commonplace before the war became drastically more acute in the postwar period. In many places where battles had been fought, the majority of homes had been either fully destroyed or rendered uninhabitable.2

 

4 “When Ivan Comes, There Will Be Nothing Left”: Rebuilding and Reimagining the Historic Monuments in Leningrad’s Suburbs

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FOUR

The restoration of the imperial palaces and parks surrounding the city was a key element in Leningrad’s postwar restoration. The Germans had taken Gatchina, Pavlovsk, Peterhof, and Pushkin at the end of August 1941. During the occupation they systematically pillaged, defiled, and partially destroyed the historic monuments in these suburbs. When they were forced to retreat from their positions, they burned and blew up much of what remained of the eighteenth-century landmarks. After the Soviet forces captured the suburbs in mid-January 1944, what they found could be summed up in what Richard Wurf, a rank-and-file German soldier, wrote on the wall of the Gatchina Palace: “We were here, but we will not return. When Ivan comes, there will be nothing left.”1

Despite – and arguably because of – the vast scale of destruction (the Germans having carried out this promise), the country’s preservationist community was determined to restore the suburban palaces to their prewar state. Immediately after the suburbs were liberated, preservationists and architectural authorities from Leningrad and Moscow held meetings and conferences to discuss restoration, as well as what the palaces would be used for. At the time, however, the colossal damage inflicted upon the palaces led some officials to believe that restoration was impossible. In the ensuing fight to have the suburban palace-park complexes restored, preservationists were able to draw upon official state ideology and argue that these historic sites were irreplaceable symbols of Russian power and imperial might. The preservationists’ desire for almost complete restoration conflicted with the central authorities’ early plans of only partial restoration, leading to a compromise calling for the restoration of the suburban palaces to varying degrees.

 

5 Becoming “Leningraders”: Official Commemorations of the Blockade

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FIVE

In the immediate postwar years, soviet authorities and citizens sought to preserve the memory of the war and create an image of a self-sacrificing people who heroically withstood the treacherous attack of the “fascist barbarians.” Even before the war ended, the press began to valorize the Soviet people and their accomplishments. The leadership commissioned histories of the Great Patriotic War and ordered the collection of materials and documents to chronicle wartime events. Artists submitted proposals for war memorials to competitions organized by the Union of Architects, and central planners sought to reconstruct some of the country’s destroyed cities as museum spaces dedicated to the war.1 In short, throughout the Soviet Union there was a genuine popular desire to celebrate and selectively remember the most devastating conflict in the country’s history, which fed into the creation of a state-sponsored myth of the Great Patriotic War.2

Leningraders, too, sought to memorialize the war, and plans for commemoration began well before the siege was lifted.3 The city’s party and soviet leadership spearheaded efforts to preserve and shape the memory of the blockade through official publications, commemorative sites, and annual celebrations marking the anniversary of the lifting of the siege on 27 January 1944. Official commemorations and personal recollections of the blockade complemented each other, notes Lisa Kirschenbaum. The official story drew on personal trauma to establish the “emotional authenticity” of the event, while individuals used the state’s narrative to “invest their wartime experiences with historic significance.”4 Providing a sanitized view of the blockade, official commemorations of the city’s wartime experience emphasized the heroic suffering and steadfast determination of the population: they mythologized Leningrad and the “Leningrader,” transforming them into “heroic symbols” whose sacrifices and actions were meant to be emulated.5

 

6 Cold War Complications: Soviet Patriotism, Historic Restoration, and the End of Blockade Commemorations

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SIX

The postwar restoration of historic monuments and commemorations of the blockade took place against the background of growing international tensions and corresponding domestic anxieties. Whereas the Soviet Union had been an ally of the United States and Britain during the war, that relationship – fraught with tensions from the beginning – came to an end very soon after the defeat of Nazi Germany, and the former allies found themselves on opposing sides of the emerging Cold War. This new conflict was most immediately felt in the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, but it also had a tremendous impact on internal Soviet politics and everyday life.1 The developing confrontation with the West, in fact, manifested itself in the ideological dictates of the postwar Stalin regime.2 With the Cold War in full swing by 1947, Moscow was intent on imposing ideological conformity on the Soviet population, hoping to ensure loyalty and unity in the new battle with the West.

 

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