Palaces to go under hammer

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Anatoly Korolyov.)  Russia is about to privatize historical and cultural monuments, thus entering a new phase of its post-Soviet history.

The government has drafted a bill lifting the moratorium on the privatization of princely palaces, former manorial estates of the nobility, landscaped parks, and other seats of the aristocracy.

The initiative to lift the moratorium came from the president, and the State Duma plans to prepare the relevant legislation at the end of September. Culture Minister Alexander Sokolov is sure the Duma will support the presidential initiative, and from January 1, 2006 any private person will be able to buy a cultural monument at an auction.

But would it not happen that instead of the fairy-tale casket we will open a Pandora's box and privatization will trigger off a new war?

St. Petersburg is going to be the main battleground. While in Moscow practically every palace or mansion or palazzo is occupied either by state institutions or embassies or museums, in St. Petersburg assorted owners, including beauty parlors and beer halls, lease hundreds of cultural monuments. Most of these relics are in a deplorable state. This is why St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko has been lobbying the lifting of the moratorium for years because, she argues, there will shortly be no mansions left to sell. Yet the state has a real goldmine on its hands, a source of revenue comparable to oil and gas revenues. St. Petersburg has already drawn up a list of 20 palaces coveted by eight banks.

The most desirable property is the palace once owned by Grand Duke Alexei on the Moika Embankment. The price has not been set yet, but the sum involved runs into tens of millions of dollars.

The president agrees: yes, this is a plentiful source of budgetary revenue.

The idea of privatization of historical and cultural monuments cannot be challenged: the state has no money to keep the many thousands of unique buildings in good repair.

The first to raise the issue was President Yeltsin in 1994. Five attempts to start selling the palaces followed. The present one is the sixth, but ...

But Moscow became the stumbling block, with the city hall and the government jockeying for the right to cultural treasures. Unlike St. Petersburg, the capital's pie is divided up, with each piece belonging to a potent landlord, lessee, or owner. Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, for example, has accused the Moscow government of misappropriating 1,500 federally owned cultural monuments.

Today the first phase of the war may be considered over. The city hall has retreated.

But we are forgetting that every palace, every mansion and each parcel of nationalized property is haunted, with rare exceptions, by the ghost of its former owner: more often than not they are noblemen, heirs of famous families, and although today they are all ruined, scattered all over the world, and have changed names, they enjoy jus primae nocti. The right may be mythical, but it is there.

And if the Ryabushinsky mansion, now housing the Gorky Museum, or the Ostankino Palace, which once belonged to the Counts Shuvalov, happens to be put up for auction, the sale may be challenged by descendants of the famous families, and such people do exist.

The royal House of Romanov thrives abroad, there is even a young contender to a possible throne, representatives of the most illustrious families such the Bobrinskys and Golitsins have survived, and the Moscow assembly of nobility is gaining in strength. Genealogical charts are being restored. There are the offspring of the earlier pre-Soviet capitalists. In short, heirs will come forward.

And they will have the constitutional norm on the sanctity of private property on their side. This norm is the same for the "old" and the "new" Russians. And millions paid for a palace built by its one-time owner will not invalidate the rights of its descendants, poor as they may be today.

Meanwhile, Russia already has a precedent - recently, at the end of July, Moscow businessman Sergei Leontyev, a descendant of Generalissimo Count Alexander Suvorov, purchased a pioneer camp outside Rostov Veliky, the site of the generalissimo's former estate.

It proved a happy coincidence: the estate had been put up for sale by the Rostov municipality, there were no other bidders except Leontyev, and no auction had to be arranged. As a result, the businessman purchased his ancestral home for a trifling sum of $45,000.

The new owner was issued with a charter of immunity stipulating, among other things, that the place (so dear to patriotic-minded Russians) will be open to all visitors.

Even here the wishes of the authorities and the owner coincided. Leontyev had not intended to raise a high concrete fence around the property. In one half of the mansion he plans to establish a Suvorov museum, and in the other to open a 5-star hotel. All in all, the owner contemplates spending over one million dollars on restoring the estate, landscaped park, stables, kennels, and farmyard.

But this rare harmony between the state and a private owner is the exception to the rules. The coming privatization of cultural monuments, although unquestionably necessary, will generate fresh upheavals.

It is planned to auction off up to 60,000 regionally-owned buildings and about 25,000 federally-owned relics.

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