Historical Preservation in Northwestern Russia after World War II

A review of The Material Culture of Stalinism, The City of Novgorod, Urban Reconstruction, and Historic Preservation in the Soviet Union After World War II (1943-1955), by Marina Dobronovskaya.

Marina Dobronovskaya’s dissertation is an examination, rich in archival sources, of Soviet urban planning and historic restoration ideas, policies, and bureaucracies in the pre- and immediate postwar periods, particularly as relating to the historically important city of Novgorod. Among the strengths of this dissertation, two are worth noting immediately. The first is that this work is multi-disciplinary as is appropriate for a dissertation in Preservation Studies: it combines the study of urban planning with architectural, political, economic, and cultural history. The second is the comparison of these themes as they developed in Soviet Russia to developments in a broader European context.

The dissertation includes an introduction and conclusion, six body chapters organized thematically and chronologically, and nearly sixty images. The introduction makes clear the scale of destruction during World War II and the resulting importance of reconstruction throughout Europe, but particularly in the Soviet Union where “close to seventy-five percent of urban and rural settlements lay in ruins and 25,000,000 people were left homeless” (p. 1). Novgorod had not been an economically important city but it was historically important and had become a symbol of Russian resistance during the war when Russian nationalism’s propaganda value became essential and even Orthodox practice was allowed. As such, Novgorod, an early Russian city with ties to important historic figures such as the warrior-prince Alexander Nevskii, serves Dobronovskaya as a case study of “historic preservation planning within the broader context of urban planning; [of] how the needs of preservation and reconstruction of architectural monuments affected, and were affected by, policies of urban reconstruction and development after World War II” (p. 7). The study ends in roughly 1955, by which time, according to Dobronovskaya and the historiography of European postwar rebuilding, planners and architects had become less concerned with reconstruction and more concerned with moving away from planning and building that responded directly to the destruction of the war.

In addition to laying out the dissertation, the introduction provides an overview of this historiography for both Western and Eastern Europe, and argues, correctly, that the work is a step towards addressing the dearth of studies on preservation in the Soviet Union and the scarcity of English-language works on the history of Soviet urban planning. (Karl Qualls, one of the few authors to address such issues, served on Dobronovskaya’s committee.) Dobronovskaya also notes the recent work of Andreas Schönle on Russian imperial perceptions of ruins and Steven Maddox’s study of the shift from revolutionary iconoclasm to the rehabilitation of the pre-revolutionary past, as well as the work of postwar geographers on urbanization and housing. She argues that, regarding the broad picture of historic preservation in Russia, “there exists only one fundamental and reliable study,” which was edited by Aleksei Shchenkov and published in 2004. Her work is also meant to complement scholarship on other aspects of postwar urban life, such as the work of Donald Filtzer, Elena Zubkova, and Elena Trubina. Finally, it is worth mentioning that several of the most important studies upon which she modeled her work are themselves comparative across cities. These include the essay collections Remembering, Forgetting and City Builders (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010) and Three Postwar Eras in Comparison: Western Europe, 1918-1945-1989 (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), and the work of Nick Tiratsoo on English reconstruction and of Jeffry Diefendorf on German reconstruction, as well as Anders Åman’s monograph, Architecture and Ideology in Eastern Europe during the Stalin Era: An Aspect of Cold War History (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992).

Chapter One, “Soviet Urban Planning and Historic Preservation in the European Context,” argues that the related modernist movements such as the International style and Constructivism, so important in the 1920s, started to give way in Soviet Russia in May 1930 when the Central Committee of the Communist Party first intervened in architectural and urban planning discussions. The Soviet Union was not the only country to turn in the 1930s towards a “totalitarian” style, which made selective use of the trends of the war and early interwar periods, however. So,

[d]espite the revolutionary isolation of the Soviet Union prior to 1946, architecture and urban planning there developed within the mainstream of European trends. After the war, while Soviet practice followed and extended these same trends, practice and ideology in other countries, especially the defeated “totalitarian” states shifted dramatically. From this perspective, Soviet post-war urban planning can be seen as conservative rather than revolutionary. Soviet victory in the war served to legitimate the monumentalism of the totalitarian style of urban planning and architecture from before the war, even while practice and theory in the defeated areas of Europe took different directions in accordance with the establishment of new, more democratic, systems of government (p. 50).

For those of us less familiar with the developments in these fields, architectural drawings and urban plans provide important visual clarifications of the ideas and styles under discussion during the interwar period and the continuities and discontinuities between the avant-garde and Socialist Realist work.

The first chapter concludes by providing the reader with a sense of the scale of the destruction throughout Europe that led governments to take the lead in reconstruction after war. Priorities and approaches were different in different countries, however, with Western European states supporting local governments and planning and encouraging residents’ participation in related discussions, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, focusing on housing needs. In the developing socialist bloc, the central governments played much larger roles. In the Soviet Union in particular, the unparalleled destruction led to not only bureaucratic changes, but also to a focus on industrial needs rather than on housing, the development of city plans for 250 cities by 1950, and the increased importance of pre-revolutionary Russian architectural heritage.

The second chapter, “Agency and Practice,” looks at the histories of urban planning and historic preservation in the Soviet Union in the interwar, war, and postwar periods and finds bureaucratic confusion and unattainable goals. Different commissariats were responsible for their own planning needs, resulting in an enormous number of stakeholders with their own goals, funding, and champions. Central, republic-level, regional, and local stakeholders also had different priorities and shortcomings. As Dobronovskaya argues, this bureaucratic mess with the push for rapid industrialization and extensive immigration into old and new cities, combined with an insufficient number of trained planners and architects, meant that few Soviet cities were truly planned or modernized. In addition to this set of problems, Soviet historic preservation was also hampered by two other elements: first, most structures recognized as historical monuments had been built by the defeated class enemies, such as earlier regimes, the Orthodox Church, and members of the upper classes; and second, the space and construction materials these structures could provide could be “utilized” for Soviet purposes. As a very old and historically politically important city, Novgorod had a large number of such structures, several of which are discussed at various points throughout the work. This chapter, like those that follow, makes very clear that although Soviet historians use the word “totalitarian” and write extensively about how the Soviet Union was centrally controlled, the country was far from being either. Moreover, “the complexity, confusion, lack of clear jurisdictions, and policy contradictions that described the bureaucracies of urban planning and preservation were typical” (p. 164).

Aleksei Shchusev’s career as a planner and preservationist and his important scheme for postwar Novgorod are the subjects of the third chapter, “A. V. Shchusev and Novgorod.” Dobronovskaya sees the career of the architect, best known as the architect of Lenin’s tomb on Red Square, as a strong representation of not just the “ideological and stylistic trends in architecture, urban planning, and reconstruction of historic towns” (p. 50) of the first half of the twentieth century, but also of the possibilities for leading figures in their respective fields to simultaneously benefit from, represent, and challenge the programs and ideas put forth by the state. His plan for Novgorod, designed towards the end of his career and during a short period of liberalization from 1944-1946 in which Western ideas in planning and preservation were acceptable, was not typical for a Socialist Realist city plan. Rather it combined stylistic elements that he desired with the restoration of particular architectural monuments. Creating a plan for Novgorod was an especially important commission. As Dobronovskaya demonstrates, “[s]everal unique factors—the high concentration of architectural monuments, the ideological shift of the regime, the revival of a mythically heroic Russian past, and the history of Novgorod—provided the context that made the reconstruction of the city important for the Soviet government” (pp. 190-191). Although the Russian Republic’s Council of People’s Commissars approved his general plan at the end of 1945, Shchusev’s decision to focus on Novgorod’s historical importance rather than its industrial potential became very problematic. In many ways, these seemingly incompatible identities shaped the bureaucratic entanglements and struggles as it did many of the failures of the planning and preservation processes, all of which are recounted in the second half of the dissertation and all of which, Dobronovskaya argues, were typical of the Soviet experience.

“Reconstruction and Restoration in Novgorod: The Beginning (1944-1949)” demonstrates that reconstruction planning was underway even before the war was over and that it was the chaos resulting from the proliferation of planners and plans that made success impossible. This fourth chapter begins with Novgorod’s liberation in January 1944 after two years of German occupation and the ensuing rapid return of residents, of whom military officers apparently only found fifty-four as the Germans retreated, despite a small number of intact buildings. The number and variety of decrees issued after this liberation and related to reconstruction make the head spin even today and allowed local politicians and builders then to manipulate the scanty resources available for their own ends, personal and/or political. Efforts to promote the development of housing; municipal services, such as water and sewage systems; and industrial development suffered from overlapping bureaucracies, unenforced legislation, scarce resources, poor workmanship, and corruption. Little had been achieved by 1949.

In 1949, urban planning experienced a dramatic shift away from focusing on urban development for the typical resident towards a monumentalism glorifying the state. “Changing Directions (1949-1955),” the fifth chapter, explains how this shift, together with two events of 1949—the purge of officials during the Leningrad affair and the death of Shchusev, a critical proponent of maintaining Novgorod’s historic urban core—encouraged urban planning designed to promote the city’s industrialization and administrative importance. Shchusev’s plan had come under strong attack before his death and regional authorities had requested a new general plan for the city from the Soviet Council of Ministers in late 1948. The Council approved a revision of Shchusev’s plan at the beginning of 1953 but a detailed plan of the city’s center to flesh out this revision did not become law until 1957. This plan called for a mix of old and new: preservation of elements of the historic center and new boulevards connecting the railway station and a new, central Victory Square alongside the old Kremlin. New housing units would be taller than Shchusev had desired and public buildings would be erected on Victory Square. In the years it took for this plan to work its way through the system, work had been carried out but much more remained to be done, with housing for the rapidly growing population being a particular problem. The 1950s were important, nonetheless, and Dobronovskaya notes that today Novgorod clearly reflects that era.

The sixth and final chapter, “Historic Preservation,” begins by noting a problem common to Soviet studies, namely, the inability of scholars to rely on official numbers. Dobronovskaya does a good job of tracking the changes made to the official register of architectural monuments in Novgorod beginning with the earliest post-revolutionary compilation. Of particular concern for her study are two complexes at the heart of the historic center: the Kremlin and Yaroslav’s Court, and several churches dating from the twelfth through seventeenth centuries. “Adaptive use,” both official and unofficial, damaged buildings further. So, in addition to the damage caused by the war, none of the structures fared well in the postwar period. Historical structures were used as housing, storage facilities, small plants, office space, and toilets; none received the attention needed. Even the reconstruction of the Kremlin, deemed ideologically important, was controversial although it received significantly more attention than the other monuments and nearly all of the funds devoted to restoration. Restoration officials were purged in the summer of 1950, exacerbating problems. Dobronovskaya ends the chapter on a happier note, addressing the conservation and stabilization projects that had taken place by 1955 and the creation in 1958 of the Novgorod State Historical-Architectural Preserve, a collection of ensembles and structures to be protected and supported by the Russian Republic’s Ministry of Culture. This designation marked an official recognition of an idea that Shchusev had promoted, namely that Novgorod’s historic core could serve not only as a source of pride but as an economic driver through tourism.

English-language case studies of urban planning for the Soviet Union are unusual. Even more uncommon are studies of historic preservation. Happily, both fields are growing, albeit slowly. More broadly for students of governance and or Soviet history, this dissertation is a rare in-depth case study of state administration in the Soviet Union that spans the era of World War II and looks specifically at the provinces. Dobronovskaya’s admirable work at disentangling the people and organizations involved helps explain a typical and very bumpy trajectory for the modernization of Soviet towns and uncovers some of the hidden costs of the Stalinist system. After all, as Dobronovskaya reminds us, the Stalinist system was one of “dysfunctional totalitarianism—not a rationally working, command administrative system of governance, but an overlapping tangle of bureaucratic levels and authorities” in which local authorities were able to resist central directives (p. 357). Importantly, this work places Soviet developments in urban planning and historic preservation into a comparative European framework and draws heavily on the archives. All of this makes it rich in examples to be considered for students in any of these aforementioned fields.

Dr. Susan Smith
Independent Scholar

Primary Sources

State Archive of Novgorod Region (GANO)
State Archive of Contemporary History of Novgorod Oblast, former archive of the Oblast Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR (GANINO)
State Archive of Russian Federation (GARF)
Russian State Archive of the Economy (RGAE)
Published documents from the inaccessible archival collection of Aleksei V. Shchusev located in the State Museum of Architecture

Dissertation Information

University of Delaware. 2013. 380 pp. Primary Advisor: Robert Warren.

Image: The Arcade of Novgorod’s Gostinyi Dvor (Trade Rows), built in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (photograph by author).

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