The Art of Restoration

LEV PETROV is the Director of the Institute for the Restoration of Historic Monuments in Moscow and the man most familiar with the artistic and dedicated work which has gone into the rebuilding of the cathedrals and historic shrines and the restoration or uncovering of the ancient icons.


IMMEDIATELY after the October Revolution in 1917, the Soviet government took effective measures to protect cultural relics. Government commissars charged with the task of ensuring the safety of art and historical treasures were assigned to all museums and palaces of Petrograd. A special order was issued to safeguard and make an inventory of historical and art treasures concentrated in the Winter Palace, the residence of Russian czars.

The People’s Commissariat of Education, as the Ministry of Education was called at that time, issued an appeal “To Workers, Peasants, Soldiers, Sailors, and All Citizens of Russia.” The appeal said:

In addition to natural riches, toilers have inherited great cultural riches: buildings of inimitable beauty, museums full of rare and beautiful objects, both instructive and inspiring, libraries preserving vast spiritual treasures, and so forth.

All this is the property of the people. All this will help the poor man — and his children — quickly to go beyond the former ruling classes, will help him to become a new man, heir to the old culture and creator of an entirely new culture.

Comrades, we must vigilantly safeguard this property of the people.

The first years of the life of the Soviet state were marked by great hardships. Economic dislocation caused by World War I, the civil war and foreign intervention, the blockade and famine — all this put an enormous strain on the country’s resources. Yet even under such conditions, the government found time and funds to preserve the cultural heritage. On October 5, 1918, V. I. Lenin signed the Soviet government’s first act of legislation in this sphere, the Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars “On Registering, Taking Inventory, and Protecting Relics of Art and Antiquity, Owned by Private Individuals, Societies, and Institutions.” In the years that followed, additional decrees elevated the protection of relics to a task of national importance.

On the basis of all this legislation, a system of administrative agencies and restoration studios was set up with the object of studying such relics, preparing work and cost estimates, carrying out the practical restoration, and publishing reports on the cultural monuments. Such studios, established in accordance with the territorial principle, are now operating in the capitals of the Union republics and in towns and regions where most of the monuments are concentrated — Novgorod, Pskov, Ryazan, Yaroslavl, Leningrad. The Central Research Restoration Studio is in Moscow under the U.S.S.R. Academy of Construction and Architecture. The staff members of these studios have been remarkably successful in their scientific methods of restoration, and in the course of their research the experts have brought to light a multitude of hitherto unknown cultural treasures.

RESTORATION studios have been at their busiest since the end of World War II. The fascist invaders inflicted grave and vicious damage upon the cultural treasures of the country. Having proclaimed the barbarous slogan that “cultural values in the East are of no importance,” the Nazis systematically and deliberately set about demolishing our most precious architectural monuments, destroying museums and their entire art collections. Destruction was heaviest in the western regions — Novgorod, Pskov, Kiev, Smolensk, Chernigov — where most of the architectural monuments of ancient Russian culture were concentrated.

Some of these unique edifices were destroyed beyond repair; others escaped total destruction, but their further existence was in grave jeopardy. Owing to the assistance rendered by the Soviet government and the tremendous enthusiasm with which the Soviet people tackled the task of restoring normal conditions, Soviet restoration experts were able to raise many of these monuments from the ruins.

Already, by the end of 1944, work had begun on the restoration of St. Sofia Cathedral, built in 1045 in Novgorod, one of the most ancient Russian cities.

Enormous holes in the dome and vaults and heavy damage to walls from shells and bombs had disfigured the cathedral beyond recognition. Furthermore, the Nazis had carried away some components of the building. In November, 1948, the first stage of restoration was completed. The great snow-white mass of St. Sofia Cathedral, as if molded by the hand of a sculptor, again rose over the city, its gilt dome brightly shining in the sun.

Following the restoration of St. Sofia Cathedral, large-scale operations began on other Novgorod monuments, and at this writing practically all the ancient buildings have been restored. The most extensive work has been done in the restoration of the Novgorod kremlin, the ancient nucleus of the city. Its walls and towers were erected at the end of the fifteenth century, on the site of more ancient ones. But even these walls and towers were rebuilt and changed many times in the five centuries of their existence.

By our time they had lost many of their architectural details: the outline of merlons had changed; loopholes had been filled in; roofs over the rampart walk and the tall, tented roofs of the towers had disappeared. The flat nineteenthcentury roofs that replaced them divested the buildings of their former beauty.

The original ground plan of the kremlin had likewise changed. The water-filled moat which surrounded it on three sides (on the fourth side the kremlin is protected by the Volkhov River) had become silted and overgrown, and its banks were obliterated. The town which sprang up beyond the walls grew haphazardly, without any definite plan.

As a result of an on-the-spot investigation of the ancient monument and the study of numerous documents in the archives, it has been possible to restore the walls and towers as they were in the fifteenth century. The program includes the restoration of the historical plan of the Novgorod kremlin. The moat beyond the kremlin walls will be restored and filled with water, and five bridges will be built across it. The building line beyond the moat will be pushed back somewhat, and a public park girding the kremlin in a semicircle will be laid out in the open space thus formed between the kremlin and the city. The main city square, including an administrative center, will be built in front of the entrance to the kremlin.

Equally extensive restoration work is going on in other parts of the Soviet Union. More than 2000 kilometers southeast of Novgorod, on the banks of the Volga River, stands another ancient Russian city — Astrakhan. Like Novgorod, it had its beginnings in the construction of a kremlin, in the 1580s. Built as a stronghold at the frontier of the Russian state of those times, the Astrakhan kremlin was the residence of the local clerical authorities and served as the quarters of a military garrison. Barracks and various auxiliary services were built at random all over its territory. Sections of the fortress walls were torn down and replaced with box-type buildings of nondescript architecture. Some parts of the walls grew dilapidated and crumbled. As a result, the earth level rose considerably, and ancient buildings seem to have sunk into the ground. The town around the kremlin had few amenities in prerevolutionary times and consisted of buildings of the most inferior type.

Under the program drawn up a few years ago, the Astrakhan kremlin walls and towers are to be rebuilt all along their circumference, and their original architectural forms will be restored as far as possible. Buildings added later which have no architectural value, including those erected on the line of the walls, are to be pulled down and the walls rebuilt. Along with the restoration of ancient buildings, extensive work is being done to restore the original plan of the kremlin and to lower the ground plan to its original level. The reconstruction of the Astrakhan kremlin is coordinated with the planning and building up of the center of the city. The streets skirting the kremlin will be reconstructed according to a definite plan. On the kremlin’s southern side, the space now occupied by empty lots and warehouses will become a central square with a monument to Lenin. Much of this work has already been carried out.

Similar work is going on in the kremlins of Tula, Gorky, Pskov, in the Siberian town of Tobolsk, and at a number of monasteries and big country estates with their architectural complexes.

SOME of the most intricate and interesting work is being done by Leningrad architects in restoring in the city and suburbs of Leningrad the palaces and their parks, which the Nazis had destroyed. Heavy damage was inflicted during World War II upon Peterhof, an eighteenth-century palace of the czars. For nine hundred days the firing line passed right across the palace grounds. Among the greatest attractions of these grounds were their waterwork displays — fountains, cascades, surprises of various forms and designs. Located along the central axis of the palace fagade was the great fountain “Samson Tearing the Lion’s Mouth,” the work of the famous Russian sculptor Kozlovsky. A canal with a row of fountains ran toward the sea along the same axis. All this created a wonderful perspective, vying in beauty with the famous gardens of Versailles.

In view of the great popularity of the Peterhof park among Leningraders, it was decided to restore first the lower gardens and the fountains. However, without the figure of Samson, which had been taken away by the Nazi troops, the composition of the central fountain lacked its former beauty. Since the search for the genuine figure proved to be futile, the Samson fountain had to be restored by working from photographs.

When Samson, newly cast in bronze and gilded, was hauled through the streets of Leningrad, people recognized it and ran after the platform that carried it. The glittering figure of Samson seemed to shine in the rays of the victory won by the Soviet people at the price of great suffering.

In 1952 the outer walls of the Peterhof palace were repaired and the roof restored. Work is now continuing in the interior. Restoration quite as painstaking and elaborate is being carried out by Leningraders in other suburban palaces— the Czarskoye Selo, Pavlovsk, Oranienbaum.

The restoration of the more ancient and beautiful churches is being carried on systematically. The history of the construction of the Church of Polozhenie Riz (“Ordination of Priests”) of the Moscow Kremlin, dating from the fifteenth century, can be traced from old chronicles. The church was seriously damaged by the Moscow fire of 1737. It had been commonly believed that its architecture in its present form was the result of hasty reconstruction after the fire. Nineteenthand twentieth-century sources said outright that the upper part of the church — its vaults and dome — had crumbled and had been completely reconstructed. This theory was seemingly confirmed by the fact that the hipped vault over the church was made of much larger bricks than those in the lower part of the walls. But in the 1940s restoration experts established that the masonry and bricks of the dome were completely identical with those in the rest of the building.

Careful measurements revealed the existence of empty space between the interior vault and the vault covering the entire church and disclosed that over the ancient vault, which had escaped destruction, there was built another one of simplified hipped design.

Restoration experts dismantled the later vault, removed the cornice and the masonry between the bays in the upper part of the walls. The window openings and the altar apsides were restored to their original form. A fine decorative belt girdling the building was discovered. The building itself was partly freed from later additions.

Interesting work was also done on the interior of the Church of Ordination of Priests by restoration experts, who established that the original frescoes carried three, and in some places as many as four, layers of paint, added at different times. The upper frescoes, representing mediocre work by indifferent hack artists, hid excellent paintings done in the classic manner of Russian icon painters. This layer proved to be intact, and it was therefore decided to remove the later layers from the entire surface of the walls.

The icons in the iconostasis also proved to have been repainted at a later date, the difference being that only one layer was superimposed on them. When this was cleared, some remarkable samples of Russian seventeenth-century art were revealed.

We have space to mention only a small fraction of what is being done in the Soviet Union in restoring ancient monuments. Much could be said about the restoration of other great historical monuments: country estates, modest dwellings dating from the Middle Ages, and the original and interesting wooden architecture of northern Russia, including both peasant houses and churches. Altogether, in 1959, restoration work was conducted on more than four hundred objects throughout the country. The Soviet people preserve with great care and love their cultural heritage, realizing that relics of ancient culture are the legacy of all mankind.