Cultural heritage in ruins: is there a future for Russia’s historic mansions?

Once home to the rich and famous, only a few of many historic mansions around Moscow remain relatively intact. Abandoned after the revolution, many of them are either destroyed or in need of urgent reconstruction.

Sometimes, however, the situation can change when a private investor steps in.

Strolling through the family mansion which he has inherited, Christopher Muravyov-Apostol can hardly hide his delight.

When the Brazilian-born Australian businessman returned to the house where his aristocratic great-grandfather used to reside, he was bemused to find a virtually ruined building. Now, after spending nine years and almost $5 million on restoring the stately Moscow residence, he has turned it into a museum.

“To undertake such a project for me is like finding my roots again,” said Christopher Muravyev-Apostol. “The state of the house was so awful – it was raining inside, and it had holes. It was collapsing and dangerous. It’s been a very long process, but we’ve done quite a lot. About 90% of the elements here are those we have redone.”

While Christopher says there is a lot of work still ahead, another mansion in the Moscow region has already been fully restored.

A perfect example of 18th century architecture, it was home to generals, high-ranking politicians and even one of the greats of Russian literature – poet Mikhail Lermontov. His descendant and namesake has pumped more than $3 million into giving it a new lease of life.

“The building was completely devastated. Every part had to be restored, but as long as it was protected by the state we had to get through a lot of red tape to start our work here,” Mikhail Lermontov said. “Some might call that torture, but for me it’s happiness. I know now that it was worth it to go through all the hardships to see this mansion as it is now.”

Another example is the Arkhangelskoye estate, which is located some 20 km from the center of Moscow. It used to be one of the most celebrated playgrounds for the wealthy aristocracy at the end of the 18th century.

Its owner, Nikolay Yusupov, was one of the wealthiest men in Russia at the time and a prominent collector and art lover.

He kept a collection of paintings, mostly by French and Italian artists – and about half of it has been preserved and can now be seen at the Arkhangelskoye estate as the mansion was lucky enough to avoid destruction at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

The territory of the estate itself is also magnificent, and some are calling it “Moscow region’s Versailles.” At present, part of the mansion is open for visitors and concerts are taking place on the estate’s territory.

Not all of Russia's historic buildings get a second chance. There are five thousand mansions, churches and other cultural sites in disrepair around Moscow which don’t have rich investors to step in and save them, and only one fifth of them are safe from falling apart.

Even though they are lauded as Russia’s cultural heritage and are meant to be protected by the state, their restoration is mostly in the hands of private investors who have poured millions into bringing historical residences back to life.

As Russia and those who have the money to save these masterpieces tackle the credit crunch, these buildings have a fight of their own – against time, and they don’t seem to be winning.