Overhaul of Moscow State University’s historical interior leads to destruction of cultural heritage

The main building of Moscow State University. Image: Dmitry A. Mottl (Wikimedia) CC BY-SA 3.0

The main building of the Moscow State University – a historical monument, one of the Seven Sisters of Stalinist Empire style, a first Russian university – has recently faced the problem of replacing its historical interior with modern replicas. European Heritage Ambassador Klaudia Chzhu reports on what is happening in Moscow.

Author: European Heritage Youth Ambassador Klaudia Chzhu

According to the Act on the official portal of the Moscow government issued in summer 2020, an examination of the project was carried out on the overhaul of the facades of the main building of the Faculty of Biology of Moscow State University and the overhaul of the Large Biological Auditorium of the building of the Faculty of Biology and Soil Science. During the work, among other things, it was initially planned to restore the wooden stands and seats of the Large Biological Auditorium: to clear them, recreate the lost fragments and renew the coating. 

Students walk past a MSU building in 1954. Image: Henri Cartier-Bresson (moiarussia.ru)

But in fact, the overhaul is demolishing the historical interior of MSU that called the public attention to such destructive actions. Recently, MSU activists – students and professors – have addressed the Department of Cultural Heritage of Moscow to initiate verification of the repair. Muscovites believe that it can be carried out without violations. Also, the initiators of the petition called Stop the destruction of the historical interiors of Moscow State University!” on Change.org stated about “barbaric works” in the Large Biological Auditorium of MSU. 

We asked a Moscow activist Eric Shahnazaryan, who is an author of blog Instagram with 31,7k followers entitled @hidden_moscow, about this case. He stands for preserving Moscow’s cultural heritage and its elements by spreading awareness about the existing problems cultural and historical sites are facing. 

Eric Shahnazaryan

Hello, Eric! From your perspective, what happened with the Biology Faculty of MSU? You have also documented on social media the process of throwing the old interior into the trash cans, could you comment on that? 

”What happened with Moscow State University before posts appeared in my blog, we simply cannot call it anything other than the destruction of original interiors.” 

Why should we preserve the old university interior? 

”After my posts, the public – students and everyone for whom the barbaric actions of what was happening at Moscow State University – became obvious to the renovation drew attention. It is clear that it is difficult to identify it as restoration as it was claimed and, in the words of activists, part of the interior details of one of the Biology Faculty’s Auditoriums has already been lost. Posting on social media about what is happening allowed us to suspend work for a while and, I hope, achieve a more attentive and competent approach to them in the future.”

The problem of further use of the old interior of the MSU lecture halls arises. What would you suggest doing with it? 

”The university interiors were conceived as a single whole in combination with the exterior architectural design of MSU, and it is absolutely unacceptable to ignore this fact, replacing the historical design with new copies. It is necessary to preserve as much as possible and to restore (!) those elements of the interiors that need it. After all, most of the elements are included in the subject of protection, which is spelt out in the documentation, but in fact, this was not taken into account during the work.”

The old and current state of the old university interior. Image: Change.org

Active civic position and public initiatives often influence and help to preserve cultural heritage. In the case of Moscow State University, how would you characterize the state of public awareness? 

”Unfortunately, people are not always aware of the existing problems as well as the public’s power to influence the situation. Many are convinced that nothing can be changed, especially if construction work is already underway. Active citizenship and publicity help in such situations.”

“Other activists and I show by our example that it is possible and necessary to act! In particular, this can be seen in the case of the suspension of works on the lining of the white-stone basement of the building of the Faculty of Journalism of Moscow State University on Mokhovaya Street. It turned out that the work was being carried out illegally, and the Department of Cultural Heritage of Moscow promptly reacted to what was happening.”

About the author

Klaudia Chzhu is an art and cultural manager from Russia. She studied History at the Moscow State University, specializing in Modern and Contemporary History of Europe and America. She obtained her masters’ degree in Arts & Cultural Management from Universidad Internacional de Cataluña (UIC Barcelona) with a major in Cultural Heritage Management. Together with her master’s colleague from Iran, Klaudia defended the masters’ final project (TFM) on Saving Cultural Heritage in a time of war. After her study, she founded Art & Culture Inside, an online platform covering Contemporary Art and Cultural Heritage. Throughout 2021, Klaudia has been selected as one of the European Heritage Youth Ambassadors representing Russia and its cultural heritage.

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