CIS Foundation Evicting City's Sculptors

For more than 30 years, the historic mansion on Spasonalivkovsky Pereulok in central Moscow has been home to the Moscow Sculptors' Association.

But last month, employees of a private security firm climbed over the fence of the two-story building and took over the first floor for a new organization: a foundation coordinating humanitarian projects between former Soviet republics.

Now the sculptors are fighting to stay in the Moscow Sculptor's House, the building they once saved from demolition.

"We will shout, put pressure and starve ourselves," Ivan Kazansky, the head of the Moscow Artists Union and the Moscow Sculptors Association, said at a demonstration Monday on Slavyanskaya Ploshchad.

Kazansky and other sculptors will begin a hunger strike on Feb. 20 if they are not allowed to keep the building, Kazansky said, and they are already appealing to the likely future president, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, after sending a letter to President Vladimir Putin and receiving no response.

It is the latest in a series of property disputes involving cultural organizations and prime real estate.

The fate of the Sculptor's House was left in limbo following an agreement in December 2006 between City Hall and the federal government, in which the city gave up its claims to several historic buildings -- including the Moscow Sculptor's House.

In November, Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov signed a decree handing the building over to the International Foundation for the Humanitarian Cooperation of CIS Countries.

The foundation currently has control of the first floor and expects to have the whole building eventually, said Tatyana Bubnova, the organization's acting director.

"I think you need to leave emotions aside," Bubnova said, adding that the foundation had not seized the building, but rather received the keys from previous renters.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Sculptor's House, on 1st Spasonalivkovsky Pereulok is getting new tenants.

The sculptors say it's the emotional -- as well as financial -- investment in the building over the years that is driving them to battle on.

The sculptors -- including some of the country's most famous -- were given the building in 1974 after promising to restore the mansion. City Hall had wanted to demolish it.

"We have put all our strength and resources into this building," Kazansky said. "We've lived here for 33 years and repaired the architectural monument. Why do we have to leave on someone's whim? We will fight for the building."

The sculptors say they spent 500,000 rubles over the years on restoration. The building, in turn, was placed on a federal government list of protected architecture.

"Can you imagine raising money in Soviet times?" said Igor Verigin, a State Duma deputy with pro-Kremlin party United Russia, who attended a news conference last month to support the sculptors.

"The house was restored by artists," sculpture teacher Tatyana Chebotaryova said at Monday's demonstration. "You never get such a high level of restoration."

Bubnova, the acting head of the humanitarian foundation, said the sculptors rebuffed her organization's offers of cooperation, despite ostensibly common goals.

"They want to keep it as a cultural center and we want the same," Bubnova said. Exhibitions would continue to be held there, she said.

Bubnova's foundation was created in 2006 and is headed jointly by the Kazakh education minister and Mikhail Shvydkoi, head of the Federal Culture and Cinematography Agency.

The sculptors association had previously rented out the first floor to businesses anyway, Bubnova said.

Space was rented out to a bank and a tourism firm, but only to raise money for the building's upkeep, Kazansky said.

"We do not put it in our pockets," he said. "The money goes exclusively to maintain the building."

The sculptors are in no mood for reconciliation and say their lease until 2017 is being ignored.

A spokesman for the Federal Inspection Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications and the Protection of Cultural Heritage said Monday that the agency had nothing to do with the building. The Federal Property Management Agency declined to comment.

With their appeal to Putin still unanswered, the sculptors are pinning their hopes on Medvedev, who is backed by Putin in the March 2 presidential election.

Medvedev, who is expected to win the election in a landslide, spoke out last month in support of the Central House of Actors, which is also facing eviction from its location on Arbat.

The government will not allow the Central House of Actors to "disappear," Medvedev said.

The sculptors have cited Medvedev's speech and made liberal use of his catchphrase "legal nihilism."

"He has to defend us, because in a month or so we will go and vote for him," Kazansky said. "We want to vote with a clean conscience."