Where Is Our Renaissance?

I was in Dresden, Germany, for two or three days last week, and I have to say it was pretty depressing. Not the city itself, you understand -- Dresden, in fact, is full of life and hope -- but the inevitable comparison it raised with Moscow and St. Petersburg. For Dresden is being transformed today into what these cities might have become, if Russia weren't such a corrupt madhouse.

Consider: On the night of Feb. 13 to 14, 1945 -- less than three months before the end of World War II in Europe -- British bombers laid waste to 15 square kilometers of Dresden's heart and killed between 35,000 and 120,000 people. Small-scale, you may say, compared to what happened to Leningrad. There was no clear strategic reason for this act of destruction. Though Dresden was a key transport and communications center, military areas, factories and freight stations were scarcely touched.

What was destroyed -- in what still seems for many an act of revenge for the bombing of Coventry -- was the old city, the famous "Baroque Venice" on the river Elbe. The Castle, the royal palace, the Zwinger, the opera house, the Albertinum, the Hofkirche -- all of these went: the whole legacy of Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, King of Poland and his art-collecting son Augustus III. (Augustus the Strong was a contemporary of Peter the Great. Dresden, in fact, was his St. Petersburg.)

The Soviets, when they later arrived in the city, added their shoulders to this wheel of destruction. Their Art Trophy Brigade looted the castles where the city's huge art holdings had been stored for safe keeping. There was, it's true, a good deal of restoration of the city's most important monuments in the decades after the war: the Semper opera house was rebuilt; so were the Zwinger and the Hofkirche.

But perhaps the greatest gift the Soviet-backed regime gave Dresden, in the end, was neglect. Around historic downtown, it put up graceless hotels and public housing; it killed off important local industries by forcing on the city (and country) Czech trams, Hungarian buses and Russian aircraft, as usual. But it didn't pull down, as the authorities did in Moscow, the old housing that remained. And it didn't clear the ruins of the rest of the great downtown monuments that it failed to restore. These were simply left where they were: as skeletons, rubble piles, and gaunt reminders of the proverbial perfidy of Albion.

The result was that when the Berlin Wall finally came down and Germany was reunited, the city's history was still in place -- shattered and run-down, perhaps, but still there and still capable of being brought back to life. K?nigstrasse was still potentially the finest street of baroque houses in Germany. Blasewitz still had its grand turn-of-the-century villas. And the cobbled streets of Neustadt were still an engaging, ragged mix of baroque, Beaux Arts and Jugendstil shops and townhouses.

When money poured into the city after reunification, Dresdeners (and Wessie businessmen) set about refurbishing and remaking the city with a will. The Taschenberg Palace in the center was reborn, from the original plans and using as much of the original stonework as possible, as a Kempinski-run hotel. The castle began to rise again. Insurance companies and banks took over K?nigstrasse; the old villas were put up for sale to people who would restore them; and the Neustadt area, soon proclaimed a hippie "Multicolored Republic," began to turn itself into an embryonic version of New York's Soho, with galleries springing up alongside head shops and small cafes.

Today, there's building and rebuilding everywhere in the city. Even the old Frauenkirche, the city's most important church and its symbol, is being raised up with the help of donations from the public from its jigsaw-puzzle pile of rubble.

The whole downtown area should be back in all its baroque glory by the time the city celebrates its 800th anniversary in 2006. Just as importantly, the headquarters of the Stasi across the river has become the home today of, among other things, a medical college. There's a discotheque called Hollywood in what was once its officer's canteen.

I know I shouldn't really compare this renaissance with what passes for one in Russia, where old buildings rot into ruin, where the museums can hardly afford to pay for their staff and everything is stolen which isn't firmly nailed down. But Dresden should be an object lesson to all those countries and banks that have poured money into Russia. There is, at the very least, something to see for it there.