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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Palace Debate Roiling St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG -- The issue of compensation for property seized during the October Revolution has reared its head in St. Petersburg.

Buildings in the center of the imperial capital that the Bolsheviks confiscated should be given to descendants of the original owners, a round table was told earlier this month.

Participants included representatives of the Russian Empire Union and the organization Our Heritage, as well as State Duma Deputy Alexander Chuyev, who has drafted a bill on restitution.

The round table, organized by Rosbalt News Agency, addressed the concerns of descendants of noble families for the fate of St. Petersburg's palaces.

"If privatization takes place in Russia without any discussion of restitution, this would be illegal and immoral," said Chuyev, a Rodina deputy.

While conceding that the time is not right for the buildings to be restored to the families of the former owners, participants in the round table said that in the future the government should revisit the issue, and that descendants would lobby for more progress to be made on restitution.

While other former communist countries have addressed the issue of returning confiscated real estate, Russia has shown little initiative, and many citizens are opposed to it.

Chuyev's bill, which urges that architecturally significant sites be returned to the descendants of their former owners, has been filed in the Duma, but was rejected by the Duma's Property Committee.

Meanwhile, representatives of the former owners admitted that the topic might be too sensitive to raise in the current circumstances.

"We don't call for restitution, but we want to attract the attention of society to this problem," said Boris Turovsky, head of the Russian Empire Union.

"The architectural sites have two kind of owners, factual and historical. The historical successors can prove their rights in court," Turovsky said.

However, he said that if a law on restitution were passed it could lead to social unrest.

"We don't want a second revolution," he said.

Since 1993, when talks on restitution started in earnest, one of the few former owners of seized sites to have succeeded in getting back even part of its former real estate is the Russian Orthodox Church. At the same time, several groups representing the interests of former owners, such as the Moscow-based Union of Merchants, have failed to prove their ownership rights in court, according to reports in local media.

Princess Vera Obolenskaya, who grew up in France and moved to St. Petersburg, said that when she came back, she found a Tverskaya region estate that had belonged to her family. It was in an awful condition.

"There are only ruins left, but in the past we exported cheese to Holland from there," she said.

"This is just a nightmare. There are only poor peasants left everywhere around," Obolenskaya said.

"The question of restitution was not initiated by us, but by the St. Petersburg governor [Valentina Matviyenko], when she said that if buildings that were considered as architectural monuments were put up for sale, descendants would have the first right to buy them," Interfax quoted honorary Our Heritage chairman Dmitry Shakhovsky as saying.

"I am more concerned about the legal and moral aspects of this question, but not the practical one," he said. "I am concerned about protecting the appearance of these buildings and about the future of the city."

But the restitution seems to be far from a priority for Matviyenko.

"It is unlikely that there will be any developments on this matter in the near future," Natalya Kutabayeva, the governor's spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview. "There hasn't been any information on it recently."

Matviyenko and LUKoil president Vagit Alekperov in April last year signed an agreement that the oil company will invest up to $100 million in the local fuel market development until 2007, and spend another $30 million renovating the Stieglitz Palace at 68 Angliiskaya Naberezhnaya. But two weeks ago, LUKoil backed out of its plans to renovate the palace.

"It was planned to renovate part of the palace to be used for the office of the company, but it was unsuitable," LUKoil said.