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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Alexei Komech, City Preservationist, Dies

MTAlexei Komech
Alexei Komech, one of the pillars of Russia's preservationist movement, died Wednesday of cancer. He was 70.

Until his illness forced him to step down, Komech was the head of the Arts History Institute. He had spent more than half a century fighting to save the country's architectural heritage.

"In an epoch in which the main criterion for dealing with protected buildings for all levels of government is profit, Komech stood up for academic standards and restoration," said David Sarkisyan, the director of the Schusev State Museum of Architecture. "The preservation movement has lost its main leader with his departure."

"It is a huge blow for the preservation of the heritage of the country," said Alexei Klimenko, a longtime preservationist. "He was a principled opponent of the federal and regional government in that sphere."

Klimenko graduated with a degree in art history from Moscow State University in 1959 and spent most of his adult life straddling the worlds of academia -- he was a world-renowned expert on Byzantine and Russian medieval architecture -- and historical preservation. Toward the end of the Soviet period, he was head of the heritage department at the Culture Ministry.

In post-Soviet Russia, Klimenko was one of the most visible critics of Moscow officials, never shying away from drawing attention to the destruction of his beloved city.

He was often unsuccessful: In the last 15 years, more than 2,000 historic buildings have been knocked down in Moscow.

Alexander Arkhangelsky, who appears regularly on the Kultura channel, wrote a tribute to Klimenko on Thursday for RIA-Novosti, expressing his "love and respect for a person without whom there would long ago have been nothing left of Moscow."

Arkhangelsky recalled the first time he met Komech, in 2002, when he appeared on his television program to debate Vladimir Bryntsalov, a millionaire pharmacist known more for his flashiness than his taste in architecture. Bryntsalov had rented out a 19th-century Russian estate and redesigned the estate in his own inimitable fashion, breaking numerous conservation laws along the way.

"Komech sat motionless, his eyes looking down, and in an even voice with the intonation of a tired teacher, he explained the problem," Arkhangelsky wrote.

When Bryntsalov rudely started boasting of how he was an athlete while Komech was an overweight intellectual, Komech, without raising his voice, managed to silence him: "'I am for culture,' answered Komech. And then the sporting Bryntsalov broke on Komech like a wave on rocks," Arkhangelsky wrote.

Not long after the television show, the estate was taken away from Bryntsalov.

In 2004, Komech's Institute of Art History published a series of books on the state of Russian architecture: what is, what was and what soon may not be.

The three books -- one with a white cover, one with red and the third with black -- cataloged the country's protected buildings. The white book featured those protected architectural treasures that had been restored; the red book discussed those that were in danger of being lost; and the black book, now very much out of date, spotlighted those buildings that had been destroyed.

Despite losing many battles, Komech remained persistent in his fight for the city and for Russia's history.

He was one of the few people who could persuade Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who has overseen much of the destruction of the city's historical buildings, to think twice about construction projects. Even though Luzhkov called Komech "my constant opponent," the mayor sometimes listened to Komech.

"His enemies respected him," wrote Arkhangelsky.

"They felt and recognized his inner strength."

And now, Arkhangelsky wrote, the city has no leader to look after it.

"Komech was the conscience of our reckless city. And now the city is left without a conscience."