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Russia's Treasure-House

Searching for the past on the eve of St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary, a former foreign correspondent finds the future

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“One of the great treasures of St. Petersburg is its forged metal,” he says, as we drive out of the city in his Soviet-era Volga sedan. “The great architects drew their own designs. If you have a palace or a park, it has a fence. Wrought iron is like a foil for a precious stone. It gives the city a museum quality.”


He can thank the Bolsheviks for the profusion of wrought iron here. When Germans, advancing on the Western Front in World War I, pushed perilously close to St. Petersburg in 1918, Lenin returned the Russian capital to Moscow. So it was in Moscow after the war that hundreds of buildings were torn down to make way for the bleak concrete hulks that housed the Soviet bureaucracy. The palaces and landmarks of St. Petersburg lay untouched. In many cases, they were also left to rust and rot, which is why there is much work for Viunov to do.


His plant is located in a series of low, grimy structures, once outposts of the Cold War. Just inside one building, Viunov points out renovated 12-foot-high segments of iron fence awaiting reinstallation in the city. No two are alike; they feature elaborate patterns of leaves and stylized sunflower blossoms. “There’s a lot of symbolism in this fence,” he says. “You can see the leaves drooping. It gives a sad impression. I think the architect was meditating on the death of the czar.”


Thus far, 19 of the fence’s 53 segments have been completed, he adds, at a cost of about $20,000 each, thanks to support from many donors, including the FabergéArts Foundation, a group based in St. Petersburg and Washington, D.C. that is dedicated to preserving the city’s heritage.


That legacy appears all the more remarkable when contrasted with much of the landscape lying beyond the central city: bleak and soulless blocks of Soviet-era apartment buildings, where many of St. Petersburg’s four million citizens live.


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