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Last Updated: Monday, 25 October, 2004, 08:50 GMT 09:50 UK
Russian aristocrats fight for palaces
Peter And Paul Fortress, St Petersburg
Princess Vera lays claim to a palace next to the Peter and Paul Fortress
A battle is under way in Russia for the stately homes of the country's former aristocracy - confiscated by the Bolsheviks during the 1917 Revolution.

Officials in St Petersburg are seeking to privatise some of the palaces by selling them off to the highest bidder. However, some relatives and descendents of the Russian nobility want them back, or compensation from the state.

Princess Vera Obolensky - of 34th-generation nobility, but currently living in an apartment block in the city - is among those seeking to get back the palace that she believes is her right.

"I really want to live in the mansion that was my family's, the Obolenskys, before the Revolution," she told BBC World Service's Assignment programme.

"It's really a very beautiful place, one of the most beautiful places in St Petersburg."

Architectural treasures

After the 1917 Revolution, all Princess Vera's family estates were seized by the authorities. Her family fled Russia disguised as peasants, and went to Paris, where the she was born and raised.

Only after the fall of Communism did she come back to live in St Petersburg and she is now seeking to get part of that property back.

The home she claims is hers is next to the Peter and Paul Fortress, which is famed for the role it had in the founding of the city. It has a direct view, across the water, of the Winter Palace.

Tsar Nicholas II and family
Many aristocrats fled after the fall of Tsar Nicholas II in the 1917 Revolution
Princess Vera is not alone - she is backed by a number of like-minded aristocrats, who have formed themselves into a group called The Assembly Of Nobles.

In total, around 100,000 buildings were seized from the property-owning classes.

Princess Vera argues that, with so many architectural treasures in government hands, the authorities have not had the money or the expertise to preserve the buildings properly.

This, she contends, is the reason they are now heading onto the market.

"The state has not been able to look after so many properties, and now they want to privatise them and get rich by selling the buildings they were unable to take proper care of," she said.

"This whole proposal is a complete shame and disgrace. Of course we can't all have all our properties back, but one of the houses that my family once owned would be enough."

Housing for poor

But the issue is complicated by the fact that after the Revolution, all buildings became state property - and as a result, the palace was turned into communal apartments.

Many were used to house the poor - a situation that continues in St Petersburg to this day.

"It all depends on circumstances," said Dr Igor Shaob, a professor of cultural history whose family home was partly seized in the Revolution and completely taken after World War II.

There will be no open competition for this type of property... in certain cases, they will ask for permission further up, in the Kremlin
Political analyst Igor Leshukov
"If you see poor people living in your former property - people struggling with nowhere else to go - then God bless them.

"But if you see officials trying to sell what never belonged to them, that has no justification. That deserves only criminal prosecution."

Dr Shaob admits he has "no chance" of getting the property back.

But he added that he believed the buildings will go to those with most money or political influence. This speculation has recently been fuelled by reports surrounding two former palaces on the "English Embankment" which runs along the South Bank.

One is Tenisheva's Palace, the St Petersburg HQ of Chelsea chairman Roman Abramovich. Mr Abramovich acquired the property in 2002 in his capacity as governor of the Chakotka region.

Further down the Embankment is a building belonging to energy Lukoil, which may well soon acquire the right to buy it. Both Lukoil and the governor's office have, in the past, denied any impropriety.

But political analyst Igor Leshukov, of the St Petersburg Institute of International Affairs, told Assignment he believes the best stately homes for sale will go to those with the strongest links to government. He also fears few properties will be properly restored.

"The main danger is many old and historic buildings will be simply destroyed and replaced by newly-done fakes," he said.

"The Hotel Europe is one of the masterpieces of Art Nouveau in St Petersburg - now we have just a facade, inside all the interior's been lost.

"The same situation is in the Hotel Astoria. So in that case, we can easily see what could happen in any palace owned by a private company and used as their luxury office."

Law changes

It is expected that those most interested in renovating the seized properties will be representatives of private business appointed by the administration.

The fears are that this will be a repeat of events in the mid-1990s, where state assets were sold off at rock bottom prices to what Mr Leshukov called an "appointed oligarchy".

"I think there will be no open competition for this type of property," he said.

Roman Abramovich
Chelsea FC chairman Roman Abramovich acquired a palace
"It will be done by permission, and it will be decided by the city authorities. And cities will not decide that by themselves - in certain cases, they will ask for permission further up, in the Kremlin."

However, the City Committee For Protection Of Private Buildings - which plans the sale of stately homes - has strongly denied that recent history would repeat with the privatisation of the properties.

"I absolutely exclude that - there's no way it can happen," the Committee's head Vera Demenchieva said.

"What we have in St Petersburg is the cultural heritage of all the people of Russia. That's why I can't understand why such questions appear - such suggestions sound as an insult to me as the head of the committee."

She stressed that laws had changed in Russia since the 1990s.

And further, she argued that also the attitude of the people had also changed, with many more interested in their cultural heritage - and therefore taking a keen interest in who is in charge of it.

"It's not really possible to buy a valuable asset at a low cost," she said.

"On the other hand, the conscience of people and of those in administration has changed greatly. It simply won't allow any indecent person to come and buy in his or her own interests."

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