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April 27, 2016

Russian Federal Security Service is investigating several officials and businessmen over missing funds for state-sponsored heritage restoration projects.

On March 15, 2016 Russian state media reported that the country's Deputy Culture Minister Grigory Pirumov had been detained on embezzlement charges.  

Earlier that day, the Federal Security Service - the main KGB successor agency known under its Russian acronym FSB - announced that several high-ranking culture ministry officials and businessmen were under investigation for allegedly “embezzling state funds allocated for restoration work on cultural heritage sites”.  It is alleged that millions of rubles, earmarked for the restoration of famed cultural heritage sites, are missing.

The detained officials, in addition to Deputy Minister Pirumov, include Boris Mazo, the head of the Russian Ministry of Culture's department of property management and investment policy, as well as several heads of construction companies involved in restoration projects commissioned by the ministry. 

The FSB accused Pirumov of organizing a criminal scheme in which the suspects inflated the costs of restoration works to steal public funds.  Pirumov, who was appointed to the post of Deputy Minister of Culture in March 2013, coordinates and controls work of three departments of the ministry: department of property and investment policy, state protection of cultural heritage and the legal department.  He also oversees activity of the State Agency for management and operation of the historical and cultural monuments of the Ministry of Culture of Russia (FGBUK AUIPIK).

Novodevichy Convent, Moscow - Image Credit: Wikipedia
A source at the culture ministry said that the criminal case was linked to a number of cultural heritage sites, including the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Novodevichy Convent in Moscow.  The convent, in southwestern Moscow, built in the 16th and 17th centuries in the so-called Moscow Baroque style, was part of a chain of monastic ensembles that were integrated into the defence system of the city. The convent was directly associated with the political, cultural and religious history of Russia, and closely linked to the Moscow Kremlin. Women of the Tsar’s family and the aristocracy used it, and members of the Tsar’s family and entourage were also buried in its cemetery.  The convent provides an example of the highest accomplishments of Russian architecture with rich interiors and an important collection of paintings and artifacts.   Restoration works there began last year, completion expected in 2019. Media reports said 800 million rubles ($11.2 million USD at current exchange rate) were allocated for this aim.

Investigators are also looking into financing of the restoration works carried out at the Ivanovsky Convent in Moscow, a theater in the ancient city of Pskov, in northwest Russia, and the Izborsk Fortress.  Preservationists had raised concerns in the past over work done on the fourteenth-century fortress, located in near the Estonian border and restored in 2012 to mark the 1150th anniversary of Russian statehood.  A 2013 audit by the government’s accounting chamber found that 60 million rubles, or about $2 million USD, in funding for Izborsk went unaccounted for. 

All this happens only two months after President Vladimir Putin publicly reprimanded the culture ministry for failing to preserve state monuments.  In December 2015, at the meeting of presidential Council for Culture and Art in Kremlin, Putin chastised officials about decrepit state of the country’s rich architectural heritage.  Galina Malanicheva, Chair of the central council of the All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments (VOOPiK), reported at that meeting that the loss of historic sites far exceeded the average annual loss of 10 to 15 officially registered monuments, since due to a complicated listing process just over 10% of Russia’s monuments are officially registered.  The Russian media blamed the subsequent reported resignation of Mikhail Bryzgalov, the culture ministry’s top cultural heritage official, on Putin’s dressing-down. Vladimir Tolstoy, Putin’s chief cultural adviser, denied that Bryzgalov’s departure had anything to do with Putin’s reprimand.  

Aside from the allegation of individuals siphoning off public funds, complaints have been made that the Ministry of Culture is responsible for hiring unqualified companies whose poor quality renovations have irreparably damaged Russia's cultural legacy. 

Russian Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, a close ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin, is in contact with the FSB on these issues. He described to the RIA Novosti news service Pirumov’s detainment as “ a real shock for all of us.” The ministry stressed that in recent years restoration initiatives led by Deputy Minister Grigory Pirumov had "achieved significant success." The Culture Ministry’s press service added that the internal audit announced by Minister Vladimir Medinsky has been underway since March 18 and is expected to take several months

Rumors about Medinsky’s possible resignation have been swirling since the March 16th arrest of Pirumov. On March 28, 2016 Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refuted these allegations.  Medinsky chairs Russia’s Military History Society, which has a powerful influence over the interpretation of Russia’s cultural affairs.   He has also reportedly told UNESCO that Russia is ready to participate in both evaluation of Palmyra's condition and its restoration. 

Izborsk fortress immediately after restoration  © Hope Chenin
Palmyra Aftae Da’esh © Joseph Eid/AFP

In early April, Deputy Minister of Culture - theologian Alexander Zhuravsky was appointed to replace Mr. Pirumov.

The FSB said it hasn't been able yet to track down the missing funds.

By: Olla Birman