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Cultural Treasures Threatened by Fire and Floods in St. Petersburg

June 22, 1993

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) _ Treasures of imperial Russia that survived war and revolution now are menaced by a more mundane foe - neglect.

Librarians and curators of the city’s institutions say the buildings where rare books, priceless paintings and irreplaceable historical documents are kept have deteriorated so severely that the riches are in imminent danger of destruction by fire and water.

At a conference on preserving St. Petersburg’s ″cultural heritage,″ officials from the city museums and archives told of rare books stacked in careless piles under leaky pipes in decrepit buildings.

″This is simply a screaming question,″ said Alexander Fursenko, deputy president of the St. Petersburg Scientific Center.

″If we don’t take preventive measures now, then within 20 years many archives will have deteriorated beyond repair, and within 50 years the buildings they are housed in, which are among the great architectural gems of St. Petersburg, will have fallen apart.″

Fursenko’s warning carried special weight in light of the February 1988 fire at St. Petersburg’s Library of the Academy of Sciences, in which nearly a fifth of the library’s 20 million books were destroyed.

As imperial Russia’s cultural storehouse, St. Petersburg boasts millions of rare books, manuscripts, letters and art works. The city is home to the Hermitage Museum, State Historical Archives, Russian National Library and other mighty houses of stored knowledge.

Yet at the Institute of Russian Literature, original manuscripts of Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and other great Russian writers, as well as manuscripts and letters of Zola, Byron, Balzac and Dickens, are stacked on shelves in wood-walled rooms.

The institute has a fireproof safe. But Pushkin’s manuscripts already have filled it to overflowing, said assistant director Oleg Tvorogov.

In the event of fire, firefighters have said the aged building itself would burn to the ground in 20 minutes, faster than they could arrive.

The Los Angeles-based Getty Conservation Institution, which helped sponsor the conference, announced a $123,000 grant to establish a center for art and book conservation and restoration in St. Petersburg.

The dollars will go far in Russia’s weak economy, but the amount may only make a dent in the problems needing repair, the officials said.

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