KOMAROVO, Russia -- In the decades before Russia's 1917 revolutions, this sleepy forest settlement on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, some 45 kilometers northwest of downtown St. Petersburg, was one of the places the empire's economic and cultural elites came to escape the capital's summer heat. Komarovo's warm sea breezes during the White Nights were the perfect antidote to the city's long, sunless winters.
Ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska, who was the lover of the future emperor of Russia, Nicholas II, strolled the streets. Renowned jeweler Peter Carl Faberge had a summer house in Komarovo, which at the time was part of the Grand Duchy of Finland and was called Kellomaki. Psychologist and neurologist Ivan Pavlov, who won the 1904 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his discovery of respondent conditioning, summered here, as did novelist Leonid Andreyev.
Magnates from the capital built eclectic wooden villas and guest houses there in the fashionable Art Nouveau style at which they received the poets, painters, philosophers, and composers who collectively defined the Silver Age of Russian culture.
Now much of that heritage has disappeared. When Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, there were almost 300 wooden structures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that were protected historical monuments registered in the Leningrad region surrounding St. Petersburg. Now, fewer than 100 remain, the rest lost to decay, the bulldozer, or fire.
As scholars and institutions around the world look at centuries of Russian artistic creation with a critical new eye amid Moscow's war of aggression against Ukraine, Putin has claimed that the West is seeking to "cancel" Russian culture. But activists in Komarovo argue that the real threat to Russia's heritage is much closer to home.
"A lot of businesspeople bought up these dachas from the state," said Dmitry Litvinov, a coordinator with the Living City preservation organization. "After which they knocked them down and built modern houses on the sites. Komarovo is just the most outrageous example. The majority of the new owners in one way or another try to destroy the old dachas. Only very few actually try to restore them."
RFE/RL documented at least 63 historic villas and other structures that have been lost in Komarovo alone over Putin's nearly 24 years as president or prime minister.
"Many dachas in Komarovo are gone," Litvinov said. "Their fate has been decided."
'Old Wooden Buildings'
After World War II, the Soviet government took over most of the villas in Komarovo. Many were converted into vacation complexes for state organizations or summer camps for children.
"They had a very practical attitude toward the old dachas that survived [the war],'" said Yelena Travina, a historian with the Old Dachas research group. "They treated them like bourgeois or class-enemy dachas that could be used for a time before the bright, new future could be built with new buildings."
"They didn't see any value in them at all," Travina continued. "They didn't appreciate the Art Nouveau style. They were just some sort of old wooden buildings, so no one took care of them."
Nonetheless, the natural beauties of the place attracted Soviet cultural elites. In 1955, the Soviet Writers Union began building dachas in Komarovo. Over the years, the town became associated with figures like poets Anna Akhmatova and Joseph Brodsky, writers Fyodor Abramov and Daniil Granin, the science fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, composer Dmitry Shostakovich, rock musician Boris Grebenshchikov, and many others.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Zhores Alfyorov lived there and is buried in the small Komarovo cemetery, as are Akhmatova and Granin.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of the Soviet-era entities that owned the properties stopped caring for them.
"Homeless people moved in and there were a lot of fires," Travina said. "Scavengers removed a lot of original elements such as ceramic stoves and carved wooden details."
Over the last two decades, many of the historic buildings were privatized from the state organizations that controlled them in the Soviet period.
In many cases, the new owners schemed to have the buildings' protection status lifted by buying their own expert assessments, Travina told RFE/RL.
"Those experts determined that the dachas were not historic landmarks," she said. "Then they were quietly demolished."
Activist Litvinov told a similar story.
"If a building had the status of a cultural landmark…it could be simply burned down," he said. "When a building is destroyed, its protected status is automatically lost. There were a lot of cases like that."
The few new owners who try to restore the historic buildings, Litvinov added, often found themselves caught in a net of bureaucratic obstruction and bribery.
"He gets it full on from officials," Litvinov said of such owners. "Permissions. Assessments. It is easier just to destroy the house than to restore it."
In 2005, Valentina Matviyenko, then the governor of St. Petersburg, officially requested that Putin relocate the Constitutional Court to the city. The necessary legislation was adopted, and the transfer began on April 1, 2008.
In short order, numerous prerevolutionary wooden homes on Krestovsky Island in St. Petersburg and in Komarovo were razed to make way for the court's justices and staff.
In addition, activist Litvinov said he would like to see the administration of St. Petersburg State University held "criminally responsible" for the demise of the Komarovo dachas it controls.
"Everything that ended up in the university's hands is rotting away," he said, not only in Komarovo but in other Leningrad region settlements as well. "There is a whole group of historic homes that the university got from the city but does nothing with. If the city had just sold them, it would have been better."
On the night of February 9-10, a sprawling wooden dacha built in 1912 burned to the ground in the Leningrad region town of Vyritsa, about 70 kilometers south of St. Petersburg. It was at least the fourth historic home in the town to burn down since 2005, activists report.
Galina Ilyukhina, a member of the Russian Union of Writers who is working to save the organization's Komarovo dachas, including the one where Akhmatova lived, said this part of Russia's heritage "cannot survive without help from the state."
"But all the government grants get siphoned away somewhere up at the top and don't ever reach the bottom," she said. "Until that system is fixed, nothing will change."
"With a rumble and a roar," Silver Age philosopher Vasily Rozanov, who once lived in Vyritsa house that burned down in February, wrote in a 1917-18 essay, "an iron curtain is descending on Russian history."