Russia's dispossessed aristocrats fight oligarchs for their palaces

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The Independent Online

Their ancestors were lucky to escape with their lives but almost 90 years after Russia's Bolshevik revolution, its dispossessed aristocrats are in pursuit of what would have been their birthright: the sumptuous palaces and country estates of their forefathers.

Their ancestors were lucky to escape with their lives but almost 90 years after Russia's Bolshevik revolution, its dispossessed aristocrats are in pursuit of what would have been their birthright: the sumptuous palaces and country estates of their forefathers.

The Communists who impoverished them are long gone, but Russia's embittered nobles now fear that they will lose out a second time, their heritage snapped up by people they despise with particular venom: the oligarchs, mini-oligarchs and wannabe oligarchs.

Old money, or what's left of it, is facing off against new money as a huge new redistribution of property - one which would have been heresy to the Bolsheviks - gets under way.

The property-bereft nobles' drive to take back what was confiscated from them is centred on St Petersburg, the Italianate capital of imperial Russia and the city where many of their blue-blooded ancestors used to live in such splendour.

Its historic, canal-lined centre is packed with stunning old pastel-coloured palaces and its outskirts littered with grand old family estates.

But the aristocrats have been forced to step up their restitution campaign by a pronouncement from St Petersburg's Governor, Valentina Matvienko, that she wanted to sell the city's palaces and architectural monuments to the highest bidders.

Ms Matvienko, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, said the beautiful but crumbling city had no choice. The authorities don't have the money to maintain and restore St Petersburg's pre-revolution buildings, she argued, and allowing wealthy Russians to buy their own palaces - with certain strings attached - was the only option.

The plan infuriated the dispossessed aristocrats who bitterly admit that they don't have deep enough pockets to compete with the country's super-wealthy oligarchs and believe that the state should give them back what its theirs as a matter of principle anyway - for nothing.

However, plans to get the government to back a restitution bill have so far fallen flat. Representatives of what used to be some of Russia's most eminent families gathered in St Petersburg a few weeks ago to plot a strategy.

Alexander Korolev-Pereleshin, the vice-marshal of the Russian Assembly of Nobility, an organisation that unites some 10,000 former nobles, said that their fight was not motivated purely by money.

"It's not so much a material thing. It's about morality. Stealing is immoral and returning what is stolen is moral," he said.

"The buildings should be returned to their rightful owners as has happened in eastern Europe, the Czech Republic and in the Baltic states. We must have a role in the fate of these buildings."

Speaking in a refined Russian whose nuances were wiped out by the Bolsheviks, Mr Korolev-Pereleshin said his own family had lost its estate near the town of Voronezh and he would love to get it back.

But like many properties that were confiscated, it was in abject condition, he said. People like Mr Korolev-Pereleshin have had to stand aside and watch some of St Petersburg's most beautiful places be bought by oligarchs.

Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of Chelsea FC, bought Tenisheva Palace on the banks of the river Neva, and the oil company Lukoil, headed by Vagit Alekperov, already leases the magnificent Stieglitz Palace. If Ms Matvienko's plan becomes a reality, a whole slew of historic properties now in state hands will come on the market, a prospect that horrifies the aristocrats.

"Who will buy them?" asks Mr Korolev-Pereleshin. "People with money. And in Russia today, unfortunately, that means people who did not earn their wealth through hard work and have - how can I put it - a relaxed attitude towards Russian culture."

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