Irina Anatolevna is a woman at war with the elements. As chief restorer of St. Petersburg's Yusupov Palace, she is charged with the near-impossible task of maintaining a mansion built in 1760 against the destructive incursions of a humid climate. Her team struggles daily against wet stains, flaking paint and plaster, peeling wallpaper, and dank smells caused by a host of microbes, fungi, and molds. The swath of damage extends from the museum's basement, where Rasputin was killed, to the sumptuous rooms once occupied by one of the richest pre-revolutionary Russian families. "Renovation is a never-ending process here. We constantly have to come back in and repaint," laments Anatolevna.
She's not the only one with that Sisyphean task. Local scientists estimate that 90% of all buildings in St. Petersburg's historic center are suffering damage from this biological scourge. Other well-known victims include the Hermitage Art Museum, the Pushkin Apartment Museum, and the Kunstkamera Museum, as well as residences. "If this destruction is allowed to continue, St. Petersburg will lose many of the landmarks that make it the cultural capital of Russia," says Sergey Starsev, a member of the International Academy of Ecology.
Already, the destruction exceeds by far that in any other European city. St Petersburg's problem is rooted in its founding on swampland by Peter the Great almost 300 years ago. Canals were dug to drain the marshy area, which lies only a few feet above the water level of the nearby Gulf of Finland. Basement masonry soaks up the high ground water--just 1.5 to 2 meters below the surface--like a sponge. Once it saturates the masonry, the water evaporates into the air, creating a damp environment perfect for the growth of microorganisms. Unless measures are taken, the humidity can then invade the upper floors.
Alarmed by the architectural gems crumbling around them, local scientists, museum directors such as Hermitage head Mikhail Piotrovsky, and medical professionals formed the Foundation Against the Biological Destruction of the City Environment of St. Petersburg in 1999. The group lobbies the municipal government, the primary owner of the city's buildings, for money to pay for damage control. "We formed this organization to make people aware that this is a much more serious threat than they think," says Vyacheslav Krilenkov, a biophysicist and head of the group.
But so far, city officials seem to be passing the buck right back. "Only when these scientists can show that it really is dangerous to people and better publicize the issue will politicians take it seriously," says Alexander Norko, deputy manager of the city's budget strategy department.
Scientists say the city needs to allocate just $1.5 million to $2 million a year, out of a $1.3 billion budget, on preventive measures. Most cultural landmarks have budgets so abysmally low that they can't afford to fight moisture without city money, the sole exception being the Hermitage, which started waterproofing its own building six years ago. The museum has raised tens of millions of dollars from private Russian and foreign sources. International renovation experts have been working on a moisture-control system scheduled to be finished in five years. If it works, all those Matisses can finally rest easy.
While the city studies the damage to buildings, doctors from the P.H. Kashkina Institute of Medical Mycology warn that excessive moisture can make people sick, too. The institute is devoted to treating the 100 ailments caused by funguses and molds, such as chronic bronchitis, bronchial asthma, and skin and organ infections. Such diseases currently afflict every fifth person on the planet, according to Vitaly Antonov, director of the institute.
Last year, the clinic treated 11,000 people, though Antonov says the number suffering from such illnesses must be much greater, given the center's relative anonymity even among medical professionals. "When my son came down with what seemed like the worst allergy, coughing, sneezing, and so on, I took him to a city clinic, but they didn't know what was wrong with him," says Natalya Sergevna. After visiting the Kash-kina Institute, her son is on the mend. So more publicity about St. Petersburg's moisture woes could strike a blow for public health as well.