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Grigory Pasko: The Chekist Palace

The Land Where You Sit: A Palace Commandeered by the Chekists By Grigory Pasko, journalist One of the readers of this blog reproached me, with full justification, because I did not mention the mansion of the merchant Shumov as one of Chita’s finest buildings in a recent article I wrote about the city. I stand corrected, and hereby declare: it is indeed, if not the finest building in the entire city, then certainly on the short list of the best the city has to offer in terms of architecture. By the way, on one of my visits to the city, the local mass media were reporting that “the descendants of the famous Trans-Baikal gold magnates, the brothers Konstantin and Alexey Shumov, had arrived in Chita from Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, and Amur Oblast”. They visited their architectural legacy, the famous “Shumov palace”, which to this day is considered the most stately and majestic building in Chita. Even then I had noticed two circumstances: first, the descendants of Russia’s wealthiest people – gold magnates – for some reason all live in Siberia. There can be no other reason than that their ancestors had in their day been deported there as enemies of the Soviet power. Second, the descendants had been invited by the administration of the FSB for Chita Oblast: the building has belonged to none other than them since the time of the NKVD, since the year 1937. (We don’t need to look back in history to learn how it is that the chekists are able to appropriate for themselves that which has never belonged to them: the modern-day example with YUKOS is vivid proof of this). At first I assumed that the poignant meeting between today’s “enkavedists” [NKVD-ists] and the descendants of the wealthy Shumovs would end the way it should end in a normal country – with the transfer of the palace to the use of the descendants by the right of lawful inheritance. Alas, this did not take place. Furthermore, today’s NKVD isn’t even transferring even a historical building to the jurisdiction of the city, its museum of local history. Apparently it doesn’t deem this necessary. And so it is that the only way you can see the interior design of this magnificent monument of architecture for yourself is if you’re wearing handcuffs or the epaulets of an officer of the FSB. But before the GPU-NKVD had gathered strength and started to actively influence life inside the country, the Shumov palace really did belong to the people: in March 1918, Soviet power was declared in it, and in 1921 the government of the Far Eastern Republic worked there; the building was teeming with civic life. domShymova.jpg Photo of the Shumov brothers’ palace in Chita by Grigory Pasko Local television reported then that the descendants of the Shumovs, relatives of the merchants, had visited the “ancestral nest” and had been at a service in a church. In the Oblast museum of local history, they participated in the opening of the exhibition “Voices of history. The saga of the Shumovs”. Local historians called the arrival of the descendants a “unique event”. Websites even printed the comments of the descendants. Like these, for example: “The first thing I wanted to say was ‘Hello, house, home of my ancestors!’ We have always been interested in our history and in the history of our ancestors. We always talked in the family. Here in Chita there are many relatives whom I have never met before. If such a confluence of circumstances has occurred, then we will get to know each other.” Or another one: “We dropped everything: work, children. And with such delight ended up here. The cultural program for us has been written out for two days; it is very full, which we simply did not expect.” What is most interesting is that among the descendants there are many inhabitants of Chita who have crossed the threshold of the Shumov palace for the first time in their lives. It was reported that the employees of the administration of the FSB organized an excursion through the building. The relatives got to visit the bedrooms, the offices, and the halls of the palace, “which continues to preserve the spirit of that epoch”. Interesting – were the bedrooms also preserved by the checkists? Historians report to us that the merchant class in the second half of the 19th century played a most important role in the economic development of the Trans-Baikal region, the saturation of its market with goods, the fine-tuning of the foreign trade ties of the area with neighboring countries. Great are their achievements in the cultural development of a corner of the country far from the center, that was the traditional place of penal servitude at hard labor and banishment. The merchant class understood that capital can not exist for the sake of capital, and engaged in philanthropy and charitable activities. Their money built churches and orphanages, educational establishments, museums and libraries, published newspapers, rendered assistance to arrestees. Earlier, as we remember from history, there was a time when the merchant class could allow itself to be independent in its business and opinions. The situation is not like this in today’s Russia. Today’s “merchant class” is built along a vertical and is arranged along a horizontal. It does build churches – this is fashionable. I somehow haven’t heard anything about orphanages though. And to the best of my recollection, nobody besides Khodorkovsky engaged in earnest in the computerization of libraries. And I’m sure none of them has ever even given a thought to assisting arrestees. One of the journalists somehow noticed that the modern “merchant class” doesn’t have enough breadth of vision, education, intellectualism, spirituality, or a true business-like character in comparison with its predecessors – people like, for example, the Chita merchants Mikhail and Nikolai Butin, Yakov Nemchinov, Alexey Startsev, and those same Shumov brothers… By the way, speaking of the Shumovs who built that grandiose palace in Chita: They became the largest gold magnates after official permission was given for private parties to engage in gold mining in the year 1863. Such also were the Butin brothers, the Sabashnikovs, the Novomeyskys… (A zig-zag of history: standing today on the street named after the merchant Butin is a small wooden house in which the committee for support of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is headquartered). bytina1.jpg Photo of house on Butin Street by Grigory Pasko And here’s another interesting fact: inasmuch as the Trans-Baikal region always was a land of penal servitude at hard labor and banishment, the tutors of the children in the homes of the merchants and local moneyed classes were often political deportees – people of high European culture. They say that in the 19th century, the gold magnate Mikhail Butin, appealing to his contemporaries, was also addressing their descendants: “If you want to leave the country desolate, poor, and in bondage, just keep on taking out and removing raw materials from it. But if you want to see it populated, flourishing, then encourage its local factory-based industry, develop the trades, land cultivation, and make internal routes easier”. Today’s attitude of the descendants to the raw materials reserved of the country bears witness to the fact that Butin’s words remain unheard. …When Chita was visited in the winter of this year Chita by the plenipotentiary representative of the President of the RF in the Siberian Federal District, Anatoly Kvashin, he noted, among other banalities, that among the tasks that stand before the leadership of Chita Oblast is the development of small and medium-sized business. That is, in essence, the revival of the merchant class and entrepreneurship, which had been ruined in its day not without the help of the Soviet power and its punitive advance detachment – the chekists. Those same ones whose descendants have settled in so comfortably in the Shumov brothers’ palace.