October 25, 2019

Saving Moscow - One Letter at a Time


Saving Moscow - One Letter at a Time
A bakery sign restored. Remember Everything

Any visitor to central Moscow in early twentieth century would have been overwhelmed by the quantity of small business advertisement plastered across buildings. Photo studios, rooms, glass-cutters, bakers and sellers of everything from seeds to dental equipment – their signs beckoned locals and visitors, many of them painted directly on the walls. 

Central Moscow in 1913. Photograph by Alexander Gubarev

Few remnants of that economic activity survived. But some Muscovites today are trying to resurrect signs that have hidden beneath decades of paint, on buildings that are still standing. Meet the team of Remember Everything, a group of activists, preservationists and art restorers crowdfunding their way to the resurrection of several old signs around the Russian capital.

 

Central Moscow in 1913. Photograph by Alexander Gubarev

 

Over the past few years the group, coordinated by Natalia Tarnavskaya, has restored about a half-dozen signs from the first two decades of the 20th century, as well as other curious Moscow elements, bringing back the quirky character of the city of that era. We caught up with Natalia Tarnavskaya after her team completed its latest project, the sign of a former bakery.

The grand opening of the Streletskaya bakery sign in Kostyansky alley, restored in October. / Remember Everything

RL: How do you find projects? Do you get tips from locals or historians? 

NT: It's always some kind of magic. Whether the info is from spies, local historians, or ourselves, it's always by accident. You can't find these objects if you're looking, because even if a sign existed somewhere, the odds that it's still there beneath the paint is a fraction of a percent, and we can't just pick apart the whole city looking for them.

Sign from the 1910s advertising the firm of engineer Samuil Falkevich, who made his fortune fixing cars and extracting peat. / Remember Everything

RL: What are the biggest obstacles in your work? Does bureaucracy get in the way? 

NT: The main problem is greedy property owners and residents. Bureaucracy is nothing when compared with the belief of human beings that their comfort is the top priority. The rest of the problems are easy to overcome.

A 1920s sign advertising the home-based dental office of Sergei Kapnik. / Remember Everything

RL: How do you make sure that the building won't get knocked down, along with the sign, a couple of years after putting in all that work?

NT: We aren't guerrilla volunteers, our restoration is done with agreement of the Moscow culture department. The latest project is a house that's already under protection, and now the sign is simply added to what's protected, which means that you can't paint over it or obstruct it. 

A huge bakery sign from the NEP era on Prechistenskaya Street. / Remember Everything

RL: Why do you think Moscow needs these signs?

NT: Moscow needs them as much as anything else. The signs are just there, like archaeological remains, and we have no right to question whether we need them or how to make them financially profitable. History is there and that's what makes it valuable, and if we don't like it, that's not history's problem, that's our problem. It means we need to be educated to have a taste for history, while tour guides need to learn how to talk about it in an interesting way.

In terms of the signs as a genre of tourist sight, of course they are more human-scale and understandable, because we also go to bakeries and shops now, and we can compare the signs of today and a century ago. That falls under the so-called history of daily life, which is popular now, and which presents national history at a smaller scale. Also, you don't need to have special education to interpret the signs, like you do with architecture. You can just look at the sign and feel the past.

 

The organization's restoration season is over for this year, but you can support their future projects through their website or follow them on Facebook.

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