​Tom Sawyer à-la Russe: How Many Adults Does It Take to Paint a House

PHOTO by Alya Sharipova / Strelka
The story of Russia’s most successful citizens’ initiative

In 2015, the historic preservation festival Tom Sawyer Fest was launched in Samara. The festival got volunteers together in an effort to restore wooden buildings that lacked cultural heritage object status. The event combined painting walls and replacing shabby decorations with cultural events open to all participants. By choosing this approach, the organisers aimed to attract a broader audience and liven up the space around the restored objects through events and active interaction.

Although the founders of the festival did not have any previous experience with restoration work, they managed to implement their idea and spread it further: in 2016, Samara was joined by Kazan and Buzuluk. Over two years, 400 people restored 11 buildings, with a total of 5 million roubles spent on restoration. A UNESCO report on culture for sustaining urban development highlighted Tom Sawyer Fest as an example of successful urban environment development and resident engagement. In 2017 the organisers held a three-day workshop, where they shared their experience with festival participants from 20 cities. Strelka Magazine compared the experiences of Samara, Kazan, and Buzuluk, learned how many buildings can be painted in a summer in a small town and in a large city, how many resources this requires, and what challenges and unexpected surprises to anticipate.

Samara: Troublesome Neighbors and the Power of Commemorative Plaques

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Tom Sawyer Fest 2016

Population: 1,170,910; Approx. 500 cultural heritage objects, including 243 wooden buildings. Approx. 1500 unlisted objects

Number of volunteers: 3-20 people per object daily. A total of 140 people participated in the event in 2015, with 50 of them returning to take part in 2016. Over two years, more than 250 volunteers participated in the project, including people coming from other cities.

Buildings restored: 7

Money spent: 2.5 million roubles

Andrey Kochetkov, chief editor of Drugoy Gorod magazine, Tom Sawyer Fest founder:

The Samara city centre consists of 140 blocks of mainly wooden and wood-and-brick buildings. Their historic value is largely disregarded: these buildings either burn down or get torn down. The Tom Sawyer Fest was born as an attempt to intervene. The idea won us a city administration grant, which significantly facilitated the launch of the project.

During the first festival we focused on three neighboring buildings on one of the central streets, so that any changes we made would be very noticeable. Before we could begin any restoration efforts we were obliged to receive the city architect’s approval for the façade projects. We also needed to get permissions from either two-thirds of building owners (for private houses) or the city administration (for city-owned buildings). The majority of the historic buildings in the city currently serve as communal apartments, and the indifference shown by their inhabitants was an obstacle. Some of them had stopped seeing the buildings they lived in and the space around them as their responsibility and were waiting apathetically to be granted a private apartment. One inhabitant even claimed that he deliberately refused to maintain the house to “shame the mayor” – after living there for 40 years. We also met a brother and sister who hadn’t spoken to each other in 15 years. The brother volunteered to help, and the sister hindered our efforts just to get back at him.

Some volunteers who joined the project read our announcement in Drugoy Gorod magazine, others found us through different channels. Most of them were white collar workers who wanted to blow some steam after work by engaging in socially beneficial physical activity. Neither they nor we had any construction experience, so we sought consulting advice from professional restorers. Also, during the first year our work was closely supervised by a foreman. In 2016 the majority of foreman functions were taken by the now experienced volunteers. We also had help coming from unexpected places: during the election race people wearing political party apparel tried to join in, and political ads started popping around our site. We had to explain that the festival welcomed everyone, but was definitely not a place for politics.

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Tetris, a portrait of Samara, 2016

When we were searching for funding, we tried to make sure that we did not have any sponsor that would totally undermine our project should they decide to cut their support. We found help both from larger companies like MTS and smaller local businesses. We were lucky that our announcement caught an eye of Tikkurila, who offered to provide us with painting materials. Kuvalda.ru also stepped in to help us. Common residents also showed their support for the festival: sometimes with actual money, sometimes with homemade pies for our volunteers. But not everything went smoothly. One time we were approached by a woodworking company who offered to replace some decorative window frames if we purchased some linden. And then they cut off contact. When we reminded them that the building had to be commissioned soon, they told us that it should have been demolished instead, and that we failed to give them enough press. They only wanted the PR. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, we think that our sponsors should share our core values. Making sure that they do before we make any deals is crucial. Each building cost us 350,000 roubles on average, and over two years we spent 2.5 million.

Overall, we restored seven houses in Samara between 2015 and 2016. We also got the city administration to help us repair the roofs (we provided the necessary materials, and they helped us with the workforce) and to replace old wiring. We made our bet on making easily noticeable changes in the city centre, and it paid off handsomely: the buildings we restored became a part of popular tourist routes. We also dug up information on the original owners of each building and installed commemorative plaques. The current inhabitants also changed their attitude. I heard one owner who used to call his home “a hole” bragging to tourists that a merchant once lived there.

Now, Tom Sawyer Fest is a well-recognized city event, and we can afford to work on buildings outside of the city centre. Also, after working with beautiful houses with uncooperative residents, we decided to shift our attention to people in the future. What I mean is finding people who take care of their houses and want to preserve them, and include these buildings in the festival programme.

Kazan: Local Intelligentsia and African Students Climb the Scaffolding

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Restored house, Kazan

Population: 1,216,965; 525 listed cultural heritage objects. 433 inhabited historically valuable objects.

Number of volunteers: 3-20 volunteers per object daily. A total of 100 people took part in the event, including volunteers coming from Ryazan, Ufa, Rezh, Samara, Tolyatti and Moscow.

Building restored: 3

Money spent: 2 million roubles

Anna Dzhanbekova, member of the Russian Historic Monument and Culture Protection Society, one of the organisers of Tom Sawyer Fest in Kazan:

As Kazan celebrated its 1000th anniversary, entire blocks were being torn down across the city. The demolition spared neither dilapidated old houses, nor historically valuable buildings that happened to occupy expensive land in the city center. While some residents preferred to move out to better accommodated and furnished apartments, others attempted to protect the wooden buildings that they had worked so hard to maintain in good condition. After Andrey Kochetkov attended a meeting of historic preservation activists in Kazan, we decided to apply Samara’s idea to our own city and hold the festival here. Olesya Baltusova, Presidential Aide of the Republic of Tatarstan, coordinated the festival. She interacted with the administration, approved the projects for each of the buildings, and searched for funding. Our team also included six restorers, a coordinating architect, three event managers, a foreman, and a construction crew.

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Restored house, Kazan

One of the conditions of the festival was that the residents of the historic buildings had to file an application themselves: “We ask you to include the building in the festival program and promise to provide the necessary assistance”. So we managed to gather those who were open to dialogue and work from the get-go. We chose three buildings and spent three months painting them, replacing the old wooden elements with new ones, and brushing up the area next to one of them. We also started gathering the documents necessary to get one of the buildings assigned cultural heritage object status.

Tikkurila provided us with 500 kg of paint and primer. The other help we got included construction materials, free scaffolding and tower crane rental, assistance with organising logistics, and carpenter services. We didn’t handle any hard cash, but we estimate that the total cost of the work and materials we put into the project amounted to around 2 million roubles, spread equally across all three buildings.

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Restored house, Kazan

The most inspiring and unexpected thing about the festival was probably the people who volunteered. The festival gathered the core of the Kazan academic community: local historians, scientists and scholars. Most of them were 25 or older. At first we made a mistake with our scheduling, making Monday and Friday our days off. Later we changed it to a more traditional 5/2 week, as most of our participants had a Tom Sawyer Fest of their own on the weekends at their personal cottages outside of town. There were some unusual occurrences, too. Once, a group of workers from a nearby hotel arrived in matching company T-shirts, and we had to explain that the site was not a place to hold team building exercises. On another occasion, a delegation of African students who had come to the city for a conference asked for permission to join in. We gave them some paint, and now their contribution will remain in Kazan for years to come.

Buzuluk: We Are Few but we Have Paintbrushes

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Festival volunteers in Buzuluk

Population: 85,896; 33 cultural heritage objects, including 4 wooden buildings. Approx. 100 unlisted buildings modernist-style buildings.

Volunteers: 1-5 people daily. A total of 35 people took part in the festival, including people coming from other cities (Samara)

Buildings restored: 1

Money spent: 50,000 roubles

Anna Melnikova, organiser of Tom Sawyer Fest in Buzuluk:

The main historic value of Bazuluk is in its multiple blocks of modernist-style architecture. These buildings are generally sturdy and do not require any serious reconstruction. Local businesses are not too interested in this real estate because of the abundance of space available elsewhere. The main danger these buildings face today is their owners themselves, who remove wooden decorations and cover the walls with siding. I decided to hold the festival to emphasize the significance and beauty of the original constructions. Additionally, last year the city celebrated its 280th anniversary, and we used this opportunity to launch a dialogue with the city management.

When I was starting the project, I assumed that I was going to finish the painting alone, so I opted for a relatively small building. The house was located in the middle of the city and was inhabited by a family of three. Each one of them contributed to the festival in one way or another. I had a good idea of whom I was going to invite to join my team right away: my adventurous kindred spirits Yaroslav Brusentsev and Anna Pereguda. Yaroslav, a student, was responsible for construction work, while Anna, an economist, handled concerts and funding. I managed the organisation.

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Festival volunteers in Buzuluk

The search for sponsors was our next step. There are no large businesses in the city except for Rosneft, which we were too shy to ask for help. Instead, we decided to offer free advertising to small and medium businesses in exchange for their assistance. Unfortunately, their main argument was: “Everyone already knows us”. That made us adjust our tactic and appeal to their professional ego and conscience, which actually worked. Two construction firms gave us paint, scaffolding and primer, a tool rental service provided us with the necessary tools free of charge, and a transportation company let us use their van on several occasions. A professional carpenter replaced a number of wooden details for a mere 9,000 roubles. We also managed to gather over 20,000 roubles at concerts and open mic events. This is a hefty sum for Buzuluk.

A small city has the benefit of a lot of people knowing each other. We received great support from the local media, with 26 articles covering the event. At the same time, we lacked human resources. Even political parties did not approach us like they did in Samara. Perhaps they did not see the festival as a good PR opportunity or a thing worthy of their efforts. On average, we had up to five people working daily, with all of our volunteers being 30 or younger. By the end, Yaroslav and I were finishing things up on our own. At the end of the event, when the weather got particularly nasty (the other cities launched their festivals in the beginning of the summer, while we started in August), we paid 3,000 roubles to some construction workers to finish some unfinished jobs.

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Festival volunteers in Buzuluk

Now I realise that we missed out on several important engagement channels. For instance, I was once invited to speak about what we do in front of eighth graders. I had no expectations going there, but the next day three of the students and a school teacher joined our ranks. The situation repeated itself after I spoke at a construction college. Next year we will keep these opportunities in mind.

Despite all the difficulties, we managed to complete the restoration and change people’s attitude towards the issues that we raised. I often receive pictures of wooden houses in Buzuluk and know for a fact that a few of the homeowners decided not to opt for siding. Some volunteers who worked with us during the festival got inspired to take part in other charity events. Several couples met each other at the festival – we even witnessed a new musical group being formed! Next year we plan to hold another Tom Sawyer Fest in the town. Unfortunately, we do not yet have the resources to restore more than one building per year.

Author: Svetlana Kondratyeva