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Dowdy and Drab Gets High Gloss

Moscow at 850

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 1997


Each morning since I moved to Moscow three years ago, I have drawn back my bedroom curtains, looked across the narrow street outside, and been confronted once again by the sullen gray hulk that houses the Ministry of Transport.

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Bearing down on me with all the weight of its granite-slabbed walls, the building seemed designed to crush the spirit of all who set eyes on it - one of hundreds of unimaginative Stalin-era monstrosities that mar this city.

Until this week. On Monday I awoke to hear workmen dismantling the scaffolding that had sheathed the ministry, and to see the sun shining on a brand new cream faade, its details picked out in a delicate shade of yellow. Now I live next door to a lemon meringue pie.

Moscow is celebrating its 850th anniversary this weekend. For months the capital has been in a frenzy of repainting, restoration, and reconstruction, preparing itself for a three-day extravaganza of municipal hubris.

No matter that the real date of Moscow's founding is unknown (1147 is significant only because it was in that year's chronicles that the name was first mentioned). No matter that 850 is hardly the roundest of anniversaries. Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow's barrel-chested little dynamo of a mayor, with political ambitions to match his energy, has decided the time has come to thrust his city into the international limelight as a modern world capital.

And few people who live in Moscow would complain about the way the city's face has changed.

Just a few years ago, Moscow was a notoriously drab, impersonal town, where the uniformity of the peeling paint jobs struck the visitor as even more oppressive than the politics of the place. Shop windows - sometimes curtained to conceal any goods the store might have had on sale - were generally too dusty to see through, and the idea of a stroll anywhere except a park was absurd.

Of course, Moscow's weather does not often encourage strolling: The last frost struck this year in early June, and temperatures will likely start to dip below freezing again later this month.

But it is now possible to walk down any street in the city center and find something to catch the eye - a small pleasure, perhaps, but a novel one. A building that last year stood abandoned might now have been remodeled, glowing in the pastel shades that city planners prefer. A cafe may have set out a few tables and chairs on the sidewalk in a tentative bid to germinate some street life. A new clothes store brightens things up with some imaginative window dressing.

The force that is driving such changes, of course, is consumerism. It is the shops, the imported goods they sell, and the new advertising billboards that make Moscow recognizable to the visitor today as a modern European city, beyond the medieval churches and Soviet monuments that make it so Russian.

Moscow - a city of more than 2,000 banks - hoards more than three-quarters of Russia's financial resources. Its businesses generate nearly 20 percent of the national wealth. Its residents have more money to spend than any other Russians - and they need it: Moscow is now the third-most-expensive city in the world, according to international surveys.

Glitzy retailers are ecstatic: "Moscow is one of the most exciting and energized cities in the world today," raved Calvin Klein in a message relayed to the ceremony opening his store here last month.