MOSCOW — As President Vladimir Putin was announcing his election victory on the night of March 14, a five-alarm fire broke out in the Manezh art museum next to the Kremlin. The Russian press later reported that Mr. Putin "appeared to be furious" as he gazed at the flames towering above the ancient heart of Moscow.
The causes of the Manezh blaze are still under investigation, but the incident has focused attention on the mysterious disappearance of hundreds of Moscow's architectural landmarks over the past decade. The 19th-century czarist structure had been at the center of a bitter dispute between its nominal owner, the Kremlin, and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who had plans to redevelop the building commercially, adding a parking garage, restaurant, and shops. Before the fire hit, the Kremlin had forbidden the city to reconstruct the Manezh.
Foreign visitors often marvel at how Moscow has broken its gray Soviet-era mold and blossomed into a dynamic city of skyscrapers, five-star hotels, and bustling business centers in just a few years. But critics charge that Moscow's real estate boom, which has seen prices double almost to world records in the past four years, has come at a high price: corruption in city government and the destruction of the city's heritage. The building boom has sparked a backlash among residents and an investigation by the Kremlin.
More than 400 historic buildings, some in theory protected by federal law, have been razed and replaced by "replicas," which are often many times as large as the originals and bear little resemblance. In most cases, experts say, the decision to rebuild has been made by the mayor's office and the work done by City Hall-connected companies. Inteka, a firm owned by Mr. Luzhkov's wife, Yelena Baturina, is said to control 11 percent of Moscow's construction market. Redeveloped properties are often secretly sold or leased to insiders, critics say. There is little public information available about City Hall's business activities.
"Downtown Moscow cannot survive the commercial interests of the Moscow government, which has at least a 60 percent stake in every development project," says Alexei Komech, director of the State Institute of Art Studies and a member of the Moscow government's architectural consultative council. "The colossal pressure of money is destroying our city."
At present, the financial lure of tourism at Russian landmarks cannot compete with elite Russians' demands for apartments and offices in downtown Moscow.
City officials argue that the only way to rebuild Moscow's housing stock, infrastructure, and commercial core after decades of Soviet neglect is to harness the power of business. "No matter what shortcomings may exist, the situation in Moscow is being steadily improved," says Nikolai Shurin, chief specialist of Moscow's Main Directorate for the Preservation of Monuments.
"Moscow is in far better condition than other Russian cities."
But the Kremlin, aiming to fight alleged corruption and to restore federal prerogatives, is challenging Luzhkov's Moscow rule. It is reportedly looking into Luzhkov "replica" projects, including the demolition of the famous Moskva Hotel next to Red Square, already under way.
Repeated phone and e-mail requests for comment went unanswered by the spokesman for the mayor's Architecture, Building, Development, and Reconstruction Department. But the mayor has argued that City Hall can't be held responsible in cases where construction sites are expanded beyond originally approved plans. "Moscow doesn't need ugly huge things. I will not let them make the city look ugly," Luzhkov told the website vesti.ru last year.
However, many Muscovites are upset with the changes. Lyudmilla Melikova says she's upset about the destruction of a 17th-century church complex next to her Kuznetsky Most home, near the Kremlin. Last week, after Putin's office expressed an interest, Moscow prosecutor Anatoly Zuyev opened a criminal investigation into the case. "It is amazing to me that this beautiful ensemble of buildings and green space survived all the disasters of the Soviet period, only to be torn down," says Ms. Melikova.
In the mid-'90s an unknown construction firm took possession of the site, evicted its Soviet-era tenants, and ripped down most buildings, she says. Appeals to the Ministry of Culture resulted in a letter ordering Moscow authorities to stop, but no further action. Today the site is paved over and occupied by a business center that apparently belongs to the Bank of Moscow, owned by the city. Only one of the original buildings, the residence of the Orthodox Archbishop of Tver, has been preserved.
Mr. Shurin says he can't comment on the criminal case, but insists that everything was done properly. "There was only one real monument there, the residence building, and it was saved," he says. "I'm sorry for the neighbors who are creating a scandal over this.... But the city must go on developing."
Even critics agree that Luzhkov has done much to transform Moscow into a modern European metropolis. But too often, the drive for profit trumps pre-servation, they add, citing plans to replace beloved landmarks such as the Vointorg military shop and the Detski Mir children's store with facsimiles. "You can go to other European cities and find beautifully restored old buildings," says Mr. Komech. "But in Moscow they must have underground parking, swimming pools...."
The same logic has led to the involuntary displacement of apartment dwellers from the city center to the suburbs. Though apartments were privatized when the USSR collapsed, the city still owns most buildings. Construction firms tied to City Hall have been handed contracts to renovate or demolish hundreds of old buildings to be resold at huge markups.
Russian law says that evicted residents must be given an equivalent apartment within Moscow, but a new amendment enshrines the right to ask for market price instead. "Many people don't know that they can get money instead of an alternative flat," says Galina Hovanskaya, a Duma deputy who deals with housing.