Poof! Another Moscow landmark disappears.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."