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Backstory: Do svidaniya, Rossiya!

A Soviet historic site even the historians don't want to preserve.

By Alexander OsipovichContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 16, 2006



MOSCOW

It won't be as momentous as the fall of the Berlin Wall, nor as TV-friendly as the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statues in Baghdad. But when the Rossiya Hotel is torn down this month, one of the most visible legacies of Soviet rule will disappear from central Moscow.

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Sprawling across 30 acres next to Red Square, the Rossiya is hard to miss. Its centerpiece, a 21-story tower, looms over the multicolored cupolas of St. Basil's Cathedral. The concrete colossus owes its size to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who wanted a hotel large enough to house all 6,000 delegates to Communist Party congresses.

When the Rossiya opened in 1967, it became the largest hotel in the world. And it remained the largest in Europe until it was closed on New Year's Eve, by order of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Wrecking teams have since fenced off the property as they prepare to demolish the unsightly behemoth.

In his glitzy drive to redevelop the once sooty-gray Russian capital, Mr. Luzhkov has become Enemy No. 1 of preservationists, who bemoan his approval of developments that have bulldozed hundreds of the city's historic buildings in recent years. But the mayor's plan to raze the much-loathed Rossiya has been endorsed by some of his harshest critics - and sparked debate over which parts of history, exactly, are worth preserving.

Alexei Komech, director of the Moscow Art History Institute, keeps a "black book" of landmarks that have perished at the hands of the mayor. But on the Rossiya, he agrees: "Starting in the 1960s, we in the architectural community had a very negative attitude to it. We always thought it was too big for its location."

And architects aren't alone. For many of the Rossiya's former guests - especially those who stayed there in its Soviet heyday - the hotel conjures memories of gruff service, baffling bureaucracy, sinister food, and bizarre Soviet touches, such as radios that could only pick up one station and could only be turned off by being unplugged.

For John Pollock, an American who first stayed at the Rossiya as a student in 1976, the worst part was trying to fall asleep: "The bed wasn't really a bed. It was a slab of wood, like a wooden shelf."

Equally rigid were the rules that governed the comings and goings of guests. It took a special card to enter the hotel, and each of the Rossiya's long corridors was watched over by a surly dezhurnaya, a matron who collected room keys from guests whenever they left.Those who came back late at night could expect a tirade from the sleepy hall monitor as she retrieved their keys.

The harshest restrictions, though, were on meetings between foreign guests and Soviet citizens. Even innocuous encounters were considered suspect. In 1971, Viacheslav Nepomnyashchy was in a bar in the Rossiya. "A foreigner spilled his drink on the bar and got my elbows wet," recalls Mr. Nepomnyashchy, a Russian émigré who now lives in New York. "He offered to buy me a drink, but the drink never materialized because they carted me away." Plainclothes police took him to a holding room, searched him, and let him go several hours later.

The regime's desire for control even influenced the hotel's design. Despite its vast size, the Rossiya had few exits, to make it hard to evade the watchful eyes of hotel staff. This contributed to the death toll (officially placed at 42) in a 1977 fire at the hotel, in which many were trapped above the reach of firefighters' ladders.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the old restrictions vanished, but the Rossiya acquired a distinctly seedy character. Gambling machines popped up in the lobby, while guests started getting phone calls in the middle of the night from strangers offering prostitutes. In 1994, the hotel was briefly closed for cockroach fumigation.

The Rossiya tried to cope with the changing times. Parts were brought up to Western standards - but even they retained Soviet vestiges, such as the dezhurnaya system. Other parts were rented for commercial use. In 2001, the Rossiya even became the site of a hit reality show similar to CBS's "Big Brother." "Za Steklom," or "Behind the Glass," closely followed - even into the shower - six young men and women confined in a first-floor apartment.

As Moscow filled up with five-star Marriotts and Hyatts, the Rossiya seemed increasingly out of place, especially after two other Soviet-era hotels - the Intourist and the Moskva - were demolished. In August 2004, the city government decided to replace the hotel with a retail and entertainment complex. The layout of the complex is loosely based on the old neighborhood of Zaryadye, which dated back to the days of Ivan the Terrible and was razed by Stalin in the 1930s. In the place of Zaryadye's churches, markets, and narrow medieval streets, Stalin envisioned a skyscraper that would house government ministries. It was never realized, and all that was finished was the foundation and an industrial-size bomb shelter. When Khrushchev came to power, he built the Rossiya instead. The bomb shelter became a movie theater in the hotel basement.

Given the hotel's unique history, some art historians argue that it's worth preserving. "Our city is like a book, with many layers of history in it," says Antonina Manina, an expert at Moscow's Architecture Museum. "And the 1960s and 1970s are part of that."

Indeed, the Rossiya may be a remarkable monument of an important era. But few who lived - or suffered - through that era feel much sympathy for the doomed hotel. Nepomnyashchy, for one, is not nostalgic about his detention there: "It's a pretty rotten place. Other than the views, it's all pretty dismal."

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