Dowdy and Drab Gets High Gloss

Moscow at 850

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.

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.

Two grandiose projects have symbolized Mayor Luzhkov's drive to transform his city, providing the twin ideological pillars that uphold his vision for Moscow.

One is the Manezh underground shopping mall below the Kremlin walls, a three-level, white-marble, brass-fitted hymn to conspicuous consumption crowned by a feature new to Moscow - a pleasant pedestrian area planted with flowers and freshened by fountains.

The other is Christ the Savior cathedral - a replica of the 19th-century church built to commemorate Russia's victory over Napoleon. Josef Stalin blew up the original building, but the gold-plated dome of the new version can be seen from every corner of Moscow.

The cathedral is a squat, heavy structure that is by no means a thing of beauty. But it has gone up astonishingly fast: I recall visiting the open air swimming pool that occupied the site less than three years ago, and which had long been a landmark of Soviet Moscow.

Christ the Savior is destined to be a principal landmark of post-Soviet Moscow. If all the new shops and office buildings strike a note of modernity, the cathedral harks back to an earlier age in its nostalgic re-creation of the country's Russian Orthodox and imperial past.

So do the golden double-headed imperial eagles that now perch atop the four spires of the newly refurbished Historical Museum, at the other end of Red Square from St. Basil's. And all over town, on railway stations, at the central Post Office, and elsewhere, workers have taken the opportunity while adding a new paint job to tear down Soviet symbols and replace them with older municipal emblems, such as St. George slaying the dragon.

Even those citizens who are not sorry to see those old symbols effaced, and who are happy to live in a brighter and more vibrant Moscow, have some questions about the changes, of course.

Some wonder where all the money came from for projects such as Christ the Savior. City officials say they are voluntary contributions. But local businessmen say privately that without "voluntary" contributions they would not have been granted trading licenses.

Others wonder about their city's future place on the world stage, for Moscow is long accustomed to a leading role in global affairs, whether as the Third Rome - the seat of Orthodox Christianity after Rome and then Byzantium were sacked, or as the capital of world communism.

And then there are those of us, astounded by the speed at which the new coats of paint went on to some public buildings, who wonder how long the paint jobs will last, and how fully one should judge by appearances.

Russia is, after all, the home of the "Potemkin village," named for the 18th-century general who arranged the hasty construction of house faades along the routes taken by Czarina Catherine the Great to impress her with the efficiency with which her newly conquered lands were being settled.

A lot of Muscovites like what Luzhkov has done so far. But they will know that things are really changing for them when the mayor stops building showy monuments and starts spending money on less flamboyant projects, such as public transport.

A planned new entrance to my local subway station has remained half-dug since I arrived in Moscow in 1994, the work stopped for lack of funds. He could start with that.

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