Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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Russia: Moscow's Architectural Heritage Under Threat
By Chloe Arnold
Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

MOSCOW, May 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Bulldozers and pneumatic drills increasingly drown out the sound of ordinary life on many of Moscow's streets. Shopping malls, entertainment centers, luxury apartment blocks, and what will be Europe's tallest tower are shooting up across the Russian capital, fuelled by the country's vast oil wealth.

But a group of architects and preservationists is warning that the unique character of this centuries-old city is in danger of disappearing, unless officials check the frenzy of demolition work.

Landmarks Lost

In a report released May 14, the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society and Save Europe's Heritage suggest ways of saving what remains of historic Moscow before it's too late.

Adam Wilkinson from Save Europe's Heritage, a group that works to draw public attention to endangered sites in Europe, says historical buildings and landmarks are being lost to the capital's rebuilding efforts on an almost daily basis.

"The situation at the moment in Moscow is dire," Wilkinson said. "This seems to be for a number of reasons, but primarily there is greed and indifference. The greed is private greed, the indifference is official indifference. A difference can be made to the situation, and really should be made. The system can work, and it should work. All it needs is for politicians to give it a good kick in the right direction."

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has defended the construction boom in Moscow, saying it is modernizing the capital and attracting investors. And city officials say many old buildings are being restored or renovated.

But Luzhkov also attracts much of the blame for the destruction of historic Moscow. During his tenure, he has overseen the tearing down of dozens of buildings in the city center, including the Rossia and Moskva hotels. Earlier this year, a row of 19th-century merchants' houses beside Red Square disappeared without warning, leaving a pile of rubble surrounded by advertising billboards.

Elsewhere in central Moscow, dozens of old buildings have been shrouded in green netting. City officials say the sites are awaiting reconstruction -- but that often involves tearing a building down and replacing it with what the report calls a "sham replica" of the original.

Under Threat

The report highlights a number of historical landmarks currently under threat, including St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square, the Detsky Mir (Children's World) department store, and Mayakovskaya metro station.

Clementine Cecil is one of the founders of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society.

"We are doing two things with this report," Cecil said. "We're showing firstly to Russia that the world is not indifferent to what's happening in Moscow. And secondly we're showing the extent of the destruction of the problems to the rest of the world."

There is some good news -- the report notes that hundreds of churches across Moscow that were damaged during the Soviet era have had their golden domes and intricately painted interiors restored.

Cecil says she hopes the report will shame the authorities into acting. Copies of the 128-page illustrated report have been given to President Vladimir Putin, Mayor Luzhkov, and Moscow's chief architect, Aleksandr Kuzmin.

"It's definitely clear that the Moscow Heritage Committee doesn't like so many scandals -- they don't like everybody writing about these things in the world press," Cecil said. "They don't like international criticism. Russia at the moment doesn't like any kind of international criticism and that's exactly the weak spot that we're working on as hard as we can."

Andrei Batalov, the head of the commission restoring St. Basil's Cathedral, says much of old Moscow has been lost. But he adds that it is never too late to save the city's heritage, saying: "What remains is no less precious than that which has been torn down."