Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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Los Angeles Times
July 24, 2003
Moscow Hotel, Grand Lady of Soviet Era, Checks Out
Kim Murphy, Times Staff Writer

If there's a soft spot in a Stalinist's heart, it is for the old Moscow Hotel -- the looming gray hulk near the entrance to Red Square that played host to generations of Soviet luminaries and Politburo members in the kind of dilapidated luxury only a Communist could love.

Service? Nyet. Plumbing? Leaky. But the Lights of Moscow cafe on the 15th floor commanded a view of the Kremlin's towering brick ramparts and onion domes like nowhere else in the Russian capital, and the hotel's marble lobby for generations was a hub for the Soviet empire's powerful, famous and merely ambitious, as well as a meeting point for visiting artists, democratic dissidents and defecting spies.

The historic, old Moscow -- whose narrow, mismatched windows looked out on parades of Soviet tanks and artillery and, in a new era, throngs of pro-democracy demonstrators -- closed its doors this week. By September, the government-owned hotel is scheduled to be demolished, with a $350-million hotel, office and shopping complex to go up in its place.

Thanks to the Russian Ministry of Culture's pleas, the forbidding gray facade made famous on the label of Stolichnaya vodka will be replicated on the new hotel. Its ornate Stalinist pretensions and repositories of Soviet history undoubtedly will not.

"On the one hand, it's sad. This hotel has seen a lot of Soviet history. Remember, this was the central hotel that hosted everybody who came to Moscow at the invitation of the government," Anatoly Shamburov, the hotel's director of security, said Wednesday. "But on the other hand, it has been in need of repair for a long time. Look at these walls. Everything is falling apart."

News of the planned demolition has been greeted with regret all over Russia. "I personally think that they are making a big mistake," said Tamaz Gamkrelidze, a well-known linguist and former deputy in the Supreme Soviet, or legislature, from the republic of Georgia.

"How could one decide to lift their hand against a place that has seen almost every single celebrity that visited Moscow in the 20th century?" he asked.

It is ridiculous to see in a hotel a fable of a new Russia, rushing headlong to build its gleaming, moneyed future on the ruins of a discredited past. Yet the Moscow almost demands to be embodied in metaphor. How else to explain the sweeping, six-story billboard attached to the side of the hotel, showing the headlights of a flashy BMW? "This is how the future looks," it boasts.

Yes, the hotel staff admits now, there were monitoring devices in some lamps (although the successor agency to the former KGB still denies putting them there). Yes, the staffers say, it is quite possible that the pink marble stairs off the lobby were fashioned from the ruins of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the towering edifice Josef Stalin blew up in 1931. Would you have argued with him?

It was Stalin who ordered the construction of the official state hotel in 1932 in what would become typical grand Soviet style. And Stalin, it is said, was responsible for the mismatch of the facade's two wings -- one with straight windows, one with arched.

As the story goes, architect Alexei Shchusev presented the feared dictator with two possible designs for the facade. When Stalin put his signature between them, Shchusev was disinclined to question him and proceeded to build both.

A more likely story, the Moscow daily Gazeta reported this week, is that constant squabbling among the architects left final plans in a mishmash that nobody bothered to fix.

It is telling that, in a country like Russia, both stories ring true.

Strangely, in a hotel with one of the most commanding potential views in Russia -- the Kremlin walls, Red Square, St. Basil's Cathedral and Manezh Square stretch out in front of it and the Bolshoi Theater stands just to the other side -- not a single room looks out on the seat of government.

"The KGB issued strong rules that the Kremlin should not be overlooked," explains Boris Yevseyev, the hotel's deputy director in charge of construction. "Right now, you will notice you can see the Kremlin only from the corridor, and the rooms on that side look only into the [hotel] courtyard."

In the new hotel, he said, luxury rooms would take full advantage of the view. Spies, presumably, will be able to rent them like anyone else.

"We no longer have a problem with the FSB on that score," Yevseyev said, referring to the Federal Security Service, the KGB's domestic successor agency. "Of course," he added, "we have to coordinate with the FSB still."

Over the years, the Moscow has played host to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, American actor Robert De Niro, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and Marshal G.K. Zhukov, who led Soviet forces to victory during World War II. Former President Boris N. Yeltsin had his office in the Moscow. Andrei Sakharov, who went from designing the Soviet hydrogen bomb to leading its citizens into the streets to demand democratic reform, was frequently seen in its corridors.

Many tourists who came looking for five-star service went away disappointed. "I visited your hotel in December and was extremely disappointed with the terrible service," one guest complained. "One particular lady who works in reception just about refused to let us have a room and even phoned [another hotel] to find us something po-deshevle," or cheaper. "I'm intrigued to know: What's so wrong with our money?"

But Gamkrelidze, the former Supreme Soviet deputy, was kinder in his review.

"The staff was always well trained, polite and attentive," he said.

"Another great thing about the Moscow is that it has style about it. It is a very warm hotel, psychologically warm. Unlike many other Stalinist buildings in Moscow, [it] does not make you feel depressed... It does not antagonize or frighten you by its grandeur. Its grandeur is sort of homey in nature."

The hotel's bread and butter was not its luminaries, but its proletariat -- the collective farmers and factory workers who regularly converged on the Moscow for Communist Party meetings and Victory Day celebrations, their bills paid by the local party organizations.

"All the delegates that came to the congresses of the Communist Party, which were held in the Kremlin, they stayed here. This was the biggest restaurant in Moscow, and the best. A banquet was held here in honor of Stalin on his 50th birthday," said security director Shamburov, standing amid the ruined murals, green marble columns and fading satin drapes of the hotel restaurant.

"Oh, the food. The best dish was borscht i vatrushka. I remember the Yugoslavs would come to the hotel late at night and they would beg for our borscht," said Lidiya Lavryonova, who has worked at the Moscow for 26 years and plans to retire now. For those who could continue after the heavy beet soup, there was chicken Kiev, and Stolichnaya osetrina -- sturgeon baked with mushrooms under sour cream.

Lavryonova rolls her eyes at the culinary memories. "What can I say? I feel sad, sad, sad. It's like closing down part of my life. Twenty-six years connected with this hotel."

She leads visitors through an abandoned suite, empty except for an aged grand piano standing in its reception room; onto the rooftop walkway, with its bird's-eye view of Red Square; past corridors of windows with old newspapers stuffed into the cracks to keep out the wind and snow, and into the towering marble lobby, where portraits of Vladimir I. Lenin and Stalin once hung over the reception desk.

"For me, it means the end of my career," Lavryonova said. "It's not that I'm sorry for the end of my career, because you always come to the end of a career. But what is especially saddening is my career falls down together with this hotel."

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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