#1 - JRL 7271
The Guardian (UK)
31 July 2003
Do not disturb
Stalin, Gagarin and Sakharov all loved it. Now the Moskva hotel is to be pulled down - and replaced by a replica. Jonathan Glancey on the strange fate of a Soviet icon.
The spectre of Stalin is haunting Moscow. A few years ago, it seemed that anything the Red Tsar said, did or built was to go the way of the Berlin Wall, the Communist party and the USSR itself. Only last week, the final guests checked out of the daunting Moskva hotel, for 70 years the gateway to Soviet Moscow, looming over one corner of Red Square. The better rooms of this heroic Stalinist pile may well have been bugged, but they did offer magnificent views over Red Square and St Basil's cathedral. From the 15th floor the views were the stuff of epic Russian films, while from the corridor windows you could just peep across the walls of the reclusive Kremlin. The pink marble stairs leading up from the lobby were said to be fashioned from the ruins of the 19th-century Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, demolished by Stalin; they certainly looked the part. For some years a debate has raged in Moscow over the future of the 1,000-room Stalinist hotel featured on every bottle of Stolichnaya vodka and built in the early 30s by Alexei Shchusev, one of the Man of Steel's pet architects, and the man who designed Lenin's mausoleum in Red Square. Many have wanted it demolished; now, a solution has been found. The old hotel is to be demolished and replaced by an exact replica. Funded by the Decorum Corporation, a little-known US- registered company, the new $350m hotel will be 49% owned by the city of Moscow. The remaining 51% stays with Decorum - a remarkable state of affairs.
Will the new hotel be a homage to Uncle Joe? After all, the gloriously over-the-top Leningrad hotel has recently been refurbished, housed in one of Stalin's celebrated "Seven Sisters", seven Soviet-style art deco skyscrapers designed to rival those of New York and Chicago. But although the titanic grey walls of the Hotel Moskva will look pretty much exactly as they did in the heyday of the cold war, the interior will be new. Rooms will be purged with Stalinist gusto, from the current 1,000 down to 400. There will be the inevitable glitzy international shops, as well as a winter garden and every possible accessory and gizmo needed to further the cause of global capitalist enterprise.
Even so, the new-look Moskva will remain, from the outside at least, one of the most powerful architectural symbols of Stalin's terrifying reign. The story goes that Shchusev was so terrified of his murderous boss, that, when Stalin put his name to two different designs for the hotel, the architect chopped them in half, glued them together, and built the decidedly odd-looking hotel that has been such a heavy-handed feature of central Moscow since it opened in December 1935.
In all probability, though, this is a myth. The hotel does feature two mismatched facades, one straight-laced, one decorative, which gave rise to the twin-design rumour. A more likely explanation, according to the Moscow weekly, Gazeta, is that differences among the architects led to a compromise that was never quite resolved satisfactorily.
Not that the architects had a free hand. The KGB decreed that no guest-room window should overlook the Kremlin. Today's FSB, the feared KGB's successor, is having a close look at the new plans, although future guests will be able to look at the whole fairy-tale scene laid out in front of their hotel windows, Kremlin included.
Over the dramatic course of its life, the Moskva has been home not only to diplomats, spies, Communist party congresses and to Iosif Vissarionovich [Stalin] himself, who celebrated birthdays here, but it has played host to guests as diverse as the poet Pablo Neruda, actor Robert De Niro, spy Guy Burgess, and the heroes of the Soviet Union. This is where Yuri Gagarin stayed after his first space flight in 1961; where Marshall Zhukov, hero of the Battle of Berlin, rested on his laurels and plush sofas in 1945; and where Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear scientist turned champion of democratic reform, ate, drank and formulated dissent in the Brezhnev era.
The food, for many years, was the best in Moscow: borscht i vatrushka, perhaps followed by chicken Kiev and sturgeon baked with mushrooms under sour cream, with the usual accompaniment of caviar, vodka and Georgian champagne. Outside, fleets of Zis, and, in post-Stalin years, Zil limousines (that final "s" stood for Stalin) waited for the aristocracy of the proletariat to emerge replete from the draped and marble-lined restaurant.
Not everyone is happy with the way the Moskva is being made over. For all its bombast, it is a registered historic monument. And, unlike the nearby Brezhnev-era Intourist hotel, currently being demolished, it has a powerful architectural character.
Stalin himself, though, showed scant respect for earlier tsarist monuments. He ordered the destruction of Moscow's vast, onion-domed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 1933. This had been designed by Konstantin Ton and built between 1839 and 1881 as a commemoration of imperial Russia's defeat of Napoleon in 1812. Stalin planned to replace it with a new Palace of the Soviets. An international competition was held, and celebrated modern movement architects, including Le Corbusier, competed for its design. It was never built. The site became one of the biggest open-air public swimming pools in the world. In the 90s, the cathedral was rebuilt.
But that was then - when Stalin was a name not be spoken of in official circles with anything other than false contempt - and this is now, when Stalin's name and his style are being restored. Volgograd, out beyond the Urals, may yet be re-renamed Stalingrad. No self-respecting Muscovite today wants to see Stalin's Seven Sisters demolished, as many did only a decade ago.
As for the Moskva, it is perhaps a case of having one's vodka and drinking it. The rebuilt architectural shell will be a monument to an era both dark - Stalin himself - and heroic - the great patriotic war of 1941-5 - and to the louche, credit-card excesses of today's new capitalist plutocracy. And, of course, there will be no need to change the labels on bottles of Stolly, a favourite tipple of communist and capitalist leaders alike.