- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2006

MOSCOW — Fueled by a booming economy, lucrative construction contracts and real estate prices that rival those in London, New York or Tokyo, downtown Moscow is going through its most radical transformation since Stalin’s megalomaniacal reshaping of the city in the 1930s and 1940s.

Gone are the grim, gray facades of the Soviet era. In their place have risen bright, modern buildings of colored concrete and glass.

The driving force behind the transformation is Moscow’s powerful mayor, Yury Luzhkov. But preservationists say that in his rush to modernize the Russian capital, Mr. Luzhkov has done more damage to the city’s historical architecture than anyone else since Stalin, who razed swaths of downtown.

“With the building market in such a boom, there’s a lot of money involved and unfortunately that has led to the disappearance of many, many historical buildings,” said Marina Khrustaleva, chairwoman of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society.

“In the last 10 years, hundreds of important buildings have disappeared from all periods, starting from the end of the 16th century to Soviet times.”

Preservationists estimate that more than 400 historic buildings have been demolished since Mr. Luzhkov came to power in 1992. Among the most prominent are the Hotel Moskva, a classic of Stalinist architecture featured on the labels of Stolichnaya vodka, the Voyentorg art deco department store and the Dom Trubetskikh, Moscow’s oldest wooden house, which in 2002 was demolished and replaced with a concrete replica.

Many of the demolished buildings had been designated official landmarks, but Mrs. Khrustaleva says that thanks to loopholes and government corruption, developers can easily ignore heritage rules.

“We have the laws, the laws are not bad, but there are a lot of ways to get around them,” she said.

Mr. Luzhkov has shown little interest in preservation. Asked two years ago about his plans to tear down the Hotel Moskva and replace it with a replica, he told a press conference: “We have some idiots for whom the preservation of old bricks is an aim itself. … What’s wrong with demolishing an old, collapsing building, strengthening its foundations, and building it anew according to the original plans?”

Critics also accuse Mr. Luzhkov of lining his own pockets at the expense of the city’s heritage, pointing out that one of Moscow’s largest construction firms, Inteko, is owned by his billionaire wife, Yelena Baturina.

The latest cause of the preservationists is Melnikov House, built in 1929 by avant-garde Soviet architect Konstantin Melnikov as his private home and studio.

Built with curving walls and diagonal rooms during a brief period of relative freedom after the Russian Revolution, it is considered a masterpiece of 20th-century architecture. The house has been included on a list of the world’s 100 most endangered buildings for 2006 by the World Monuments Fund, which hopes to raise $1 million to eventually restore it.

But the death last month of the house’s longtime caretaker, Melnikov’s son, Viktor, 91, has raised fears it could join the long list of demolished Moscow landmarks.

In his will, Viktor Melnikov left the house to the state, on the condition that it be turned into a government-run museum. His daughter Yekaterina Karinskaya was named the executor of his estate, but a younger daughter, Yelena Melnikova, is contesting the will and fighting for ownership of the building.

Mrs. Karinskaya says she has met with developers from the real estate firm Rosbilding, who are backing her sister. Although her sister and the developers say they want to maintain the building as a private museum, Mrs. Karinskaya doesn’t believe them.

The house sits on prime real estate near the city’s Old Arbat pedestrian street, and Rosbilding has a reputation for hostile property takeovers. In 2003, newspaper Vedomosti described the company as “one of Moscow’s most voracious real estate pirates.”

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