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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Kremlin Engages in Secret Demolition of Russian History . . . Just as in Soviet Times!

The Moscow Times reports that just as in the bad old Soviet days the Russia-hating Kremlin is going behind the people's backs to destroy elements of Russia's history that can never be replaced.

Without any public hearings or announcements, some of imperial Russia's prized jewels have been quietly demolished to make room for the future. Three years ago, a federal decree placed five 19th-century buildings on Red Square on a list of protected properties. Just over a year ago, four were stripped of that status. Now they are gone, demolished in secret by the Kremlin, the rubble shipped to an unknown destination.

Word of the fate of the Middle Trading Rows, a five-building complex built from 1891 to 1894 opposite the Kremlin's Spasskaya Tower, only leaked out last week, when Novaya Gazeta published pictures of huge piles of rubble in the middle of the closed-off quad at 5 Red Square. The demolition at the heart of historical Moscow shows that the authorities have complete power to do whatever they want with the city's historic sites without fear of retribution, preservationists say. "The fact that such buildings are torn down in the center of Moscow, on Red Square, cannot be called anything but government vandalism," said David Sarkisyan, head of the Schusev State Museum of Architecture. He added: "I was there not long ago, going for a walk — the buildings were in very good condition."

At one point during Soviet times, 5 Red Square housed the Defense Ministry. It was designed toward the end of the 19th century by architect Roman Klein, who also designed the TsUM shopping mall and Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Built in a neo-Russian, classic style, the complex takes up the whole block of the southeast flank of the country's most prominent real estate. One building wraps around the entire block. Before the demolition, four buildings were contained inside the courtyard. The complex is similar in style to the medieval trading alleys of Kitai-Gorod.

Today, the complex is undergoing a $394 million makeover care of the Kremlin Property Department, which owns it. The makeover includes the destruction of the four interior buildings, said Viktor Khrekov, a Kremlin Property Department spokesman. "They had no architectural value," Khrekov said, adding that the buildings had been in a poor condition. Novaya Gazeta reported that the rubble was taken away in the middle of the night by army trucks. Khrekov said this "was complete rubbish." He said the buildings had been razed at the end of last year. While Khrekov insisted the demolition had not taken place secretly — adding that journalists had been invited to see the complex in March 2006 — Andrei Batalov, head of the commission restoring St. Basil's Cathedral, said there had been no public discussion.

The Red Square site is expected to house a top-of-the-line hotel; an auction house that is being touted as a Russian Sotheby's; and apartments. The whole development is slated for completion in 2008. The Kremlin Property Department took control of the site in 2001 from its previous owner, the Defense Ministry. The demolition of the four buildings has cast a pall over the status of supposedly protected buildings, raising questions about the legality of such construction and the brazenness of government officials apparently unfazed by outside opinion. City officials gave 5 Red Square regional protected status in 2003 even though it belongs to the federal government — part of an ongoing tug-of-war between city and federal authorities for control of the complex.

Alexander Filyayev, deputy head of Moscow's Heritage Committee, said the status was never repealed and that the committee should have been informed of the destruction. He declined to say whether the demolition was illegal. But he did say inspectors from Moskomnaslediye, the agency charged with protecting valued sites, were not allowed to view the property last year. For now, it remains unclear exactly which federal department or agency was responsible for tearing down the four buildings at 5 Red Square. Khrekov said a Culture Ministry committee had approved removal of the buildings from the list of protected federal properties. But the ministry said the committee of architectural experts worked only in an advisory capacity. Batalov, from the St. Basil's restoration project, is one of the members of the Culture Ministry panel; he said the committee had never ruled the buildings could be razed. Filayev backed him up.

Not only local preservationists consider Red Square of historic value. UNESCO's World Heritage List includes the Kremlin and Red Square. 5 Red Square is part of that site. According to the terms of the World Heritage Convention, to which Russia is a signatory, the government must inform UNESCO of any "restoration or new construction which may affect the outstanding value of the property." Ostensibly, this would include the four buildings that were destroyed. But because these buildings could not be seen from Red Square or the Kremlin, they fell outside the jurisdiction of the World Heritage Convention, said Andrei Nikiforov, a federal official whose agency is charged with making sure culture-related laws are followed. UNESCO said it would be requesting information from Russia's UNESCO representatives about 5 Red Square, said Ann Sidorenko-Dulom of UNESCO's World Heritage Center.

Whether the demolition was legal matters little, said Sarkisyan. Even if it were legal — and Sarkisyan suspects that it may have been — it just shows how ineffective Russia's preservation laws are. Having lost this most recent battle, preservationists still have one more Red Square-related worry: Part of the plans for 5 Red Square include building an underground garage that they fear could irreparably damage Red Square. "Any underground work has to be discussed since whatever is done affects St. Basil's," Batalov said, adding that the cathedral is in a fragile state. Khrekov dismissed any worries, saying no heavy machinery would be used to build the garage. He added that an old cellar beneath the existing complex would be used for the garage. In televised remarks late Tuesday, Khrekov said the razed buildings' auction hall and main staircase would be reconstructed.

Many of Moscow's most treasured buildings have been knocked down in the last decade. More than 2,000 buildings have been razed in the last 15 years. "We have lost architectural Moscow," Sarkisyan said. "There are some things left to save. But it is unlikely we will succeed."

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