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Remaking the Red Square

There is no more striking moment for visitors to Moscow than their first walk into Red Square. From the onion-domed spires of St. Basil's Cathedral to the cobblestoned expanse where the Red Army marched in May Day parades, the full sweep of Russian history is on display. Rising above the south-eastern sideis a steel-and-concrete behemoth, the 21-floor Rossiya Hotel.

Built in the late sixties to house dignitaries and the thousands of Communists who descended on Moscow for party functions, the 2,700-room Rossiya was once the most prestigious hotel this side of the Berlin Wall. Today it seems as outdated as the small crowds of pensioners who still rally on May Day, hoisting their hammer-and-sickle flags. And like the empire that built it, the Rossiya will soon be consigned to history.

By the order of longtime Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov this summer, the hotel is to be demolished next year. Its destruction follows that of another landmark Soviet hotel near Red Square, the Moskva. Famous for its mismatched façade—approved by Stalin in 1932 and immortalized on Stolichnaya vodka labels—the Moskva was razed in August.

Though plans for the two sites have yet to be determined, industry insiders say that both the Moskva and the Rossiya will be replaced with high-end hotel and entertainment complexes. The building on the Moskva lot will feature a replica of the hotel's renowned façade. The Rossiya replacement, however, will likely look more modern.

The initiative is the brainchild of Luzhkov, who in his drive to rebuild Moscow as a modern European capital has transformed the city more radically than anyone since Stalin in the thirties. After becoming mayor in 1992, he began a series of grandiose projects, such as the almost $200 million reconstruction of the Church of Christ the Savior—built in 1839 but later destroyed by Stalin—and the erection of a giant statue of Peter the Great on an embankment of the Moscow River. In a city where nearly every property was once owned by the state, his administration has wholeheartedly embraced the free market, approving the construction of hundreds of private office buildings, shopping centers, and residential complexes.

In the process, Luzhkov has scheduled the demolition of scores of structures in the city center. Some were of disputed historical and aesthetic value. But the loss of many others, including the Moskva and dozens of small 18th- and 19th-century buildings, has raised the ire of preservationists.

"The administration has no concept of Moscow as a city with eight hundred fifty years of history," laments Lev Lifshits, curator of Moscow's Institute of Art Studies.

Luzhkov, who is widely popular, scoffs at his critics. "We have some idiots for whom the preservation of old bricks is an aim in itself," he said at a press conference in April. "What's wrong with demolishing an old, collapsing building, strengthening its foundations, and building it anew according to the original plans?"

Critics say Luzhkov is creating an illusory city. Modern variants based on old designs are like buildings without souls, they argue. And though a structure such as the Rossiya may be an eyesore, that begs the question: When does historical significance trump aesthetic appeal?

Lifshits worries that Luzhkov, in his rush to modernize the face of Moscow, is destroying much of what makes the city so captivating.

"They have stripped Moscow of its personality," he says. "I don't know of any other European capital that is as soulless as ours."

MICHAEL MAINVILLE is a Moscow correspondent for several North American papers.

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