Daily Archives: March 3, 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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Race Violence in Russia Continues at Frenzy Level

The Moscow Times reports:

A government official from Ingushetia has died in a Moscow hospital after being savagely beaten near the Sukharevskaya metro station last week in what prosecutors say may have been a hate crime. Batyr Kurkiyev, head of Ingushetia’s energy commission, was attacked Feb. 19 near the metro station. Kurkiyev died from his injuries Monday evening in City Hospital No. 33, never having regained consciousness, City Prosecutor’s Office spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko said Tuesday. He was 46.

Moscow prosecutors are reluctant to pin a motive on the crime, with Petrenko saying only that they have opened an investigation and that no suspects have been detained. “We’re not excluding anything, from a racist crime, to an attack committed by hooligans, to a personal conflict, to possible business dealings,” Petrenko said.

But Ingush officials and human rights activists say Kurkiyev was likely attacked because he did not look like an ethnic Russian. “What other explanation can there be if a person gets bashed in the head more than 30 times,” said Umar Sapraliyev, head of the Ingush republic’s representative office in Moscow. “If they wanted to rob him, they would have hit him a couple times over the head and taken his money,” Sapraliyev said. “But they beat him unconscious and didn’t even touch his valuables.” Ingush President Murat Zyazikov said “this tragic death” shows “there are attempts to destroy the native tradition of respecting people of different nationalities, of tolerance,” Interfax reported. Zyazikov said Ingush officials would ask Prosecutor General Yury Chaika to oversee the case personally. It was not clear how many people attacked Kurkiyev. What is known is that he had not planned to get off at the Sukharevskaya metro station. “I assume he was forced outside,” Sapraliyev said. At the time of the attack, Kurkiyev had just arrived at Kazansky Station by train from Nazran to attend an energy tariff conference, Sapraliyev said. He was planning to go to his brother’s house in northern Moscow before heading to the conference, Sapraliyev said.

Police dispatchers received a call around noon that a man “with Asian features” and “serious physical injuries” had been found near the Sukharevskaya metro station, a city police spokeswoman said.

Investigator Alexander Polupan, of the Meshchansky district prosecutor’s office, which is handling the case, said he had only learned of the incident Monday and could not comment.

Alexander Brod, head of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, said the brutality of the attack and the fact that nothing was stolen from Kurkiyev indicated that skinheads or other extremist youth could be to blame for the attack.

“In the run-up to Hitler’s birthday next month, we could be seeing an increase in these type of attacks,” Brod said. “Skinheads will be trying to garner some attention for themselves.”

In recent years, skinheads and other fascist groups have celebrated April 20, the anniversary of Hitler’s birth, by attacking dark-skinned people.

Magomed Markhiyev, Ingushetia’s minister for interethnic affairs, said by telephone that the republic’s government is in direct contact with Moscow authorities to ensure that the crime is solved. “It is unacceptable that such crimes can be committed in broad daylight,” Markhiyev said.

Kurkiyev’s body was to be flown back to Ingushetia on Tuesday, Markhiyev said.

City police chief Vladimir Pronin said two years ago that there were no skinheads in Moscow, just “rabble … who attack people of various nationalities.”

According to the Sova Center, which tracks hate crimes, 53 people died and 460 were injured in racist attacks last year. In 2005, 42 people died and 406 were injured in racist attacks, according to the center’s statistics.

LR: That’s a 25% increase in race killings in the last year, and a 15% increase in race-related violence. Read about another recent horror story here.

Talk about the Rough Guide! Annals of Travel-related horror in Russia

LA Weekly reports on the typical story of a typical traveler who makes the foolish mistake of traveling to the Neo-Soviet Union:

The attitude of the check-in clerk at Gate 24 of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport is far too stern for her soft complexion and silky auburn hair, which today is tied back into a small ponytail. My one bag is already on the ramp; my carry-on is by my side as she flips through my passport.

“Your visa expired two days ago,” the clerk says in Russian.

I’ve been in Russia a month; my wife is back at the apartment on the other side of the city, planning to join me soon in the U.S. But for now, I am on my own, heading home to Los Angeles.

“Oh, right, I was supposed to leave two days ago,” I tell her, “but the blizzard. The airports were closed.”

“You have to speak to the consul, back in the lobby. Take your bags with you.”

The consul is a button attached to a speaker on a wall. I press. Nothing happens. I wait. I press again. I hear casual joking by a group of men through the speaker, and then it goes silent. I wait. I press again.

“Wait! Wait! Just a minute!” a voice blares.

I wait.

“Yes?”

“I’m an American. My visa is expired by two days, and I want to go home.”

“Why did you let your visa expire?”

“I was delayed here by the storm, and I forgot to check.”

“That’s a very poor excuse.”

“Yes, you’re right. If you can come up with a better excuse, I’ll gladly use it.”

I didn’t actually say that last line, but it crossed my mind. What I did say was, “All right, what should I do now?”

“Write out your excuse and give it to the check-in desk.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

After having my bags searched for the second time, I present my handwritten apology to the auburn-haired marm, like a child to a teacher.

“That will be $50,” she says. “Twenty-five dollars for each day you overstayed your visa.”

I scramble through my wallet to find a crumpled $20 bill and a 10-ruble note, which is worth about 40 cents.

“Do you take credit cards?”

“Cash only.”

“I don’t have $50 in cash.”

“Do you have 1,300 rubles?”

“I have 10.” (Her eyes roll.) Why would an American carry 1,300 rubles when he’s leaving the country?

“Go back to the lobby and try your credit card in the bankomat. I’ll hold your bags for you.”

My flight is scheduled to leave in an hour and a half. Plenty of time. But none of the bankomat machines accepts my code. I return and tell her this.

“There’s nothing more I can do,” she says.

“You’re going to hold me here for the sake of 30 bucks?”

“It’s not up to me. It’s up to the consul.”

“Can I talk to the consul again?”

“You can try.”

The clerk holds my bags once more.

Back at the consul, I push the button. I wait. I push the button. I wait. I push the button. I wait. I push the button. I wait.

“Yes?”

“Listen, my flight leaves in just over an hour, and none of the bankomats work.”

“This is your personal problem.”

“Tell me how else I can pay, please. I’m happy to pay the fine…”

“It’s not a fine. It’s a consul fee.”

“I’ve got to get home. I’m supposed to speak at a conference, surely there’s something…

“If you don’t come up with the cash, you’re not going home.”

These are words I will carry to my grave.

My cell phone doesn’t work in Russia, so I buy a phone card, which I plug into a wall phone on the other side of the lobby. I call my wife.

“Hello!”

“I can’t hear you!”

I scream, “Can you hear me?!!!”

“I can’t hear you!!!”

I scream louder: “THEY’RE NOT LETTING ME ON THE PLANE!”

“WHAT CAN I DO?!”

“I NEED 50 BUCKS!”

“SO WHAT CAN I DO!?”

“BRING ME 50 BUCKS!”

“TO THE AIRPORT?!”

“OF COURSE, TO THE AIRPORT!”

“I CAN’T GET THERE IN TIME! JUST COME HOME!”

“HOW?!”

“TAKE A TAXI!”

“THEY TAKE CREDIT CARDS?”

“NO! I’LL PAY FOR IT WHEN YOU GET HERE! DON’T LET THEM CHARGE YOU MORE THAN 2,000 RUBLES! THEY’RE ALL THIEVES!”

In one more attempt to get out of Russia, I ask at a currency-exchange bureau if they can sell me dollars from my credit card.

“You need to use the bankomat.”

Then I see a green sign, “Sverbank,” hanging over four or five windows. I wait in line. Fifteen more minutes go by.

“Can I buy dollars with my credit card?”

“Yes. Show me your credit card.”

I do.

“I can’t accept this. You haven’t signed the back.”

“Let me sign it now.”

“Too late. I already saw it.”

She turns away to speak with her friend behind the glass in the next booth.

“Look, I have a signed driver’s license ..”

“I’m sorry, regulations.” Then she laughs and says, “Okay. How much do you want?”

“A hundred dollars.” (I figure I should have extra cash, just in case.)

After 45 minutes of paperwork and holding my passport, the currency clerk tells me to go to the cashier, her friend, at Window No. 2. The cashier hands me a $100 bill.

I sprint back to the gate, sensing victory. It’s half an hour before takeoff. But there’s nobody at the check-in booths. My bags sit next to a chair, deserted.

An old man pushes a mop across the floor.

“I’m trying to get on the flight to Los Angeles.”

“It’s closed,” he says. “All closed.”

I head back to the speaker on the wall and press the button. “You win. I missed my flight. I need to extend my visa two more days until the next flight out.”

“Just come back when you’re flying and bring cash.”

Outside the terminal, I barter a cabby down from 6,000 rubles to 2,500. He lets me use his cell phone to call my wife. “You need to give him 2,500 rubles,” I say.

Upon our arrival at Fortunatovskaya Street in the Ismailovo district, my wife comes out in the snow and gives the driver 2,300 rubles.

“We did agree on 2,500,” I tell my wife, as the cabby counts the money.

She shouts at him, “That’s all I have,” then, with a slicing gesture across the throat, “and you know damn well it’s more than enough.”

He stares at her with hatred, knowing he’s screwed. I empathize.

By now, a small crowd of neighbors has gathered to welcome me home, even though I left just hours ago. Sergei, from across the hall, helps me up the stairs with my bags.

“So, Russia wants you to stay,” he says. “It’s better here than in America, anyway.”

* * *

Two days later, I’m back at the airport for the next flight out. A passport-control officer in a green shirt, miniskirt and high heels escorts me, click-clicking, to Sverbank’s Window No. 2, saying my $100 “fine” for a four-day visa delinquency has to be paid there in rubles, not dollars. The bank charges me for the currency exchange before slapping on a $25 service charge, which I obediently convert to rubles… before they tell me the service charge has to be paid in dollars. This time, though, I have extra dollars, and I make it onto the plane at last.

But about the time I’m settling into my seat, a dishonest Sverbank employee attempts to withdraw close to $1,000 cash from my credit card. My own bank declines the transaction. The Fraud Protection Department leaves a voice mail at my home. It’s one of the first messages that greet me when I walk in through the door.

The next morning, as I walk my dog in the Hollywood foothills, an LAPD motorcycle officer stands next to an SUV that’s parked in a red zone.

“What the hell do you mean you’re waiting for Brad Pitt?” asks the cop. “You have an appointment with him, or something?”

I can’t tell you how good it feels to be home.