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Analysis & Opinion
07.06.10 Facing The Bulldozer
By Roland Oliphant

Activists have dug themselves in at a building site in central Moscow to stop developers from throwing up a housing and office complex next door to an ancient Church in one of Moscow’s oldest and most picturesque districts. The situation deteriorated into open confrontation on Sunday night, when developers sent security guards in to clear the site and begin work. They were stopped by activists, including a State Duma deputy.

The quarrel revolves around plans to build what the developers call a “multifunctional complex” – a mixture of housing and office space dubbed “Five Capitals” – next to the 17th century Church of the Resurrection in Kadashakh, a historical area of central Moscow that is also home to the Tretyakov Gallery. No one involved seems to be able to remember exactly when the drama began; the consensus is that it has been going on “for a few years.” Banners posted outside the building site by the developers give the start date of construction only as 2009.

Critics of the plan, including State Duma deputies, the parish church and the combative architectural heritage group Arkhnadzor, objected not only that the planned buildings change the character of the area, but that they necessitate the destruction of a number of historic buildings.

At first things went well for the opponents. The city authorities made the architects adjust the facades of their proposed buildings and reduce the size of the project, and in April prosecutors ordered construction halted while the legality of the plans was reviewed.

But on May 19 demolition work resumed – illegally, say the activists, because prosecutors have still to submit their report, though Vladimir Gromov, the deputy head of the Moscow Heritage Committee, said at the time that the general contractor, Mospromstroinzhiniring, had cooperated with it and that experts had confirmed that one of the buildings slated for destruction was of significant cultural value. According to, the buildings destroyed since May 19 included 19th century factories and a 200-year-old deacon’s house that used to house the church’s clergy.

But Gromov’s assurances did not assuage the activists, and shortly afterward an alliance of local parishioners, left-wing politicians and activists set up a 24-hour picket, in what Sergei Ageev, one of the organizers, called “the first ever mass protest to protect our heritage.” Activists blockaded the entrance by linking arms to prevent heavy machinery from entering the site, and videos began to appear on the Internet of campaigners dodging demolition balls. By June 2 Mospromstroinzhinring had again bowed to public pressure, calling a halt to work while the Heritage Committee again considered the impact on the church.

It was a significant victory for Arkhnadzor, an umbrella group that has brought together numerous smaller heritage protection groups and exploited direct action to challenge developers’ – and the city government’s – cavalier approach to clearing out the old to make way for the new. “Happy is he who has the courage to defend what he loves,” is the group’s motto, and it has consciously harnessed the recent wave of civil action to get its way, said Kevin O’Flynn, a long-time Moscow resident involved in Moscow Architecture Preservation Society, one of the groups that makes up Arkhnadzor.

But despite Arkhandzor’s recent successes – it persuaded the city government to make numerous amendments to the General Plan for Development to 2025, a controversial document setting the legal framework for construction in Moscow that was passed earlier this year – there remains a tendency for you “to turn your back and a smashing ball comes flying past,” said O’Flynn. And so it was in this case.

The moratorium only lasted five days, until the evening of June 7, when private security guards arrived to clear away protestors and secure the entrance to the site. A confrontation ensued in which the private security guards tried to prevent them from picketing the building site, reportedly kicking and punching Just Russia State Duma Deputy Valery Gartung when he tried to challenge them.

The standoff endured all night, with some colorful incidents. Another Just Russia deputy, Anton Belyakov, arrived and told the traffic police to move the demolition vehicles lurking in a nearby street because they were blocking the traffic. Then at two a.m. the chief of the central administrative district’s department of the interior showed up saying that he was there to “prevent a massacre,” reported. At eight a.m. workers, unable to get their heavy vehicles through the picket line, started work with hand-help pneumatic drills on demolishing another building – a 19th century sausage factory, according to the activists. By early afternoon the street outside the site was swarming with reporters and television crews, and Artyom Khromov, an Arkhandzhor organizer, emerged from talks with the developers to announce a 48-hour truce.

What happens after the next 48 hours is anyone’s guess. Khromov said the two day gap would give them time to draft a concrete agreement, but Algeev, another organizer, declined to try predicting the future. “I’m not ready to second guess what the outcome will be,” he said. But the protestors may have won something: Gromov – the same deputy head of the Heritage Committee who had earlier said the buildings being destroyed were unimportant – later announced that the entire contraction project would occur “not only in the presence of archaeologists, but under their direct control.”

Either way, the headlines that the affair has been making and the willingness of the city authorities to broker a compromise, is good news, said Algeev. “This is the first big protest by citizens in defense of their heritage. More people are beginning to care about it, so now there is some hope that the situation in Moscow for historic building is going to improve. But that’s only a hope.”
The source
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