Moscow, 25 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow is in the midst of a building boom. On many downtown streets, the pounding of jackhammers echoes through the air, even drowning out the heavy car traffic. Nowhere in Russia is the country's economic upswing more evident than in the feverish construction under way in the capital.
Under the direct supervision of Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, gargantuan new buildings sprout from every corner. Some resemble the featureless glass and steel office towers of every world metropolis. Others sport the signature style of the new Moscow.
“Someone comes up with a big idea and immediately, it gets taken up by Luzhkov's council. And if it's approved there, the rest is irrelevant."
That style comes in several variations and defies precise description but it is always larger than life. Most often, the buildings boast a neo-Classical or neo-Stalinist facade with columns and multiple stories topped by turrets or domes meant to reflect Russia's medieval architectural heritage.
When Luzhkov first launched his urban development campaign, most Muscovites cheered him as a can-do mayor who could rescue the city from years of neglect and turn Moscow into a showcase.
The Russian capital is indeed turning into a showcase. But many of its residents are no longer sure where they fit in, as old apartment buildings are knocked down to make way for so-called "elite housing" that sells for $10,000 a square meter and low-rise neighborhoods disappear under the shadow of skyscrapers.
Aleksei Komech, head of Moscow's Institute of Art and a member of the city's official architecture council, has spent the past decade cataloguing historic buildings -- many of which have already been slated for destruction.
As he speaks in his office in an 18th-century mansion in the center of Moscow, the noise of generators from a neighboring building site filters through the closed windows. The logic behind Moscow's construction boom, says Komech, is simple.
"In Moscow, there is no other criterion than money. Everything in the historical center that brings in less than top income, less than five-star income, will be torn down. You can be sure of it. And this doesn't just apply to hotels, but to all buildings. Everything will be torn down," Komech said.
In theory, Komech says, any new construction project within the city's historical core must go through a rigorous approval procedure to ensure it complies with zoning laws, environmental-impact regulations, and the requirements of scores of specialists.
"According to a directive adopted by the Moscow government, at Luzhkov's behest, a city-wide general development plan was created. The plan contains historical studies, supporting documents. All the monuments are included, protected zones are demarcated. The entire procedure for approving new construction is included in there. Moscow has all the norms and procedures for civilized construction in a historical city," Komech said.
In practice, things are quite different. Centuries-old houses are routinely knocked down under the guise of doing "restoration work" and replaced by modern copies with parking garages and other conveniences. Office buildings are built over city parks or even in the middle of the city's traditional courtyards.
Since 1992, when Luzhkov came into office, preservationists say more than 400 buildings dating back to the 17th century have been bulldozed.
"Many projects are not approved [in the traditional way] at all,” Komech says. “Someone comes up with a big idea and immediately, it gets taken up by Luzhkov's council. And if it's approved there, the rest is irrelevant. You just deal with the consequences after that."
Luzhkov's council consists of handpicked architects who share the mayor's vision and have the executive power to overrule the city's larger architectural council, which is staffed by more than 100 field professionals -- including Komech.
Perhaps more importantly, Luzhkov's councilors do not question the financial interests involved in downtown building deals.
Aleksei Klimenko, another preservation campaigner who also sits on the city's advisory architectural council, says it is no accident that Luzhkov's wife, businesswoman Yelena Baturina, regularly wins choice building contracts in Moscow.
"Ms. Baturina wins the tenders -- that is to say her company, Inteko, and its subsidiaries win the tenders. She owns enormous home-building enterprises. She is a cement monopolist in Moscow. So naturally, there is a family interest," Klimenko said.
The "St. Petersburg Times" newspaper last year confirmed Inteko's cement empire, when it described Baturian's company by saying: "Inteko has been a high-profile name in Moscow construction. As well as manufacturing plastic goods ranging from stadium seats to plastic bags, Inteko owns a controlling stake in DSK-3, one of the major producers of PZ-M cement-panel apartment blocks, and most recently bought a 93.4-percent stake in Oskolcement last month for $90 million."
In short, the more construction there is, the more cement is used and the more money Inteko and its associates make. Big buildings bring bigger profits.
And there is another reason why thinking large pays off, as Komech explains. Developers, when seeking approval for new construction from the city, must often set aside a portion of the future building for the city to rent out as it pleases.
Suppose you are a company or a nongovernmental association seeking new headquarters in downtown Moscow but lack the millions it takes to build one. What do you do? The answer is simple, says Komech.
"An investor comes and he says: 'You have no money. But I'll build you 2,000 square meters. In return, under your name, I'll build myself an additional [8,000] square meters.' And what do I care? So we go to the city authorities to get a construction permit. And the city authorities say: 'Fine. You're building him 2,000 meters, yourself 8,000 and you are going to build us 10,000 square meters on top of that,'" Komech said.
The result is an enormous complex that dwarfs its surroundings, provides a home to the company or nongovernmental association, and guarantees rental profits for the investor and more rental income for the city. Everyone is happy.
Until recently, residents of the historical Zamoskvorechye neighborhood had an uninterrupted vista of the Kremlin and its surroundings from their perch across the river. No longer. The view is blocked by new construction.
But Zamoskvorechye itself, a colony of two-story pastel-colored 18th-century houses, churches, and older apartment buildings, is also under siege by bulldozers. In 1997, local resident Vera Sezeman and her neighbors watched dumbfounded as the playground and park in the courtyard of their building was replaced by an 8-story bank.
"The first winter and spring we experienced the negative effects of this new building. The first wing of our apartment building began to crack. As an example of the extent of the deformation I can tell you that the elevator shaft in one of the entrances buckled and was taken away. The floor in one apartment dropped by six centimeters. Cracks appeared on the supporting walls. And that's when we found out that on the other side of the building, a new project was being planned, with four floors of underground garages 28 meters deep, topped by a 22-floor tower above ground, with a helicopter pad -- all to be used by [another] private bank," Sezeman said.
Sezeman formed a community association, with the aim of blocking further construction and having city authorities respect their own zoning plan. For four years, they succeeded in slowing construction of the second bank building. But ultimately, the project restarted and now appears close to completion.
Boris Malofeyev, another Zamoskvorechye resident and a local artist, formed his own association to block construction of another high-rise that now towers next to his home. But he experienced a similar pattern.
"As soon as they stop, a period of times passes. They pretend to be investigating the matter, to be taking some measures. Residents are invited to the local government offices. But as a rule it all leads nowhere. And suddenly, after a certain temporary period of 'conservation,' the construction crews return and everything starts anew," Malofeyev said.
Malofeyev can consider himself lucky. He has not been evicted and removed to the edge of the city like many in the neighborhood -- or beaten up, like one neighbor who tried to prevent construction crews from uprooting trees in her building's courtyard.
But for Malofeyev it's small consolation, as he sits on his balcony in a neighborhood he knows he will soon not recognize.