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Russia: Moscow's Central Street Loses Soviet-Era Eyesore, But Not Everyone Is Happy

  • Francesca Mereu

Moscow's Intourist Hotel closed its doors last month, after city authorities decided to demolish the Soviet-era building and replace it with a modern five-star hotel. Many Muscovites welcome the change, saying the 22-story glass-and-concrete Intourist is an eyesore that violates the harmony of the historic facades on the capital's centrally located Tverskaya Ulitsa. But others complain that the hotel, though ugly, was profitable and a reasonable option for mid-budget travelers. The last thing Moscow needs, they say, is another five-star hotel.

Moscow, 1 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Last month the Intourist Hotel, a Soviet-era building located within minutes of Red Square, closed its doors in preparation for demolition. Rising from its rubble will be a modern five-star hotel -- an establishment city authorities say is more appropriate for the site's central location.

The 22-story glass, aluminum, and concrete hotel was the last of a series of tall, boxy buildings built in Moscow at the behest of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev, who visited New York during his 13-day tour of the United States in 1959, was allegedly struck by the sleek Manhattan skyscrapers and was determined to have buildings at home created in their image.

Yurii Bocharov, an architecture professor at the Moscow Building Institute, recalls that time: "At the time, that style was really popular. It was the American style. In Moscow you have dozens of buildings built in that style, but this is the one that really stands out. [When it was built] there were many people who praised it, but many didn't like it. Anyway, in its the time it was a big, comfortable, and affordable hotel located in a wonderful spot. Now, of course, it is outdated."

Completed in 1970 on the city's central Tverskaya Ulitsa, the Intourist was soon considered an affront to the elegant 18th- and 19th-century buildings that dominate the street. The stark contrast between the hulking gray hotel and the pastel architectural confections surrounding it quickly earned the Intourist the unenviable nickname "gniloi zub," or rotten tooth. Some Muscovites have been calling for its demolition ever since.

But the Intourist also has its defenders. Andrei Lopatin, a 45-year-old Muscovite, is one of them. He says that although the Intourist is not a beautiful building, that is no reason for it to be destroyed. He says the city has more pressing problems it should be addressing instead.

"I think it is stupid [to demolish the Intourist Hotel]. It's a sign of disrespect for our people. You think we don't have enough poor people or homeless children in our country [to take care of]? But [instead, Moscow authorities] are going to demolish a hotel that meets all the international standards and they are going to spend millions to do it. Is it bothering someone? Do you think the people who built it were stupid?"

City authorities have said the destruction of the hotel is scheduled to begin in March. The process will be painstaking -- literally dismantling the hotel floor by floor -- because an explosive demolition might endanger the surrounding buildings. The new hotel to be built in its place is due to be finished by the end of 2004.

Now closed to guests, the Intourist is crowded with people looking to buy the hotel's furniture, which is selling at bargain rates. The mood of the management is grim. The Intourist's director and deputy director both refused to speak to RFE/RL, saying only that there is nothing that can change the destiny of the hotel.

Vladimir, a security guard, says the demolition of the Intourist means some 500 people will lose their jobs. The English-language "The Moscow Times" daily quoted an Intourist official as saying hotel staff will work until 8 February and then receive three months' severance pay.

Anatolii, the owner of a Chinese restaurant that leased space inside the Intourist, says the destruction of the low-rent hotel means the end of his business: "This was one of the first [Chinese] restaurants in Moscow and one of the best. Now we don't have anything. [My business] has been destroyed, like after a war. We started working here in 1994."

Anatolii says he must now find a new location for his restaurant, and that it will not be on Tverskaya because it is too expensive. The Intourist's affordable prices and high occupancy were a double boon for businesses like Anatolii's: the low rent meant he could keep menu prices reasonable, and the hotel's many guests kept his business humming.

"The Moscow Times" cited the Intourist official as saying the hotel maintained an impressive 90 percent occupancy rate, due in large part to the hotel's low rates: between $50 and $300 a night.

The Intourist shutdown has left many questioning why the city government would choose to destroy one of the city's few mid-range hotels and replace it with a luxury hotel -- especially when another five-star hotel, the National, stands right next door.

The Moscow city architecture committee refused to comment to RFE/RL on the issue. Officials at Mosproekt, the city planning board, say simply that the Intourist is being demolished because it is an outdated hotel that ruins the architectural landscape of one of the city's most historic streets.

Preston Haskell is the director of the Moscow branch of the Colliers International real estate company. He says that replacing the Intourist with a five-star hotel is a good idea for that area. But he admits that what the city needs most are some three-star and four-star hotels.

"The five-star hotel which is being pushed [by the Moscow authorities] is quite a normal idea for that location. [But] I think the opportunities that present themselves in Russia, in the hotel business -- and particularly in Moscow -- are the budget-minded businessmen hotels. I consider this to be a three-star or a four-star hotel. I would say that the Holiday Inn American chain would be my example of a very good hotel to have in Moscow for the budget-minded businessman."

Scott Antel, a partner with Andersen Legal whose division monitors the Russian hotel business, also says Moscow needs affordable hotels for both tourists and people traveling on business. Antel says that while the hotel industry is expanding in Moscow, there is still room for growth. As an example, he cites New York -- a city roughly the same size as the Russian capital, that has approximately 70,000 hotel rooms. Moscow, by comparison, has only 4,300 rooms:

"One of the problems is that [the investors think:] 'I'm going to open the best and finest five-star hotel in Moscow' and you get this ego thing of building a product that the market really doesn't need."

One of the most convincing arguments for increasing the number of Moscow hotels -- both budget and high-end -- comes from the Moscow city government's tourism committee. According to official statistics, the Russian capital was host to 917,000 tourists in the year 2000 alone.