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Russia: Feline Landmark Fears Eviction

(Courtesy Photo) MOSCOW, July 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The proprietor of one of Moscow's best-loved attractions says he faces losing his premises in the city center to greedy property developers. Yury Kuklachyov, who runs the Moscow Cat Theater, says he has received threats to move out of his building on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, home to some of the city's most exclusive boutiques.

Kuklachyov and his cats have been entertaining Moscow's children -- and their parents -- for 20 years now. His idiosyncratic show features domestic cats of all shapes and sizes climbing poles, spinning through the air, and turning acrobatic tricks.

But in recent months, Kuklachyov says, a number of unpleasant events have led him to think his days at his current address are numbered. It started earlier this year, he says, when officials from the city police's Economic Crimes Unit arrived at the theater unannounced, to check the day's takings.

"It's very sad, because the Cat Theater is one of the more quirky landmarks of Moscow's cultural scene," a founder of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society said.

"They came to look at all our accountant's documents," explained Irina Vasilchikova, the theater's press secretary. "But since there were no violations in what they found, they were obliged to let the show go on. As for who tipped them off -- because they don't just turn up like that under normal circumstances -- we're still trying to get to the bottom of it."

The Economic Crimes Unit failed to return repeated calls to its office this week, while the city government's office said its spokesman was on vacation.

Downtown Boom

Kuklachyov, who has lodged a complaint with the local courts, says he suspects property developers may have been behind the recent visit. His theater occupies prime real estate on one of Moscow's most sought-after streets. It's also a stone's throw from the Moskva-City development -- a multibillion-dollar financial district that's nearing completion.

Russia's vast oil wealth has fueled a construction boom in recent years, particularly in the capital. Many old enterprises, including the Red October Chocolate Factory and the Muzei Kino cinema, have been forced out of their city-center premises to make way for luxury apartments and office blocks.

As well as having his books checked, Kuklachyov has received complaints from residents in the neighboring building about the smell coming from the theater. In a tiny room covered with photographs of some of the 300 cats -- and the occasional dog -- he has trained over the years, Kuklachyov says he had never had objections before.

"You know, someone was specifically in charge of and oversaw all these events," Kuklachyov told RFE/RL. "The thing is that before this, employees of banks and boutiques in the neighborhood came to me and were very insistent in trying to offer me a lot of money to sell them my building. They said 'Yury Dmitriyevich! We'll build you a new theater very close by!" And then suddenly, when this building was turned into a state theater -- when it fell under, let's say, government protection -- they started to approach city officials [as another way of getting their hands on the property]."

Devoted Fans

During an intermission at a recent performance, members of the audience said they would be sad if Kuklachyov and his cats were forced to leave.

The stars of the Moscow Cat Theater (courtesy photo)

"It happens all too often that these sorts of attractions -- theaters and libraries and shows for children -- are being kicked out of the center and into the suburbs," a woman named Olga, who was attending the show with her 4-year-old daughter, Katya, said. "It all probably depends on the politics of our government, the politics of the Moscow city government. Of course it's not right that they are doing this. Children are our future, and we need to think about them."

But Clementine Cecil, one of the founders of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society, says it comes as no surprise that the Cat Theater is facing eviction.

"It's very sad, because the Cat Theater is one of the more quirky landmarks of Moscow's cultural scene," Cecil said. "But it's not surprising that Kutuzovsky [Prospekt], which has always been very much associated with status -- it's not surprising that something like the Cat Theater is being moved on, because the priority of Kutuzovsky at the moment is definitely retail."

At the end of another show, Kuklachyov, who always plays the same cherry-lipped, long-nosed clown, waves to the children and takes a bow. The set is designed by his wife, and the costumes are sewn by his daughter. This year his son, Dmitry, also a clown, started a cat show of his own. Yury Kuklachyov says friends from all over the world have been calling him, after hearing about his problems.

"They call me from Canada, from America and say: 'Yura! What are you doing? Drop everything and come and live here with us! You'll be rich, not earning kopeks, like you do over there!' But I say to them: 'Friends, I can't live without Russia. My heart begins to fade away [when I leave]," he said.

For now, he thinks he has managed to keep hold of his premises. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov is said to be a great fan.

But, Kuklachyov says sadly, as he starts to scrape the greasepaint off his cheeks, it's probably only a matter of time before another official turns up at his door and turns him out for good.

RFE/RL Russia Report

RFE/RL Russia Report

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