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Activists Say Demolition of Moscow Mansion Foreshadows Fate Of Other Historic Buildings

The razing of the 19th-century Alekseyev mansion in Moscow enraged historical preservationists.
The razing of the 19th-century Alekseyev mansion in Moscow enraged historical preservationists.
MOSCOW – Preservation activists who lost their struggle to prevent the destruction a 19th-century Moscow mansion say they will continue fighting to save other historic buildings in the Russian capital.

Activists from the preservation group Arkhnadzor say they plan to sue the city over its decision to knock down the Alekseyev mansion, which was destroyed on July 24-25. The group is also calling on the Prosecutor-General's Office to investigate Moscow's Heritage Committee, which is supposed to protect the capital's historic buildings, for negligence.

The Alekseyev mansion, part of which was located in a special conservation zone in southern Moscow, was demolished to make room for an eight-story hotel. The construction is part of a controversial 15-year development plan for the city.

At a press conference in Moscow on August 3, Arkhnadzor activist Konstanin Mikhailov displayed photos of the future hotel, with a replica of the mansion's facade incorporated into its design.

"If this is what Moscow calls the reconstruction of a demolished or lost part of a historic ensemble," he said, "then we are living in China or on Mars."

Killing 'Genuine Moscow'

One of the last remaining examples of the so-called Moscow empire style of architecture, the Alekseyev mansion belonged to generations of Russian merchants.

The Public Chamber protested against the demolition last week, criticizing the city in a statement for its development plans, saying it would "kill off the remains of genuine old Moscow." It also called for the mansion to be rebuilt.

A hotel will be built on the site of the old mansion.
City officials say the demolition is in Moscow's long-term interest, claiming that the hotel will draw thousands of tourists annually. They also questioned the mansion's historical significance, claiming that although the original structure was built in the early 19th century, it had been reconstructed six times since.

According to the city's development plan, Mikhailov said, a similar fate awaits a number of other architectural gems in the capital, including an early 20th-century Art Nouveau building and three 18th-century houses in central Moscow.

Natalya Samover from Arkhnadzor describes the historic buildings as the city's "skin," adding that if the current trend continues, Moscow will lose its unique architectural character.

"What is happening is an organized assault on the historical aspects of Moscow," she says. "In the near future, we are going to need to answer the question: Are we going to live in a historic Moscow or just in a territory that happens to be called Moscow?"

Circumvented The Law

The activists say the city circumvented preservation laws and manipulated the process of protecting historical objects as it pushed the mansion’s destruction forward.

Arkhnadzor had attempted to defend the mansion by applying to the Moscow Heritage Committee for it to be placed on a list of buildings to be considered for preserved status, which would have given it official state protection. Their application was rejected. The rejection letter was delivered to them on July 26, a day after the building was knocked down. The letter was dated July 23, however, the day before the demolition commenced.

One of the stated reasons for the rejection was that the group did not provide enough photographs of the building.

Arkhnadzor activist Yulia Mezentseva says the group met with investors in the hotel project to try and persuade them to retain the mansion, but were unsuccessful.

"The hotel can be there, but there is no need to destroy what already existed," she says. "What existed there completely fits in with a good historical hotel and could have been preserved."

The controversy over the Alekseyev mansion -- and the fears of future demolitions -- follows the destruction of several historical buildings in Moscow's Kadashakh district to make way for a large residential complex.

Samover says the recent activism to save historic buildings is a relatively new phenomenon.

"People are coming out to to defend something that they do not directly use. People don’t eat listed buildings and few live in them," she says. "People are coming out in support of what is valuable to society as a whole. They are defending what belongs to society."

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