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In Wake Of Luzhkov's Ouster, Moscow Monument's Future In Doubt

Eyesore or eye-catching? Sculptor Zurab Tsereteli's monumental statue of Peter the Great
MOSCOW-- Sculptor Zurab Tsereteli's much-derided monument to Peter the Great stands on the tip of a small island on the Moscow River about a kilometer from the Kremlin.

One of the largest statues in the world, it is close to 100 meters high and depicts an outlandishly huge Peter I standing on a ship far too small for him as he stares purposefully into the distance. The website "Virtual Tourist" and the U.S. magazine "Foreign Policy" have each given it the dubious honor of being among the world's ugliest architectural structures.

Muscovites have been no less unkind to the statue of the Russia's Westernizing tsar, who disliked the city so much he moved the capital to St. Petersburg. But due to Tsereteli's close relationship with Moscow's longtime mayor, Yury Luzhkov, the statue -- ugly or not -- was untouchable.

But just days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sacked Luzhkov on September 28, interim Mayor Vladimir Resin made it clear that it was time for Tsereteli's infamous monument to go as well.

The Interfax news agency quoted Resin as saying that "a smart man learns from other people's mistakes," adding that the figure should be moved "somewhere else."

But where? And at what cost? Since Resin floated the idea, there has been a flurry of discussion about the gigantic statue's fate.

Is It Actually Columbus?

A popular urban legend has it that the statue originally wasn't even a monument to Peter the Great but rather a statue of the 15th-century Italian explorer Christopher Columbus that was built for an unidentified Latin American country. When the country rejected the statue, it was converted into a Peter the Great monument and erected in Moscow. Tsereteli vehemently denies this, saying he created the statue for Moscow.

A popular urban legend has it that the statue actually depicts Christopher Columbus, not Peter the Great.
Lyudmila Ponomaryova, a 50-year-old Muscovite, nevertheless cites the unconfirmed rumor in arguing that the statue should be removed. "Of course you need to remove it. It is not a monument to Peter I; it is a monument to Columbus," she says. "It should not be on the Moscow River."

Critics estimate that dismantling and moving the statue will cost up to $6 million, money that might be better used to finance schools or public works projects.

Raisa Sinitsyna, a 73-year-old pensioner, has never been a fan of the monument and would be happy to see it removed. But she balks at the idea of wasting money and effort to dismantle it now, 13 years after it was first erected.

"If you look at it historically, I think it should not have been built in Moscow. They could have built it in Leningrad [the Soviet-era name of St. Petersburg]. He founded that city," she says. "But now so much money has been put into it that I can't say whether we should demolish it or not. Let those at the top decide -- to demolish or not to demolish.

"If they knock it down then, I'm sorry for the wasted money, the wasted labor. They should have thought about that earlier, to build it or not to build it."

Don't 'Disfigure A City'

Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov suggested a decade ago that the statue be moved to the waters around his hometown St. Petersburg as an entrance marker to the Gulf of Finland. His idea was revived in the local media after Luzhkov's ouster.

Former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov
But the city's Legislative Assembly sent a letter to Mironov imploring him not to "disfigure a city created by a great emperor" by moving the monument there.

St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko noted that the city already has a "very dignified" monument to Peter I, referring to the Bronze Horseman, one of the most famous statues in Russia.

Local St. Petersburg lawmaker Aleksei Kovalyov tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that Tsereteli's statue "should be tossed in the rubbish bin."

When asked in an online poll by the St. Petersburg-based news website, 65 percent of respondents said the statue should be moved to "Mironov's dacha."

Other places have, however, expressed interest. The cities of Petrozavodsk in the northwest, Arkangelsk in the north, and Voronezh in the south say they would consider taking the statue, according to Russian media reports. So has Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region, which relies heavily on Russian support.

'An Advertisement For Me'

The plight and fate of the unwanted monument has been the butt of jokes in the Russian blogosphere all week. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO, suggested on Twitter that it should be moved to Brussels. "The Belgians will be so happy. Their Manneken Pis doesn't look too impressive," Rogozin tweeted, referring to the famous Belgian statue of a small boy urinating.

Speaking to RIA Novosti, Tsereteli angrily denounced those who would move the statue. "It is a disgrace for them, and an advertisement for me," he said. "They are not patriots, those who don't love the tsar. They are timeservers who want to secure a place in the mayor's office."

Zurab Tsereteli
Often called Luzhkov's court sculptor, Tsereteli, 76, has been involved in some of the highest-profile architectural projects in the Russian capital, including the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Manezh Square, and the War Memorial complex on Poklonnaya Gora.

His Peter the Great statue was unpopular and controversial in Moscow even before it was erected in 1997 to mark 300 years of the Russian Navy. An unsuccessful campaign to stop it was launched. It was common at the time to see round stickers with a red line through a likeness of the monument plastered around Moscow.

Marat Gelman, who is now a member of the Public Chamber and the director of the Perm Museum of Modern Art, was involved in the original campaign against the statue and supports its removal now. Writing on his blog, Gelman says he plans to raise money to finance its removal so the burden does not fall on taxpayers.

Statue Of Limitations

A 43-year-old doctor who gives only his first name, Andrei, says he would gladly contribute. "I think that the demolition of the monument is right because it is ugly and for me it represents the corrupt activities of the mayor," he says. "He is, of course, innocent until a court proves otherwise, but let's say it represents the not-quite-legal activities of the former mayor of Moscow and of Mr. Tsereteli."

The Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified official in the city government's architectural department as saying that if the statue's removal was approved, the process would not begin until spring or summer of next year.

Meanwhile, local conservationists warn that the statue is less important than other issues like preserving the city's historical heritage or solving its persistent traffic problems.

"This issue, Tsereteli, moving [the statue], it is all to let off steam," says Natalia Dushkina, an architectural professor and the granddaughter of the famed Soviet architect Aleksei Dushkin. "These are populist measures, bones that are being thrown to the population so as not to talk about the fundamental problems that need to be addressed."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report