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Pushkin Square Under Threat - The Moscow Times

It is a grim Saturday morning in October but nevertheless a handful of people are waiting by the Pushkin statue as they do every day. Nikolai Shchinkorenko stands and points out what he fears will soon be gone, destroyed by a shopping center that will dig deep into the square.
"They have practically given up the best land in the city," said Nikolai Shchinkorenko, a financier, 45 who lives nearby and is part of the protest group Pushkin Square.
Moscovites are up in arms about yet another of the city's grand construction proposals, plans to build a huge shopping mall underneath Pushkin's feet together with a tunnel that would link Strastnoi and Tverskoi boulevards.
Pushkin Square is, they say, the heart, the soul, the solar plexus of the city. It is a square, where generations have met by Pushkin statue and political protestors have stood and which retains a special place in the heart of Moscovites.
Protestors say that the construction is illegal, breaking both the federal and Moscow law that says that construction in forbidden in protected zones. The new tunnel, they say, will do little to alleviate traffic problems and the city government, with a reputation for corruption and non-transparency, is ramming through a deal that will only benefit a few people.
Thousands of signatures against the construction have been collected with the support of many famous Russians including director Nikita Mikhalkov.
Pushkin Square has long had a central role in Moscow life and has faced the brunt of regular transformations the city has faced. Originally called Strastnoi Square, after the 17th convent which stood on the half of the square where the Rossiya cinema and the Pushkin statue now stand, the square was often site of city experiments. It saw the city's first horse drawn tram and its first electric tram car - although the latter was delayed because of a police chief's reluctance to see his coach and horse out sped.
The statue of Pushkin, raised in 1881, originally faced the Strastnoi convent at the start of Tsvetnoi boulevard. It was moved to its new site during the Soviet changes that saw the convent knocked down in 1937, Tverskaya ulitsa widened and mass construction including the Izvestia building.
Because of its spacious squares it has long been the meeting place for lovers, friends and protestors. Dissidents led some of the first protests at the square in the 1960. Since new laws have stopped protests near government buildings, the square is one of the few places in the center where protests can take place. Now. it is the focus of protest itself.
"If Red Square is the life, the stomach of Moscow then Pushkin Square which is to the left and higher up is her historic heart," writes the architectural group Staraya Moskva who have their own counter proposal to rebuild the Strastnoi Monastery which was knocked down by the Soviets in the 1930s. "If the aims of the city powers to reconstruct Pushkin square [go ahead] it will as historical square cease to exist as Manezh, Arbatskaya, Taganskaya, Trubnaya ...." they write referring to squares which have been transformed by demolition and reconstruction over the last decade.
"Pushkin Square has always been a place that suffers," said David Sarkisyan, the director of the Schusev Architecture Museum listing architectural misdemeanours that happened to the square. "It is the solar plexus of Moscow. All that has happened there has been traumatic."
The city's plans are part of a grand project to build a super highway from the Kremlin to Sheremetyevo airport - a road, free of traffic lights, which is supposed to relieve the city's enormous traffic problems, city officials say.
As the city cannot afford to build the tunnel itself said Alexei Vvedenesky, the head of special projects in the city's construction complex, it has joined forces with the Turkish company Gunal who will pay for the tunnel to be built and in turn have the rights to a 95,000 square meter shopping center under the square complete with the city's leitmotif, an underground garage with 900 places.
There are many reasons to oppose the construction, said Alexei Klimenko, an architectural expert who sits on one of the working groups that advises the city. There are worries about construction in the city center where shifting ground water and unstable subsoil make construction underground possibly dangerous. Geological surveys have yet to be completed, he said. They will also likely destroy the archaeological remains of Strasnoi convent.
Protestors question the economic viability of the decision to fund the building of a tunnel in exchange for 95000 square meters on some of the most prime land in the city and the lack of consultancy from the city that has tried to ram its plans through.
"The way they decide things is not right and practically criminal," said David Sarkisyan, the director of the Schusev Architecture Museum, saying there should have been an open tender for the reconstruction.
Initial plans had the shopping center appearing three storeys above the ground but the project is currently being reworked before being submitted again for the city's approval.
"It will not touch the top the top of square," said Vvedensky.
Vladimir Resin, the city's construction chief, said the same Tuesday. Whether or not the square can remain the same after a 96,000 square meter shopping center is gouged out of it or not, city officials insistence is not being taken at face value.
Few trust what city officials say. Shchinkorenko points down the road to where the Intourist hotel used to be. "City officials said the building would be six storeys high. and now it is the size of the old Intourist" he said of the new Ritz Carlton hotel.
The project needs to be approved by the city's open council before work can begin and to get the approval of an architectural council's working group.
"As usual any construction disturbs a neighborhood," said Haluk Bozoglu, the vice chairman of TLC Tverskoi, the company formed by Gunal and the Moscow city to take charge of the more than $200 million project, "We should understand - some are professional agitators - but you have to understand them." They expect approval by November, he said.
He said a special effort is being made to inform and consult residents at every stage of construction of what was happening.
Shchinkorenko says a consultation group has been set up but the membership has been constructed so that local residents are outnumbers by city officials and TLC Tverskoi employees.
If construction starts in March, then the tunnel would be finished in 2008 and the shopping center in the second half of 2009, said Bozoglu.
"I do not understand why people are protesting," said Vvedensky, saying that the tunnel would reduce pollution. "Maybe they are used to sniffing [petrol fumes] like that. Maybe they like to walk on narrow walkways with kiosks where a bomb went off. I do not know." A bomb was exploded in 2000 in the Pushkin metro underpass killing nine people.
Pushkin Square protestors though show a complete lack of trust in the city's plans. The workmen are laying power cables in the square a suspicious sign that work on the square has already begun before permission has been given. Past construction in the city has seen permission and procedure often been ignored.

"We have never been involved in politics but we are being forced to because we are being cheated," said Shchinkoren, "The powers that be do not consider us people. They are spitting in our face."

Kevin O`Flynn

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