Red Square icon endangered by £230m hotel plans

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The Independent Online

One of Russia's most distinctive architectural landmarks, the 16th-century St Basil's Cathedral on Red Square, is at risk of being irreparably damaged by the construction of a nearby five-star hotel.

Property developers have bought a 19th-century merchant's building at 5 Red Square, which is next to St Basil's. They plan to turn it into a luxury hotel complex, complete with hundreds of elite flats, a Sotheby's-type auction house and a vast underground car park.

The £230m redevelopment is being financed by Russia's United Industrial Corporation and has been approved by the Kremlin's property department, despite Red Square being on the Unesco World Heritage list. Construction work is due to start next year and the hotel complex is due to open at the end of 2008.

The project is typical of Moscow's oil-driven construction boom in putting profit and modernity before heritage and preservation. Although the developers insist they will abide by the law and leave the façade of the merchants' building unchanged, they plan to conduct serious construction work behind and beneath its walls less than 300ft from St Basil's.

Andrei Batalov, head of the cathedral's restoration commission, believes that the foundations of St Basil's could be damaged and the subsoil waters beneath it altered. He has warned that cracks could open up in its walls as a result, and has said that vibrations from pile drivers will be bad for the structure, which has been perched on an artificial hill for almost five hundred years. Mr Batalov wants the hotel project cancelled or at least subjected to proper public scrutiny.

"We're talking about an outstanding symbol of the originality of all Russian culture," he told the daily newspaper Izvestia. "We should stop regarding Red Square like an allotment at our country house. We should think of future generations."

The cathedral's foundations were laid in 1555 on the orders of the tsar Ivan the Terrible to celebrate one of his military victories. Legend has it that Ivan had the eyes of the architect put out to ensure that he did not build anything else comparable in beauty.

Since then St Basil's has survived the destructive whims of two of history's greatest vandals: Napoleon Bonaparte and Josef Stalin. Napoleon is said to have ordered St Basil's to be destroyed out of spite as he and his army retreated from Moscow in 1812. Fortunately for posterity, his soldiers did not have time to fulfil his vengeful order.

Stalin was also no fan of the Russian Orthodox Church's elaborate structures, all of which were confiscated by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Hundreds of churches across the country were bulldozed or dynamited, and by 1938 70,000 churches, chapels, monasteries and seminaries had been closed down.

The Soviets turned St Basil's into a branch of the state history museum, but not even Stalin had the nerve to pull the cathedral down.

Mr Batalov believes that Moscow's construction boom is not the only threat facing the cathedral. He said it is also being put under strain from rock concerts on Red Square. The music is frequently 100 times above the legal norm, he said, and St Basil's intricately restored wall murals and icons are at risk of peeling off the walls as a result. "The best thing would be to cancel the concerts," he said. "What would be better still is to cancel the construction project."