Moscow raises monuments to ambitions of its mayor

The people don't want a statue of Peter the Great, but they're getting one anyway. Phil Reeves reports
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UNKNOWN to millions who live there, an enormous monument is being built in the middle of Moscow which not only changes one of Russia's more majestic landscapes, a sweep of river that curves round to the Kremlin, but also honours a tsar who shunned the city.

Work is already under way on the 300ft monument, including a large figure of Peter the Great, in the middle of the Moscow River - a project which recalls the Soviet habit of erecting monolithic sculptures, regardless of public opinion. When complete, the structure seems certain to generate controversy, not least because it is being built to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the tsar's founding of the Russian fleet, whose modern incarnation is rusting at anchor, desperately short of money. Although many sailors have seen long pay delays, the Russian navy is footing part of the bill for the project, along with the federal government - also in financial disarray - and the city of Moscow.

There appears to have been some wrangling over the design, but city officials say the final version will include a 65ft figure of the strapping young tsar on the deck of a 17th century ship, carrying a map in his hand. This, too, is certain to cause surprise. Every Russian school child knows that Peter the Great turned his back on Moscow by shifting his capital north to St Petersburg, the "window on Europe" which he built to gain access to the Baltic Sea.

Robert Massie, in his biography, Peter the Great, said St Petersburg represented "his escape from the shadowy intrigue of Moscow". By contrast with that city, for the tsar St Petersburg was "his paradise, his Eden and his darling".

The work will stand in a position which rivals any of the many monolithic sculptures that dominate the skyline of most ex-Soviet cities, including Moscow's renowned statue of Yuri Gagarin, the USSR's first man in space. It will rise up close to the point at which the Moscow - or Moskva - River forks into two and the upper prong sweeps north-east to the Kremlin, a stone's throw away.

Close by is the Presidential Hotel, the heavily guarded luxury retreat used by the creme de la creme of the Soviet Communist leadership. (This is a mere 195ft tall.) Beside it, soon to be connected by a footbridge, is the Red October chocolate factory. And nearby, too, is Gorky Park.

The end of Communism has not snuffed out the passion that many Russian officials appear to have for throwing up statues: earlier this month, a crowd of traffic police and bureaucrats, beers in hand, gathered to celebrate the opening of a monument celebrating the 100th anniversary of the road laws. It depicted a man with a teapot shaped head standing on a car, also shaped like a teapot. On Moscow's hair-raising roads, learner drivers are known as "chainiki" - teapots.

In the early days of perestroika, details of major city projects were unveiled at exhibitions at which Muscovites were able to write out their views in large ledgers - although these were generally ignored. But on this occasion, the authorities have not bothered with that gesture, so many residents know nothing about the monument, despite the presence of two towering cranes on the river's edge. "There wasn't any consultation," said Olga Kabanova, a writer about art and architecture for the Kommersant daily newspaper, "A lot of monuments here come as a total surprise."

It is a charge that city officials admit is true. "We don't discuss such projects with the public," said Vladimir Simeonov, Moscow's deputy chief architect. The matter was determined by "a circle of specialists". By contrast, any member of the public who wants to build a garage has to wade through mountains of red tape.

Nor are Moscow's 10 million residents likely to be thrilled by the choice of the sculptor. Zurab Tsereteli, a Georgian, made his name in Soviet times, but has been churning out works for Moscow in recent years. Complaints still rumble on following the unveiling of Tsereteli's "Tragedy of Peoples", a large monument showing a line of starved, naked figures unwinding from a cluster of gravestones. It stands at the entrance to Victory Park - which honours the Soviet Union's victory over the Nazis.

Critics complain that the sculpture dwells too much on the tragic human losses of the war, and not on the nation's patriotic triumphs. Although the city authorities wax lyrical about Tsereteli's talents, the intelligentsia tends to be considerably less enthusiastic. "Why does the Moscow government so eagerly use his services, which provoke quiet moans from professionals and unconcealed indignation from simple Muscovites?" Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper asked in a recent article.

However, public unease is unlikely to deter Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow's mayor, who is a driving force behind the Peter the Great scheme. A balding bowling- ball of a man who, although in his early sixties, is still reported to play soccer, Mr Luzhkov has earned the nickname "The Builder", such is the energy with which he is trying to spruce up Russia's capital in an effort to turn it from a dreary Soviet-style city into a modern international metropolis.

In the past few years he has overseen a plethora of projects. By far the most spectacular of these is the rebuilding of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, levelled by Stalin in 1931 and later turned into a swimming pool, whose golden dome now shines over the city centre. Not far away, right by the walls of the Kremlin, more than 1,500 builders have been working virtually nonstop on a pounds 212m underground shopping and recreation centre - also featuring works by Mr Tsereteli.

Mr Luzhkov, mindful that Moscow next year celebrates its 850th anniversary, has been busy on many other fronts. He has waged war on hundreds of unsightly street kiosks, refurbished the zoo, announced drastic plans to cut the number of casinos and browbeaten shopkeepers into brightening up their windows for Christmas. His ambitions include opening a "Park of Shadows", a gathering place for all the statues of Communist leaders which were torn down after the Soviet Union fell apart. And there are even moves against the city's tatty army of chasniki, the countless car owners who freelance or moonlight as taxi drivers.

In a city obsessed by political manoeuvring, such behaviour does not go unnoticed. Rumours abound that he covets higher office, including the country's top job. But already Mr Luzhkov, who was re-elected in June by an overwhelming majority, has become one of the most influential members of the political elite. He frequently shares a platform with Russia's top figures - from Boris Yeltsin, his firm ally, and Alexander Lebed, the country's security chief, to Alexy II, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Certainly, his view of his job exceeds mere metropolitan duties. Although but a mayor, Mr Luzhkov regularly sounds off about foreign policy, condemning Mr Lebed's settlement in Chechnya or the treatment of ethnic Russians in former Soviet states. The suspicion is growing that the man who is putting Peter the Great on a pedestal would one day like a nice big one of his own.