Moscow's mayor wants to paint the town red - and green and purple

the Russian capital throws a rainbow cloak over the grim buildings left by the Soviet regime

In preparation for Moscow's 850th anniversary next year, the city's dynamic mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, has ordered "Operation Bright Facade", a campaign to paint the drab buildings of the Russian capital all the colours of the rainbow.

Among the buildings due to receive the Luzhkov treatment, according to the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, is the famous House on the Embankment. The grey constructivist monster was built for top Bolshevik leaders but gradually emptied in the Thirties as Stalin's secret police arrived night after night to drag the residents away to labour camps. Now it houses rich Russian and foreign tenants.

The newspaper did not say what colour had been chosen for the grim building but the cost of its redecoration alone would be one billion roubles or $180,000, it said.

In Soviet times, the Kremlin, with its red walls and golden-domed cathedrals inside, provided virtually the only colour in Moscow.

Mr Luzhkov, a practical and energetic politician, has already done much to brighten up the city, restoring the Christ the Saviour Cathedral which was demolished under Stalin, renovating the zoo and opening new shopping complexes. On Manege Square, just under the Kremlin wall, a huge new mall is being built.

Already fountains and sculptures depicting scenes from Russian fairy tales are drawing the crowds.

Conservationists may dislike Mr Luzhkov but he is generally popular among Muscovites, who returned him with a resounding vote of confidence in city elections earlier this year. He is tipped as a possible successor to President Boris Yeltsin.

Apart from the efforts of Mr Luzhkov, capitalism itself is helping to make Moscow a more cheerful city.

Neon now lights up the winter sky and advertising bill boards make more amusing reading than the Communist slogans of the past. Lately, Muscovites have been puzzled by giant pictures of a young woman and the message "I love you". What was this selling? It turned out that a rich businessman simply wanted to flatter his wife.

But despite improvements in the centre, the outskirts remain relentlessly drab.

Where the metro stops, crowds of sullen people clutching string bags wait for overloaded buses to take them to the grey, high-rise flats in the suburbs.

The rich may have renovated flats in pastel-coloured former palaces on the inner boulevard, only a walk away from their favourite restaurants and night clubs.

But extreme poverty is the lot of most. Yesterday, the same newspaper reported that an old man had hanged himself because he could not afford to pay for his wife's funeral.

The danger is that Mr Luzhkov will be compared to Catherine the Great's lover, Grigory Potemkin, famous for his stage-set villages with nothing solid behind the facade.

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