Muscovites paint the town red to mark 850 years of glory

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The Independent Online
Moscow will today launch into a three-day extravaganza to prove that it is no longer the citadel of world Communism but a vibrant commercial capital, attractive to tourists and international investors alike. The events, as lavish as the most grandiose of Soviet-era festivities, officially mark the city's 850th anniversary, but they have as much to do with the ambitions of its mayor, Yuri Luzhkov.

Ignoring the trifling fact that no one knows the precise date of Moscow's founding (1147 is the first time it is mentioned in manuscripts), Mr Luzhkov has tirelessly hectored the capital into mounting the biggest face-lift in its history. Last night, workmen were still frantically painting and scrubbing crumbling, grime-covered, buildings. Patriotic posters, Russian flags, and "I Love You Moscow" banners festoon every major street.

As he bestrides the international stage, the mayor - who has invited no fewer than 55 foreign delegations to his show - wants no unsightly scenes to mar his performance. Like Mr Luzhkov himself - who, at 60, still expects his staff to play football with him before work - the programme is loud, flamboyant, and has a strong nationalist and Russian Orthodox streak.

A fire-breathing mechanical dragon, controlled from a cockpit in its head, will perform a Russian folk tale in Red Square. There will be fireworks, parades, ballet, choirs, speeches and a performance by Luciano Pavarotti. In the giant Olympic stadium, a laser light show will produce a giant vision of the Virgin Mary, above a flock of live swans.

All this is vintage Luzhkov. In the last five years, the former party apparatchik has turned himself into a big city boss. Although he routinely denies it, few doubt he is laying the turf for a run at the presidency when Mr Yeltsin stands down.

History has not always been kind to Moscow over the centuries. It has been sacked by Mongols, demoted by Peter the Great, occupied by Napoleon, and almost invaded by Hitler. But now its fortunes have take an upward turn.

The outskirts consist of the same unrelenting wall of semi-derelict, filthy high-rise apartment blocks that ringed the city in Soviet times. But hundreds of boutiques, offices blocks, casinos and cafes have arrived in the centre, driving office rents above those of New York. This is good news for Mr Luzhkov; the city still has a stake in almost all of Moscow's real estate.

These days, the skyline is dominated by the gold-plated dome of Mr Luzhkov's pet project, the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was blown up by Stalin.

The mayor's arm-twisting skills ensured that businesses - even weapons makers - ploughed millions into the project, which was build at a breakneck speed. So, too, was another of his proud boasts: the new three-storey underground shopping mall beside the Kremlin walls, soon to be filled by chic Western franchises.

Not everyone approves. Little love is lost between Moscow and the provinces. Although only 7 per cent of the 147 million Russians live in the capital, it holds 80 per cent of its wealth and almost two-thirds of its foreign investment.

Provincial Russians blame the centre for a multitude of sins, from failing to pay wages to ignoring the collapse of their industries. Although a third of the money spent on the 850th jubilee is from private sponsors, the rest is not.

Television pictures of Moscow going on a self-congratulatory binge with public money will not bring much delight. Some Muscovites have also complained, pointing out that the city - where the average pay packet is less than $260 (pounds 153) a month - has terrible medical facilities, pot-holed roads, terrible crime and an army of homeless.

"This is all too Soviet for me," said Irina Mikhleva, a media researcher, "Why don't they spend the money on rebuilding the sewage system?"