Peter the Great gets his last revenge on the city he loathed

MOSCOW DAYS

There is one good thing, and only one good thing, to be said for visiting the landlords to haggle over a bill. They are based in an old mansion on the north bank of the Moscow river, overlooking an arc of water which holds much of the city's history within its embrace.

You can see the Kremlin, the Red October chocolate factory, the House on the Embankment (home of many victims of the Terror), and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (now being rebuilt after Stalin razed it). The eye travels serenely across time. Until it alights on the abomination.

As eyesores go, this new addition to the Moscow skyline ranks alongside the Elephant and Castle in London. A Russian friend recently rode past it in a bus. So struck were the passengers by the sight of this ... this thing, that the entire bus burst out laughing: "We just couldn't believe what we were looking at."

It is not just that it is almost 200ft high, tall enough to justify an aircraft warning light, and depicts a muscle-bound man, eyes boggling with enthusiasm, standing astride the deck of a 17th-century galleon. The other reason Muscovites burst into angry and astonished giggles - and, remember, Russia is not a country which takes laughter lightly - is because that same man represents Peter the Great.

Why, they legitimately ask, is an enormous statue being erected in Moscow to a tsar who disliked the place so much that he built a new capital in St Petersburg? More importantly, why are the authorities willing to spend a rumoured $20m (pounds 12.5m) on it, at a time when the economy is in ruins? Some of the funds came from the Russian navy, the same navy that is rusting at its moorings while unpaid sailors fight off starvation.

The answer, at least if you believe the city's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, is that there was, literally, a monumental cock-up. Mr Luzhkov, 60, is a highly popular and ambitious politician, who is showing all the symptoms of a man eying the presidency. But the Peter the Great affair is a blemish on his record.

It is hardly surprising, then, that he is distancing himself from the project. According to press reports, he now says that when the plans were put to him, he thought it was not 60 metres but seven metres high. He believed the monument, which marks the 300th anniversary of the fleet, was to have been a modest structure, a blip rather than a blot on the landscape.

Exactly how the mayor was so badly mistaken is a mystery (he is said to blame a former city architect). Certainly, the size of the monument has been known in the corridors of power for months.

Last September I went to a press conference held by the city's chief architect, who described the monument's dimensions and contents. By then, work had begun, although few of Moscow's 10 million residents had been told about the plan, and none had been given the chance to object. When we asked officials why it was approved by a committee, without public consultation, we were given a brief, alarming reply: "We don't discuss such projects with the public."

There is also a sub-plot to this affair, which has deepened emotions. The statue is the work of Zurab Tsereteli, a Georgian sculptor who earned a fortune feeding the appetite for monoliths during Soviet times, and who has gone on cranking them out ever since.

Until now Mr Luzhkov has been his number-one fan. But it is rapidly becoming apparent that his voters do not share his enthusiasm. Some have become so weary of Tsereteli works cropping up around the capital that they have organised a protest campaign. It has a site on the Internet where you can view a picture of the Peter the Great structure, and sign a petition.

Although the monument, which stands on a plinth in the Moscow River, is almost completed, such acts of resistance may not be too late. Last year the city bowed to public pressure and relocated a Tsereteli sculpture called The Tragedy of the Peoples in Moscow's Victory Park, which commemorates the Second World War.

Its theme - expressed by a line of starving, naked people - was deemed out of keeping with the mood of happy patriotism that should fill every Russian breast on visiting the park.

Will Peter suffer the same fate? Who knows. Mr Luzhkov has set up a committee to decide what to do with him. The only positive aspect of this fiasco is the faint chance that next time the authorities will consult the public before arrogantly erecting monstrosities in their midst.

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