The Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, has been accused of vandalism for steaming ahead with plans to build a mock Tsarist complex on the substantial remains of an 18th-century palace that belonged to Catherine the Great.
Construction of Tsaritsyno, a Gothic red-brick palace conceived as a summer residence for Catherine the Great, began in 1775 on the crest of a hill in southern Moscow. The estate was supposed to rival her magnificent retreats in St Petersburg but the palace was never completed due to architectural disputes and the death of the Empress in 1796. Until now Muscovites assumed it would remain that way.
But more than 200 years after its foundations were first laid, Mr Luzhkov is taking up where Catherine left off with a project that some see as a self-indulgent attempt to leave behind a historical legacy.
To general disbelief, the palace is being completed according to a design personally approved by the Mayor that bears little resemblance to the original.
An army of migrant workers from the former Soviet Union is rushing to do the Mayor's bidding fitting roofs where there were no roofs, erecting grand entrances, and replacing stone blocks with breeze blocks.
The palace's kitchens, a grand quadrangular structure called the Bread House, appear to be sporting white PVC windows. Brushing aside historical authenticity, the Mayor is also adding underground space to the palace to get some "added value" out of it.
He is in such a rush to get the new palace ready by 2008 that construction work began illegally at the end of 2005 without planning permission.
The project was initially welcomed by art historians who thought Mr Luzhkov would preserve the estate's substantial remains.
Now many fear the worst and believe Tsaritsyno is the latest victim of Mr Luzhkov's obsession with knocking down old buildings only to rebuild them from scratch with modern materials and "more practical designs".
"It [the new palace] is being built too quickly using many modern materials," Marina Khrustaleva,from the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society, said.
"Restoration is something that is done on the basis of what you can prove was once there, and is expensive. Here something altogether new is being built. I am afraid that Tsaritsyno will be spoilt."
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