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Bulldozing History

One of the strangest monuments to the Stalinist era is under threat in Moscow. Planners are discussing whether the Moskva hotel, a bulky grey building that rises a couple of hundred yards from Red Square, should be demolished.

First-time visitors to the city are struck by something odd about the facade of the Moskva. On close examination they see the two wings of the hotel, on either side of its central core, are asymmetrical and in different architectural styles.

The reason is a chillingreminder of the terror felt by Russians under Stalin who feared they might suffer the consequence of unwitting disobedience to the dictator’s orders. The architect of the Moskva was Alexei Shchusev, who submitted his design for the hotel to Stalin in 1931. His blueprint had alternative versions for the wings and he imagined that Stalin would choose between the two.

Unfortunately, when Shchusev received the blueprint back he discovered Stalin had simply signed authorising the design in the middle of the page, apparently not realising he was offered a choice. Shchusev, reflecting on the possibly terminal consequences for himself if he did not follow Stalin’s instructions literally, built the Moskva with two different wings.

It was finished in 1938 and, with an extension to the east built later, could accommodate 2,000 guests. It was considered the most luxurious hotel in the capital during the Second World War, and Guy Burgess, the Soviet spy in the Foreign Office who defected, lived in the Moskva until his death in 1963. It also became well-known to drinkers of vodka outside Russia because a picture of the hotel appears on the label of every bottle of Stolichnaya.

The Moskva is not the most appealing of buildings, but it is part of the history of Moscow and Russia and as such is listed as a historical monument.

This may not save it. It occupies a prime site, between the Kremlin, Red Square, the Russian parliament and the Bolshoi theatre. Muscovites are cynical at the chances of the hotel surviving. Olga Kabanova, writing in Izvestiya, says some people claim it is a historical monument and must be preserved, while others argue “no historical or architectural monument can survive in the struggle against big money”.

Part of the Moskva is closed. Eighteen months ago the city government was looking for an investor prepared to put $250m into a rebuilding project to turn the Moskva into a four-star or five-star hotel. Construction was meant to start last year but there are no signs of activity. This is not uncommon in the capital, where grandiose projects are often announced with a loud fanfare but fail to materialise.

Now the idea is to knock down the hotel and start again. Streets away, the Brezhnev-era Intourist hotel is being demolished. Hotel specialists say the problem is that Moscow has no hotels in the medium-price range. Accommodation is either luxurious or a step up from a doss-house.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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