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Last Updated: Friday, 30 May, 2003, 12:35 GMT 13:35 UK
Battle for the heart of Moscow

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC, Moscow

Viktor Pavlovich watches with dismay through a wire fence, as a 16-storey business centre takes shape in concrete in his yard.

The developers razed a listed building to the ground to make way for it. Now they have the rights to Viktor's home too, and they want the residents out.

Business centre under construction
New office blocks are going up all over the city
Zamoskvorechiye includes some of Moscow's most prestigious areas. Once a desirable residential quarter, house after house has been emptied in favour of more profitable tenants.

Behind the safety of an iron front door, Viktor confesses he is afraid. He claims the developers' demands on his property are illegal but he is the last man still resisting. Now the anonymous phone calls have begun.

"They call me and ask: aren't you scared you'll be burned in your home? Then they tell me to leave," Viktor says. "Now I'm scared even to walk out of the door.

"They say: if we kill you, that's only half a job; if we spoil your face, it will be so much worse. But what do you expect? This is Russia! It's run by bandits."

'Deepest respect'

Our society today is democratic - nobody should be frightened, or forced out of their homes
Valery Shantsev
Moscow deputy mayor
Like many Russians, Viktor privatised his formerly state-owned flat in the early 1990s but the freehold remains with the local authorities. He says they handed that over to the highest bidder - then closed their eyes to its fate.

At a press conference devoted to city planning, Deputy Mayor Valery Shantsev declares that the development work will go on in Moscow.

But he has the deepest respect, he says, for the city's architectural heritage, and for the rights of residents over the developers.

"Our society today is democratic," Valery Shantsev says. "Nobody should be frightened, or forced out of their homes. If residents have a problem, they should come and see me or the mayor and we will put a stop to anything illegal."

Gas threat

Viktor Pavlovich
Viktor Pavlovich is the last resident in his block to resist
But at number nine Znamenka Street, just metres from the Kremlin, the residents find that hard to believe. Their house is in a protected zone, but it too has been earmarked for destruction.

Evgenia has been appealing to the mayor's office for months. Upstairs in the kitchen of her communal flat she flicks morosely through a thick green file, crammed full of official complaints.

City Hall has given the lease on her building to investors who now want to replace it with a business centre. They are already losing patience.

"We had to call the gas service at night once, because someone smelt gas," Evgenia says. "They told us a tap had been turned on deliberately. And in the middle of winter, someone turned off our heating to try to burst our pipes... They're trying to make our house unsafe - and force us out."

As the race for real-estate gathers pace, such scare tactics are becoming increasingly common.

Historic heart

Moscow architect Natalia Dushkina believes there is one chief culprit.

Money decides everything here - all we can do is keep a close eye on our house and then put our hope in God
Moscow resident
"Money now rules the whole of Russia - a country that lived for seven decades with no interest in it at all!"

Natalia says big business interests, and big bucks, are destroying Moscow's cultural heritage as well as forcing residents from their homes.

As investors interested in maximising their profit-per-square-metre move in, architects say much of Moscow's historic heart is being torn out.

Nowhere to turn

House on Znamenka street
Znamenka 9 is in a protected zone

Natalia says developers have an incentive to damage a house, perhaps to set fire to it, if they want to pull it down.

"If the building is neglected, it is so easy then to destroy it, invest money and build a new structure."

That is precisely what's worrying Evgenia. As darkness falls over the red Kremlin stars, she heads out with her dogs on patrol.

The residents on Znamenka street now guard their building themselves, day and night. They say there is nowhere else they can turn.

"I really don't know how this will end," Evgenia says. "Money decides everything here. All we can do is keep a close eye on our house - and then put our hope in God."

Pros and cons of Moscow life
19 Sep 02  |  Europe
Country profile: Russia
29 May 03  |  Country profiles

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