First they toppled the Moscow mayor, now they're after his sculptor

By Kathy Lally
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 10:58 PM

IN MOSCOW Just a week after Mayor Yuri Luzhkov was unceremoniously dethroned here, new intrigues are afoot, including an attempt to airbrush his court sculptor from history.

Luzhkov pal Zurab Tsereteli, who enjoyed mayoral patronage for years, has altered the city skyline with enormous installations, the most reviled of which is a 15-story statue of Peter the Great.

Peter started out as an idea for a statue of Christopher Columbus that Tsereteli pitched to U.S. cities in 1992 in remembrance of the great voyage 500 years earlier. Over the years, Baltimore, New York and others - even Columbus, Ohio - turned him down, and Tsereteli eventually persuaded Puerto Rico to accept his model. Meanwhile, he busied himself designing Peter, who looked very much like Columbus, but with a different head.

Luzhkov, fired by President Dmitry Medvedev after a public spat, was barely gone - although he was still showing up at City Hall as if no mere president could dismiss him - when Moscow officials began talking about moving Peter, one of many works of public art created by Tsereteli during Luzhkov's 18-year reign.

Word leaked out Tuesday that acting Mayor Vladimir Resin had broached the move in a meeting Monday. No one has denied those reports, even though it will take more than an airbrush to get rid of Peter, who since 1997 has brooded over the Moscow River not far from the Kremlin, where Luzhkov placed him in homage to the Russian navy, which the czar created 300 years earlier.

Moving the 1,000-ton behemoth could cost as much as $32.7 million, Mikhail Moskvin-Tarkanov, chair of a city government development committee, told the RIA Novosti news agency. That would be nearly half what it cost to build it.

The idea of spending money to move the statue has some Muscovites just as horrified as they are at its mystifying symbols - flags, galleons, scrolls, robes tossed here and there - and its site on a plinth in the river, where it looks like a shipwreck caught at low tide.

"It's ugly," said Natalia Samover, a member of an architectural preservation group. "And it's an insult to the city. It started out as Columbus, and he didn't even bother to create a new statue. This was a long-awaited decision."

Samover then listed buildings that are slowly deteriorating, including a 17th-century merchant's home that has been roofless for a year and a modernist masterpiece open to the skies. Don't worry about Peter, she said - save Moscow's storied past.

Other Muscovites feel the same way, and radio Ekho Moskvy has bristled with calls.

"If removing it is going to be very expensive, maybe just explode it. That is what should be done to this monster," one caller said.

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, called the statue a monument to the first 18 years of post-Soviet history.

"I'm not an admirer of it," he said, "but it's like the Lenin Mausoleum. It's one of the markers of history. Let it be."

Even though she dislikes its invasion of the skyline, Natalya Dushkina, a professor at the Moscow Institute of Architecture, agreed, saying she fears officials will use Peter to deflect attention from the crumbling and bulldozing in Moscow's historic heart.

"We need a plan to protect the city's core," she said. "That's what we need to be thinking of."

As for Peter, where would he go, anyway? Perhaps to St. Petersburg, the city he built to outshine Moscow. Send him there, Dushkina said, and put him on an undeveloped shore of the Gulf of Finland, out of sight of the historic city he loved.

She quoted the first lines of Alexander Pushkin's "The Bronze Horseman," a poem every Russian schoolchild has learned by heart. It captures Peter the Great as he dreamed of his new city:

On a deserted, wave-swept shore,

He stood - in his mind great thoughts grew -

And gazed afar.

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