For decades, pilgrims to Red Square have first passed in the shadow of the stolid Moskva hotel and the elegant Manezh exhibition hall. Once they made it across the square's cobblestoned expanse, they found their view obscured by the modernist concrete hulk known as the Hotel Rossiya.
Now, key features of Russia's most famous cityscape are going or gone. In March, the 19th-century, neoclassical Manezh burned in a dramatic election-night blaze that sent flames shooting toward the Kremlin's red brick walls. This month, the demolition of the Moskva was completed, giving the Red Square area another gaping hole, this one covered at the moment by a massive cell phone ad.
Under an order signed by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov this month, the Rossiya will be next. The 21-floor behemoth that has been an inescapable presence in the city center since the late 1960s is slated for demolition in the next year, to be replaced by a more modern, low-rise luxury hotel and entertainment complex.
Although it has long been derided with nicknames like "the suitcase," the Rossiya has aroused unexpected sympathy in the city at a time when many architectural experts say Moscow's historic look is being lost in a wave of real-estate development.
"The genuine is disappearing," said Olga Vendina, a political geographer who studies Moscow's transition. She doesn't so much support the hulking presence of the Rossiya in the city's downtown as lament the wholesale reinvention of the Red Square neighborhood. About 70 percent of people polled during a recent call-in show on the radio station Echo Moskvy voiced similar sentiments.
Architectural experts say that the current pace of change in Moscow is greater than at any time since the 1930s, when the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin set out to reshape the former capital of the tsars into the showplace of proletarian ambition, and thought nothing of tearing down thousands of buildings to do so. This time, it's money and the market driving the process, helped along by Luzhkov, an avid supporter of rebuilding the city.
Under Luzhkov, the dominant idea has been to produce new and improved variants on the knocked-down landmarks, complete with underground parking and other modern amenities. The process began in the 1990s but has drawn an increasing outcry among intellectuals with the emergence this year of dramatic empty spaces around Red Square.
Alexei Komech, director of the Institute of Art Studies and one of the mayor's fiercest public opponents, said that as many as 400 buildings -- including 60 architectural monuments supposedly protected by national law from destruction -- have been destroyed on Luzhkov's watch.
Those include not just Soviet-era landmarks of disputed aesthetic value such as the two hotels, but earlier masterpieces such as the art nouveau-style department store Voyentorg near Red Square, knocked down last year, and dozens of smaller 18th and 19th-century buildings in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods near the city center.
"It's barbaric," Komech said in an interview. "The silhouette of the city is disappearing just as fast as under Stalin."
"The fairy-tale image of old Moscow is being created. But in reality, Moscow was never like this and it is a reconstruction of what we would like the city to have been," Vendina added. "It's a typical post-industrial process."
After the Manezh burned in March and Luzhkov quickly announced plans for an ambitious rebuilding that would include underground parking, dozens of cultural leaders protested in an open letter to President Vladimir Putin about the "criminal" destruction of the old city. "Commercial profit cannot excuse the systematic destruction of our own history, culture and national identity," they wrote.
In Soviet times, architectural decisions about important buildings in Moscow were made by the Kremlin, but since the Soviet collapse, Luzhkov's City Hall has played the dominant role.
Luzhkov has publicly scoffed at his critics. "Sometimes re-creation is the most effective way of preserving the past," he told reporters in April. "We have some idiots for whom the preservation of old bricks is an aim in itself. . . . .What's wrong with demolishing an old, collapsing building, strengthening its foundations and building it anew according to the original plans?"
In the meantime, his government has filed a lawsuit against its critic Komech, accusing him of "damaging the business reputation of the government of Moscow" in televised comments about the future of the burned-down Manezh.
"I said any decision on Manezh without the coordination with federal agencies, which in this case is the Ministry of Culture, would be arbitrary, and I am very surprised that these words would raise any dispute because this is just a fact and I was basically quoting the law," Komech said. "But as the lawyers say, anything is possible in our country."
On the day the Manezh hall was lost, bulldozers were already well into the job of flattening the Moskva hotel, a massive job that took from last September to the middle of this month. Luzhkov has pledged that the hotel, designed by the same architect who created Lenin's Tomb on Red Square, will be rebuilt as a modernized replica.
When that will happen remains unclear. But "I don't think construction will begin tomorrow, that's for sure," said Sergei Kovalchuk, an aide to the Moscow chief architect.
As for the Rossiya, Europe's largest hotel with 2,717 rooms, Kovalchuk said it was targeted by the mayor because it was an uneconomical relic taking up priceless real estate while continuing to offer Soviet-style service. "Luzhkov's concerned about low profitability, a low level of comfort in the hotel and the loss of a very precious space in the city," he said.
For all those mourning the Rossiya's impending demise, there are those such as the commentator at the state news agency RIA Novosti, who this week praised "the resolute demolition of ugly glass-encased buildings" marring the Kremlin and Red Square.
At the hotel, which remains a relative bargain for the city center, with rates averaging around 3,500 rubles (about $120) a night, wary employees are trying to put the best face on their final months even as city officials announced this week the opening of bids for the hotel's $500 million replacement. "We keep on working, the guests keep on coming," said Anatoly Bulygin, head of the Rossiya's marketing department. He said the gigantic complex, with 10 restaurants, 40 bars and cafes, a strip club and bank branches, was currently 65 percent occupied.
"The city made a decision which it made," he said, declining to comment on the impending demolition. But when asked how he felt personally, he added, "What would you feel if your own house was being pulled down?"