Moscow's new face Construction boom: Crews work around the clock building a cathedral, office complexes.

January 10, 1996

THE SQUARE BETWEEN the Kremlin and the grand Hotel National is a mess. It is all dug up for the construction of Moscow's first underground parking garage and shopping center. A few hundred yards away, workers toil day and night to recreate the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a huge (and ugly) sanctuary Stalin dynamited in the 1930s to build a congress skyscraper which was to be topped with a 70-foot statute of Lenin. It was never built and the site eventually became an outdoor swimming pool.

Four years after the collapse of communism, Moscow is experiencing an unprecedented wave of construction activity. While even simple buildings often took a decade or longer to complete in Soviet times, modern office and retail complexes are finished at an astonishing speed by Turkish or Ukrainian companies.

Dowdy shops have been given a quick makeover. GUM, on Red Square, is still the capital's best known store but even after renovations it is far from finest. The most luxurious boutiques -- including Nina Ricci -- are in a pre-revolutionary arcade near the Bolshoi Theater.

Despite massive conversion of ground-level offices into shops, space is still so scarce much retailing is done from street kiosks.

One of the most sweeping moves of Moscow's post-communist rulers was the privatization of the city's apartments. In principle, the last occupant became a unit's owner. Because housing is so scarce in Russia, many people became rich overnight. Some became targets of mobsters who concocted all kinds of scams. The most ruthless: Agreeing to buy an apartment but guaranteeing that its elderly seller can live there until death. After signing such an agreement, many such sellers were killed.

Meanwhile, a legal real estate market has developed. And those of Russia's newly rich who do not have downtown apartments with river views often construct veritable palaces in nearby countrysides. Since these mansions have to be equipped with appliances, stores now stock imported stoves and refrigerators.

Russia may still be an unpredictable place. But since many erstwhile communist bosses and technocrats now are part of the wealthy, free-enterprise elite, it is not in their interests to see the return of a communist system that would outlaw private property.

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