Moscow's big bash Anniversary: 850-year-old Russian capital produces post-communist extravaganza.

September 06, 1997

MOSCOW's 850TH anniversary celebration, culminating this weekend, shows how quickly Russia can change under a leader who is crafty, determined and spends money. That leader is Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a political boss resembling Chicago's legendary Richard J. Daley, who has set his eyes on the Kremlin throne and thinks nothing will win him more acclaim than a big bash.

As celebrants stream into Moscow for a gala featuring Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and the Bolshoi Ballet, they will see a startlingly different capital. Gone is the drab Moscow of communist times. Public buildings and bridges have been painted, roads repaved, new landmarks constructed.

Some of them are useful -- like the city's first underground parking garage near the Kremlin. Others are just silly -- like a giant statue to Peter the Great, who hated Moscow and established his capital in St. Petersburg. Mr. Luzhkov's most amazing project, though, is the recreation of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior near the Kremlin. Erected to celebrate the Russian people's victory over Napoleon, it was dynamited by Stalin in 1931 for a skyscraper that was never built. Instead it became the world's largest outdoor swimming pool. For the past several years, crews have been working 24 hours a day to rebuild the edifice.

In Russian minds, Moscow occupies a place unlike any other city. St. Petersburg, the czarist capital, was too close to Western Europe. Moscow, on the other hand, is nearer to the middle of the huge Euro-Asian landmass covering 11 time zones. In everyday parlance, the city -- and its political power structure -- is simply known as "the center."

Moscow's mayor, Mr. Luzhkov has cultivated a decidedly populist image. He is in the habit of showing up on unexpected inspection trips around the city and giving advice on every imaginable problem. Behind that image is a politician who has made himself -- through the city government -- a partner in virtually every profitable enterprise undertaken in Moscow.

Mayor Luzhkov is a man to watch even after the fireworks are over.

Pub Date: 9/06/97

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