Raining on parade of Moscow mayor Gala: Moscow spruced itself for its 850th birthday, with Mayor Yuri Luzhkov even arranging to prevent rain. But something went wrong.

September 08, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The day's forecast: Cloudy, with a chance of heads to roll.

Halfway through the last extravaganza in a weekend that must have consumed most of the world's supply of rhinestones and 20-foot-tall papier-mache animals, the unthinkable occurred last night. It started to rain.

Moscow was celebrating its 850th birthday, and Mayor Yuri Luzhkov had made it an occasion for the city to assume its place among the world's smartest capitals. It was also a moment to modestly deny presidential ambitions, even though any voter could see Luzhkov had accomplished something unequaled by any other Russian politician.

He had turned Moscow from a dowdy and depressing city into a sparkling and exuberant metropolis, ordering tenants to renovate their buildings, then requiring them to hire designers to illuminate the structures. He persuaded banks and other profitable companies that their continued good fortune was directly linked to the planting of flowers. They planted 4 million.

Only the weather had to cooperate to make the weekend of parades, outdoor concerts and pageants perfect.

Luzhkov hired Russia's federal weather modification service to keep the skies clear. Eight planes would intercept threatening clouds outside of Moscow and seed them with silver iodide or shoot them full of dry ice so they would lose their rain on the provinces and not the capital.

Friday made the challenge ominous. It was cold and gloomy, with dark, bilious skies. Saturday dawned with a thick layer of clouds. But the cloud busters, led by Valery N. Stasenko, the head of the weather modification department, succeeded.

They helped produce two days of bright clear skies, bathing Luzhkov and his city in golden sunshine.

What went wrong was not immediately explained last night. Did Luzhkov use up his weather modification budget on the daylight hours? Did he, when it was still sunny at 7 p.m., grow cocky and decide the weather would hold for the closing ceremonies from TC p.m. to 11 p.m.? Did he choose to keep Luciano Pavarotti dry as he sang in Red Square at 6 p.m. rather than President Boris N. Yeltsin at the new Luzhniki Stadium at 8 p.m.?

Someone will need to have good answers.

"Yuri Mikhailovich [Luzhkov] goes into every detail personally," is the way Boris M. Korshunkov, chief of city repairs and road maintenance, put it. "He wants his orders carried out right away, and sometimes that's impossible."

That means that when a Luzhkov desire is denied, heads roll.

Stasenko was thinking of explanations long before the ceremonies began. "It will be our art to prove to the Moscow government that we did everything we could," Stasenko said last week.

Rain or not, the weekend revealed a uncharacteristic lightness of heart in Moscow.

Tverskaya, the main street that leads right to the Kremlin gates, was turned into a pedestrian walkway yesterday. Thousands of Russians strolled happily, smiling, holding on to balloons and wearing funny hats.

Usually Muscovites walk along Tverskaya with grim purpose, hands gripping plastic bags filled with the day's bread and other necessities.

Throughout the center of the city scenes were repeated again and again that would have been unthinkable a year or two ago.

One young mother zoomed along the sidewalk, propelling a baby carriage at a high speed: she was on in-line skates.

Gaggles of teen-age girls sauntered along, clearly pleased with their smart haircuts, fashionable clothes and the latest shoes -- one item traditionally nearly impossible to find here.

They walked past stores selling televisions, sewing machines, cosmetics and auto parts -- the kind of consumer goods taken for granted in the West but that have been a hard-to-find luxury here.

"Yes, we have everything," said Ludmilla Tolkecheva, a Moscow secretary enjoying her walk. "If only we had the money to buy some of it."

Not to worry, Luzhkov said.

Drawing a link between the fate of his city and the future of the nation, he told the closing ceremonies at Luzhniki Stadium: "We are striving for our country's acquiring of the greatness and strength we have the right to announce to the world.

"All of us are now united and proud as never before that Moscow is in the lead of Russia, extending a hand for a joint march into the future."

Luzhkov was the last star on the program last night. The evening began with a cast of several hundred acting out the early days of Moscow. Later, graceful ballerinas danced "Swan Lake," while real swans swam in lakes created in front of the stage. And a dozen different hymns to Moscow were sung, with nearly every famous singer in the country appearing.

In between came a 20-foot-high bare breasted papier-mache mermaid, clowns and hundreds of actors portraying the four seasons. When the rain began, acrobats started slipping on the wet stage, and dancers had to step gingerly.

At the end, after Russia's most popular singer, Alla Pugacheva, sang the last long paean to Moscow, Luzhkov bounded across the stage.

The more than 2,000 performers gathered on stage cheered and clapped. Yeltsin, wife Naina at his side, stood and clapped.

Luzhkov beamed. He ignored the rain. As if following orders, so did everyone else.

Brilliant fireworks lit up the sky. And the rain fell and fell.

Pub Date: 9/08/97

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