Luzhkov's Moscow: Sold

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov promised financial awards to all war veterans by City Day earlier this month, but then reneged citing the expense of rebuilding the Church of Christ the Savior.

"My dear capital, my golden Moscow" goes the popular song newly adopted as the city's official anthem. Pretty song, nice melody. But the words "Golden Moscow" have a bitter ring these days. Yes indeed, the capital, once famed for the radiance of its golden domes, has turned to gold for many -- the golden well, the golden larder. For municipal and government officials, businessmen and "entrepreneur-ial" types, the city has become a bottomless trough, a cash cow to be milked with impunity.

In allowing all Muscovites to privatize their apartment, Luzhkov has placed many city residents in an exceptional position vis-a-vis all other Russian citizens. A two- or three-room apartment in a prestigious building in the center of Moscow can go for as much as $400,000 or several times the cost in major European and American cities. And unlike in the West, every dollar is paid in cash, up front.

Luzhkov has also managed to entrench the social inequality that existed under Soviet rule when the best apartments in the most desirable buildings went to families of Communist Party and government functionaries. Now this real estate has become theirs in perpetuity. On top of all the other benefits they received during the period of perestroika, these bureaucrats have received compensation in the form of their apartments to the tune of as much as $150,000, three times that accorded rank-and-file Muscovites.

But that was only the beginning. Having paid off ordinary citizens, the mayor's office then began carving up the former-state-property pie and doling it out to business people. This was referred to as property dispersal. The result, of course, was that a generous chunk of our national property wound up in foreign hands. The bribe-taking functionaries who brokered the deals have turned into a whole corrupt class. They have penetrated every layer of society, from the lowest criminal elements to top government officials.

All government organs, including Vladimir Shumeiko's Federation Council, were reportedly enmeshed in the scandalous Vlastilina affair in which bureaucrats received billions in permanent credits from the Vlastilina car company. This and other evidence suggests that Moscow has been taken over by a mafia that engages in the appropriation, or misappropriation, of property that is not its own. Remember the construction company Perestroika financed by Luzhkov? The firm converted apartment buildings in the center into office space and put the money from the leases into private bank accounts abroad. The former director of the firm, a one-time top official in the mayor's office, now resides in America where he has been for several years.

Theoretically, buildings are put up for long-term lease on a competitive basis, but in practice the work collectives occupying them have the best crack. The leaders of the collectives fire most of their workers and lease the space they have taken over illegally to businesses for a nominal fee -- plus a percentage of the profits. This is what happened to any number of book publishers. Molodaya Gvardiya has all but stopped bringing out books, as have Raduga, Khudozhestvennaya Literatura, Sovetsky Pisatel ... the list goes on.

And how does all this affect the average Muscovite? According to the city's Consumer Market and Services Department, of Moscow's 55 laundromats, only 10 are still in operation. The rest have been resold or re-oriented. Most workshops and hairdressers have been supplanted by businesses with higher profits, some of which warm the pockets of local petty officials.

Bookstores are another sad case in point. Poeziya, the only store of its kind in Moscow, "merged" with a small bookstore on Sretenka. According to the mayor's office, only a part of the floor space could be devoted to selling goods not in keeping with the business's profile. But this did not stop the new association from turning half the store into yet another upscale mini-market.

These days you can divide up a store in the center and make hundreds of thousands in the bargain. Eighty percent of the floor space in one of Moscow's largest bookstores, Moskva, has been given over to selling antiques and electronics. Forty percent of the huge Biblioglobus is now filled with anything but books and the same is true of Dom Knigi. Meanwhile small, affordable food stores along old Moscow streets have turned into posh boutiques.

In other words, the appropriation of the larger lots and buildings in the heart of Moscow is essentially complete. We've already reached the next stage: the appropriation of small premises. Now a city "for the rich," Moscow is being purged of inexpensive goods and services. The spiralling costs of such basic items as housing, utilities and food are driving the city's poor native residents out in favor of the more prosperous. Indirectly speaking, those $30,000 to $60,000 dollars given to ordinary Muscovites in the form of privatized apartments are now being taken back.

The pomp with which huge building projects -- the Church of Christ the Savior and the mammoth trade and exhibition center on Manezh Square -- are going up is meant to hide this painful process of redistributing the wealth. The mayor has ambitions comparable to those of the French presidents who remade Paris. These grandiose projects, of course, flatter and please many Muscovites; they also distract them from the vulgar and criminal destruction of the city's infrastructure. But we weren't born yesterday. We will wait and see how beautiful the mayor's new Moscow will be.

Alexander Shatalov is a poet, journalist and editor-in-chief of the publishing house Glagol. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.