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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Peter the Great Loses Monumental Skirmish

Campaigners trying to stop the proliferation across Moscow of statues by sculptor Zurab Tsereteli claimed a victory Tuesday. Even Mayor Yury Luzhkov, they say, now agrees that Tsereteli's statue of Peter the Great rising on the banks of the Moskva is too big and too intrusive.

Located on a prime spot on Krymskaya Naberezhnaya and costing up to $20 million according to Russian press reports, the 60-meter-tall colossus of the reformist tsar has become a pet hate for many Muscovites. Nicknames include Gulliver, Terminator and Cyclops.

The campaign against the statue and a mountain of others by Tsereteli has been going for months with little effect, but activists claimed Luzhkov had a change of heart when he met them for the first time Monday.

City hall was tight-lipped about the meeting Tuesday, but Marat Gelman, an art gallery owner and spokesman for the self-styled "anti-Tsereteli" campaign, said that Luzhkov had agreed to create a special committee on the Peter the Great statue's fate.

Composed of members of the city's cultural elite and mass media, the group will have two months to conduct sociological and aesthetic research and work out what to do with the statue.

Tsereteli himself, the man until recently known as the city government court artist, has kept a low profile since the controversy started, but he was interviewed briefly by The Moscow Times on Tuesday sitting in his jeep at the entrance to the Peter the Great monument site.

He said only that he won the right to construct the monument in a fair competition. "How can some gallery owner judge my works?" the sculptor said.

Gelman said, however, that at the Monday meeting he saw a marked change of heart in Luzhkov who has up till now been a big fan of Tsereteli, granting him a string of commissions for major city developments including Park Pobedy, the Moscow Zoo and Manezh Square.

"[Luzhkov] was a different man. There was nothing left of the man who defended Tsereteli, of the man who once compared the persecution of Tsereteli in the Russian mass media with the persecution of [novelist Boris] Pasternak," said Gelman.

According to Gelman, Luzhkov said he had been misled about the size and location of the statue. He had thought it would be under seven meters high and would stand near the Tretyakovskaya Art Gallery.

Gelman gave no explanation of how the mayor had failed to notice that the statue had actually been moved one kilometer away to a much more intrusive location on Krymskaya Naberezhnaya and grew nine times bigger, to the point where it required a red warning light to ward off airplanes.

The mayor allegedly laid the blame for the sudden growth and relocation of the monument on Leonid Vavakin, former chief architect of Moscow, who incidentally was co-designer on the project.

The monument is still under construction, well behind the original deadline of October 1996, the official date of the 300th anniversary of Peter the Great's founding of the Russian navy.

It is still unclear who is going to be invited to join the commission on the statue, but Gelman said that the panel will include anti-Tsereteli protesters.

Gelman said that a key argument which had pushed Luzhkov to form the commission was a plan by the protesters to conduct a referendum on the monument. Under city law, any proposal supported by 100,000 citizens must be put to a referendum.

Gelman said that at Monday's meeting Luzhkov made it clear that the city government would not oppose a referendum, but he was concerned by the cost. Around 3,500 polling stations would have to be organized all over Moscow.

So far, protesters are quite pleased with the results of the meeting. "We only moved for a referendum because we thought there was no other way to stop the construction," Gelman said. "My feeling is that the monument will at least be removed from its current location."

If the Peter the Great statue is moved, it will not be a first. Another of Tsereteli's statues, "The Tragedy of Peoples," was erected in a prominent spot in Park Pobedy, only to be dismantled and shunted out of view last year after Luzhkov observed that it was "depressing."