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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

First-Rate Burn Center Fighting for Its Life

Paata Tsikliay, an organic chemist from Georgia, was conducting a simple chemical experiment in his kitchen March 16 when the reaction went bad, causing a mighty explosion that turned the room into an inferno.

Tsikliay barely survived the fire, and 20 percent of his body is covered with second- and third-degree burns. The tip of his nose is a moist, yellow scab. His raw hands seep yellow liquid into plastic bags wrapped loosely around them to reduce the risk of infection.

Tsikliay is one of 600 patients undergoing free, world-class treatment at Moscow's Sklifosovsky Medical Institute -- a group of patients the institute's staff fear may shortly be turned out onto the streets in a vicious tug-of-war over the hospital's 11,000 square meters of prime real estate in central Moscow.

Brandishing directives issued by both Soviet and Russian government officials that declare the 19th-century estate that houses the institute a national monument, the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences' Museum of Medicine is now trying to wrest control of the property from the renowned Institute.

In December, museum director Boris Nuvakhov sent a letter demanding the Sklifosovsky institute vacate its premises by Jan. 25. If enforced, the directive will effectively evict a medical facility that offers unparalleled treatment to 50,000 people a year.

"What have people got to do with this?" Nuvakhov thundered at a news conference Monday when asked what would happen to the institute's burn unit, widely considered the best in Europe, its brand new emergency liver transplant unit and other first-class facilities founded with city funding over the past 75 years. "Moscow should work at solving this problem not by means of seizing a memorial."

Nuvakhov insists the institute's four wings be added to the vast main building that was transferred to museum control seven years ago. This would once again unite the former estate of philanthropist Baron Nikolai Sheremetyev back into a single complex under the museum's auspices, Nuvakhov said, allowing the continuation of the estate's traditional fund-raising activities for charitable causes.

But Sklifosovsky directors allege that their neighbors have far more mercenary aims, and claim that only a fraction of the premises is used for medical museum exhibits. The rest, they said, is being quietly leased to commercial structures or used for lavish functions under the guise of charity fund-raising events. Nuvakhov denied the charge.

Institute director and leading Moscow surgeon Alexander Yermolov has threatened to resign his post at the institute should it be forced to move out. He has also withdrawn his membership from the Russian Academy of Sciences, which he claims supports the transfer of the property.

Although the estate's status as a national heritage site was set by the Soviet government in 1985, the final order to transfer the Sklifosovsky Institute's space to the control of the Museum of Medicine was signed only in March 1995, unbeknown to the institute, by the privatization chief at the time, Alfred Kokh. The order was later undersigned by then Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Contrary to Russian law, neither the Health Ministry nor the Culture Ministry was consulted. Nor was the Moscow City government, even though it has recently invested more than $20 million in the institute's facilities. A written appeal by Mayor Yury Luzhkov to President Boris Yeltsin to intervene to overturn the decision was never answered.

The Moscow City Duma and City Property Committee have also been drawn into the fray, but so far the General Prosecutor has backed the museum's legal claim on the site as a federal site of cultural importance, and not city property.

Unable to explain a three-year gap between Kokh's order and the museum's request to vacate the premises, the institute directors claim they only found out about the transfer in December when they were asked to move out.

Deputy director Mikhail Abakumov conceded Monday that the institute cannot dispute the legality of the transfer, but pleaded for practical considerations to prevail.

"This is a moral issue, about the use of space," Abakumov said. "The museum is necessary, but more necessary is the institute of emergency treatment," he said. "Why does the museum and the cause of charity have to be placed in direct opposition [to the institute], as if the Sklifosovsky institute is engaged in anything other than charitable work. For 75 years, with no days off or holidays, we have helped everyone including the homeless, free of charge."

Medical staff at the institute worry that moving patients with the worst cases of injury and illness could cause their deaths.

"At the moment I have four seriously injured patients on artificial respirators. They cannot be transported. If we have to move them, they will die," Sklifosovsky burns unit director Sergei Smirnov was quoted by Noviye Izvestia as saying.

The hospital treated the bulk of people injured at the White House and Ostankino television tower during the 1993 coup attempt. Among the institute's more famous former patients are Yeltsin, billionaire tycoon Boris Berezovsky and folk-music legend Vladimir Vysotsky.

As in Tsikliay's case, victims of horrific accidents are often not taken to nearby hospitals but rushed straight to the "Sklif" where their chances of survival are known to be better than average.

"The first words I remember were: Take him to Sklifosovsky," said Tsikliay from his modern hospital bed quipped with a remote-controlled heated ceilings to regulate his body temperature. "It is the responsibility of each Muscovite to save this hospital."

As the tug-of-war escalates, the best of Moscow's doctors and surgeons are preparing for a showdown.

"It's very difficult to take back the first wing [already controlled by the museum] but naturally we will never give up our wings," said Vladimir Okhotsky, who heads the institute's trauma center. "There will be strikes, and our friends in Moscow's medical circles will support us."