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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lawmakers Tread Where Spartak Reigned

MTTatyana Denisenko, right, and other residents are protesting government plans to bulldoze the 74-year-old field.
The Krasnaya Presnya football field is one of Moscow's few green spaces, beloved by local residents, nightingales -- and, more recently, the Presidential Property Department.

The stadium, located a short walk from the White House, has figured prominently in socialist and democratic uprisings and housed storied football clubs.

Now government officials want the site so they can build a 300,000-square-meter complex that would house the State Duma and the Federation Council.

The appeal of the Krasnya Presnya site is clear. To the left is the U.S. Embassy; the White House and Hotel Ukraine stand in front; and in the back is an apartment building, which, like the Hotel Ukraine, is one of the Stalin-era skyscrapers, known as the Seven Sisters.

Its grand surroundings notwithstanding, the sports facility is in a desperate state. The track surrounding the field makes the average Moscow street look like the Autobahn; the field is bumpy and overgrown.

Still, the facility is in constant use.

On a recent weekday morning, a teacher from a nearby school cleared leaves with his students before beginning exercises. Runners circled the track. Boys played football on the field.

U.S. Embassy staff are fond of playing softball at Krasnya Presnya. The president's bodyguards get some of their training there. And in the winter, the field is converted into an ice rink, where Olympic medalist Maria Butyrskaya runs a skating clinic.

"Where there is any green space," said Tatyana Varskaya, an art historian and a member of a group fighting to save Krasnya Presnya, "it needs to be preserved. It's hard enough already to breathe [in Moscow]."

The group was formed earlier this year and, to date, has no name. It has about 20 hard-core members and hundreds of supporters from surrounding neighborhoods.

Residents first learned of plans to bulldoze the field in February, when Vladimir Kozhin, head of the Presidential Property Department, announced plans to build the parliamentary building. No one at the the department answered telephone calls seeking comment.

Krasnaya Presnya is one of only two sports fields in central Moscow. Building there would exacerbate traffic, pollution and other environmental problems, members of the protest group say.

What's more, there's the local history.

The revolutionaries who tried to overthrow the tsar in 1905 grew up in this particular enclave of Moscow. And in 1993, the sports facility was enveloped by troops and demonstrators when then-President Boris Yeltsin bombed the White House. Today, a cross commemorating the event stands near the field.

"These are the things that cannot be moved -- history," said Tatyana Denisenko, head of the protest group.

Created in 1922, the field, once a stadium with spectator seating, has helped nurture Russia's football tradition.

In the 1920s, the Starostin brothers played at Krasnaya Presnya for a team that would one day be known as Spartak Moscow, today Russia's best-known club.

And in the 1980s and the 1990s, former Russian national team coaches Oleg Romantsev and Georgy Yartsev trained a local team at Krasnaya Presnya, as well as a club team, Asmaral.

Asmaral turned out to be one of the weirdest teams ever fielded. Founded by Iraqi businessman Husam Al-Khalidi, it snatched up the best players, hired legendary coach Konstantin Beskov, competed in Europe -- and ultimately flared out when Al-Khalidi's money dried up.

While Asmaral had a lease on the field, the eventual disappearance of Al-Khalidi -- rumored to have have fled the country or been killed -- has left the ownership of the site in question.

Now the government is looking to move in. Kozhin, of the Presidential Property Department, said the money for the new building would come from selling the current State Duma and Federation Council facilities at Okhotny Ryad and on Bolshaya Dmitrovka street, respectively. The new complex is expected to run from $300 million to $500 million.

It appears the protesters have little hope of prevailing.

In the past two weeks, the city government has approved plans to move ahead with construction, said Yekaterina Zolotarev, head of the Central Administrative District's press service.

While a city government spokesman said no decree had, in fact, been issued, Alexei Klimenko, an independent architect who advises Moscow authorities, suggested the project was a done deal.

Klimenko said he had been told by Mayor Yury Luzhkov in a meeting that President Vladimir Putin wanted the new complex built and that the mayor could not say no to the president.

Oddly, members of the protest group say they have sent letters to everyone in the government, from the president down. And every time, they get the same response: Talk to the city.

The government is promising to replace Krasnaya Presnya with a new field in the center of the city that would be open to the public, but protesters say that's not good enough. If the facility isn't close enough to walk to, many neighborhood kids won't use it, they say.

The protesters want the city to consider other sites.

Indeed, they say that a city plan identifies three possible locations for the parliament building and that none were at Krasnaya Presnya.

"We are talking common sense," said Denisenko, whose son plays football at the field. "They are talking money and ambition."

Protesters argue that construction will not only obliterate the 3.6 hectare field, but a kindergarten and houses, too. Only the dead resting nearby will have any open space, Varskaya said.

"It will leave the cemetery as one of the only green places in the area," she said.