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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hopes Melting for City's Favorite Ski Spot

MTCreated and maintained by enthusiastic volunteers, the Bittsa ski trails are considered to be the best place for cross-country skiing in Moscow today.
Moscow's favorite ski park is under threat.

A change in ownership of the land beneath the Alfa-Bittsa ski club in southern Moscow is sparking fears among its volunteer staff that the valuable site will be redeveloped and 30 years of work will melt into nothing.

The club is located in the Bittsa recreational zone, a 50-hectare stretch of Bittsevsky Park just south of the Moscow Ring Road, where the microclimate allows skiing from mid-November to mid-April, almost six weeks longer than the rest of the city.

"It's the best place for [cross-country] skiing in Moscow today," said Ivan Isayev, the editor of Ski Sport magazine. "I know people who travel two hours on public transport to get there."

But an official in the local Southwest Administrative District, which has jurisdiction over about one-quarter of the zone, said that its existence was guaranteed only until the end of the summer.

"The prefect has agreed to a decree that the Bittsa recreational zone should remain functional until Aug. 31, 2006," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authorization to speak to the media. "Then we'll see if there is another decree."

During years of unclear ownership, volunteers built changing rooms and storehouses to maintain the 21.5 kilometers of ski trails, which are regularly used by members of the Russian national ski team.

Today, their ramshackle, brightly painted clubhouses, perched between trees near the edge of the park, are used to organize some of the city's major ski events, including an annual 100-kilometer race.

But in October 2004, a Moscow city government decree gave the land beneath the buildings -- about one-tenth of the recreational zone -- to a local agricultural enterprise, according to a statement posted by a deputy prefect of the Southwest Administrative District on its web site a year later. The statement said the enterprise, the State Farm of the 21st Congress of the Communist Party, had plans to build its own recreational area. The farm, which is currently government-owned, is slated to be privatized.

Deputy Prefect Vladimir Mishanin, who wrote the statement, was unavailable for comment last week, as his secretary repeatedly refused to transfer calls to him.

Even though the 4.58-hectare plot beneath the clubhouses represents only a small corner of the recreational zone, its loss would inevitably mean the end of the ski trails, said acting club director Ilya Yevseyev.

He said the five volunteers who work on the trails three times a week needed somewhere to store their equipment.

"We can't work out of an empty field," he said.

Vladimir Filonov / MT

Some of Alfa-Bittsa's clubhouses, located on a patch of land that is now controlled by a local agricultural enterprise.

In theory the facilities could be rebuilt on an adjacent site, Yevseyev said, adding that would require the political will to spend the money on a plot of land for the people of the city, which was very unlikely.

The state farm was still planning to develop the site, said the Southwest District Administration official, noting, however, that City Hall had not yet provided the necessary approvals.

Those plans include a golf course, casino and elite housing, claimed Yevseyev, citing administration sources.

But the deputy director of the farm, Anatoly Cheberda, denied this. "We have no plans for that site," he said.

While Cheberda said his organization had no problem with the skiers, the fate of the ski club was not the farm's prerogative but rather "a matter for the relevant organs: the police and the prosecutor's office."

"It's ours, it's always been ours, they just took it over illegally," he said.

Yevseyev admitted the club never had any ownership rights to the site, but insisted that City Hall, rather than the farm, had full control until 2004.

Rather than claiming ownership, the club argues that the trails should remain open to the millions of southern Moscow residents who have few free sports facilities available to them.

Today, anyone can take advantage of the trails, with skiers packing into city buses that go directly to the site. Others drive to the site from the Moscow Ring Road, or MKAD, which borders the plot.

That access to one of the city's main thoroughfares means the plot beneath the clubhouses is extremely valuable.

While other sites of that size on the MKAD have sold for tens of millions of dollars, it is difficult to estimate its worth, due to the possible restrictions that might be imposed by City Hall, experts said.

Vladimir Filonov / MT

Acting ski club director Ilya Yevseyev showing the borders of the disputed site.

The club does not own the ski trails either, Yevseyev said. But at present there is not one officially registered ski trail in the country, he said. He urged City Hall to formalize the public's right to use the trails. "It would be a precedent, it would be a huge social project," he said.

The only other professional trails within the city, at Romashkova, past the MKAD to the west, are threatened by plans to build a road through the area, Yevseyev said.

"Our Olympic team has just got back from Turin. Where will we train the next generation of skiers if the only trails in Moscow die?"

If the police eventually move in, it would be a victory of corrupt officials over the ordinary citizens of Moscow, said fans of the trails.

"It was built without the help of the bureaucrats, without money, without anything -- just the enthusiasm of the people," said club veteran Alexander Khoptinsky, as he clipped on his skis for an afternoon on the trails last week.

Khoptinsky said he was one of six people who set up the trails 30 years ago, with 12 skiers taking part in the first race.

The site hosts thousands of skiers on weekends, with races that attract members of the Russian national team. Some trails are suitable for beginners, and small children can be seen skiing on weekends. The rest are among the best professional tracks in the country.

The several thousand dollars needed for gasoline and maintenance of the snowmobiles are provided by the 50 or so members of the club, which added "Alfa" to its name in mid-2005 to reflect support from the association of veterans from the Federal Security Service's elite Alfa unit, one of whose members was active in the club. Yevseyev was not specific about what kind of support the organization offered.

Khoptinsky said the club's original members needed the help of politicians and television channels to overcome opposition to using the land back in 1974.

"We had to fight for the land then, and we'll have to fight for it again," he said.