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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Reincarnations of an Imperial Riding School

For MTThe Manezh, the biggest single space in Europe at the time of its completion, was used in tsarist times for military parades and celebratory concerts.
Just over two years ago, the Manezh was a giant ashtray, gutted by a fire that left only its walls intact. Now it stands shiny and new, escalators installed, one of the most impressive exhibition halls in Europe.

The Manezh is also a symbol of the battle between Moscow's past and those in charge of Moscow today.

On Monday, it is opening its doors to hundreds of editors, publishers and senior newspaper executives from all over the world for three days of discussions.

Built to celebrate the fifth anniversary in 1817 of Russia's victory over Napoleon -- a victory that was partly thanks to the most famous case of arson, the deliberate setting of the city on fire by Russian forces -- the Manezh marked another event on March 14, 2004, the day President Vladimir Putin celebrated his re-election with the sight of flames leaping up behind the Kremlin walls.

The heat of the fire was so intense that windows cracked in the old Moscow State University building opposite the Manezh as window frames melted. Firemen had to pour water on the university building to stop the fire from spreading.

The Manezh was originally built to house the Imperial Riding School and was the biggest single space in Europe, 45 meters by 150 meters, at the time of its completion. The building was the joint work of two architectural masters: Osip Bove, who masterminded the city's architectural renaissance after the 1812 fire and later designed the Bolshoi Theater, and Spanish engineer Agustin de Betancourt, who designed the 45-meter larch beams that stretched across the Manezh roof.

Apart from providing a place for the military's equestrians, the huge hall was often used in the 19th century for exhibitions and celebratory concerts. When French composer Hector Berlioz visited Moscow, a 70-member choir and orchestra performed to 12,000 people in the Manezh.

After the 1917 Revolution, the Manezh was turned into a garage for the Bolshevik government (perhaps Lenin's Rolls-Royce was parked inside). But Stalin, sweeping the city center of hundreds of historic buildings, marked it down as one more to raze since it stood in the way of a major highway to be built to the Palace of Soviets, which was due to rise up on the site of the original Christ the Savior Cathedral. Neither road nor palace ever appeared, and the Manezh continued to serve as the Kremlin's garage until after Stalin's death, when it became the city's biggest exhibition hall.

Excavations after the 2004 fire discovered that the land had been the site of a graveyard for wealthy citizens in the Middle Ages. More than 40 skeletons were discovered, including one of a young woman draped in gold jewelery who was proclaimed a contemporary of Yury Dolgoruky, the prince who according to legend founded Moscow in 1147.

The discovery of the new history was for many preservationists the only respect shown to history at the time.

Sergei Ponomarev / AP

Firefighters working inside of what was left of the Manezh on March 15, 2004, the day after the election-night fire.

The fire that gutted the Manezh came after Moscow's history had suffered two heavy blows. Voyentorg, an Art Deco military supermarket a few hundred meters from the Manezh, had been demolished despite public protest, and the long, slow dismantling of the Moskva Hotel, the huge Stalinist landmark opposite the Manezh, was about to begin. In its place, a copy is to be built.

More than 400 historical buildings have been lost in Moscow in the last 15 years in a purge that has seen the city lose more of its architectural heritage that at any time since Stalin redesigned the city with the bulldozer. The destruction has been driven by a boom in real estate prices and brought accusations of corruption and cronyism against the Moscow city government.

Many of the buildings were removed from the landscape after suspicious fires, and so when the fire engulfed the Manezh, the natural assumption for many was that it had been burned down deliberately.

Even before the fire, the Manezh had been the stage for a struggle between those who wanted to restore it in the city's way, by adding a two-level underground parking garage, and opponents who wanted a full restoration.

The assumption of arson was a reflection of the low reputation of City Hall, said Alexei Komech, a long-time preservation campaigner, who said he did not think the fire had been deliberately set. While watching the fire, Komech said bystanders "only discussed two versions: Who set it on fire, an investor or the city?"

Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

The heat of the fire was so intense that windows cracked in a Moscow State University building across the street.

The fire was a catalyst for the preservation community. The Shchusev Architecture Museum collected thousands of signatures for a strongly worded letter sent to Putin.

"Commercial profit cannot excuse the systematic destruction of our own history, culture and national identity. The construction politics in Moscow is criminal, anti-social, anti-cultural and anti-state, and deprives future generations of Russian citizens of historical monuments," the letter said.

A group of foreigners set up the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society.

The Moscow city government took charge of the restoration of the Manezh and promised to complete restoration at speed, picking out the date of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II for its reopening.

Within 13 months the Manezh was rebuilt, at a cost of up to $50 million. Experts said at least three years was needed and that the restoration was shoddy.

One expert, however, noted ruefully that it could have been much worse. The building is still there.

Kevin O'Flynn is a Staff Writer at The Moscow Times and co-founder of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society.