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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Trees Coming Down at Tsaritsyno

MTA view of the lake at Catherine the Great's Tsaritsyno summer estate through the surrounding woods Monday.
Olga Volkova found out about the restoration of Catherine the Great's Tsaritsyno summer estate while taking a daily walk through the park with her three young children. She found she could not push the baby carriage down the usual path because it was blocked by men with power saws. She watched as they cut down a tree.

Volkova and other residents are furious that the greenest part of their suburb is disappearing under Mayor Yury Luzhkov's $15 million plan to recreate Catherine's never-finished palace.

Since March 13, more than 3,000 trees and 200,000 shrubs have been removed from the 59-hectare site, said officials with Moscow's Southern Administrative District, which oversees the estate. That means the park has lost 23 percent of its trees in the past month under a program started in 2005 to turn the area into a major tourist attraction.

Politicians and environmentalists say the landscaping is illegal and that the damage done to plant and animal life is irreversible.

Galina Morozova, deputy head of the Moscow Ecological Federation, an independent environmental watchdog, said several laws had been broken, including a federal law that makes it illegal to obstruct the growth of protected plants and wildlife, and a municipal law prohibiting the removal of trees that are more than 40 years old. Morozova said some of the trees that have been cut down were from the late 18th century.

The Southern Administrative District said it had not done anything wrong.

"I can account for every tree that has been cut down," said Igor Pergamenshchik, a spokesman for the district prefect, Pyotr Biryukov.

He said no permanent damage had been done to the site and that most of the trees that were cut down had been unhealthy.

The Tsaritsyno estate was once a pocket of wilderness in an otherwise industrial zone, near the southern Tsaritsyno metro station on the Green Line and just 20 minutes away from central Moscow.

Catherine the Great bought the land in the mid-18th century for a summer palace and commissioned architect Vasily Bazhenov to design a neo-Gothic complex in 1755. Bazhenov built two palaces, servants' quarters, pavilions, a church and an opera house over 10 years. But the temperamental empress did not like what she saw and hired Matvei Kazakov to redesign the project.

Kazakov rebuilt the main palace, but funds ran out and the project was abandoned.

The estate was opened to the public in 1804. By that time, the palace's roof had collapsed, and trees and shrubs were growing wherever they had taken root.

The servants' quarters next to the palace were the only useable building on the estate, and they served as a hospital for a short time in the mid-1800s. In 1917, ceilings were added to create extra floors for communal housing. The ceilings were removed in 1974, when the building was turned into the Tsaritsyno Museum.

The other half-finished buildings on the estate deteriorated over the years. Stray dogs found shelter among the crumbling bricks, alpinists scaled the walls for rock-climbing practice, and greenery flourished in the cracks of the structures.

In 1998, the city of Moscow declared the estate a protected zone due to its historical and natural value.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Workers hacking away at the remains of a stump in Tsaritsyno on Monday.
That did not deter Moscow's mayor. In 2005, Luzhkov unveiled a plan to restore the estate to Bazhenov's and Kazakov's specifications and turn it into a tourist attraction. Luzhkov asked the architect Mikhail Posokhin and his company Mosproyekt 2 to carry out the work and interpret the architects' 18th-century plans.

The ongoing uprooting of trees and shrubs means birds that lived near the park's lake will no longer have places to nest and the park's hedgehogs will soon be gone, environmentalists said.

Sergei Mitrokhin, a City Duma deputy and deputy head of the liberal Yabloko party, said City Hall was going too far in its attempts to beautify the park.

"They are destroying our nature just so that people can take a stroll," he said.

City Hall denied a request by Mitrokhin to hold a protest, but 200 people showed up for an informal gathering at the park on Sunday.

"What they are doing is simply illegal. I don't know who was bribed at City Hall's environmental department to allow it," said Andrei Margulev, a local resident and head of a group called Tsaritsyno for Everyone.

Margulev, who spoke at Sunday's gathering, said he doubted that authorities had signed the required permits to cut down trees, explaining that it was common practice to authorize such work after the damage had been done.

The city's environmental department insisted that all the restoration work was legal.

"Certain politicians are using their influence in the environmental area to gain votes in the upcoming election," it said in a statement.

State Duma elections are in December, and the presidential vote is in March.

Residents like Volkova are wondering why they had not been involved in the decision to cut down the trees. "This was the lungs of our area. No one even asked us whether we wanted this," she said.

Pergamenshchik, the district spokesman, said the city had no need to ask the residents for their opinion.

"It would be like asking them whether they wanted their garbage taken away or the sewage cleared up," he said.

"The park was a mess, and now we are restoring it to its glory," he said.

Further rankling critics is the fact that the reconstruction work has drifted away from tradition. Interior plans for Kazakov's palace do not exist, so the new living quarters are based on rooms in the Winter Palace and Peterhof in St. Petersburg.

Worse still, Mitrokhin said, the servants' quarters, known as Khlebny Dom, were supposed to have an open courtyard but are instead covered by a Gothic-style glass cupola that has no relevance to Bazhenov's era. Mitrokhin said this was typical of Luzhkov and his team. "Instead of valuable architectural monuments, they want kitsch, new buildings," he said.

In addition, an artificial island has been created in the Tsaritsyno lake and adorned with a fountain.

Alexander Veksler, the city's chief archeologist, defended the reconstruction. Veksler explained that the main palace would resemble a typical one from the 18th century, rather than a direct reincarnation of Kazakov's ideas. He said the technology for the cupola on the servants' quarters had not existed during Bazhenov's time.

"Tsaritsyno has been a disgrace for the last century," he said. "The mess that was there will be removed. It will be no less beautiful than Peterhof."

Volkova, however, fears she will not be able to enjoy the park with her children after the work ends as scheduled in August next year.

"They have destroyed too much," she said. "The park has lost its heritage. There is no natural or historical significance anymore."