MOSCOW - If there's a soft spot in a Stalinist's heart, it is the old Moskva Hotel - the looming gray hulk near the entrance to Red Square that has been the host of generations of Soviet luminaries and Politburo members in the kind of dilapidated luxury only a Communist could love.
Service? Nyet. Plumbing? Leaky. But the Lights of Moscow cafe on the 15th floor commanded a view of the Kremlin's towering brick ramparts and onion domes like nowhere else in the capital, and for generations the Moskva's marble lobby was a crossroads of the Soviet empire's powerful, famous and merely ambitious, a meeting point for visiting artists, democratic dissidents and defecting spies.
The historic Moskva - whose narrow, mismatched windows looked out on celebratory parades of Soviet artillery and tanks and, in a new era, huge throngs of pro-democracy demonstrators - has closed its doors. By next month, the government-owned hotel is to be demolished for a $350 million hotel, office and shopping complex.
Thanks to the Russian Ministry of Culture's pleas, the forbidding gray facade made famous on the labels of Stolichnaya vodka will be replicated on the new hotel. Its ornate Stalinist pretensions and special repositories of Soviet history will not.
"On the one hand, it's sad. This hotel has seen a lot of Soviet history. Remember, this was the central hotel that hosted everybody who came to Moscow at the invitation of the government," says Anatoly Shamburov, the hotel's director of security. "But on the other hand, it has been in need of repair for a long time. Look at these walls. Everything is falling apart."
News of the planned demolition has been greeted with regret all over Russia. "I personally think that they are making a big mistake," says Tamaz Gamkrelidze, a linguist and former Supreme Soviet deputy from the republic of Georgia.
"How could one decide to lift their hand against a place that has seen almost every single celebrity that visited Moscow in the 20th century?" he says.
Symbol of times
It is ridiculous to see in a hotel a fable of the new Russia, rushing headlong to build its gleaming, monied future on the ruins of a discredited past. Yet the Moskva almost demands to be reduced to metaphor. How else to explain the sweeping, six-story-tall billboard that drapes down the side of the hotel, showing the headlights of a flashy BMW? "This is how the future looks," it says.
Yes, the hotel staff acknowledges, monitoring devices were placed in some lamps (though officials still deny that). Yes, they say, it is quite possible that the pink marble stairs off the lobby were fashioned from the ruins of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which Josef Stalin blew up in 1931.
It was Stalin who ordered the construction of the official state hotel in 1932 in what would become typical grand Soviet style. And Stalin, it is said, was responsible for the mismatch of the facade's two wings - one with straight windows, one with arched windows.
As the story goes, architect Alexei Shchusev presented Stalin with two possible designs for the facade. When Stalin put his signature between the two of them, Shchusev felt disinclined to question him and proceeded to build both. More likely, the Moscow daily Gazeta reports, is that constant squabbling among the architects left final plans in a mishmash that nobody bothered to fix.
In a hotel with one of the most commanding potential views in Russia - the Kremlin walls, Red Square, St. Basil's Cathedral and Manezh Square stretch out in a blanket in front of it, the Bolshoi Theater stands just to the other side - not a single room looks out onto the seat of government.
"The KGB issued strong rules that the Kremlin should not be overlooked," says Boris Yevseyev, the hotel's deputy director in charge of construction. "Right now, you will notice you can see the Kremlin only from the corridor, and the rooms on that side look only into the [hotel] courtyard."
With the new hotel, he says, luxury rooms will take advantage of the view. Spies, presumably, will be able to rent them like anyone else. "We no longer have a problem with the FSB [the successor to the KGB] on that score," Yevseyev says. "Of course," he adds quickly, "we have to coordinate with the FSB still."
Over the years, the Moskva was the host to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, American actor Robert De Niro, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who led Soviet forces to victory during World War II. Former President Boris N. Yeltsin had his office in the Moskva. Andrei Sakharov, who went from designing the Soviet hydrogen bomb to leading people into the streets to demand democratic reform, was frequently seen in its elevators and corridors.
Many tourists who came looking for five-star service came away disappointed. "I visited your hotel in December and was extremely disappointed with the terrible service. ... One particular lady who works in reception just about refused to let us have a room and even phoned [another hotel] to find us something po-deshevle [cheaper]," one guest complained. "I'm intrigued to know: what's so wrong with our money?"
But Gamkrelidze, the former Supreme Soviet deputy, was kind in his review.
"The staff was always well-trained, polite and attentive," he said. "Another great thing about Moskva is that it has style about it. It is a very warm hotel, psychologically warm. ... Its grandeur is sort of homey in nature."
The Moskva's bread and butter was not its luminaries but its proletariat - the collective farmers and factory workers who regularly converged on the hotel for Communist Party meetings and Victory Day celebrations, their bills paid by their local party organizations.
"All the delegates which came to the congresses of the Communist Party which was held in the Kremlin, they stayed here. This was the biggest restaurant in Moscow - and the best. A banquet was held here in honor of Stalin on his 50th birthday," says Shamburov, standing amid the ruined murals, green marble columns and fading satin drapes of the hotel restaurant.
"Oh, the food. The best dish was borscht i vatrushka. I remember the Yugoslavs would come to the hotel late at night, and they would beg for our borscht," says Lidiya Lavryonova, who has worked at the Moskva for 26 years and plans to retire. For those who could still eat after the heavy beet soup, there was Chicken Kiev and Stolichnaya Osetrina - sturgeon baked with mushrooms under sour cream.
Lavryonova rolls her eyes at the culinary memories. "What can I say? I feel sad, sad, sad. It's like closing down part of my life. Twenty-six years connected with this hotel."
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