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Sail on bye-bye

Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli's giant statue of Peter the Great has plenty of critics, and now that a key patron of the artist is on the outs, Moscow may get the hull out of town.

October 08, 2010|By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Moscow — Everyone here has an opinion about Moscow's monument to Peter the Great. It's pretty hard to ignore: 322 feet of stainless steel, bronze and copper sprouting from its own man-made island less than a mile from the ancient red bricks of the Kremlin wall.

Prominent sculptor Zurab Tsereteli's work depicts Russia's modernizing czar clad in armor, standing at the wheel of a ship with furled sails, a map or document in hand.

The problem is, to many it's by no means a great piece of art. In fact, Muscovites commonly observe that it looks more like Darth Vader, King Kong, Gulliver or the Terminator. Even Irina Bakulina's poodle had a bad reaction: When she first started walking him along the Moscow River in Peter's shadow, she said, the little dog seemed too frightened to accomplish his main mission.

Now Peter might be heading for exile in the Russian Arctic. Or the scrap heap.

The monument was erected in 1997 as part of the remaking of the Russian capital under its ambitious mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. But Luzhkov has fallen out of favor with at least some of the current inhabitants of the Kremlin. After Luzhkov's 18 years in office, President Dmitry Medvedev declared last week that he'd lost confidence in him and fired him.

Without Tsereteli's friend and patron to protect him, city officials say Peter may be dismantled as early as next year and moved elsewhere in Moscow or to a city somewhere in the provinces.

Luzhkov's acting replacement, Vladimir Resin, said that "a smart man learns from other people's mistakes." By "other people," he clearly meant Luzhkov.

Tsereteli, who was born in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, has both admirers and detractors here. In Soviet days, he was named a Hero of Socialist Labor. In post-Soviet Russia, he is the president of the Russian Academy of Fine Arts.

His works include a monument to the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, built in New Jersey across from the World Trade Center site, and a sculpture at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

But some here think of him as the king of kitsch. One of the initial problems of the gigantic sculpture is its similarity to a statue of Christopher Columbus discovering America, which he tried — and failed — to bestow on several U.S. cities. The popular story here, vehemently denied by Tsereteli, is that with a different head, Columbus simply became Peter the Great.

The structure is so remarkable that VirtualTourist website included the statue on its list of Top 10 World's Ugliest Buildings and Monuments.

Tsereteli says it's a shame that Moscow would even think of removing it. "Those who do not love their czars are not patriots," he told the RIA Novosti news agency.

Moscow sculptor Grigory Shpigelsky disagrees.

"The statue must go, and there is no question about it because it doesn't belong here in the first place," he said in an interview. "It is so out of place here and so immense that it completely dwarfs the historic environment in its vicinity, which no monument should be allowed to do in a city like Moscow."

But removing the statue is also a political decision. The head of the city council's planning and development committee, Mikhail Moskvin-Tarkhanov, said the city's chief architect has been ordered to look for a new home for the monument.

"It is a very complicated and exceptionally heavy structure based on an artificial island in the Moscow River, and it may cost the city between $25 million and $30 million just to dismantle it," he said. For that money, the city could build a couple of high schools or four excellent kindergartens, he said.

"I guess it would be best to first hold consultations with Muscovites and ask them whether they have already gotten used to the czar, to the extent that they may no longer want to part with him," said Moskvin-Tarkhanov, who acknowledged that he's never liked the statue.

For her part, Bakulina says she and her poodle have gotten used to it.

"Now I am quite content with Peter, and I see tourists flocking here to look at him on foot and by boat every day and take pictures," said the 43-year-old homemaker. "After all, the Eiffel Tower in Paris was at first denounced by many as a monstrosity too, but soon everybody grew to love it.

"Why don't we first start with removing the Lenin Mausoleum from Red Square and dismantling all the numerous Lenin statues in Moscow and across the country?" she said.

In the meantime, provincial cities are lining up. Arkhangelsk and Petrozavodsk in the far north and Voronezh to the south have asked for the disgraced Peter, Moskvin-Tarkhanov said.

"In the provinces, they don't understand how Moscow can voluntarily discard such a precious tourist attraction."

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

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