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© RIA Novosti. Sergey Pyatakov

The curious case of the Red Square suitcase

by Anna Arutunyan at 04/12/2013 18:20

As workers dismantled a giant Louis Vuitton suitcase that went up suddenly on Red Square last week, just who authorized the project and who issued orders for it to be taken down remained a mystery.

The case illustrates that murky and informal rules govern decision-making in a space located mere steps from the Kremlin.

Despite an ongoing official probe into an "administrative" violation, not a single government agency has stepped up to claim responsibility for either authorizing the project or for failing to authorize it.

Measuring 30 meters long and 9 meters high, the Louis Vuitton pavilion was set up by the French fashion house jointly with Moscow's landmark GUM department store last week. From Dec. 2 through Jan. 19, it was supposed to house an exhibit titled "The Soul of Travel," a fundraiser for supermodel Natalia Vodianova's charity project, the Naked Heart Foundation.

But days after lawmakers and public figures called the project a "disgrace" of the "sacred" space of Red Square last week, GUM hastily announced it would be dismantling the project.

According to Russian law, any construction of new objects changing the historic look of Red Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are forbidden.

Unlike other historic sites in Moscow, Red Square and territories adjacent to the Kremlin are managed by federal, rather than city, authorities. In practice, any number of objects can go up - such as a glass Dior pavilion temporarily erected in June right next to Lenin's Mausoleum. That pavilion, however, did not cause an outcry.

"Such [installations] are authorized by the Federal Guard Service [FSO], then the Directorate for Presidential Affairs, then the Culture Ministry," Natalia Samover, a historian and architectural preservationist, told The Moscow News. "As far as I know, such regulations are not written down anywhere. But if you apply for a permit from one agency and they are not the right one, they will send you to another agency."

Attempts to confirm which agency is responsible for approving installations on Red Square were met with silence.

"This is not under our jurisdiction. Red Square is a [special] regime object, which is controlled by the [FSO] and the Directorate for Presidential Affairs," Irina Kaznacheyeva, a spokeswoman for the Culture Ministry, told The Moscow News.

The mayor's office similarly denied responsibility, with spokeswoman Gulnara Penkova pointing to the FSO in comments to Russkaya Sluzhba Novostei. Penkova could not be reached for additional comment.

The Directorate for Presidential Affairs, which has overseen reconstruction in the neighboring Alexandrovsky Sad, earlier denied any involvement in approving the pavilion. So did the FSO. Neither agency responded to requests for comment.

Unnamed force

Much like the authors of an Internet meme, the people who green-lighted the giant suitcase remain in shadow.

According to GUM chairman for strategic development Mikhail Kusnirovich, who spoke before a Public Chamber panel last week, the store applied "to federal organs for authorization, underwent a lengthy approval process, submitted all blueprints." But he never named the federal organ that issued the authorization.

Repeated calls placed to GUM were not transferred to the press service by the receptionist, who said that the press service's line was not answering.

According to an e-mailed statement from Louis Vuitton's Moscow office, "all permits for the erection of the pavilion were obtained in advance." When asked by The Moscow News which agency issued the permits, a spokeswoman replied that "we do not specify which ones."

The City Inspection for the Oversight of Moscow Real Estate, which answers to the mayor's office, was similarly evasive.

On Nov. 29, this agency launched an "administrative case over the unlawful use of land," according to a statement it issued to RIA Novosti.

Asked by The Moscow News what regulations were violated by the Louis Vuitton pavilion, an agency spokeswoman who declined to be named cited "lack of permits." Asked which agency was supposed to issue the permits, the spokeswoman said, "I cannot tell you that." When asked if the FSO had issued a complaint about the pavilion, she confirmed that "the administrative case was launched after a complaint," but declined to say where the complaint originated.

It is also unclear just who finally issued the command for the pavilion to come down.

On Nov. 27, reports appeared citing an unnamed Kremlin source that the Presidential Administration demanded that the pavilion be dismantled. "It had not been agreed with the administration," RIA Novosti cited the source as saying.

Just hours after those reports, however, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that the Kremlin had given any orders. "There can be no written order in this case," RIA Novosti quoted him as saying. He added that while there was nothing wrong with the suitcase, the whole thing "lacked a sense of proportion."

Informal agreements

Preservationists who raised a public outcry over the pavilion want to get to the bottom of who authorized what.

"The aim of our little investigation is to ultimately determine under whose grace this object went up," Konstantin Mikhailov, member of the Public Chamber and the Arkhnadzor preservationist society, told The Moscow News. He says he has never seen documentation confirming that the FSO is indeed responsible for installations on Red Square.

What the scandal over the Louis Vuitton pavilion revealed is that agreements appear to be reached on an informal basis, verbally, rather than in writing.

"I don't doubt for a second that [the Directorate for Presidential Affairs and the FSO] all agreed to this, but they will never admit it," historian Samover said. "And [Kusnirovich] won't give them away, either."

The ultimate destination of the Louis Vuitton pavilion will likely be determined in a similar fashion, as illustrated by comments from the fashion house's chairman, Michael Burke, who was in Moscow last week for talks.

"We had several meetings throughout the day," the Kommersant daily quoted Burke as saying in an interview published Friday. "I can't say with whom exactly."

Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #47"
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