MOSCOW – Matthias Rust shocked the Soviet Union when the young German landed a small plane on Red Square in 1987. This week, a giant symbol of mammon appeared in Russia's most venerated public place and traditionalists were not amused.
President Vladimir Putin's government found itself struggling on Wednesday to contain an uproar over a gigantic Louis Vuitton suitcase set up to house an exhibit on the travel and possessions of the rich and famous.
Communists denounced the suitcase-shaped pavilion – placed mere steps from the Kremlin and the mausoleum of Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin – as an evocative symbol of the conspicuous consumption that has enveloped Russia since the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.
"I am ashamed of our country for putting a suitcase on its main square, this sacred area that should be protected by the state," said Valery Rashkin, a Communist member of the State Duma, the lower parliament house. He called it an "eyesore.”
The protests appeared to work, for by late on Wednesday evening, a sign on a fence surrounding the structure said it was being dismantled – though the structure remained intact.
Despite straps on the pavilion in the colors of the Russian flag, the image of a Western luxury good only the richest can afford jarred with Putin's appeals to patriotism in the face of what he calls foreign threats to Russian culture.
His standing somewhat dented by protests by liberal city dwellers in 2011-12, Putin has championed the kind of rank-and-file, provincial Russians for whom a trip to Moscow and a stroll on Red Square is a rare treat.
Putin loyalists in his United Russia party also railed against the outsized suitcase, and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky said on Tuesday that it should be moved to a more remote part of Moscow.
Citing an unnamed Kremlin source, Russian news agencies said Wednesday that Putin's administration had ordered the 100-foot-long, 30-foot-high suitcase removed.
"There's nothing terrible about the trunk itself and the good intentions – on the contrary," Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. "But it is obvious that there's a problem with the sense of scale."
While a skating rink has been set up on Red Square for the winter holidays in recent years, the Kremlin is sensitive about use of the history-steeped expanse at Moscow's heart.
Protest band Pussy Riot performed on the square a month before their "punk prayer" in a cathedral that resulted in jail terms, and a man who stripped naked and nailed his private parts to the cobbles this month may face criminal charges.
Louis Vuitton, whose parent company is LVMH, had said the exhibit – which was to open on December 2 – was a tribute to its longstanding ties with Russia and that all revenue from it would go to the Naked Heart Foundation, a children's charity.
The charity's founder, model Natalia Vodianova, is the fiancee of a son of Bernard Arnault, the CEO of LVMH.