Moscow planetarium mired in dispute

Image: Moscow Planetarium
Opened in 1929 the futuristic silver-domed Moscow Planetarium has been closed for repairs since 1994. Plans to reopen the landmark structure, shut shortly after the Soviet collapse, are mired in a years-long struggle for control over its real estate. AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

For decades, Soviet schoolchildren flocked to the Moscow Planetarium to gaze at the stars.

Now plans to reopen the landmark silver-domed structure, shut for repairs 14 years ago, are mired in a struggle for control of an institution situated on a pricey patch of real estate.

The conflict took a startling turn last week when staffers say about 20 uniformed men forced their way onto the grounds, beat an unarmed employee and proclaimed that a new boss was in charge.

It was a development that longtime director Igor Mikitasov described as a hostile takeover, Russian style. In the struggle for property that marks the country's cutthroat capitalism, corporate raiders sometimes enlist police or private security companies to enforce takeovers legalized through corrupt judges.

The space-age cupola of the planetarium, which opened in 1929, embodied the Utopian dreams of a nation that saw science as the key to a glorious future.

Now it stands as a symbol of an era in which millions of Russians believe the good of society is routinely sacrificed to the commercial interests of bureaucrats and businessmen.

"It's shameful," said Anatoly Cherepashchuk, director of the Shternberg Astronomy Institute at Moscow State University. "It's no good when for 14 years all of Moscow and society suffer because of some disagreement among businessmen."

The planetarium was plagued by disrepair and mounting debt for utilities in the troubled times following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. It was supposed to reopen _ expanded and modernized — on its 75th anniversary in 2004.

A sign affixed to its locked, guarded gate speaks of another missed deadline: 2006. Muscovites wonder when — or whether — it will finally reopen.

The years of delays are the result of a dispute pitting the Moscow city government against Mikitasov, whose company is the minority shareholder, over funding for its reconstruction. The building occupies a choice chunk of former state property in one of booming Moscow's costliest neighborhoods.

The city says a new administrator has been chosen to replace Mikitasov and his outfit, which it blames for the delays and says owes tens of millions of dollars. Mikitasov, who claims the city halted funding over a year ago, says he has taken his family abroad because he has been threatened and fears for their safety.

Speaking from a foreign location he refused to disclose, Mikitasov accused the city of seeking to engineer his company's bankruptcy, using front firms and compliant courts to inflate a minor debt into $72 million.

Repeated calls to city officials were unanswered, and officials at the planetarium declined comment Friday.

Last week, chief engineer Alexander Zaborsky showed up for work and saw three SUVs with tinted windows parked outside the site. One of the occupants, he said, was a man who claimed to be the planetarium's new director.

Shortly afterward, he said, about 20 uniformed men entered the planetarium grounds and forced the three security guards on the premises to surrender their keys. Zaborsky said the men beat him and threw him out the front gate.

Mikitasov said he fears the city will scrap plans to reopen the planetarium and use the site for more lucrative purposes such as a mall or high-priced housing. A three-bedroom, 1,500-square foot apartment near the planetarium was listed at $4.2 million Friday.

The city paints a different picture, saying it is saving the planetarium from ineffective management.

"This is not a raid," Igor Ignatov, deputy director of the Moscow Property Department, was quoted as saying by Ekho Moskvy radio, adding that shareholders had decided to appoint a new company to run the planetarium.

Mikitasov said the city had no legal grounds to do so.