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Toy story: Soviet-era landmark for kids closes
In this June 15, 2007 file photo, the Detsky Mir (Children's World) Department Store is seen, in central Moscow. The landmark childrens store will close July 1 for a massive, two-year refit, which is expected to cost $200 million. While the arched facade will remain, the interior will be gutted and replaced with a six-story glass atrium containing a food court and cinemas. - photo by ASSOCIATED PRESS/file
    MOSCOW — The same year that Sputnik soared into space saw the launch of another Soviet-era icon that may have loomed larger for generations of Russians: a huge toy store in central Moscow called Detsky Mir, or Children’s World.
    Fifty years later, the hulking block-long building across from the KGB’s notorious Lubyanka headquarters closed Tuesday for major renovations, the latest landmark to be torn down or tarted up in the malling of Moscow.
    The toy store, faced in yellowish tile on a sloping square near the Kremlin, was a place of dreams and desire for Soviet children and a crucial resource for parents struggling to find them holiday gifts, school supplies and clothing — from ballet slippers to bulky lambswool coats.
    ‘‘For us, it was a whole world,’’ said Lada Mosharova, 49, who visited Detsky Mir on Monday with her son and her niece, carrying a video camera for an emotional farewell to a store that was one of her favorite places as a child.
    She watched children ride a double-decker carousel that is the centerpiece of the store’s main hall, a cavernous space with marble columns, imposing metal light fixtures, and a two-tone frieze depicting rabbits, turtles, swans and squirrels.
    The owner and developer pledge to put the carousel back in after the store is gutted and transformed into a ‘‘modern trade and entertainment complex’’ with a glass dome, a multiplex movie theater, underground parking and a ‘‘restoranny dvorik’’ — Russian for a food court.
    They say the $200 million project, which is to be completed within three years, will increase retail space and be a much-needed improvement to a beloved building that has seen better days.
    ‘‘The department store’s building has become obsolete not just morally but physically,’’ said Felix Yevtushenkov, president of the development arm of Detsky Mir’s main shareholder, Russian conglomerate OAO AFK Sistema.
    But in the plans to rip out the insides of the showcase from 1958, critics see a crass mix of the profit motive and a lack of cultural sensibility they say is characteristic of Russia today.
    Preservationists call it the latest step on a march of ill-advised demolition and construction that is turning Moscow into a cheap copy of its former self.
    ‘‘We will lose Detsky Mir,’’ said David Sarkisyan, director of Moscow’s Shchusev Architecture Museum. ‘‘It will be the latest Moscow fake posing as an old landmark.’’
    When Sarkisyan moved to Moscow in 1962, at age 15, he was impressed by the store’s ‘‘super-stylish interior’’ — its nickeled handrails, marble walls and sleek escalators.
    ‘‘It seemed like this was what the world of the future would look like,’’ he said.
    Now, Detsky Mir’s own future looks mundane.
    The store’s worn floor tiles hold five decades of Soviet and Russian history.
    It had its share of the long lines, shoddy goods and stark shelves that plagued Communist-era consumers and has lost much of its charm since the 1991 Soviet collapse. Since then, the clutter of kiosks and the glare of electronics shops mix unattractively with its Soviet-era grandeur.
    Some Russians welcome the prospect of an overhaul, but many architects, preservationists and ordinary Muscovites fear the landmark will be transformed into just another mall, like dozens of Western-style shopping complexes that have sprouted in and around Moscow amid a remarkable economic recovery.
    ‘‘Not everything should be rebuilt,’’ said Mosharova, who shares preservationists’ fears that Moscow’s cultural heritage is being destroyed. ‘‘Without the past, there is no present, and without the present, there is no future.’’
    Sarkisyan said Russian law on architectural landmarks has been weakened by a change that allows for a certain portion of a building to be protected, meaning it can be restored but not removed or reconstructed, while subjecting the rest to demolition.
    In the case of Detsky Mir, only the exterior is protected.
    ‘‘The facade will remain, but that’s very little,’’ Sarkisyan said, likening the building to a goat devoured by a wolf in an old Russian rhyme: ‘‘Nothing will be left but the horns and the feet.’’
    Natalya Dushkina, an architecture professor and granddaughter of the architect who designed Detsky Mir, is not convinced by the developer’s pledge to preserve and ‘‘carefully restore’’ the exterior.
    She pointed to other prominent Moscow buildings whose facades have been rebuilt from concrete — sometimes emerging from the scaffolding only vaguely recognizable — rather than restored.
    ‘‘Moscow is losing its landmarks, losing the authenticity of its historical heritage,’’ said Dushkina. ‘‘If this practice continues, the city will lose its allure, because nobody wants to come to the city and look at these mock-ups.’’
    Regardless of its facade, Detsky Mir ‘‘will clearly be a completely different building,’’ Dushkina said. ‘‘It will be just a gigantic retail center like Mega Mall and Crocus City,’’ she said, naming sprawling complexes on the edges of Moscow.
    ‘‘That is the ideal they are striving for,’’ she said bitterly.
    The owners deny that, saying they are committed to saving Detsky Mir’s ‘‘holiday spirit.’’
    Maria Yershova, a 40-year-old Muscovite who took two of her four sons to ‘‘say goodbye’’ to Detsky Mir on Monday, was unconvinced.
    ‘‘Changing the interior will change the very essence of the place,’’ she said.

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