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State Wades Into Museum Dispute

A dog playing with a plastic bottle last week in front of the Melnikov house. Vladimir Filonov

A mansion in the heart of Moscow built by Soviet architect and painter Konstantin Melnikov has been stuck in limbo since an ownership dispute stymied plans to turn it into a museum.

After years of the sides arguing over whether the architectural landmark will become a state or private museum, the government has finally gotten involved and may expedite the building's transformation into a state museum honoring the Soviet artist and his son Viktor Melnikov.

The house, built by Konstantin Melnikov in 1929 on Krivoarbatsky Pereulok, takes the form of two connected cylinders, each ornamented with a host of hexagonal windows, and has been recognized internationally as an architectural masterpiece.

The house was half-owned by Viktor Melnikov until he died in 2006 and willed that the state establish a museum there. But despite his will, the house may end up falling into private hands.

Senator Sergei Gordeyev, who in 2005 bought a half-ownership stake in the house, is seeking to gain full ownership of the building. He says he wants to turn the Melnikov house into a privately owned museum.

The ownership dispute began in 1989, when UNESCO, the United Nation's cultural arm, declared 1990 the year of Konstantin Melnikov in Russia, thus acknowledging his legacy.

After the death of Konstantin Melnikov's daughter Lyudmila, who co-owned the house along with Viktor Melnikov, her son Alexei Ilganayev inherited half-ownership in the building, which he later sold to Gordeyev.

In 2004, Viktor Melnikov originally gave his stake in the house to his younger daughter Yelena Melnikova, but then reneged on the offer, saying Melnikova had taken advantage of his blindness to deceive him into signing the documents.

Melnikov successfully sued his daughter, but the court annulled the decision after she provided medical tests showing that Melnikov could read when he signed the documents, leaving Melnikova half-owner of the house.

Melnikova said she had been in talks with Gordeyev's Russian Avantgarde foundation to exchange her stake in the building for a new apartment.

"It's the only option to create the museum and preserve the house," she said by telephone.

Yekaterina Kariskaya, Konstantin Melnikov's granddaughter and the executor of Viktor Melnikov's will, filed suit against Melnikova, saying she had no right to the property and that the house should be transferred to the government to create a state museum.

"The dispute over the building's ownership is the main obstacle to the creation of the museum, since neither a state nor a private museum can be created before a single owner of the house is determined," said Yulia Tsyganova, executive director of Russian Avantgarde.

In 2008, the Culture Ministry decreed that no museum could be created until the building had a single owner.

But despite Kariskaya's stance, the government had taken little interest in the project until last month, when First Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov sent a letter to the Culture Ministry and the Federal Property Management Agency ordering them "to consider … the issue of creating the state museum … and to inform the presidential administration of the results."

While Russian Avantgarde hopes to create a private museum, it is open to working with the government, Tsyganova said.

"We have always been ready to cooperate, but no one has made any proposals," she told The Moscow Times.

But doubts have been raised as to the feasibility, and likelihood, of Gordeyev turning the house into a private museum.

There has been little experience of creating a private museum in Russia, said Natalya Dushkina, a professor at the Moscow Architecture Institute, adding that Gordeyev considers the house primarily as real estate.

In 2007, Gordeyev established the International Melnikov House Committee to oversee the creation of the museum.

Some of its members say, however, that the committee is "purely decorative."

"The IMHC met once but since then have only heard from Mr. Gordeyev in the form of a single reply to a collective IMHC letter," the committee said in a statement earlier this month.

"Mr. Gordeyev's intentions appeared to be good, but so far, since he became part-owner of the house, nothing has really changed with it. We … feel that not enough is being done to secure the future of the house," said Clementine Cecil, a member of the committee and head of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society.

Gordeyev, a senator for the Perm region, declared the Melnikov house stake as the only real estate he owns in an income declaration published two weeks ago. The senator could not be reached for comment.

Despite Gordeyev's plans for a museum, Karinskaya and preservationists say such a museum shouldn't be in private hands.

"A museum of such importance should only be state-owned," Karinskaya, who currently resides in the house, said in an interview Thursday.

But Zhukov's letter could herald a real attempt on the part of the government to get involved and a first step toward the establishment of a state museum.

"I think it's a real attempt," Cecil said. "We'll have to see what will happen next, but right now this looks like a positive thing because it's the first time that the state has come forward and clearly stated that they are interested in creating a state museum," she told The Moscow Times.

Either way, "restoration on the house must begin as soon as possible," Dushkina said. "The property is deteriorating fast."

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