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‘They tore it all down, took everything away, and yes they even beat us’ A Moscow business owner describes how the city destroyed her stores

Meduza
18:16, 11 february 2016

Photo: Gennady Gulyaev / Kommersant

On the night of February 9, by the order of the mayor of Moscow, dozens of shopping pavilions in the city's center and outskirts were demolished. Authorities maintain that these areas were all built in violation of municipal laws. The city argues this, despite the fact that many store owners had the relevant permits and permissions from the city itself. Meduza special correspondent Ilya Zhegulev spoke to business owner Maria Antonova, who, until a few days ago, co-owned several stores located near Sokol metro station in northwest Moscow. Her battle with city authorities over the stores began when Yuri Luzhkov was still the mayor. Not a single court victory helped, she says, to save her businesses from the bulldozers, which crushed all her stocks and goods along with her stores. This is her story.

I'll tell you the whole love story. In the beginning, there was just an empty square outside the [Sokol] metro station. We began selling things here in 1993. At that time, we used the usual tents and kiosks. In 1995, we rented the land and installed small stalls that were easy to set-up and take down. By 1997—Moscow's 850th anniversary—the municipal council for the Sokol district charged us, that is us business owners, with developing the square. They instructed all the business owners to do the proper legal paperwork, because we all made an impact on the square. We weren't just talking about a single flower shop, or something. Also, we business owners took out the trash and generally kept tabs on the place.

In 1997, we got our land lease renewed for another five years and began to prepare the legal documents for the construction of fixed structures. We managed to have everything together by 1999. We had to receive official permission for the construction and for everything else besides. If you took all the documents and stacked them on the floor, they'd be over a meter high. And believe me, we had everything there—even radiation level measurements for the Sokol district. It took us three years to do it all. We received permission to build, and got our land lease renewed. On the new permit, it said our stores were equal to a “stationary shopping complex.” We built the shops and assumed ownership over them.

Demolition of the shopping complex by Sokol metro station
Photo: Gennady Gulyaev / Kommersant

Yesterday, they demolished two of our retail spaces—the first was 85 square meters, and the second was 112. One serviced a small grocery store, and the other housed a Evroset [technology store], a flower shop, and a corner shop. We paid a lot for those retail spaces. The land was very expensive, not to mention the permits. Altogether, we invested around $500,000.

They began pressuring us in 2007, when construction of the Halabyan-Baltic highway tunnel began in Moscow. During one heated moment, they demolished one of our stores. It was so barbaric, and they reimbursed us next to nothing. They just came and knocked it down illegally. Then they promised—only verbally—to give us the documentation that would allow us to rebuild the store ourselves, once the tunnel's construction was complete. To this they added that the land lease would remain ours, and therefore they didn't have to pay us for it. They said they'd “look after everything,” but to do so they'd have to knock our stores to the ground. But nothing's been built, they haven't given us the land, and they've been building that tunnel for years! For eight years, we were paying taxes on land that we later discovered doesn't belong to us. Can you imagine the cost? We have been to the land committee many times to try and sort it out, and what a fright it was. Each time they'd say, “Wait,” or “It has to be divided and surveyed”—in other words, nonsense.

Don't think this whole demolition business began just now. For example, periodically they'd say they had to tear up our foundations, because of dangerous underground gas pipes. In actuality, there was no gas. It had been cut off back in 2005. MosGaz took us to court. They lost, but they didn't give up. 

One time, I passed by one of our stores on my way to the countryside. I look, and there's the whole MosGaz team with Oleg Mitvol, the Prefect for the entire Moscow northern district. In front of the store they'd already dug a hole, and before it stood the CEO of MosGaz himself, Hasan Gasangadzhiev. He says there's a gas leak, and now they're going to knock down our stores. And all the while he's standing there, smoking a cigarette over the hole. I tell him, “What's wrong with you, Mr. Gasangadzhiev? Standing there and smoking! You're going to blow this place all to hell!” He immediately put out the cigarette. Then I tell them they're all lying. What gas when there isn't even any close by? Then all hell breaks loose, with everyone yelling like crazy. They even roughed me up a bit. “We'll tear you down with tanks!” Mitvol said. Then they left.

A picture of Maria Antonova's stores.
From Antonova's personal photo archive.

They kept up the pressure. Checks and verifications—if it wasn't one thing, it was another. They took us to court again. They wanted to remove us from the land, because of “public needs.” At one point, we won the case, but then the Court of Appeals overturned the decision. We're the only ones in Moscow, with our poor little stores, to reach the Supreme Arbitration Court.

Over and over again, I was harassed by riot police and the security guards at the tunnel construction site. All told, litigation over our shopping complex lasted five years. We brought in piles of permits. Everyone was exhausted. Just as Sergei Sobyanin took his post as the new mayor of Moscow, they acknowledged the legality of our stores. We had proof that our stores and the ground beneath them were a fixed shopping complex. But we aren't idiots. In Moscow, we know, even if it's a federal highway, they'll try to build it like it's some kind of shanty development. Our land lease was extended for another twenty years.

Then, a short time ago, one of the owners from a neighboring stores received this notice on an A4 sheet of paper. It read, “To the Owner: In connection to resolution such-and-such, your premises will be demolished. You have until January 23, 2016.” It said it was from the Moscow Real Estate Control Inspectorate. That's it. No official stamp, no signature. To whom could we go with this? Which court?

On February 8, rumors reached me that somewhere, someone's store was going to be torn down. That morning, I began calling this real estate inspectorate and asked, “Are you or are you not going to knock down our stores? Do we need to take our stock out from the stores or can we leave it there? How is it that you don't know and I have your notice right here in my hand. It says ‘call us if you have any questions.’” They said they'd speak to management. The management knew nothing of it. So, I called the municipal prefecture, and they also knew nothing about it.

Maria Antonova
From Antonova's personal photo archive.

In the end, they came during the night to demolish the place—with the goods and the employees still inside. The stores were fully stocked. It was like a punch in the kidneys. One of my tenants, Dmitry Kabanov, pleaded with them to give him at least 30 minutes to remove all his supplies. In the end, police twisted his arm behind his back and arrested him under article 319 (insulting a member of the authorities).

In terms of any kind of compensation, I have no idea. So far, no one has given us anything. All I do know is that those buildings mortgaged for 330 million rubles [$4.14 million]. Sure, give me 330 million, and I'll demolish those buildings myself. I can even forget your name if you want, too. Give me at least 300, and okay, here, have 30, go grab yourself an ice cream.

It's highway robbery! They're worse than criminals. I have worked at the Sokol station for 30 years, and not even in the 1990s did I see anything like this. They tore it all down, took everything away, and yes they even beat us.

Ilya Zhegulev

Moscow