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‘Musicians remain silent and afraid’ How Russia’s legendary Sound Recording State House changed hands, and became linked to a presidential agency and Dmitry Medvedev’s sneakers

Meduza
Russia's Broadcasting and Sound Recording State House (GDRZ) on Malaya Nikitskaya Street in Moscow
Russia's Broadcasting and Sound Recording State House (GDRZ) on Malaya Nikitskaya Street in Moscow
Emin Dzhafarov / Kommersant

Since last summer, two state enterprises have been exchanging property in Moscow: the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK) and the “Izvestia” publishing house (which no longer has any connection to the newspaper or website that bears the same name). The main asset being transferred from VGTRK to Izvestia is the Broadcasting and Sound Recording State House (GDRZ), which was traded for the building that houses the studio for a national TV talk show hosted by Olga Skabeeva and Evgeny Popov. Since last August, Russia’s musical public has been petitioning the country’s leaders, warning that GDRZ’s new owners plan to liquidate the unique studios that recorded generations of classical musicians, closing down a space where two national orchestras rehearsed until recently. The head of the Izvestia publishing house is 38-year-old Ekaterina Smirenskaya, whose father is business partners with Vladimir Dyachenko. According to an investigative report released two years ago by Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev sometimes uses Dyachenko's name when placing orders through foreign online stores.

The first rumors about the Broadcasting and Sound Recording State House (GDRZ) being transferred to the “Izvestia” publishing house started appearing in the summer of 2018. In August, the newspaper Kommersant reported that the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK) planned to trade the recording house to Izvestia for several other buildings.

A couple of state-owned enterprises exchanging property would have been a forgettable affair, were it not for the recording studios and orchestra rehearsal rooms run by the conductors Yuri Bashmet and Vladimir Fedoseyev. When the deal was reported, classical musicians and sound engineers sounded the alarm, worried that GDRZ’s new owner will abandon its unique, historical studios, dismantle and throw out its valuable equipment, and convert the building into a business center.

People wrote open letters and appealed to both the president and VGTRK’s leaders, asking them to preserve GDRZ’s studios by trading them to the Union of Composers and “Firma Melodiya” for non-residential space. State Duma Culture Committee Chairwoman Elena Yampolskaya and many top cultural figures have also publicly backed GDRZ. Anatoly Veitsenfeld, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Zvukorezhissyor (Audio Producer) and a sound engineering instructor at the Russian Institute of Theater Arts, published a petition asking “the country’s leadership” not to destroy the unique recording complex. By April 2019, there were almost 60,000 signatures.

Specialists were especially concerned with the fate of GDRZ’s Fifth Studio. Veitsenfeld told Meduza: “It’s actually a concert hall, but it was built like a studio — a ‘room within a room,’ or a ‘floating room,’ which means the studio’s walls are separated from the building’s walls by anti-vibration dampers that eliminate any mechanical noises. You usually find this in sound-recording studios, but small ones, whereas a studio this size (an area of 600 square meters [6,459 square feet] and a volume of about 8,000 cubic meters [282,517 cubic feet]) is a unique approach. After it was built, they spent 10 years fine tuning the acoustics, until they got it perfect. There’s no other concert hall like it. When someone says, ‘you can always record at the Moscow Conservatory’s Great Hall — they’ve got good acoustics there,’ this person admits their own incompetence. I’m sorry, but the high windows there overlook a busy street.”

Music producer and bass-guitarist and singer for the Soviet rock band “Mashina Vremeni” (Time Machine) Alexander Kutikov agrees. Mashina Vremeni recorded its first songs at GDRZ. “The Fifth Studio is the biggest in the world and very rare for its acoustic data,” Kutikov explains. “You could safely call it a national historical-cultural heritage site. Its destruction is simply blasphemy — a complete misunderstanding of how important such facilities are in the world. It’s surprising, of course, that the classical musicians who recorded for years in this studio are silent and afraid to defend it.”

In his petition, Anatoly Veitsenfeld has good reason to address “the country’s leadership”: Izvestia publishing house belongs to Russia’s Department of Presidential Affairs. Approached by Meduza, most of the studio staff and musicians from the orchestras that rehearsed at the GDRZ building refused to comment on the current situation, even on condition of anonymity.

What’s actually happening with the studios

According to records published by Russia’s State Registration, Land Register, and Mapping Federal Service, the GDRZ building was transferred to Izvestia on June 1, 2018, by order of the Federal Property Management Agency. The document is labeled “DSP” (for official use only), meaning that the authorities tried to hide it. The delivery-and-acceptance certificate was signed on December 25, and Izvestia was registered as the building’s fully legitimate owner on January 25, 2019.

It turns out that GDRZ was part of a larger property exchange between the two state enterprises. VGTRK handed over not only GDRZ and its adjoining buildings on Malaya Nikitskaya Street in Moscow, but also its nearly 30,000-square-meter (322,917-square-foot) premises at “Radio House” on 25 Pyatnitskaya Street. It wasn’t a balanced trade: VGTRK came up short about 10,000 square meters (107,639 square feet), receiving a garage near the Savelovskaya Subway Station and most importantly the “Pravda” Palace of Culture, where VGTRK was renting stage space, including a studio to film “60 Minutes,” a national television talk show hosted by Olga Skabeeva and Evgeny Popov (not to be confused with the American news program that airs on CBS). Top managers at VGTRK frequent the “Porto Maltese,” a restaurant located just around the corner.

Spokespeople for VGTRK told Meduza that GDRZ’s First and Fifth recording studios are still in service. The broadcasting company did not specify what’s happened to the other studios, but it noted that “not a single piece of technical equipment used in the studios’ work was written off [the inventory].” Meduza has obtained photographs showing the dismantling of GDRZ’s Second Studio, with construction debris, broken furniture, and wall paneling scattered on the floor. A source told Meduza that GDRZ’s Third Studio (which houses sophisticated sound equipment) remains in working condition, but the room is sealed and closed down due to the lack of an agreement between VGTRK and the new owner.

Rehearsal at GDRZ’s Fifth Studio, August 2018
Andrey Martynov

Except for the first floor, the eight-story GDRZ building on Malaya Nikitskaya Street is empty. A security guard told Meduza that a construction crew is currently working in the Second Studio, the Third Studio is closed, and musicians “sometimes play” in the First and Fifth studios. Administrative offices for different orchestras still occupy several rooms on the first floor, he said. Semen Iutinsky, the press secretary for Rusconcert, initially promised to provide a comment from conductor Yuri Bashmet, but Iutinsky later flatly refused to say anything further, declining even to confirm or deny reports that their orchestra is still based at the building on Malaya Nikitskaya Street.

On condition of anonymity, an employee at the Kultura TV network (which used to have offices at GDRZ) told Meduza that VGTRK staff received the transfer order in the summer of 2018. In June that year, Russia’s federal procurement portal registered a contract worth 8.7 million rubles ($135,295) to move divisions of VGTRK to a building at 37 Shabolovka Street and “to other addresses of the head office in Moscow and the Moscow Region.” Meduza’s source says equipment at GDRZ was in fact moved — some to Shabolovka Street and some to a warehouse in Klin, outside Moscow, operated by the Defense Ministry. The public procurement contract doesn’t mention a warehouse, but VGTRK published information around the same time that it had leased non-residential space in the military town of Klin-9, which housed the recently disbanded Military Unit 43431 of Russia’s Aerospace Defense Forces.

GDRZ’s new owner

The Broadcasting and Sound Recording State House is now the property of the Izvestia publishing house, which itself belongs to Russia’s Department of Presidential Affairs. Izvestia owns more than 240,000 square meters (2.6 million square feet) of real estate in Moscow, most of which is currently being leased out or rebuilt to serve as business centers and office space.

One of the most famous sites Izvestia owns is a building complex in Pushkin Square, where the newsroom of the newspaper by the same name was located until 2011. In 2015, the public learned about the start of an investment project to renovate Izvestia’s building complex. When the construction work is done, there will be offices, homes, and stores covering 120,000 square meters (1.3 million square feet). The Department of Presidential Affairs will receive 40 percent of this space, and the remaining 60 percent will go to the project’s investor, the private company “Legacy Development,” which is tied to the businessman Ara Abramyan, who chairs Russia’s Union of Armenians and serves as a board member at Moscow’s “Interpersonal Communication Center.” Lyudmila Putina, the president’s ex-wife, is the director of this center.

The former headquarters of the newspaper “Izvestia” at Pushkin square, where offices, apartments, and a hotel complex will open, following reconstruction work
Stanislav Tikhomirov / TASS

Soon after the investment project in Pushkin Square got underway, then 35-year-old Ekaterina Smirenskaya was appointed to serve as the Izvestia publishing house’s new director. Before taking on this role, Smirenskaya managed the company “G9,” which manufactures high-end audio equipment. G9 belongs to Ekaterina’s father, Vitaly Smirensky, and Vladimir Dyachenko, who featured in an investigative report by Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s alleged corrupt business ties. According to Navalny’s team, Medvedev used Dyachenko’s name to order clothes and sneakers from foreign online stores. Dyachenko also heads two other companies, “Tkhinpro” and “Promtkhinvest,” that are apparently connected to the prime minister. The first company owns vineyards in Anapa and an agricultural complex in a small town in the Kursk region where Medvedev’s father and grandfather grew up. The second company reportedly provides services to a residence in Krasnaya Polyana and an estate near the Rublevskoye Highway, which the billionaire Alisher Usmanov supposedly donated to a foundation run by two of Medvedev’s old classmates, Ilya Eliseev and Alexey Chetvertkov.

Ekaterina Smirenskaya’s father, Vitaly Smirensky, also owns a company called “En-Trade,” which has repeatedly won procurement contracts with the Federal Protective Service (FSO). In 2011, for example, En-Trade submitted a winning bid to remodel the “icon room” and “main house hall” at an unidentified FSO site. The last contract the company completed was construction and assembly work on a sports and recreation center at a state-owned country retreat in Crimea. This facility is better known as the dacha where Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was confined during the failed August Coup in 1991.

At the time of this writing, Meduza was unable to get a comment about this story from the Department of Presidential Affairs.

Ivan Golunov and Irina Kravtsova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock