14:53 GMT +322 September 2017
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    THE MANEGE FIRE: MUSCOVITES LOSE AN OLD FRIEND

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    By Andrei Pravov, RIA Novosti commentator

    Sunday's fire at the Moscow Manege caught the attention of all of Russia's journalists, and was second only to the results of the presidential elections in the newspapers.

    The media attention is easy to explain, as for two hundred years the Manege has been one the capital's main symbols. Built in front of the Kremlin in 1817 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the victory over Napoleon, it encapsulates a wealth of history.

    Initially, it was designed for parades and reviews, as well as for horse racing and equestrian drills, which is how it got its name. But in the 20th century, its vast spaces began to be used for staging exhibitions and displays.

    In the 1950s and 1960s, it hosted various painting expositions, including one which has imprinted itself vividly on the memory of the older generation of Muscovites. In 1962, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited a modernist exhibition only to unleash an exceptional torrent of criticism in the direction of the artists. According to eyewitnesses, he was particularly angry about the works of the now celebrated painter Robert Falk and sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, and gave vent to his emotions with fist-waving and abusive language.

    The Manege also provided its grounds in the 1960s for exhibitions by the artist Ilya Glazunov, who by that time had fallen out of political favour. People queued day and night to enter the building and then spent hours inside admiring his canvases.

    For Muscovites, the loss of the Manege is like losing a part of the city's history, something that can be compared to the loss of a friend. This is why many people are now wondering if it will be restored. This is certainly a question for the Moscow authorities, though many Muscovites doubt if this building can be restored in its original form. The well-known head of Moscow University's journalism faculty, Yasen Zasursky, says that when the Manege was constructed in the early 19th century, wooden bars were kept in special solutions for them to become as hard as iron. However, now Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov is planning to re-build the burnt out Manege with an iron frame over the roof.

    There is the opinion that this might be even better because wood, the more so dry wood, is highly flammable, which is why the fire spread so quickly.

    Meanwhile, after arriving at the scene of the fire, Luzhkov hastened to tell reporters that they should not look for any terrorist connection. Instead, he suggested that the blaze had broken out after an electrical fault.

    But very few share the mayor's opinion. This is explained by the fact that over the last few weeks, the city has been plagued by all manner of "unpleasant events" and sometimes disasters. The beginning of the year has been marked by an explosion in the underground close to the Paveletskaya metro station in the very centre of the city, which was followed by a roof collapsing at an aqua park in the south of the capital. Only a short while had passed before the roof of a car park near the Dmitrovskoye motorway fell in and now the fire at the Manege has happened.

    There is the assumption that the terrorists could venture to display their capacity once again by perpetrating an arson attack in front of the Kremlin on election day.

    The Moscow mayor's reassuring statement was questioned by Alexander Veshnyakov, the chairman of the Central Election Commission, who said he would not rule out any version. "It might be a provocation aimed at discrediting Russia as a state. It might be the case that someone wanted to benefit from this outrage on the day when presidential election results were summed up," said Veshnyakov. "There is an obvious coincidence in the timing, which could suggest premeditation," he said, before adding to mitigate his statement, "I haven't explored the issue, but each version has the right to exist."

    Some Muscovites consider this to be a purely criminal affair because the Manege's location is about as good as it can possibly get in Moscow. Perhaps, it stood in the way of someone wanting to open a few luxury shops?

    Still, most Muscovites seem to view the Manege fire as an accident. And there are quite a number of reasons to accept this version. Above all, when the building took fire, there was no one inside: a construction exhibition had finished on Saturday and all the exhibits had been taken away by Sunday evening. All the Manege's employees had left the building by that time. One could assume that the "terrorists" wanted to harm "the historical building as "such". But experience shows that terrorists want more than destruction, they want blood. Nor has any radical organisation taken responsibility for the blaze. If it were arson, then an announcement to that effect could have been expected to appear immediately.

    As investigation is underway and RIA Novosti has learnt about three versions under review: an electric short circuit, a fault in a ventilator and some "pranks" that went wrong carried out by visitors to the nearby Manege Square. "There were many people on the square, they roamed about and someone could have thrown a firework in through a dormer-window," said a RIA Novosti source, adding however that this was unofficial information.

    Likewise, the criminal version does not seem to hold much water, as there is a major shopping centre close by and there are many empty premises, so there was never any need to burn the Manege down just to expand sales.

    Tragically, two firemen were killed when a segment of the roof collapsed on them. Moreover, although the fire has now been put out, it was so vast that the consequences will have to be cleared up throughout the coming week. This means that drivers will face even more inconvenience than usual in the business city centre.

    However, this is nothing in comparison to the loss of an old friend.

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