A Russian Drama Plays Out at a Moscow Landmark

Due to familial rifts, the Melnikov House faces a dubious future.

In 1927 a strange-looking structure rose in Moscow’s Arbat district, then a quiet residential enclave of pretty nineteenth-century buildings. A few letters above its architrave announced the occupant, Konstantin Melnikov: Arkhitektor. The house, two interlocking, whitewashed brick drums punctured by a honeycomb grid of windows, immediately became a constructivist landmark.

For much of its existence the building has been under attack, on both ideological grounds and from rude Russian winters. Now it has a new challenge: a familial drama worthy of Chekhov that follows on the death of the architect’s son, Viktor Melnikov, this past February, at the age of 91. The younger Melnikov had lived in the house since his father’s death, in 1974, and had willed it to the state on the condition that it be transformed into a museum dedicated to his father—and to himself.

Unfortunately, the house was not entirely Viktor Melnikov’s to give; until last month, half of the landmark belonged to Alexei Ilganeyev, the son of his late sister. What’s more, Melnikov’s eldest daughter and executor, Ekaterina Karinskaya, had been fighting her estranged younger sister, Elena Melnikova in court over the rights to the half landmark that did belong to their father.

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This situation was further complicated when it was revealed that Ilganayev had recently sold his rights in the property to Sergey Gordeyev, a member of the Russian parliament and the founder of Rosbuilding, a real estate firm with a reputation for dubious development practices. Gordeyev has since been an active public supporter of the proposal to transform the house into a museum, but Moscow preservationists, noting his history and the value of the Melnikov plot, have questioned his sincerity. “The actions of Senator Gordeyev to get control of the Melnikov House are reminiscent in all details of a typical raider’s operation,” wrote Grigory Rivsin, architectural critic of Kommersant. “Everybody acts according to their knowledge and habits.”

Preservations were particularly concerned that if Elena Melnikova were to win her battle with her older sister, she would be in a position to sell the remainder of the property to Gordeyev, who would then be the sole owner and within his rights to do with it as he pleased. That fear was alleviated this March, when Melnikova dropped her suit, with all parties publicly supporting the transformation of the house into a museum. Whether that will happen remains to be seen, and time is of the essence. Deteriorating plasterwork and a compromised drainage system have left the landmark, which was placed on the 2006 World Monuments Fund Watch List, in serious physical jeopardy.

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