Moscow Officials Bulldoze 100 'Illegal' Kiosks In Overnight Operation

City officials claim the makeshift shops are a safety hazard, but critics cry fo

— -- Moscow residents woke up this morning to scenes of startling destruction here, after the city's government unleashed 700 bulldozers overnight to destroy 100 makeshift shops across the city center, according to officials.

The shops, a mixture of outdoor kiosks and more permanent structures, were flattened, some still with furniture inside and the lights still on. Piles of twisted metal and wreckage were left behind.

A feature of Moscow's urban landscape since Communism fell, the shops sold everything from eyeglasses and underwear to Kalashnikov-shaped vodka decanters. In recent years, many had evolved into larger structures, housing kebab shops, cafes and cellphone dealers.

The mayor's office believes the stalls are a throwback to a more anarchic time and wanted to raze them as part of an effort to bolster the Russian capital's image as a modern and sophisticated city.

Authorities had said the kiosks were built illegally, without planning permission. But today, the official reason for the clearing was that the structures — built mostly around subway stations — posed a safety threat to the system's communications.

"It's barbarism," said Irina Karaseva, 54, a radio editor standing next to a seven-foot pile of rubble. "They should not have done it this way."

Alina Bibisheva, an urban design specialist who studied the kiosks in a research paper for Moscow's Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, said "Normally you don't do it in the night, with the lights on and people inside."

The kiosks' owners had been ordered to dismantle the structures themselves after a ruling by the government a year ago, but most ignored the order. At the Chistiye Prudi subway station in central Moscow, some of the shops were still serving food when the bulldozers arrived.

Those working there have now lost their livelihoods and many will appeal for compensation, claiming they had the appropriate permission from the city. But officials have said no compensation will be offered.

"We've been here 25 years," said Larisa, who declined to provide her last name, sitting in her newspaper stand, which had been spared the night's leveling. "We're also illegal. They'll pull us down too."

Moscow has changed rapidly in the past five years, with huge areas undergoing restoration — stylish new parks and pedestrian zones have appeared, as well as vast new shopping malls. Some saw the removal of the kiosks as a positive continuation of this trend.

"There wasn't any need for them — they blocked up the entrance to the subway," said Olga Kosyanchuk, a 25-year-old painter. "We need to pull them down as quickly as possible."

But Zoya Baranova, 77, a local pensioner who walked by a row of demolished kiosks, was more sympathetic. "I feel sorry for the people who worked here. [But] it'll be clean and beautiful."