KGB headquarters in Moscow gets an 'overhaul with a vengeance'
It is not every day that someone takes hammer and chisel to the imposing ocher facade of the Lubyanka - Soviet KGB headquarters and, in Stalin's 1930s, way station for many a Russian awakened by a midnight knock on the door.
But a host of Soviet workers are doing just that: peeling Lubyanka's paint and lopping off the pre-revolutionary plaster flourishes that are reminders of the days when the building housed a major Russian insurance company.
On any other structure, this would not be too surprising.
The Lubyanka is apparently undergoing a rite known locally as the kapitalny remont: the brick-and-plaster equivalent of a 500,000-mile checkup. It is an overhaul with a vengeance.
A sleepy-eyed Russian pedestrian, unshaven and unsteady, gawked as he crossed downtown Dzerzhinsky Square early Sunday and espied, where the Lubyanka's unobstructed facade should have been, a jungle gym of scaffolding and, beneath, the building's denuded front.
The square is named for Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first chief of the Soviet security police. His statue stands in the square. Fortunately it faces the other way: He need not watch the defilement of his Lubyanka.
''They're doing a remont,'' said a uniformed policeman, having first waved me away as if worred I might try to rush the scaffolding.
As some KGB offices are said already to have moved to a new, typecast-gray building nearby, I asked: ''Will the KGB move back into the Lubyanka after the remont?''
''I cannot say,'' he said formally.
I wished him a hearty ''happy holiday'' and we parted.
The holiday in question is May 9: ''Victory Day.''
A few days ago I wrote that the only really spontaneous holiday activity on the official calendar here is the mass stroll through central Moscow the night of May 1, May Day.
I neglected Victory Day and its gathering of young and old - the latter generally in uniforms bedecked with medals - in the leafy park near the Bolshoi Theater.
This does fulfill a function for officialdom: helping preserve the memory of the Soviet Union's agonizing triumph over Nazi Germany in World War II, which is known here as ''the great patriotic war.''
Yet the Bolshoi gathering is scripted only in that sense. The singing of patriotic songs by all present - veterans' voices wailing above the others - is no theater. Young children, strolling with parents, offer flowers, thanks, sometimes embraces, to the veterans.
As much as a day for the young to recognize their war heroes, Victory Day is a day for the veterans to greet each other. They are, after all, the tough and fortunate survivors of a war that claimed 20 million Soviet lives.
''I fought in the Ukraine,'' an old man recounted proudly to a young couple. He held a sign with his unit number, a tradition to help comrades in arms locate each other.
Near the park's central fountain men and women veterans danced formally to music from a cassette player held aloft by a youth. Two young soldiers asked a pair of elderly women in brown uniforms for the next dance.
''I was ill last year,'' one of the women explained, smiling and flushed afterward. ''I am so grateful that I am well, and that I could just be here on this wonderful day, between the Bolshoi and the Kremlin. . . .''
The crowd smiled back.