Luxury Apartments Crowd Out Soviet Dream

MTCalled a "symbol of the bright future," the complex was to be self-sufficient.
When the communists dreamed up Severnoye Chertanovo 30 years ago, it was supposed to be a city within a city, replete with two-story apartments, and foreign furniture and appliances. There were no streets or cars, just happy proletarians.

Today, they're erecting a new promised land across the street from the old -- three luxury apartment buildings, with one-bedrooms starting at $200,000, two-bedrooms at $256,000 and three-bedrooms at just under $300,000.

The new complex isn't nearly as ambitious as Severnoye Chertanovo, located not far from the Chertanovskaya metro station. No one is creating utopia. No one has given any thought to the march of history. The old complex housed 8,000 residents. The new apartments, slated for completion in late 2007, will make room for just 1,000.

While the old complex was designed for war veterans and factory directors, the new has a somewhat different clientele. Sergei Propapov, a manager in the sales department at Capital Group, the developer overseeing the new project, called the apartments "business class."

The new, still unnamed complex will include 2,500 parking spaces (or 1.5 spaces per resident), a seven-screen movie theater, and a shopping and entertainment center, Propapov added.

Still, there are parallels between the two developments. Like its Soviet neighbor, the new development will be massive, impersonal and compact. There are very few open spaces in the works.

Even the price tags of the two developments are comparable. A one-bedroom apartment at Severnoye Chertanovo averages $170,000, said Lidia Korchmar, chairwoman of its residents committee, about $30,000 less than its more modern neighbor.

But absent from the new development is the energy -- and ideology -- of the old.

"This was the most shocking, groundbreaking thing we could imagine," said Viktor Pasenko, one of the architects behind Severnoye Chertanovo. "We had a great mission. We worked all night long. We didn't know the difference between night and day. We read all the materials from overseas about construction and housing materials. We were going to have new norms, new building materials, new types of schools."

Korchmar, one of Severnoye Chertanovo's original residents, agreed. "It was so beautiful here," she said.

The mikroraion was conceived in the early 1970s, when the Moscow branch of the Communist Party assigned a team of young architects the task of building an ultramodern neighborhood from scratch.

Residents began moving into the complex in 1979. The development included artists' studios in the top floors; a sophisticated, self-regulating heating system; and a Swedish garbage-disposal system.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Severnoye Chertanovo's halls were built for veterans and factory directors.
"It was one of the most prestigious neighborhoods," said Vasily Ivanov, who moved to Severnoye Chertanovo in 1984, after returning from service in Afghanistan.

Today, like numerous Soviet-era apartment blocs sprinkled across the country, Severnoye Chertanovo is dilapidated and rusting, a shadow of its original incarnation.

The community that was promised to residents, with that peculiarly Brezhnev-era sense of warmth and connectedness, seems to have frayed.

"I'm so lonely," said Anna Borovik, 84, sitting alone on a bench nestled between apartment buildings. "I watch a little television or read some, but I just can't take it." Borovik, who said she moved to the complex from the Novokuznetskaya area 10 years ago, said she hadn't spoken to anyone in days. She recalled that when she lived in the city center, she could go outside and speak to people. There's no community like that at Severnoye Chertanovo for her, she said. "I would move, but it costs a million dollars to buy an apartment in this city," she said.

There are traces of the old dream. Severnoye Chertanovo's six buildings, spread across a hilltop, open onto a pond dug out of the bog below. Three of the buildings -- Nos. 2, 4 and 6 -- are light-blue. Nos. 3, 5 and 7 are yellow high-rises. Set apart from the rest of the city by woodlands and broad avenues, the complex is reached by a pedestrian bridge.

It still has the original postal system, designed for a streetless community. A typical address might be Severnoye Chertanovo 603. The six indicates that the building is No. 6, and the three refers to the third korpus, or section, of the building. To this day, the system inspires mixed feelings.

"What fool thought this up?" asked Marina, 67, a concierge in building No. 4. She declined to give her last name. "You call a cab, and they have no idea where to go. I live here, and I can't understand it."

Other residents said the pedestrian-based layout makes them feel safe. "Kids never have to cross traffic," Korchmar said, as a string of cars passed by. Noticing the vehicles, Korchmar said the developers had assumed only half the families in the area would have cars. Now almost everyone has a car.

From the outset, the dream of a utopian Chertanovo was at odds with reality. After building No. 2 opened, Party officials worried the luxurious apartments would sow jealousy elsewhere. When the other buildings went up, the architects' plans were scaled back: Yugoslav and Czech furnishings were exchanged for domestic ones, wooden door frames became metal, and only the first of the neighborhood's four kindergartens kept its swimming pool.

Igor Tabakov / MT
The top floors were made into artists' studios.
The innovations that were allowed to stay were often misused. While the original residents were told how to use the pneumatic garbage-disposal system and signed statements saying they were familiar with the complex rules, Korchmar said, later arrivals abused the amenities. "They'd throw bricks or ski poles into the trash chute," she said.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the area's original buildings have been neglected. "The fate of the neighborhood is tied to that of the country," said Ivanov, the war veteran. He noted the glass cupola that had been built atop the central garbage-disposal facility was destroyed by vandals a few years back. The windows that once provided the underground garages with natural light were destroyed and replaced with green, metallic ventilation ducts.

Hypodermic needles can now be spotted at the old utopia. Where veterans once received free food at Severnoye Chertanovo's House of Culture, there is a nightclub. A first-floor shop at the No. 2 building where residents used to line up for French bread is a pawn shop.

But the old-timers said they liked it here. Or, at least, they don't like it there -- just past the thin patch of concrete separating the monumental, Soviet past and the monumental, post-Soviet future.

Severnoye Chertanovo residents protested the new towers' construction when the city gave its official backing to the project, in January. And there's little interest in moving into the new units.

Marina, the concierge, called the new towers, which are in various stages of construction, a blight on the landscape, saying only "bandits" and "dishonest souls" could afford to live there.

Faina, a resident of building No. 6 who refused to give her surname, said she'd heard they'd soon be turning off the hot water on the top floors of the old apartment buildings so the new towers could have water. But she won't be moving.

"I don't want to leave," said Faina, who came to Severnoye Chertanovo 24 years ago with her husband. "Our neighborhood was built according to the American model of having no streets."

Propapov, the Capital Group sales manager, insisted the new development would make the whole neighborhood even lovelier. "It will beautify the region," he said. "It will make everything more modern."