St. Pete Residents Buying Into Suburban Dream

ST. PETERSBURG -- Several homeowners, cell phones at hand, tend their lawns and gardens. Others are firing up a barbecue in the back yard, while on the street children ride mountain bikes or skate by on Rollerblades. Two little girls talk about going with their mothers to get a bite to eat at McDonald's.

It could be Pleasantville, but the pork shish kebab on the grill, cooked faithfully every weekend instead of hamburgers, is just one sign that it probably is not. This is Kolomyaga, a condominium development on the fringes of St. Petersburg.

The sight of four tidy rows of eight townhouses aligned in a square has shaken this previously poor village, but not because it is luxurious. Neighboring brick mansions, with Mercedes-Benzes parked out front, have already numbed local residents to displays of wealth.

What is turning heads at Kolomyaga is the novelty of American-style suburban architecture transplanted onto Russian soil. The signs are small but telling. Lawns neatly manicured where they used to run wild. A 1.5 meter security fence and guards to keep out the riffraff. Volleyball areas for children. Aluminum siding on the houses. Fords in the driveway. And fast food is a mere 10-minute drive.

No one is saying that St. Petersburg has solved its decades-old housing problem. Most of the city's 5 million inhabitants still live in prefab high-rises f a legacy from the Soviet era f in which three generations in a tiny apartment is not uncommon. By the 1990s, the few with money built year-round country mansions. But beyond the country house and city apartment, a third way is emerging f the small family house f with some things lost and some gained.

As the American suburban dream infiltrates Russia's second-largest city, it is giving added legitimacy and visibility to Russia's version of the middle-class homeowner. There is even a new Russian word for condo: Town khaus.

As entrepreneurs and small-business owners, predominantly couples in their 30s with small children, the town khausers of Kolomyaga are sufficiently well off to choose a new $75,000 condo 20 minutes from downtown. (A nice city apartment costs no less than $50,000, with $20,000 more in renovations.)

"These condo residents want their house to be their castle, so they can retreat away from the rest of the world," said Viktoria Ukhalova, a St. Petersburg architect and interior designer. "This is a reaction to decades of forced communal living. Now people have a choice."

Inside the two-story houses, there is little that impresses. The goal is basic comfort and functionalism: Kitchen, office, master bedroom, two bedrooms for the kids and a living room. The big change is adjusting to country living.

Though living rooms are large, residents still entertain their guests in the kitchen, an ancient habit of peasant origins, when the warm kitchen was the most hospitable room during the long, cold winters.

"We must tend the yard, and there are added travel costs," said Vasily Ryzhkov, 32, who owns a dental clinic downtown. "But it is worth it to live in the fresh air and have your own house."

As pleasant as life can be outside the inner city, Russian suburbs have disadvantages. They lack good schools or stores nearby. Life is still rustic, and the city remains the sole source of civilized amenities.

Still, Kolomyaga residents relish being able to retreat into their spacious homes, some 135 square meters of living space on three floors. Each unit has a small yard in front and back, and women groom their tiny plots, something rare here, where yards tend to be weedy or dedicated to growing food.

While necessity forces women to work, some successful Russian businessmen regard a working wife as an insult to their masculinity. "Here my wife sits home with the children, can sit in the yard or walk around the area, and is not cooped up," Ryzhkov said proudly.

The emerging professional class, with leisure to tend gardens, has even led to the appearance of a retail outlet called Maxidom, Russia's answer to Home Depot.

Suburban settlements began in Moscow about five years ago, but they are just starting to sprout in St. Petersburg. Kolomyaga was conceived in 1997 by Vladimir Lyubomirov, and the first families moved in a year ago. Lyubomirov, 32, who was raised in St. Petersburg, built his first family home for a Finnish buyer in 1991 while still studying for a master's degree in physics. Kolomyaga is his first large-scale project.

"A lot of people are surprised there are such nice suburban housing complexes, and here just within the city limits," Lyubomirov said, giving a tour of the complex on a sunny weekend.

Drivers slow down to gawk. Some people remark that the aluminum siding, banned by zoning laws until a few years ago, makes the houses look fake, like a toy village. Indeed, the contrast between old and new is surreal. Across the street from the complex stands a row of dilapidated wooden shanties, built just after World War II, their yards overgrown with bushes and trees.

Farther down the road are two new brick mansions, viewed by many as emblems of capitalism's criminal element. Looking like medieval keeps but oddly known as kottedzhi, or cottages, they are surrounded by 2.4 meter brick walls.

Change and progress have always been painful in Russia, and old and new sometimes have trouble coexisting, even at Kolomyaga. Symbolic of the conflict is a 50-year-old village house, in relatively good condition, inhabited by a couple in their late 50s. The house, and they themselves, stand in the way of completing a row of condos.

"There's no way my wife and I plan to give up our home in the country, in this place, where she grew up and where I've lived for the last 30 years," said one of the owners, who would give only the name Igor. "I don't have any ill feeling toward the new neighbors, and I understand it's progress, but it's too bad that what was once a real village is now disappearing."

Even Lyubomirov's offer of a condo could not sway Igor, who said there is something special about living in a primitive wooden house. Indeed, sentimental fondness for the simple rustic life and a desire to be close to nature run deep in the Russian soul, one reason that urban residents, even wealthy ones, retreat to their dachas on weekends.