Garage Project Pits OMON Against Locals

First, there was a faint, cracking sound. Then, the pop-pop-pop of two-inch reinforcing rods snapping like pretzels. And finally, a horrifying SCRREEECH as tons of red and white cinderblock rubble CAME CASCADING DOWN WITH DUST AND DARKNESS AND AAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaa!!!

Wait. If you are reading this, it means none of this has happened yet. But it could.

It all started a couple of years back, when some workers showed up at our courtyard (where our dogs roamed and our babies played in the shadow of 16-story behemoths) and announced that they were going to build a garage.

Not just any garage, but an underground garage, to free up the side of the road and bury the smoggy fumes of revving Volgas and muffle the iron chorus of car alarms that pierces the Krylatskoye night.

Later, we found out the garage was not being built for us, but for anyone who could afford the stiff rental fee (rumored in the thousands of dollars per month). Well, the neighbors thought about it, and decided, naw, just leave it like it is.

But in today's Russia, the courtyard is municipal land, meaning local city officials can do whatever they like with it. And, as local officials stated with commandment-like certainty, "Mayor Luzhkov said, 'Build underground garages.'"

So it came to be that a construction company put up a chain-link fence and sent in a platoon of tractors and KamAZ trucks. That did not go down well with my neighbors, who, as it turned out, are a famous bunch. Film icon Nona Mordyukova ("Kommissar," "Molodaya Gvardiya,") all but chained herself to the gate to hold back the KamAZ tide. Someone -- unconfirmed rumors point to the entourage of Angelika Varum, the wispy-voiced queen of the Russian popsa charts -- poured sugar into the tractors' gas tanks. Doku Aerodromovich Zavgayev, then "leader" of Chechnya's "pro-Moscow" government, doubled his bodyguard.

Meanwhile, a bunch of ordinary folks formed a citizens group, signed petitions, wrote letters to the mayor and bought body armor and helmets.

Faced with this onslaught of public opinion, local officials called in the OMON special police. For a few days, the tense standoff recalled the January 1996 showdown at Pervomaiskoye, as the frozen and starving paramilitary troops went eyeball-to-eyeball with the poorly armed but resolute "bandit formations" led by Ms. Mordyukova.

Fortunately, the OMON did not resort to Grad rockets. Unfortunately, they prevailed anyway.

With civil society thus vanquished, the thing was built -- not. What we got, after months of more noise than the war cry of an army of steel nightingales and more fumes than the noxious belch of 40,000 revving Volgas, was The Pit.

The 16-story cinderblocks that surround our courtyard reportedly cracked when the two-floor hole was dug into the soft clay. Then came the usual financial problems and the months-long wait for a new construction company. The Pit yawned all summer, filling with rainwater and mosquitoes and eroding ever closer to the tenements' foundations.

They're building again now. The local officials say not to worry, the houses won't fall down. And I'm not saying they will. But don't mind me if I sleep in my helmet.

Masha Gessen is on vacation.