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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Dacha Next Door


Even by American standards, the new brick house just off the lone street in the village of Dmitrovskoye is huge. A bulky square edifice with three stories, a sloping barnlike roof, and neat brick arches outlining its porch, the house would belong more in a wealthy suburb of the United States than in this sleepy settlement 30 kilometers west of Moscow.

At least five times the size of any other house in town, it contrasts sharply with the modest wooden gingerbread cottages that Russia's countryside is famous for and that the people of Dmitrovskoye have lived in all their lives.

The rumor around town is that the house has an indoor swimming pool and sauna - something that only the top Communist Party bosses enjoyed in the old days. It is roped off from the public by a high metal fence and vicious-looking guard dog.

Although Dmitrovskoye is in the midst of suburban Moscow's lush government dacha land, its residents, most of whom work for the nearby Ray of Lenin Collective Farm, have never seen anything like this in their midst. Cynically, they call the new place the House of Culture.

Spacious homes like this one are popping up all over Moscow's suburban landscape, a sign of new wealth and opportunity in Russia's changing economic climate.

But as they have appeared over the last year, they have done more than simply adorn the countryside. They have rankled villagers, who argue that they are being cheated and left behind.

For decades, this was the countryside where nothing changed. There were the party dachas, secluded behind their steel green gates. There was the collective farm. There was the village, which every year seemed to lose more and more of its youth to the enticing city nearby.

And there was the land, which no one was allowed to touch.

Now, although Russia still has no real land ownership law, plots of state-owned property are being parceled out at a seemingly rapid rate, and very rarely, it seems, to villagers.

On a pretty field stretching from the edge of Timoshkino, the village just up the road from Dmitrovskoye, foundations are being laid on 30 cottages which will sell for several million rubles each.

They lie across the street from a rundown house and barn where Galina Dudkevich, 54, has been struggling to get her private farm off the ground but cannot get the local authorities to give her the land she needs for it.

In the picture-postcard town of Shulgino, which lies next to a former Kremlin sanatorium, eight houses are going up, expanding the settlement by a third and adding an entire new street to it.

Shulgino residents accuse their town council of selling the land out from under their feet while avoiding the village's real needs - like putting in running water.

''They're selling everything here", Polina Gromova, 75, said as she hauled two buckets of water up Shulgino's snow covered street toward her house. "Soon they'll sell us off".

Construction is proceeding nt d hectic pace on these houses, even in the late-January frost. One group of workers lays the foundation. Another brigade puts up the outer walls. Still another does the roof. All are hired privately; all work long hours and get paid good wages.

"If I were working for the state, I'd take a year to build this roof", one young worker, clad in army gear, said as he chopped logs in the snow. "We'll have this one up in two weeks. We don't take even a cigarette break".

He did not know the owner of the house he was building, a relatively modest three-story dwelling on the edge of a field in Zhavoronki, 25 kilometers out along the highway to Minsk. He knew only that the place would cost about 2 million rubles (about $3, 250) to build and that the owner had received a good deal on the bricks, the material of choice among new home-builders.

This is about as much as anyone seems to know about these new countrydwellers, who seclude themselves as much from their neighbors as their Communist Party predecessors did. In a society where wealth generates suspicion, where there are still few honest ways to become rich, most of the new homeowners, like the collective farm official who is said to own the house in Dmitrovskoye, build fortress-like fences and close off the outside world.

The land in and around these villages is controlled by the town councils, or selsoviety, which have the right to allot it for building private homes.

Although Russian law does not permit citizens to buy OR sell land, it does allow them to own plots given to them by the state and pass them down through their families. Once they are given a piece of land by the selsoviet, it is theirs to keep.

So the residents of these suburban villages, many of whom have toiled all their lives on this land, are jealous and angry at watching it vanish bit by bit into other hands. They accuse town council officials of making haphazard deals that ultimately deny the villagers the land they feel they deserve. They are also convinced that the town councils are rushing to grab choice land for themselves and their friends.

"I'm all for nice houses", Dudkevich said of the condominium-style cottages going up in the field where her cows usually graze. "I'd much rather have a rich neighbor than some Soviet slug. But I came here with goals and I need land. If they give it to people like this, then why aren't they giving it to me? "

At issue are barter deals that the town councils make, exchanging land with organizations that promise needed services that the councils alone cannot afford.

Galina Kim, an official at the Petrovo-Dalnyeye town council, which oversees Timoshkino, says that the piece of the field on the edge of town was given to a military organization that, in exchange, is bringing gas, water, and telephone service to the village, amenities it has never had.

"We wouldn't be able to afford to give these services to our towns otherwise", Kim said. "We can't even put up street lights".

The Petrovo-Dalnyeye Selsoviet oversees five towns with 7, 000 residents.

According to Dudkevich, the number of cottages to be built on the field grows as the organization prepares to bring these amenities in. "At first it was something like 20 cottages, then it went up to 24", she said. "They're all businessmen; they'll get what they want".

As for the organization itself, its name remains as clandestine as those of the new home owners. The people of Timoshkino, who say that they have been told that they will have to pay for these new amenities, are angry that they have no say in what happens to their land.

Kim denied that the land was being given to outsiders. "We have a lot of rich people from Moscow who want land", she said, "but we can't give it to them. What little we have goes to our villagers".

Back in Dmitrovskoye, the Ray of Lenin collective farm pensioners view the so-called House of Culture as a cruel taunt, a reminder that their years of back-breaking labor have led to little material reward.

"Of course it's painful for us to watch this house go up", Vera Mikhailovna, an 80-year-old resident of Dmitrovskoye, said as she hobbled past the House of Culture on her way home from the store. "That house wasn't built just on a regular salary".

She stopped in the street and pointed with her cane to a squat green wooden cottage. "I've worked hard all my life", she said, "and I live in a dump like that".