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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DACHA ENVY

Russia's past and future are on a collision course in the dacha communities surrounding Moscow. Vegetable plots and wooden huts are out, brick castles and luxury swimming pools are in -- but not everyone can keep up with the Ivanovs.








MANIKHINO, Moscow Region --Tatyana Ivashentseva and Sergei Pleshkov spent childhood summers swimming and hunting for mushrooms together at their parents' dachas, which face each other across a narrow dirt road.


Like the other country cottages in this community about 50 kilometers west of Moscow, theirs were the same size, the same shape and bore scars of the same winters. Both were built in 1957, when the nearby MiG fighter plane factory distributed small garden plots to its employees.


But this summer, Ivashentseva, 36, and her husband are putting the finishing touches on a grand new edifice three times the size of the one they tore down. And Pleshkov, looking up at their third-floor window from his peeling yellow porch, says he hasn't spoken to his friend this season.


"They look down on us now," says Pleshkov's wife, Olga, who recalls going for long evening walks with Tatyana when both were pregnant a few years ago. "All we do is say 'hi' from behind the fence."


As Muscovites make their annual summer trek to the dacha, new jealousies and shifting loyalties are tearing the social fabric of the bucolic communities so central to the seasonal rhythm of Russian life.


Beyond the white noise of the anonymous city, Russia's emerging class frictions grate more audibly. And as the free market wedges itself between friends and neighbors, the social prism of dachaland reflects a sense of discord and disorientation that reaches far beyond its garden plots.


Land privatization, higher incomes for a few and the desire to flaunt them are sparking conflicts within traditional dacha communities and in the villages outside of them, and as land reform boosts sales the tension will only grow greater. Responses so far range from aversion of eyes to outright hostility, even occasional cases of arson.


"If we're talking about dachas, the main expression of class conflict is burning houses down," says sociologist Tatyana Zaslavskaya, former president of the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion. "The quality of non-urban housing is a sign of social prestige, and the construction we are seeing is a vivid element that reflects the stratification of society."


Zaslavskaya says she has heard of several arson fires among her acquaintances: "Our own [new] dacha is made of wood, and I'm very much afraid it will be burned down," she says.





In the Soviet time, the state devised strict rules about what could be built on dacha land. The plots were owned by the state, but allotted free to nearly a third of Russian families beginning in the 1930s when famine swept the country. The land was meant for growing food and not much else.


Forbidden luxuries -- whether you could afford them or not -- included a second floor, a fireplace, and greenhouses in which vegetables could be grown and sold for illegal profit.


Some dachas, such as those awarded to Communist Party elite and state-favored artists, were manifestly more equal than others. But the standard plots of six sotki -- about one-sixth of an acre -- traditionally have been parceled out in lots of 50 or 100 by trade unions to employees whose earnings were bound to be roughly the same, enforcing the sense of equality among neighbors.


"I was a designer of the school uniform, so I can tell you it was the same principle -- everyone was alike," says Tamara Zelenkova, 58, showing off the new brick annex to her wooden abode.


Capitalism has changed all that. Russians are free to wear, build and earn what they may. The richest tenth of the population earns 14 times that of the poorest tenth, and there are numerous plateaus in between. But aside from the Mercedes Benzes and designer jogging suits zipping around Moscow, such stratification is hard to discern in daily urban life.


The fortress-dachas popping up in the fields where villagers tend their crops, however, are hard to miss. And in the close-knit dacha clusters where families have lived side by side for decades, even subtle improvements tend to get in everyone's face. As the newly rich proclaim their liberation in the form of aluminum roofs and green lawns, responses vary widely.


"Some people who used to say hello to us don't anymore," says Tatyana Ivashentseva's mother, Nina Zudina, who feels a bit lost in the big house purchased thanks to her daughter and son-in-law's success at a Moscow accounting business. "I know a woman who used to always come by to chat, and she has stopped even using this street for her walks.


"To tell you honestly, we are a little bit embarrassed," Zudina says. "I feel ashamed before my neighbors. Our generation broke our backs to achieve things in life, and this is all very unfamiliar."


It is particularly unfamiliar and unnerving to those who still have to do without. Maria Rogozina's face crumples when she talks about the dacha mansions sprouting up on land where she's lived all of her 71 years. "Where do they get this money for these huge houses?" she demands. "When we had money, we were never allowed to build. Now, we can't."


Villagers, who used to plant potatoes and corn where the new dachas stand, burned down two sheds belonging to the new residents recently, Rogozina says without remorse. "But they never found out who did it."


The rumor mill in the dacha community near the village of Alykhnovo blames a neighbor for burning down a recently remodeled house out of spite. And in Krasnovidovo, a Molotov cocktail recently was found in the wreckage of a new dacha belonging to a real estate agent.


The intense hostility toward the new generation of dacha builders, social observers say, is in part a consequence of the 180-degree reversal of the state's role in setting and enforcing the rules for living standards.


"There was a time when everything was forbidden and nothing was allowed," says Yury Martyushov, deputy chairman of the Moscow Land Resource Committee. "Now we've switched to a time when everything is allowed and nothing is forbidden."


With few inspectors and much chaos in the land-use regulations, Martyushov's office takes the ascendant laissez-faire approach.


"Maybe it's hard for people to understand, but your neighbors are very powerful people now and they can spoil your life," he says.


"I personally think that people shouldn't live equally," says Tatyana Kolkneva, head of the local administration for Fyodorovka and seven other villages in the region. She says villagers' complaints about water and garbage disposal are unwarranted: "People are not equal, and I don't think houses should be alike, either."





In the New Russian countryside, castle-like structures with a distinct medieval quality are in -- as are large quantities of bricks, impossible to obtain in the Soviet years.


On the sides of the highways that lead weekend dachnikis from the smoke-clogged streets of Moscow to birch-lined country lanes, "truck malls" have sprung up to serve and profit from the construction frenzy, their operators ready to deliver truckloads of material any time, anywhere.


Muscovites in Reeboks and Rolexes, no-brand sweatpants and sandals, prowl the lots, selecting from a wide array of construction materials.


"We're building a banya," announces Ivan Petrov, 34, roping a bundle of wood atop his green Moskvich car on a recent Saturday morning. All of this building can be a bit much for a meager six sotki. Many of those who have struck it rich are buying larger plots from collective farms eager for cash, colonizing vast fields with a new hybrid, the dacha-suburb, or kottedzh communities.


"We hired a specialist, he bought special earth, special seeds and did all the work," says Mikhail Odintsov, 33, stepping gingerly on his patch of green in nearby Krasnovidovo. "We originally planned to import rolls of lawn from Holland, but it was a little too expensive."


Odintsov says he worked hard for his kottedzh. Now the owner of a starch factory, he plunged into business in 1991, soon after the beginning of perestroika.


In the days before July's presidential election, when it looked as if President Boris Yeltsin's communist challenger might win, Tatyana and Mikhail Odintsov watched elderly villagers scuttle through the neighborhood, making revised plans for the new homes. Theirs was to house a kindergarten, while a local party committee was to be installed across the street.


But Yeltsin prevailed and so has a land-reform decree that is expected to accelerate the shake-up in dacha communities far beyond the Moscow region. The decree, signed in March, gives millions of Russians the right to buy and sell land for the first time since the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. Dacha plots now belong to the people who use them. And dacha owners, who previously could sell their land only to those approved by the cooperative, are expected to become major participants in a new real estate market.


A dacha on the standard small plot now sells for about $25,000 to $50,000, though the newer, larger weekend homes can cost upward of $150,000. "More than 2.5 million people in the Moscow region own ... private gardens or dacha plots," the newspaper Izvestia calculated recently. "If only 2 percent of these small landowners decide to sell their property, approximately 36,000 plots will enter the market, and the market could reach from $700 million up to $3.5 billion."


Already, residents here say there has been more turnover in the last year than the last decade. Some are trying to amass two, three, even four adjacent plots. Others are moving out, selling to people who have nothing to do with the MiG factory where their parents worked.


In nearby Fyodorovka, Igor Ilyinsky, 60, says the conflict over dacha construction is not so much class tension as an obsolete world view. The villagers can't seem to remember, for instance, that the mushroom site under the oaks in front of his house no longer is public property.


"There's an old Soviet song, 'Everything around here belongs to the collective farm, so everything around here belongs to me,'" he says. "That's still the psychology of the local people."


Nonetheless, the determined individualism of Russia's wealthy can be a drawback. Another neighbor whose house is even larger than Ilyinsky's wanted to cut down the oaks so they won't interfere with his power lines. And Ilyinsky's attempts to collect $200 from each neighbor to bring in gas service failed miserably.


Director of a national youth institute and a Communist Party member under the Soviet regime, Ilyinsky says he had money but chose not to build until a few year ago: "With the money I could have built several little houses, but I couldn't express myself."


Ilyinsky and his wife are finding that self-expression can be a lot of work. "Originally when we built this place, we thought we'd have the biggest house around," he says. "But now look. We just remodeled the kitchen, and we want to move the sauna outside, out of the basement."


The neighbors have noticed. "They look at us and they say, 'We have to build a patio, we have to hang the lights this way, we have to have a sauna like this,'" Svetlana Ilyinskaya says. "Where they beat us is in size. They like to come and say, 'You have such a nice little house. So cozy.'"


Some Russians say that envy of one's neighbor runs deeper in their culture than perhaps any other, and it can sometimes take extremes. "In America when someone builds something, their neighbors want to build something just like it," says Olga Turgeneva, 39, whose sprawling new house is the subject of much gossip now that her husband has a job with an American company in Moscow. "When Russians build something, their neighbors want to tear it down."


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