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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Regal Dreams of Splendor in Tiny Klimov House

KLIMOV, Central Russia -- On the outside, it's just another wooden house like hundreds of thousands in small Russian towns, decorated with carved latticework around the windows and surrounded by apple and cherry trees on a dusty street.

But inside, it's a dream. Vladimir Akulov's dream of regal splendor, to be precise.

Here, there is none of the usual dark wood of rural Russian homes, or the cheap veneer furniture, the typical worn glass case holding chipped tea sets, the rickety chairs. Over the past 20 years, Akulov has fashioned gilt sofas, Empire-style tables, ornate mirrors, rococo reliefs, an inlaid floor f all by hand. The walls are covered with silk. Paintings of nude nymphs look down from the ceilings. Inside, Akulov's place is a palace.

"This is my private Hermitage. But of course it's open to the public," Akulov says, as if it's the most usual thing in the world to replicate a piece of Russia's grandest palace in a little house in a town whose last prominent visitors were invading Nazis.

"It is good to leave a life without regret; if you have an idea you ought to realize it," said Akulov, 70, a carpenter and former cooper.

The idea for Akulov's Hermitage came to him during a visit to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, built by Catherine as part of the Winter Palace. A kind of Italian palazzo on steroids, the real Hermitage is full of gold-encrusted arcades and rooms of gleaming furniture, the more intricate the better. It houses one of the world's largest art collections.

Akulov said he had visions during his visit that enabled him to predict what he would see from room to room. He made sketches. "I looked at the gold ribbons on the wall. I said, 'Why do I have to put up with dirty walls and old wallpaper?'" he recalled. "'Why do I have to have an ugly house?'"

At home, he first carved a cornucopia relief for the ceiling, then a couple of chairs, then a big divan. He worked only in winter; summertime is for tending cucumbers. He persuaded a friend to paint some ceiling pictures f some of the bare-breasted subjects are copied from the Hermitage; one is from a gallery in Dresden, Germany. Akulov's latest project is a big mirror adorned with gold roses and lots of swirls. The gold leaf is paint; Akulov can't afford the real thing.

During Soviet times, Akulov said he had political difficulties because of his insistence on carving cherubs into some tables. "Communists thought it was a shame to create angels," he said. "I left the party."

Akulov also had trouble with the law because of a motorcycle accident in which a pedestrian was hurt. He saidhe was framed, but neighbors said he fled the scene. He was sentenced to four years in prison, although he served only a year and a half. In prison, he honed his carving skills, turning out reliefs of Stalin for the warden.

Akulov's house has become a tourist attraction, the only one anybody knows of in this central Russian outpost, halfway between Moscow and Kiev.

Inevitably, there are critics. Standouts in small Russian towns are often frowned upon. Akulov's neighbor, Anatoly Fesura, for instance, says he has never visited the local Hermitage. "My wife ordered a bookshelf from him, and he delivered one I could have built myself," he said with some hostility. The fact that Akulov owns 10 noisy dogs also is a bother, he said.

A passer-by named Lyudmila said she had visited Akulov's house but found it not to her taste. "A home should look more like a home, not a museum," she said. "The Hermitage should be in the Hermitage."