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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Village in Sokol Hangs On to Its Country Life

MTSokol's Ulitsa Surikova looks more like a country lane than a metropolitan street.
Once the jewel of the cooperative housing movement and a self-sufficient oasis of the early Soviet intelligentsia, the Sokol artists' settlement has been purged, bombed and, for the past decade, left to fend for itself without a penny from City Hall.

The setting is nothing short of a fairy tale. Hidden behind the lofty apartment blocks of the Sokol region, the settlement's 112 cottages sit on a small patch of country lost in the big city. In 1979, the village was declared an architectural monument to Soviet-era town planning.

At the start of the 1920s, Moscow, blighted by wars and revolution, was in dire need of housing. The city had swollen with the workers drafted to grease the cogs of industrialization. To ease the crunch, Vladimir Lenin signed legislation permitting the formation of housing cooperatives. The members of these cooperatives, or the factories or institutions for which they worked, put up the money for construction.

The pioneering and comparatively affluent members of the "Sokol" cooperative set their sights higher than mere apartment blocks. Their village was part of a project penned by the architect responsible for designing Lenin's mausoleum and Sokol resident Alexei Shchusev, who envisaged a ring of "garden towns" around the capital as a solution to overcrowding.

Contributions were higher than other cooperative projects, and Sokol attracted highly placed trade union officials, scientists, academics and, of course, artists. Their canvas, in 1923, was a desolate patch of land cleared of trees by hurricane-force winds years before.

The buildings were built in strict adherence to the latest philosophies on spatial harmony using experimental and cost-effective new materials. Trees and vegetation were carefully selected down to the last shrub.

None of the houses look the same. On Ulitsa Surikova -- all the streets are named after Russian artists -- a cottage in the style of the Vologda region stands next to a group of brick homes of an early American design.

The further from the central square one walks, the narrower the streets become creating a trompe l'oeil illusion of distance. In reality, none of the streets are much longer than 500 meters.

Sergei Tserevitinov, a scientist and historian who has lived in the village since 1931, recalls how his parents, along with other pioneering residents, would "relax" in the evenings by working on their homes and surrounding land.

The list of influential Sokol residents is impressive both in terms of sheer numbers and their achievements. The village was home to retired tsarist generals, Heroes of Labor and the breeder of an internationally acclaimed strain of lilac.

With gifted residents such as these, Sokol was hit hard by Stalin's purges in the late '30s. "Many of the founders of the village were arrested," Tserevitinov says.

The character of the village was transformed. Buildings were nationalized and the empty cottages of Enemies of the People were turned into communal apartments.

And with the outbreak of war, the village was to suffer still more. On their return from firebombing the capital, Nazi planes took the glass panes of the settlement's greenhouses for a military target.

When the residents of the village were granted limited self-government in 1991, it seemed that they had won back a certain amount of the independence they had enjoyed before the purges.

One of the village council's most important achievements has been to repair five non-residential properties in the village. Abandoned for many years, the premises have been leased to private companies, providing much-needed funds to bolster the council's shoestring budget.

Speaking from his Spartan office near the village square, Pyotr Gromov, a gnarled WWII tank commander and chairman of the village council, praises the settlement's self sufficiency.

"We're like a little Zhek," he says, referring to the housing maintenance administration offices, which are responsible for providing maintenance services in each district from money allocated in the city budget. "All the money we have goes only toward our settlement. We change the gas pipes and do all the repairs for free."

But village properties have become highly desirable real estate and squabbles over ownership rights with the Sokol administration and the Moscow Property Committee arise constantly.

"The war for our rights goes on daily," Tserevitinov says.

Up against market forces, the village's storybook looks might be the first to go. A multi-story apartment block is slated to go up on the settlement's perimeter. Wealthy businessmen are tearing down decaying wooden cottages to plow their money into brick fortresses surrounded by 3-meter metal fences. "Dead capital" as Tserevitinov puts it.

Mikhail Rygachev, Gromov's deputy, clearly hankers after the community's rose-tinted past. "After the hurricane in 1998, we cleaned the place up in a single day, everyone pulled together, everyone got stuck in. We even helped the local police to move fallen trees. Come Sunday everything was clear," he said.