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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Out in the Suburbs

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Back when I was a schoolgirl, I read in a newspaper about affluent Parisians preferring to commute from the suburbs rather than live in Paris. I remember how surprised I was. What good is it living in the countryside?

You should not forget that back then we all knew that food supplies and amenities were found in Moscow only. It was hard to imagine that one could find similar stores outside of Paris as inside Paris, along with hot water and toilets. It was noted in the article, of course, that it was the pollution of the big capitalist city that drove people away.

These days, Moscow too is growing unfit for living (I get a headache immediately after returning from the country), and Muscovites too are looking for ways out. City suburbs have changed rapidly. Would it be fair to say that the Moscow region is living through its golden age? Or perhaps it is a golden age for some people and decay for the others?

During the past 15 years that I have been going to my dacha, so many things have changed there that it seems like going to another country. Following the money, supermarkets, gas stations, restaurants, clubs and motels are mushrooming, and roads are being repaired. Local "radio taxi" is emerging — only six months ago no one had heard of it in our area. This year, all cellular phone providers are waging advertising campaigns aimed at the suburbs. The Internet also is proliferating. In a poor village I saw recently a splendid house topped with a special satellite dish for Internet communication.

Life in Moscow's suburbs is cheaper, and services are cheaper too. Many well-off people have settled outside of town and send their children to the local kindergartens. The fee here is about 300 rubles ($10) per month — compared to up to 7,500 rubles in Moscow. The influx of "new children" has a positive effect on these kindergartens: Parents donate money and buy toys. Many elite schools are also located in the suburbs, but that is a separate story. Local kids usually don't go there.

The concept of suburban dwelling has changed too. In Soviet times, people usually brought their worst to the dacha. Old sofas, chairs, tables and cupboards no longer worthy to stay in the city apartment lived out the rest of their useful lives in wooden huts. Today's dachas are furnished in a different way. Even people of average income are trying to make their homes look nicer, especially since everything is available on the spot. There are plenty of furniture stores in Moscow's suburbs now, which carry better — and cheaper — furniture than in town. Then there are the construction materials markets. Plus, there are magazines dedicated to suburban development. They tell about interiors, furniture, gardening — you name it.

What I am describing here are no longer "dachas" in the old sense of the word. People don't come here to rest. They live here and come to Moscow to work. Many locals also work in Moscow. In the morning, both rich and poor commute to work — one group in imported cars, the other in overcrowded buses and trains.

Thanks to the economic upsurge in the suburbs, locals also gain something. But people are making money not as they used to. Mainly they work as, broadly speaking, servants. Some clean houses for wealthier neighbors, walk their children and wash their cars. Others are lucky enough to find a job in a more organized service sector.

Yet the sharp social contrast sparked by the suburban development generates mixed feelings. With changes obviously present everywhere, one can hardly speak about the development of the countryside.

Somewhere between a half and two thirds of cattle have been slaughtered. Although the law forbids turning agricultural land into dacha plots, it is done all the time. If there is a rich enough buyer, finding a legal loophole is not a problem. It is little surprise that so many rural people are afraid of complete privatization of the land. Dacha plots are much more expensive than agricultural land, but there will soon be no place to grow the crops, at least around major cities. If one day it turns out that one can live off farming once again, there will be no place to return. So far, the rural economy is still disintegrating, while a new, suburban type of economy based on construction and services comes into being. The village turns into an appendix to the dachas.

The relationship between dachniks and the "indigenous population" is sometimes akin to that between colonizers and aborigines. I know one family in the village. They live in a barracks — a long, one-story apartment building. Cold water only, the outhouse in the yard. The condition of the house is terrible. There is no prospect of getting better housing. A young woman, the mother of a little girl, lives alone. After the baby was born, her husband started to drink and doesn't help at all. Some time ago, she got a job at the laundry of an elite resort, a hard, low-wage job but one that is very easy to lose. She can be fired any day for a wrong word or misplaced question because there are plenty of people eager to take her place. And recently she told me a story that reminded me of elementary school lessons about the horrors of capitalism.

One guest sent a shirt to the laundry. After cleaning, it was covered with a white residue. The guest said the shirt's price was $400 and demanded that the guilty laundress pay the full amount. The woman, who earned about 2,000 rubles ($70) a month, had never seen that much money, so the entire staff had to chip in. When the guest was compensated for the shirt, the laundress was nonetheless fired.

Irina Glushchenko is a freelance journalist based in Moscow. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.