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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Urban Group Dreams of Eco-Friendly Settlement

For MTRodnoye members painting a building for their self-sufficient ecovillage on the former collective farm in the Vladimir region.
Canning vegetables, stewing jams, eking a potato crop from the recalcitrant northern soil -- these and other joys of dacha life are almost a Russian birthright. At least, they are during the summer months, when city slickers crowd train stations and highways impatient to trade urban grime for a dacha garden.

Some environmentalists are taking the dacha idea a step further. They are forming small self-sufficient communities in the countryside where they can live in tune with nature year-round.

Their so-called ecovillages are not always welcomed by the local administrators though, as one group, Rodnoye, discovered when it tried to create an environmentally friendly settlement in the Vladimir region.

Rodnoye's 10 members, mostly young Muscovites in their late 20s and early 30s, say the idea of creating an ecovillage on land abandoned by a collective farm was greeted with derision by the local authorities. At best, the authorities said the project would not be solvent; at worst, they called the villagers members of a cult.

Nevertheless, Russian history and literature are rich with ideas similar to Rodnoye's. Until the 1917 Revolution, 90 percent of the population lived in rural villages, and in the late 19th century, a revolutionary group of urban intellectuals called Going to the People pressed for a "return to the land."

Rodnoye's members say they were inspired to set up an ecovillage by reading environmentalist Vladimir Megre's popular novels. His tales of a rural life in Siberia have sold more than 3 million copies since the first title in a series of six appeared in 1996.

"At first when people started reading his books, they were excited, and wanted to meet and talk about them. Now, many people realize that it is not just enough to talk about these ideas. They have to turn them into reality and move to an ecovillage," said Marina Semyonova, a Rodnoye member.

The ecovillage movement has been growing in tandem with the country's environmental movement over the past 10 years, said Leonid Sharashkin, who studies ecovillages as economic program coordinator at the World Wildlife Fund.

Sharashkin said 400 communities now operate ostensibly as ecovillages, some with just two to three people in a settlement and others with more than 200 families, like the religious leader Vissarion's Tiberkul settlement in Krasnoyarsk. The most well-established villages are Grishino outside St. Petersburg and Kitezh in the Kaluzhskaya region, which both stress environmental practices over religion.

"The potential of the ecovillage movement is much greater in Russia than in Europe or the United States because the tradition of simple rural living is still germane to the nation," Sharashkin said.

But even the more advanced villages in Russia fall short of the environmental standards set by their counterparts in the West, where settlers generate their own energy from windmills or solar power, Sharashkin said.

"There are no ecovillages in Russia if what you mean by ecovillages is a completely self-sufficient community," Sharashkin said. "What we understand by ecovillage here is a rural community that provides for itself and doesn't destroy the environment.

"But that doesn't mean that there are not any communities that are aspiring and striving -- here in Russia especially, rural lifestyles are such an attractive and necessary alternative to urban living."

Semyonova and Alexei Korelin are one young couple hoping to leave the city behind. They live across the street from a factory belching smoke in southern Moscow and both say they feel trapped.

They want to purchase land in Rodnoye's Vladimir community, which still needs 46 more members to fill the 56-plot space.

Semyonova said the group is not worried about attracting more settlers -- that is, if they can get their land.

In March 2001, Rodnoye purchased 77 hectares of land for 10,000 rubles per individual plot from villagers in the former collective farm AOZT Ilino near the town of Kolyayeva. Since then, another claimant has stepped forward with a deed for the former farm, and the two have gone to court. On Oct. 11, the local Sudogorod court canceled Rodnoye's earlier transaction with the villagers but has still not awarded the land to any other claimant.

"A year ago it was not hard to buy land, but now it is very difficult," said Rodnoye member Anatoly Molchanov. "The administration has recognized that the land is valuable, and now you have to pay money at every step of the process."

Molchanov said the other claimant plans to build permanent houses for workers resettling from the Far North, an idea that is more acceptable to the authorities because they understand it.

"No one understands wanting to move from the city out into the country," he said.

Rodnoye members say that they'll fight to repurchase this specific piece of land because some of them have already started building homes and there is an existing road and access to power lines.

Until that unspecified point in the future, though, Rodnoye members live in Moscow but pine for the trees.