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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Oasis for Artists at Sokol Faces Oblivion

MTAn original village house with its low wooden fence. Each house had its own design.
To your right is Leningradsky Prospekt and the constant roar of the traffic, but on Ulitsa Shishkina all you can hear is a few birds and a distant hum. Standing in front of a sturdy wooden house you can imagine yourself in a village far outside Moscow.

That has always been the charm of the artists' village at Sokol. When it was built in 1923, the only way to get there from the center was on a horse and cart. And today, although it is only a few hundred meters from the metro, it still feels a vast distance and an age away from the bustle of modern Moscow.


Mike Solovyanov / MT

One of the new houses that has been built on the site of an original village building.

Built on the site of a medieval monastery, Sokol village was the quintessential Soviet experiment, a self-sufficient oasis for the intelligentsia.

Seizing on the idea of cooperative housing, promoted by the Soviet authorities after the 1918-1921 Civil War -- at a time when Moscow was in desperate need of housing -- a group of artists, bankers, academics and scientists had the idea of creating a village in the city. They believed that the village could become the model answer to the city's overcrowding problems.

Among them was Alexei Shchusev, the great Soviet architect who designed Lenin's tomb. Instead of simply sticking to the traditional design of a Russian village house, 116 different styles mushroomed. Each house is different, so that you can look at a Moroccan town house on Maly Peschany Pereulok and nearby find an American town house or a rugged wooden log cabin next door.

Trees and vegetation were carefully chosen and the 10 streets were designed to fan out from the village's central square, narrowing as they go on in a trompe l'oeil style.

However, the village fell out of the state's good books in the 1930s, facing much the same fate as Soviet-designed communal houses such as the Narkomfin building off Novinsky Bulvar. Dismissed as housing for the bourgeois, the village faced hostility from the authorities and the idea was never repeated.

The village has faced numerous attempts to destroy it in its history. A plan to knock it all down was thwarted in 1938, and in the 1980s there were attempts to build tower blocks on the village.

During perestroika, the village became autonomous of the city government, but that has not stopped the developers from trying to move in.

The last decade has seen the village's charm eroded -- activists and residents say -- by the arrival of wealthy householders who have knocked down old protected buildings and replaced them with cottages two or three times larger, complete with fences up to 3 meters high and guard dogs.

After people buy up the original houses -- prices start at $500,000 -- they are declared avariiny, or in disrepair, and knocked down to make way for new castle-like cottages.

Residents freely admit that many of the original village houses have gone decades without being repaired and are in a really poor state, but some question whether that means they should be condemned.

"They are ruining the village," said one local resident who has wandered around its streets for the last 20 years.

Building has intensified over the last year with work currently going on at three new sites.

"There is construction and noise all the time," said Marina Gromova, whose family has lived in the village since its beginning.

The village, which is by law protected as a listed monument, has so far lost close to a dozen of its original buildings to developers.

"The place is losing its beauty," said Vitaly Gudchinko, who lives on Ulitsa Vrubelya.

The head of the village council, Marina Rychagina, denied that the village was in danger but said that there were new buildings that should never have been built.

The village council together with GUOP, the city's department of preservation, gives approval for any building. Rychagina said that GUOP has restricted any new building to being no more than 30 percent larger than the original.

In theory, house owners are also not allowed to install fences higher than 1.8 meters and the fences should not be opaque. Most of the original houses have short, simple wooden fences rather than the metal and brick walls common among the new houses.

"What are they afraid of to live in such dungeons?" one resident asked.

One resident of a new cottage that replaced an original building on Ulitsa Shishkina said that even he regrets what is happening to the village.

"Look at that building," he said, pointing to a large red-brick creation, one of the first new buildings to go up and dubbed the "Pioneer Palace" by locals. "It's ugly."

Refusing to give his name but showing sympathy for the fate of the village and the local villagers, he said, "They suffer."

But he added that in Russia it wasn't the time for worrying about heritage. Local residents were like characters from Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," getting upset over the cutting down of an orchard, he said.

The Village Council at 1/8 Ulitsa Shishkina contains a small museum dedicated to the village. The museum is only open Tuesdays and Thursdays 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. and 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., respectively, although village workers will open it at other times if you ask nicely.