Cabin Fever in Russia- page 1 | Travel | Smithsonian

Cabin Fever in Russia

As Muscovites get rich on oil, dachas , the rustic country houses that nourish the Russian soul , get gaudy

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Turn off the Rublyevsky highway 12 miles west of Moscow, negotiate two unmarked lanes, say the right name at the unmarked gate and a guard with a Kalashnikov will wave you expressionlessly through. Eight freshly built houses are nestled among the summer pines, all of them, from the looks of it, as grand as the one owned by my friend Alexander (he asked me not to use his real name)—a ten-room, three-level affair with a sauna in the basement, a heated pool steaming in the backyard, minimalist blob-art in the capacious living room, and jazz tinkling off a state-ofthe- art stereo system.

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Dinner on the poolside patio is caviar and sturgeon, barbecued king prawns the size of turkey legs, sparkling wine and cognac. The talk is of skiing at Chamonix, duck hunting in Argentina, the relative merits of top-model Audis versus BMWs and, of course, real estate. Alexander, his wife, Olga, and their dozen guests are architects, developers and brokers in a Moscow market that has risen 40 percent over the past year. They are bent on enjoying the moment.

 

Welcome to the “Rublyevka,” a ten-mile stretch of road that is coming to symbolize the country grandeur that the wealthiest Russians seem to prize above all else these days, as well as the outlandish consumption that the less fortunate so resent. Drive past billboards for 24-hour sushi delivery and antiques shops and croissant nooks where village markets stood only two years ago, and play the favorite local game of Guess-Whose-Dacha (rhymes with gotcha).

The turreted palaces built next door to each other by Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, former major shareholders of oil giant Yukos and now Russia’s best-known prison inmates, are no secret. But the identity of their next occupant is. Some say the yellow stone monstrosity looming out of the trees a few miles away belongs to Pavel Grachev, post-Soviet Russia’s first defense minister. Others reckon the owner is a retired head of the GAI (Gosavtoinspektsia), Russia’s sticky-fingered highway police.

Traffic along the two-lane Rublyevka, where Soviet leaders from Lenin to Yeltsin enjoyed the great outdoors undisturbed by the teeming masses, has grown hellish. Land goes for about $600,000 an acre. No one can be sure, in the chaos of frantic overdevelopment, whether the well they drill for water won’t hit somebody else’s plumbing. But with Russia’s oil-stoked economy growing at 7 percent a year, none of that seems to matter. New neighbors pour in daily to fill up the tracts hawked as “SilverRiver” or “Tall Pines.”

“This is Beverly Hills,” says Olga Kozyreva, manager of the Credit Bank of Moscow’s newly minted Rublyevka branch, which tempts customers with credit cards for children as young as 6. “The best of everything in our country is here.”

Americans reflexively think of $50-a-barrel oil as enriching Arab sheiks. But Russia is the world’s second biggest crude exporter after Saudi Arabia, earning close to $300 million a day at current prices. To those catching the trickles of this fortune, stock markets and even bank accounts are newfangled, dangerous inventions. Fixing up the dacha is something they have gone to with a vengeance.

Millions of urban Soviet families got some sort of country plot from the state, a retreat where they could relax in dense northern woods thick with mushrooms and raspberries in summer and fairy tale snowdrifts in winter. The prime areas west of Moscow, where the MoskvaRiver is still swimmable and prevailing winds blow toward the pollution of the metropolis, were doled out according to rank: Central Committee and Academy of Sciences members on the Rublyevka, generals and Bolshoi Theater performers along the Kiev Highway. All but the grandest dachas were little more than cabins, where water had to be hauled by hand in a bucket and heat came from a wood-burning stove.

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