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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No more. Muscovites from all economic strata have scrimped through the post-Soviet period to add gas heat, indoor plumbing and other amenities to their houses. The wealthier among them have torn down the old cabins or consigned them to their nannies and bodyguards while throwing up palaces. “Our people’s taste still tends to the monumental,” observes Gary Onanov, a burly Georgian builder who has put up 150 houses in the west-of-Moscow arc of prosperity. “I try to sell them prefab Scandinavian houses for $150,000. But they want thick stone walls and a garage for five cars.”

As the supply of Soviet-era lots has dwindled, gated communities known as cottage villages have become prized, even though they often sacrifice the traditional dacha’s forested charm. The “Piney Grove” subdivision off the Rublyevka is pitched in a barley field without a tree in sight, its $1.5 million stone mansions virtually peering into each other’s windows from Levittown-size lots. But developers say the villages are all about exclusivity. “Alot of the appeal is living in a unified social layer,” says Sergei Tsyvin, sales director at Moscow’s Inkom Real Estate. “Aperson can feel at peace knowing there’s no one around either looking up or looking down at him.”

Most of the labor for Moscow’s dacha renaissance comes from outside Russia, as itinerants from all corners of the ex- USSR hope to earn enough from the summer building season to scrape through a winter of unemployment back home. Hammers start singing at sunup as the shadow labor brigades tumble out of makeshift quarters in their employer’s shed or on a back porch, simultaneously saving money and dodging any police who might ask for working papers. Dacha owners, for their part, make a parlor sport out of debating the work habits of various nationalities. “I had these two Moldovans here who turned out to be a teacher and a biologist, so naturally they couldn’t do a thing with their hands,” says Elena Smirnova (not her real name), who sold her Moscow apartment last year and sank the funds into rebuilding her family dacha off the Kiev road. “Then I found a Tajik who was golden. Mind you, though, some Tajiks will just lean on their shovels and stare into space.”

Yet those tempted to see the stereotypical mix of oligarchs, bandits and corrupt bureaucrats piggishly flaunting their illgotten gains ought to look again. Those at the unsavory apex of the ex-Soviet pyramid built their country manors back in the wild 1990s. Newer money, like Alexander and Olga’s, comes from entrepreneurs and other professionals who have driven Moscow’s astonishing transformation over the past decade from a desolate central-planning barracks to a vibrant 24-hour European capital with world-class amenities and style. “The person who is earning a lot of money today is an interesting and intelligent person,” says Gary Onanov. “It’s a restaurant owner who started out not long ago with a shish kebab stand.”

And hot on their heels is a bona fide middle class. The average price for a house in a cottage village has already dropped to $500,000, broker Tsyvin says, as “people realize that [7,500 square feet] is really a bit large for a family of four or five.” The figure will fall further, he predicts, as builders turn to pent-up demand for “economy class” homes starting around $200,000.

How many Muscovites can afford a country retreat at that price in a nation without mortgage financing? Statistics are unreliable with declared income still a novelty, but brokers say the number is surely in the hundreds of thousands.

All the same, only at their peril do the dacha elite forget that they take their ease atop a volcano known as Russia in its still-wrenching transition out of communism. Beyond the lights of Moscow, many families do live on the official per capita income of $200 a month and are inclined to see even a mini-fortune of $200,000 as having been stolen from their common socialist pot during the rigged bidding of early capitalism. No one on the Rublyevka expects that rage to erupt in a new 1917. But almost everyone knows it is out there.

“People stick to the Rublyevka and other luxury districts not only for prestige but for safety,” says Gary Onanov. “You could buy all the land you want [60 miles] from Moscow. But then when you go to work one day, the neighbors will come and burn your lovely dacha down.”

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