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A Cottage Industry of Wealth

Old-timers in Russia grimace as the dacha goes upscale. Ownership is no longer a badge of loyalty and service, but of affluence.

August 20, 2005|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — It wasn't an easy way to find a nice spot for a country home, but it worked.

During the Nazi assault on Moscow, three Soviet airmen were shot down 25 miles north of the city. After parachuting to safety, they hiked out through a riverside forest of birch, pine and fir and rejoined the fight.

At war's end, the men were invited to a victory celebration with Josef Stalin, who asked them, "Guys, what do you want?" according to economist Gennady Lisichkin, who first heard the story a quarter of a century ago. "They said that in 1941 they were shot down and fell here," Lisichkin continued. "They said, 'If you could allow us, we'd like to build our summer dachas there.' So Stalin issued an order, and many famous pilots built dachas here."

Thus was born the Test Pilot compound, where Lisichkin has had a summer home for 25 years (scored through his father-in-law, a well-connected pilot) and counts five former cosmonauts as neighbors.

In Stalin's time, as in the time of the 18th century czars when the tradition began, the dacha was a privilege granted to the elite, a reward for loyalty and service. In fact, the name was derived from dat, the Russian verb "to give." Later, ordinary Russians got a piece of the action, building dachas of their own, often from scrounged materials.

Today, the beloved retreats are more sought after than ever by city folk across Russia. For many urban dwellers, they're the key to a treasured rural way of life reflecting the true Russian soul.

For others, old-timers mutter darkly, they're status symbols that have more to do with the high life than the simple life, as evidenced by the surging construction of dachas around this booming capital, with its rapidly growing middle class and wealthy upper crust.

The classic dacha, kept in the family for generations, was a place to escape the city's summer heat, to hunt mushrooms in the forest, to enjoy family life and to socialize with neighboring dachniki across picket fences or along dirt roads. Those on tight budgets grew large quantities of potatoes, onions and cucumbers and also canned pickles, jams and fruit for the long winter ahead.

A dacha can be a rough-hewn log cabin. It can resemble a peasant's home, displaying intricately carved decorative motifs from village architecture. It can be little more than a shack made of wood or brick leftovers from construction sites. Leaders such as Stalin or Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev used spacious dachas, typically built of wood, that boasted elegance inside but still showed some respect for rustic traditions.

These days, some so-called New Russians, wealthy from the often-corrupt division of Soviet state assets, build palatial three-story dachas surrounded by high brick walls with corner watchtowers, more medieval fortress than cozy cabin.

The ostentatiously rich are decidedly unpopular with old-timers.

"Nobody knows who they are. There's nothing to talk about with them," Lisichkin said dismissively of a family that built a fancy brick mansion on a lot it bought in the no-longer-restricted Test Pilot compound.

A luxury dacha even plays the starring role in Russia's biggest political drama this summer: Prosecutors have accused former Prime Minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov, a potential opposition presidential candidate, of illegally privatizing a heavily wooded lakefront villa that was once government property.

Prosecutors deny any political motivation, but critics say authorities decided to go after Kasyanov to ensure that he would not enter the 2008 race.

Another drama also has made headlines in these peak-of-summer days as authorities engage in high-profile confrontations with dozens of dacha owners to enforce court rulings against alleged illegal construction in nature protection zones. Three people reportedly were hurt in one clash as owners tried to block demolition.

From his vantage point as a renter in Peredelkino, a Soviet-era dacha compound for writers nestled in a forest at the southwestern edge of Moscow, poet Yury Kublanovsky sees how the dacha world is changing.

Kublanovsky, 58, a onetime dissident who spent 1982 to 1990 in exile working for U.S.-funded Radio Liberty in Paris and Munich, Germany, has been renting his dacha since 1992. But recently, he said, two-thirds of his once-spacious yard was turned over to two millionaires, who built fancy villas on the land.

Asked how he felt about that, this man who had worked to bring down Soviet communism replied with a straight face and apparent sincerity, "I have a feeling of class hatred."

Kublanovsky, who heads the poetry section of the Novy Mir literary journal, may be bitterly disappointed in what capitalism has meant for Russia, but that doesn't mean he's nostalgic for the Soviet system.

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