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The Road to Riches and Ruin

You'll find $800 pens and luxury cars, decrepit homes and desperate pensioners along a highway that epitomizes post-Soviet Russia.

October 20, 2006|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Tired travelers heading downtown after arriving at Sheremetyevo 1 airport probably don't pay much attention to the village-style wooden houses, set behind picket fences and painted in fading shades of green and blue, that line the busy highway.

One home on the down-at-the-heels stretch of road is where Viktor Zhivin, a 71-year-old retired road worker, was born and grew up. The roof has collapsed over one corner of the house, making half of it uninhabitable. There is no running water, no plumbing, no central heating or piped-in gas, and in winter Zhivin's family burns coal in a stove to fight the bitter cold.

"It's like we're lost in Siberia," he said. "The only advantage is, shops are close. But you need money to go to shops."

Capitalism has transformed Moscow over the last decade, but Zhivin and many others think they have been left breathing exhaust fumes. To make the bumper-to-bumper drive from the countryside near the airport to Moscow's city center is to take a 21-mile tour of the haves and have-nots, a highway as microcosm of the nation.

The route starts out at open fields and birch forests, passes poor rural homes more fitting for a dying mountain village than Europe's largest city, and ends with some of the most expensive shops in the world just a few hundred feet from the Kremlin.

"The road from Sheremetyevo into Moscow is like a symbol of all processes underway in Russia," said Igor Korolkov, a commentator with Novaya Gazeta newspaper. "As you drive along this road into town, you can read it like a book with very vivid and distinct pictures -- pictures of abject poverty and excessive wealth, the appalling stratification of society which is getting deeper and deeper."

Zhivin's and his wife's pensions total $290 a month, and like millions of Russians left out of the new prosperity, they are bitter about being so poor amid so much ostentatious consumption.

"How can our life be called normal?" said Zhivin's wife, Alexandra, tears welling in her eyes. "For us it has changed for the worse. There's nothing good for us in the changes. The only chance we have for something good is after they take us away feet first."

Despite frenetic development and the refurbishing of old buildings across much of the Russian capital, this patch of rural poverty hasn't been bulldozed because long-term plans for building something else have not gotten off the ground.

Decades ago, communist authorities "wouldn't allow us to build better houses -- not even better outhouses," Zhivin said. "They kept telling us our village was going to be torn down."

In 1996, five years after the Soviet Union's collapse, Moscow officials met with residents and showed them plans for an elite residential development.

"They said they would relocate us to apartments in Moscow, and they would build houses for richer people on this land," Zhivin said. "That's how they explained why they weren't providing us with tap water and gas. We complained many times. 'We don't have this. We don't have that.' And they said, 'Look, your village will be demolished. That's why you don't have it.' "

Two miles toward downtown from the decrepit Zhivin home stand two landmarks: a memorial marking the spot where the Nazis were stopped in their 1941 assault on Moscow, and behind it a huge shopping complex that's a free-market mecca to the city's emerging middle class.

The Mega Mall boasts a year-round ice-skating rink, a 12-screen theater complex, more than 200 small to medium-sized shops, and five large stores, including an IKEA and an outpost of the French supermarket chain Auchan so big it has lines for 90 cashiers.

Zhivin has a connection with both landmarks: His father died in the battle to defend Moscow, and his grandson works at Auchan.

"This was the main battle front. I remember how soldiers came here and took positions around our house and inside our house, and slept in our house," said Zhivin, who as a 6-year-old stayed at the family home throughout the fighting. "I remember when the planes came and bombed, and the soldiers took us into shelters."

Continuing toward downtown from the war memorial, the highway is home to a string of foreign automobile dealerships: Toyota, Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Ford, Mazda, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover. There are three McDonald's outlets along this strip, an Imax theater and a Ramstore supermarket, part of a Turkish chain.

In this area the road is known as the Leningrad Highway because in the opposite direction it leads from Moscow to that city, once again called by its czarist-era name, St. Petersburg. From the airport into Moscow, the highway is eight or 10 lanes for much of its length, but traffic moves slowly, partly because there are many crossroads and stoplights.

Moving toward downtown, the wealth level escalates. Mercedes-Benz, for example, is closer to the city center than the other automobile dealerships.

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