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The oasis that Lenin built

A village in the midst of Moscow's noise and humanity is a national monument, sheltered from developers. But for how long?

August 26, 2007|Alex Rodriguez | Chicago Tribune

MOSCOW — To the rest of Moscow, it must seem like a mirage.

Front yards. Clean sidewalks. Tot lots that don't make mothers' hearts skip a beat. And houses. Not the drab, soulless apartment blocks that fill every corner of Russia's capital, but real houses -- the kind you might find in an American suburb.

This is Sokol, a Lenin-era experiment in urban planning that somehow survived Moscow developers and their voracious appetite for every last square inch of prime real estate.

Here, kids ride bikes down tree-lined side streets undisturbed by Moscow's noxious gridlock. Mothers push strollers over footbridges and past backyards scented with roses, phlox and peonies.

"On the next street over, there's a noisy, busy city. And here, just a few meters away, it's completely different," said Yelena Kheyfits, 53, a Sokol homeowner for 15 years. "It's like heaven."

To understand the wondrous oddity that Sokol is, first you have to understand what it is not. Moscow is a sea of concrete boxes: 12- and 15-story Soviet-built apartment buildings; squat, five-story Khrushchevka flats left over from Nikita Khrushchev's era; and latter-day luxury behemoths that house the city's post-Soviet wealth.

Rush hour in Moscow can be 8 a.m. or 11 a.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. A gray haze often hangs heavy over the capital. In a country caught in the throes of a population meltdown, Moscow is one of the few places that gets more crowded each year.

In the middle of all this noise and humanity lies Sokol, 106 houses and 425 people nestled in a thicket of woods five miles northwest of the Kremlin.

Situated on 59 acres along the busy Volokolamskoye Shosse, Sokol would have been devoured by developers long ago if it weren't for its designation as a national monument. Now overseen by a council roughly akin to a homeowners association, Sokol enjoys a measure of autonomy from Moscow, enforcing rigorous bylaws that discourage meddling with the village's look and feel.

That's not to say that Sokol homeowners feel entirely secure.

"We know we live in Russia, where at any time some rich guy can bribe the authorities and nullify our monument status," said Mikhail Rychagov, chairman of the Sokol village council. "He would buy all of it, and that would be that."

Bolshevik leader Vladimir I. Lenin ordered the construction of Sokol in 1921 as an experimental alternative to cramped housing in the capital. Leading Soviet architects designed the houses in styles that included everything from Cossack log cabins to English cottages. Sokol's first residents were high-ranking Soviet bureaucrats, factory managers and artists.

Back then, Sokol was outside Moscow's city limits. As the city grew, it surrounded Sokol with apartment blocks that towered over the village's bucolic lanes and parkways.

In the 1980s, Moscow authorities said they lacked money to sustain Sokol and threatened to demolish the village. Sokol survived by forming a village council that took over responsibility for providing water and maintaining the infrastructure of local utilities.

Today, Sokol is a mix of families that have been here for generations and wealthy businesspeople seeking refuge from the din of the capital. Land in Sokol is pricey even by Moscow's standards; a quarter of an acre costs $300,000, Rychagov says.

Anyone interested in buying has to pass muster with the village council, which has strict rules about what can be built in Sokol and how. Homeowners who want to renovate must get council permission first, and they cannot change the house's facade.

Kheyfits and her husband, Igor, bought a building in Sokol in 1992, then got council permission to raze it and built a two-story, red-brick house. She often gets leaflets in her mailbox with offers to buy.

"I cannot imagine parting with this house," Kheyfits said. "It's very green here, very comfortable and convenient. It's a little village in the middle of a busy city. My friends who visit are always amazed by the atmosphere here."

The only disquieting aspect about living in Sokol is this question: How long can it last?

"We're all very concerned," said Maria Zhukova, Rychagov's wife and an economist. "We all know that land is very expensive in Moscow and that it's much more lucrative to build an apartment building than to preserve this village. We just don't know what may happen."

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