Washington Post: In Russia, summer homes have become a cause célèbre
By Philip P. Pan
Sunday, February 21, 2010
When the demolition crews showed up in Rechnik, a quaint district of summer homes on the banks of the Moscow River, Sergei Bobyshev threatened to unleash his pet leopard on them. Alexander Navrodsky vowed to set fire to his house and go down with it in flames. Other residents set up a barricade, and when police broke through, some lay down in the snow to stop the bulldozers.
The government pressed ahead with plans to clear the area for a park, confident in its time-tested ability to crush the protests of ordinary citizens. But a month has passed and, in a surprise, not only is this little neighborhood still kicking, but its cause has been embraced by the country as a David-and-Goliath struggle, pitting desperate homeowners against one of the nation's most powerful politicians.
The drama in Rechnik presents a vivid illustration of Russia's incomplete transition to capitalism. Despite nearly two decades of U.S.-backed market reforms since the fall of Communism, including a crash course in privatization, individual ownership of land in the world's largest country remains a tenuous proposition. But if property rights are weak in Russia, the outpouring of support for Rechnik has underscored the nation's growing devotion to a particular kind of property, and delivered an unexpected warning to those who call the shots in Vladimir Putin's increasingly authoritarian state:
Don't come between Russians and their dachas.
In the weeks since the first house fell, an unlikely cast has rallied to defend Rechnik, including Putin loyalists in the parliament and the prime minister's most ardent foes in the pro-democracy opposition, as well as prominent lawyers, extreme right-wing nationalists and the leader of a leftist youth movement. Journalists across the country have filed sympathetic reports, and even the tightly controlled nightly news has broadcast images of Rechnik's tearful residents.
With polls showing only 10 percent of the public backing the city authorities, and nearly 50 percent taking the residents' side, President Dmitry Medvedev intervened, too, warning against any attempt to turn the situation "into a kind of campaign." But he also ordered prosecutors to investigate the demolitions.
Some analysts say the Kremlin may be trying to sideline Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who is leading the charge to bulldoze Rechnik. At 73, he has governed the capital since 1992 and is one of the few politicians in the country with a strong local power base. Previous attempts to unseat him have failed, but he has never been portrayed as an enemy of the dacha before.
More than half of all Russians and perhaps two-thirds of Muscovites own a dacha, giving Russia one of the world's highest rates of second-home ownership. Some are stately manors on city outskirts, others just shacks in distant exurbs without heat or plumbing. Most are built on land allocated to Soviet-era workers for household gardening, which provided a critical supply of food during the shortages of the planned economy.
But as construction soared during the past decade, the dacha has taken on an almost mythic significance in the Russian mind. It is a place to escape the pressures of modern life, a way to get closer to nature, a haven for growing one's own vegetables -- a symbol of freedom, self-reliance and middle-class achievement all in one.
So word spread quickly among the 200 or so families with dachas in Rechnik when bulldozers were spotted near the neighborhood in mid-December. City officials had been pressuring them to move for nearly three years, cutting off water and power and accusing them of illegally occupying environmentally protected parkland.
The charge infuriates residents, most of whom have lived in Rechnik for decades. The settlement was established in 1956, when the Soviet government set aside the land for employees of the Moscow Canal, which connects the Moscow and Volga rivers. Only the socialist state could own land back then, but its institutions often distributed garden plots to workers to use in perpetuity.
"It was kind of a reward, for doing a good job, because there was a long waiting list," said Maria Gurlynina, 79, who was a telephone operator for the canal when she was given her plot. It was just barren sand then, but her family carted in soil, planted trees and flowers, and built a simple house that four generations have used as a summer retreat.
Now she lives in Rechnik year-round because she can't manage the stairs to her 17th-floor apartment. "I've been here 53 years. What would I do if they took the house away?" she asked, huddling over a stove in a shed that residents are using as a headquarters for their resistance campaign.
Luzhkov argues that residents were given the plots only for gardening, and that the city rezoned the neighborhood into a national park in 1998. Other officials have insisted that the dachas pose a threat to the ecology of the Moscow River.
Many residents suspect that the mayor's real motive is commercial, in part because his billionaire wife, Yelena Baturina, is one of the city's most successful real estate developers. "Just come back in five years, and you won't see any park here," said Konstantin Chinsnovych, 70, a retired engineer loading furniture from his dacha into a moving truck. "Instead, you'll find a country club or cottages for the wealthy."
Such suspicions have been fueled by the fact that a nearby neighborhood of luxury estates has escaped the city's wrath, even though it is also in the park zone. Rechnik's defenders point out that the community, named Fantasy Island, is home to top government officials, security service generals and business titans.
Some of the dachas in Rechnik might be described as mansions, but most are modest, cabinlike structures built by middle-class professionals who have benefited from Russia's oil-fueled growth during the past decade.
Their conflict with the city reached a boiling point in late January, when riot police broke through the barricade in a pre-dawn raid. Dozens of residents were tear-gassed, roughed up and detained, said Galina Shorokhova, 49, an interior designer who was dragged from her car when she rushed to the scene.
Court bailiffs pulled families out of their homes in temperatures approaching 45 degrees below freezing as the bulldozers moved in. In the weeks since, more than 20 dachas have been torn down. The first to fall was Boris Piskunov's, a wood-frame house built by his grandmother in the 1970s.
"It took just 10 minutes to destroy it," said Piskunov, 32, a manager at a gas-equipment firm, who watched as workers tossed his furniture out a window.
The laws governing land ownership in Russia are notoriously murky. While state factories were sold off in the 1990s, privatization of land was stymied by ideological debate. Today, though, bureaucrats who don't want to relinquish control of valuable real estate are the problem, said Dmitri Katayev, a former city legislator who helped draft the first post-Soviet property laws.
"I call it sabotage," he said, noting that Moscow residents have managed to claim ownership of only a tiny fraction of the city's land.
In 2006, Putin signed a "dacha amnesty" law that was supposed to make it easier for people to privatize garden plots allocated to them in the Soviet era. But the process has been so plagued by corruption that less than 10 percent of the land has been transferred, said Igor Yerdyakov, director of a national union of gardeners and dacha dwellers.
The Rechnik drama has resonated with people across the country fighting to save their own dachas from rapacious developers and officials, Yerdyakov said, adding, "We're getting 30 to 40 telegrams a day!"