Russians focus on garden plots, not Kremlin plots

Each morning in early May, Svetlana Nikolskaya scanned the horizon, kicked the ground, and walked away in disgust.

"Cabbages are tough, but when you plant parsley and dill you can't take chances with the cold," she says after deciding to finally till her garden, roughly the size of a baseball infield, last weekend.

Not that she had much choice. Ms. Nikolskaya is an academic researcher, not a farmer, and was due back at work Tuesday after a long Russian holiday.

Nor is raising vegetables her hobby. Like millions of Russians - who care little about the impeachment of Boris Yeltsin or the Yugoslav war - Nikolskaya depends more than ever on what she grows to feed her family.

"It's only here that a cold snap or snowstorm on a spring holiday can have dire economic effects for the whole country," she jokes.

"But really, we cannot do without what we grow here. It's a serious business," she adds.

Nikolskaya received the 720-square-yard plot of land near the city of Odintsovo, southwest of Moscow, about 12 years ago through her workplace, the Institute of Far Eastern Studies. A few years later she was allowed to privatize it - which doesn't imply full ownership but gives her greater security of possession - and now dreams of earning enough money to build a little dacha, or cottage, on it one day.

According to the independent Russian Center for Public Opinion, 41 percent of Russian families possess some sort of dacha, or at least a vegetable garden, with an estimated 1 million of them in the Moscow region alone.

A dacha can mean anything from a lavish villa to a tiny shack. A staggering number of them are serious units of production as well as weekend getaways. It's hard to pin down statistics, but experts venture that as much as 40 percent of all food consumed in Russia may be home grown.

If Nikolskaya had been better placed in the old Soviet elite she might have ended up with a place in Barvikha, a dacha community of top scientists, writers, and political officials.

Yevgeny Primakov, the former prime minister fired Wednesday by President Yeltsin, has a modest brick home on one of Barvikha's birch- and fir-lined streets. And Yeltsin himself has been spending more and more time these days taking treatment at the Barvikha Sanatorium, less than a mile away.

But the mood here is little better than it is on Nikolskaya's open field down the road. Many of the exalted figures of the old Soviet Union, particularly scientists and artists, are poor as church mice in today's social order. They nowadays glance anxiously at the sky and worry about their carrots, tomatoes, and greens.

It's not only abysmal weather that makes them feel threatened. In recent years "New Russians," the nouveaux riches, have been moving noisily into Barvikha.

"We had a peaceful community of cultured people. Suddenly here they are with their big jeeps and ugly houses," says Gari Busurin, a retired mathematician.

Mr. Busurin happens to be my family's landlord. A few years ago he gave up half of his land to a wealthy banker who built him a comfortable two-story brick home in return. Busurin rents us a small wooden cottage and says he manages on the income. But he's not happy. The banker built a huge three-story villa surrounded by a high brick wall on his half of the land. Just down the street, another New Russian has constructed a giant turreted monstrosity that resembles a medieval castle.

Longtime locals are especially upset about the "Afghan village." A decade ago the Soviet government donated a large field just outside Barvikha to construct dachas for veterans of the Afghan war. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, land prices in Barvikha shot up and the veterans quickly sold out.

The field is now chockablock with garish brick mansions set so close together that the overall effect is more like an amusement park than a community of dwellings.

"I don't understand these new people at all," says Busurin. "They couldn't have made their money by using their minds, or they'd have more imagination than to crowd into the tiny space of Barvikha like this. Their only idea is to imitate the old elite, to get that Barvikha address."

At least Busurin still has enough space to grow his favorite crop: strawberries. When the weather improves, that is.

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