Backstory: Muscovites move to the suburbs

In a mass move to the suburbs, Moscow residents turn dachas into year-round homes, altering the culture of the countryside.

It's a cryogenically cold night, and I'm nearly finished writing a major story. Suddenly the lights dim with an ominous buzz. The alarm on my computer's backup battery screeches. Then, with barely time to click "save," the screen flickers out. No point in switching it on again till morning. Another night of work succumbs to Russia's mercurial maze of electric lines.

Welcome to suburbia, Russia's chaotic new frontier, where local infrastructure is often just a suggestion, the simplest home construction can take years, and the roads are clotted with traffic. Several years ago our family decided to move to Nov permanently from smog-choked Moscow – only six miles but a universe away from this forested dacha village of 250 households. Despite some anxious adventures, we haven't regretted it for a moment.

Thousands of Muscovites are making the same, once-forbidden, leap from cramped city flats to the open country. They are throwing up an astonishing variety of new housing at a rate unseen since, perhaps, America's mass migration to suburbia in the 1950s. So far it's only an option for Moscow's well-heeled residents, who can afford the huge hassles involved. But polls suggest that millions more would follow if only they could.

"People dream of a family home on an individual plot of land, in a nonurban setting, with fresh air," says Gerald Gaige, a real estate consultant with Ernst & Young in Moscow. "Now those choices are opening up for those who can afford it, and it's developing fast."

For us it was the preternatural quiet, the soaring pines, and what appeared to be a convenient commute into Moscow. We'd long been using my wife's family's little wooden cottage in Nov, a dacha settlement near the agricultural village of Razdori on the Uspenskoye Highway. It was the traditional summer getaway, a brief escape to a pre-Soviet rural existence, and, the place to put down a vegetable garden to supplement the family diet.

In the late '90s, we made the move almost imperceptibly, extending the summer weekends at the dacha before reluctantly trundling up cats and kids for the return to our cramped Moscow apartment. About five years ago we began building a two-story brick-and-stucco house, which now towers over our wooden dacha like a steamship tied up next to a rowboat. That would have been illegal in Soviet days, when dachas were limited to a couple of rooms, and any attempt to live permanently in the country could lead to confiscation of a family's city apartment.

We'd imagined enjoying the old dacha life year-round. But many of our neighbors had similar ideas. Inexorably, a paved-over urban look is creeping in, complete with traffic, construction cranes, and even the occasional whiff of smog.

Nov has lately burgeoned with new homes in a wild variety of sizes and styles, planted among the modest old dachas. One neighbor, Galina, is a pensioner whose tiny wooden dacha seems preserved in formaldehyde. At this time of year, it is surrounded by rows of cabbages, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, and potatoes, which she tends tirelessly. More typical nowadays is Andrei, a Moscow businessman, who was recently overheard bragging of spending $30,000 to landscape the grounds of his new, three-story brick home.

A few superwealthy "New Russians" have bought up blocks of territory from older residents. Our tiny village now boasts two enormous, walled villas, whose anonymous owners come and go in convoys of armored limousines.

"We don't have much sense of community here anymore," says Adrian Rudomino, a former Soviet official who has summered in Nov since 1926 and is writing a history of the district. "The old dachniks [dacha residents] are hostile to the rich newcomers, who return the unfriendliness."

All along the Uspenskoye Highway, gated communities for Russia's oil-lubricated new rich have sprouted on open farmland. Due to soaring land prices, even the wealthy are compelled to live cheek-by-jowl in their fortified communities of garish homes – neo-Georgian mansions, French chateaux, and Dracula-style castles. But for them, the suburban option is still preferable to buying real estate in downtown Moscow, where a small one-bedroom apartment costs about $500,000.

For Russia's struggling middle class, the best hope for acquiring a suburban home may be to build upon an existing dacha, as we have. Some 4 million Muscovites – almost half the population – possess some sort of rural land plot within 125 miles of the city. That's a legacy of Soviet times, when allotments were doled out to people through their workplaces, mainly to give them somewhere to grow foodstuffs.

A new land code passed in 2002, permitting people to register their plots as property for the first time, while the post-Soviet explosion in car ownership has made the countryside far more accessible. But the dream of turning the dacha into a family home remains remote. "A lot of the elements are in place for a suburban housing boom, but development is haphazard," says Mr. Gaige. "Vital infrastructure is not getting built because large providers do not have money to do it."

We were fortunate to own a dacha in a fairly developed area outside Moscow, with preexisting water, gas, and electricity lines. Still, the strains are mounting. In winter, voltage often plummets. In the summer, water shortages silence taps. The commute along the two-lane highway into Moscow, normally 30 minutes, now takes two to three hours.

Local officials offer little help. They rarely enforce building codes or zoning regulations, but demand extensive paperwork for everything from a telephone hookup to a new fence. My wife, Masha, who has borne the brunt of relations with the bureaucracy, has grown philosophical about it. "They change requirements constantly, so you have to bring new papers and pay the fees over again," she says. "But there's nothing you can't get done eventually."

The key obstacle for us and others has been the absence of affordable financing. Despite owning a valuable piece of land, we can't get a reasonable credit package. We've had to save money to launch each new phase of construction. We're in sight of the end now, but it's been five years. "Mortgages are still way too expensive, and conditions too onerous, to be attractive to the majority," says Olga Vendina, an expert at the Institute of Geography in Moscow. "It's changing, but only slowly."

After a wave of burglaries last winter, the resi- dents of Nov voted to enclose the village and limit public access. Each family agreed to pay about $12 a month toward the cost of security guards, posted at the town's newly beefed-up entrance. And that, more than anything, defines Nov's evolution from a sleepy dacha settlement to a suburban "gated community."

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