Dreams turn to mud for children of the diaspora: 'Home' is a rude awakening for 25 million citizens stranded in foreign lands by Moscow's retreat from empire, writes Andrew Higgins in Novosyol

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THIS, say pioneers of a Slavic new Jerusalem deep in Russia's sludge and vodka belt, should be the dream of the diaspora, the 25 million Russians stranded in newly foreign and often hostile lands by Moscow's exit from empire. On the wall of a hut used as a town hall hangs a large blueprint of the settlers' fantasy: broad streets, neat suburban homes and an industrial park. The architect, Alexander Makukha, frets about whether to put the House of Culture near the main road or next to a football stadium.

'It is really a lot like Brasilia in design,' says the architect, who, along with 250 others, fled here from Tajikistan.

Less dreamy eyes, including those of the Russian government, see only a mud hole littered with broken lorries, pilfered fire trucks painted with the insignia of the Dushanbe Fire Department and a cluster of ramshackle sheds. Housing is a row of packing crates. On a field piled with bricks and soggy lumber, an elderly couple wrestle with large sheets of rusty metal: they are trying to reassemble a garage they hauled from Central Asia.

'It is like the Nazi retreat from Moscow, trucks and tanks all over the place,' says Alexei Obidin, resettlement director at the Federal Migration Service, a state agency set up in 1992 to help a flood of refugees from Russia's 'near abroad'. An estimated two million people have left former Soviet republics for Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Nowhere has there been as much commotion as in Novosyol, or Newcomer, the self-proclaimed 'Sun City' of Kaluga province, south of Moscow.

In Russia's parliament, the fate of compatriots in former Soviet republics excites great passion and long speeches. Their noisiest champion is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the belligerent ultra-nationalist who was born in Kazakhstan. Slightly less bombastic is the Foreign Minister, Andrei Koyzrev. He calls the diaspora 'one of Moscow's main strategic interests' and vows to defend it in 'a tough manner'. The intelligentsia has joined in, too. The most famous 'Russian abroad', Alexander Solzhenitsyn, talks - from a farmhouse in Vermont - of Russia's duty to protect its own.

There is much less enthusiasm for compatriots who choose to come home. 'They want to protect Russians abroad - but only if they stay there,' says Galina Belgorodskaya, leader of the Kaluga settlement, 'When we come back we are a headache.'

In Tajikistan, Mrs Belgorodskaya worked as an engineer designing earthquake resistant dams. But that was before the civil war. Also before she met the Virgin Mary. Her other great inspiration is Peter the Great. On her office wall at Novosyol is a decree he issued during the building of St Petersburg: 'Anyone who obstructs construction will be hanged, no matter who they are.'

'She has created a miniature Gulag. There are no guards and no dogs but she keeps people under total control,' says Mr Obidin of the Federation Migration Service. 'This is pure Utopia. She is an unrealistic dreamer. She makes castles in the air.'

The road to Kaluga begins nearly 2,000 miles away in Dushanbe. When the shooting started there in 1991, Mrs Belgorodskaya, a deputy on the local Soviet, set up an association, 'Migration'. Its office was her living room. Would-be migrants - mostly Russian professionals sent to Tajikistan in the 1960s - paid 2,000 roubles each and entrusted her with finding an escape route. She promised to keep friends and neighbours together, to create a new mini-Dushanbe inside Russia. She wrote scores of letters pleading for help. Kaluga province offered a patch of collective farm land. The exodus - and trouble - began.

After three years and 588m roubles in state and charity money (some pounds 200,000 at today's inflation-ravaged exchange rate), the promised land is knee deep in mud and up to its neck in allegations of mismanagement and possibly corruption. Police launched a raid last month and seized the books. Kaluga province wants back half the land it promised.

Most of the money went to build a road. Hired for the job was a former military contractor more experienced at building particle accelerators for Soviet physicists. The result is a zig-zag of huge concrete blocks across a bog. The only toilets in Novosyol are holes in the ground, the nearest bath is in the next village, Sashkino. Industry consists of a few sewing machines. An attempt to create jobs flopped. Mrs Belgorodskaya bought milk-processing equipment. One problem: no milk. The equipment sits unused.

Many returning Russians find their homeland deeply alien, unfathomable and alarmingly backward, just as France was to pieds noirs forced out of Algeria.

'Look at this place,' groans Svetlana Arishina, a Kaluga settler born in Leningrad but raised in Tajikistan. 'We are only 150 kilometres from Moscow and just look. The place is dump.' Tamara Rogova, a pensioner who now calls a packing crate home, says she cannot get over how much Russians drink. People were a lot friendlier in Tajikistan, and she adds: 'Here everyone is so poor'.

The Federal Migration Service lobbies hard for cash to help refugees but has little clout. It was last year promised 100bn roubles by the budget but received only 43bn. Every returning family is supposed to get an interest-free loan to build a house. The maximum amount, though, is only 1.3m roubles - less than pounds 500 pounds. Few get even this.

Of more than half a million Russians who lived in Tajikistan when the Soviet Union fell apart, only 100,000 or so are left. The majority are now scattered in towns across Russia. Mrs Belgorodskaya's idea of keeping old communities intact, of building a new city from scratch, has some keen supporters in the Russian media.

The state, though, sees only a financial black hole and wants the experiment shut down. 'This utopia depends entirely on state support. The settlers are all hostages,' says Mr Obidin. 'I think it should cease to exist.'

Mrs Belgorodskaya refuses to give up. She is looking abroad for money and salvation. 'We'll have a Clinton Street, a Soros Street.' From fellow Russians she says she wants one thing: 'I want them not to treat us like an enemy.'

(Photograph omitted)