Out of Russia: Summertime and the snow makes you sneezy

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - The 'snow' has come early to Moscow this summer. By 'snow' I do not mean the freezing precipitation which falls on the city from late October to early April but the clouds of pukh or seed-bearing white fluff which drift from the poplar trees. For anyone who suffers from hay fever, pukh is a nightmare. But for the allergy-free, it is a source of great joy because its arrival marks the beginning of Russia's painfully short and intensely beautiful summer.

Not a moment is to be wasted. The school holidays have not even started yet, but already Muscovites are spending long weekends which will soon turn into full vacations at their dachas outside the city. This is bad news for some foreigners who, for a few dollars, have been renting the little wooden houses for skiing weekends during winter. The Russians are reclaiming their second homes. The Zhiguli (Lada) cars being driven out of Moscow are matched by convoys of Volvos bringing mournful foreigners back into the hot, smelly metropolis.

Country cottages are not regarded as a luxury but as an essential. Hotels are still few and far between. No Russian would think it a holiday to travel to another town and stay in a hotel. Instead they go year after year to the same village, to shed the stresses of winter in the city. Those holidaying in the Moscow region swim in the Moscow River, which is surprisingly clean upstream from the capital. Later in the summer they will spend hours combing the marshes for berries, and the forests for mushrooms, which they will bottle or pickle and squirrel away for next winter.

Of course the standard of dachas varies enormously. My friend Natasha has what amounts to a garden shed on a piece of land allotted to her by the scientific institute where she works. She does not own the land and, if she fails to dig it regularly, she risks losing it to a more active gardener. But there is no danger of that. As soon as the sun has dried the spring mud, she is out there planting herbs, onions, carrots and potatoes. 'With prices so high, this is the only way I can survive,' she says.

At the other end of the scale are the fine dachas that were handed out by the state to the elite of the former Soviet Union. This winter a Western colleague of mine rented an enormous wooden house in the village of Lutsino which remains in the family of a scientist favoured by the late Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. The dacha, with three verandahs and gardens running down to the river, is furnished with a bedroom suite of Karelian birch wood, and a German billiard table which was among the trophies looted from the Nazis at the end of the Second World War.

The locals did not care for the invasion of foreigners, but they are even more upset about the arrival of the juliki (rogues). By this they mean the new generation of businessmen, many of them from the Caucasian republics, who are sinking their legally, and in some cases illegally, earned rouble millions in smart new houses all over the Moscow region. The juliki often go against tradition by building in brick and glass rather than wood. Like the Communist Party bosses of an earlier era, they surround their properties with high fences.

The question is where they are getting the land, since a proper market is still to be created - a failure of reform that is preventing many would-be private farmers from obtaining the acres they need. Apparently money talks, and there is some corruption behind the rural building boom.

And now, of all people, the Russian Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi, has been accused of corruption in connection with the building of a dacha. Mr Rutskoi has fallen out with Boris Yeltsin and used the issue of high-level dishonesty to attack the President in the run-up to the referendum about the running of the country in April. To prove that he himself was whiter than white, Mr Rutskoi said he lived very modestly, and for relaxation had nothing more than a cottage built in 1905 which he rented for 4,500 roubles (about pounds 4) a month.

But in an article headlined 'What Rutskoi Omitted To Mention', the weekly Moscow News said the Vice-President was employing labourers from a former KGB construction unit to build him a very fancy three-storey house complete with four-car garage and sauna near the village of Razdory on the banks of the Moscow River. The 400-metre perimeter fence alone was going to cost 1.5m roubles. Mr Rutskoi's official salary last year was 200,000 roubles. 'That sum would not be enough to finance the building of even 50 metres of that 400-metre fence,' the newspaper said.

Like pukh, accusations of dacha dishonesty are a sure sign of the season. Yes, indeed, the Russian summer has arrived.

Conor Cruise O'Brien, page 22