Out of Russia: When not all property is theft

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - Tatyana Gridneva, a genteel middle-aged music teacher who wears dainty lace blouses and sings 18th-century Russian romances to rather small audiences, is an unlikely figure to take on both the old KGB and the new political mafia. But that is exactly what she has done.

The KGB, emasculated since the abortive hardline coup in 1991, turned out to be a pushover. But it looks as if Ms Gridneva will have a much harder fight with Gennady Burbulis, who has no official position but is very powerful because he is a personal friend of Boris Yeltsin.

Ms Gridneva is one of the founders of an independent school which teaches music and the arts to 75 children. At present it is housed uncomfortably in two kindergartens in different districts of Moscow.

Looking around for more suitable accommodation, Ms Gridneva discovered that a little yellow mansion on the Garden Ring Road, built by the 19th-century architect Shekhtel as his private home, belonged to the local education authorities although it had for years been rented to a district office of the KGB for the laughable sum of 843 roubles (just over 65p) a month. Amazingly the KGB, once an all-powerful organisation which murdered millions of people, was persuaded to move out and earlier this month Ms Gridneva signed an agreement with the Moscow education department which made her school the new legal tenant.

Last weekend I was with Ms Gridneva when she went with a builder to the mansion to assess what restoration work might be needed. A fascinating sight met our eyes. The KGB had left an unholy mess of empty cognac bottles, pin-up calendars, red arm bands, telephone lists, files on staff from a nearby theatre and even a map revealing the location of other security service district offices.

We left after Ms Gridneva had ordered new locks from the builder to keep out girls from street kiosks outside who were coming in to use the toilets and tramps who were sleeping there at night. Unfortunately the builder was not quick enough.

Ms Gridneva had heard rumours that Mr Burbulis, a former teacher of Marxist-Leninism from Mr Yeltsin's home region of Sverdlovsk, was also interested in the building. But she was not prepared, when she went on Wednesday for another look at the mansion, to find men from 'Strategia', Mr Burbulis's new 'Politological Centre', fitting their locks on the doors. She demanded to know what was going on and they showed her a document signed by Anatoly Chubais, the young minister in charge of Russia's privatisation programme, which said the building had been transferred from local government to federal control. They told her to leave; she refused.

Ms Gridneva says the Strategia bosses stepped outside, leaving her in the hall with a young heavy who showed an identification card on which was written 'Anti-Terrorist Group'. The man hissed at her that there were no witnesses and he would use force if necessary to throw her out. He tried to grab her arm but she moved and the man fell over. 'I could have strangled him with his tie or kicked him in the groin but I was perfectly polite,' she said. Enraged, the man stood up, forced her arms behind her back and ejected her. As a result, she had bruises on her hands yesterday.

Mr Burbulis, an ideologue whose only claim to fame before he became a Yeltsin aide was that he had the Christian dissident Alexander Ogorodnikov kicked out of university in the 1970s, was not available for comment yesterday. No longer state secretary because of parliamentary opposition to him, Mr Burbulis spends his time in a manner which is a mystery to the public. But Mikhail Kramer from Strategia confirmed that he and his colleagues had met Ms Gridneva at the mansion. 'We showed her our documents,' he said. 'They are all in order. We persuaded her to leave. She has made up this story that force was used. No one laid a finger on her. We are doing useful political and economic work. She can challenge us in court if she likes. And now I am not going to talk to you any more.'

Such battles over property are ten-a-penny in the former Soviet Union these days as enterprises and organisations of all kinds rush to stake claims. No doubt a court will finally make a ruling if Ms Gridneva decides to pursue her case. But she fears a 'little person' like herself has scant chance against the big and powerful. 'I never supported the Communists but what am I to make of 'democrats' like these? How can I vote for Yeltsin in the referendum after this?'

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