Russian aristocrat reclaims estate taken by Bolsheviks

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Russia's dispossessed aristocrats have been given something to celebrate after one of their number succeeded in buying back his family's sumptuous country estate almost 90 years after it was confiscated by the Bolsheviks, a reported first in modern Russian history.

Up till now, descendants of Russia's property-bereft aristocracy were able only to rent "their" forefathers' homes but not buy them back, and countless attempts to introduce some kind of restitution law have fallen flat.

But Sergey Leontev, a businessman descended from a famous Russian general who fought against Napoleon in 1812, has become the first person to persuade the Russian state to sell him his family's sprawling estate in the Yaroslavl area.

In the Soviet era, the estate was used as a camp for young Pioneers, the Communist equivalent of Scouts and Guides with a Leninist ideological twist, but after the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991 its popularity naturally began to fade until it was finally closed three years ago, paving the way for a private sale.

Mr Leontev's success is expected to inject fresh vigour into other nobles' efforts to claw back what they say is rightly theirs, though it would seem they will need deep pockets to win back their birthright and will not be able to rely on the Kremlin's goodwill as they had hoped.

Like many other estates, Mr Leontev's is in an abysmal condition and will need to have millions of rubles spent on it to restore it to its former tsarist glory. "Of course you can't look at the estate any more without tears in your eyes," he told the daily Novye Izvestia. "These lands were given to our ancestors at the end of the 18th century by Catherine the Great for flawless military service."

His ancestor, General Leontev, was a hero of the Russian campaign against Napoleon and went on to marry the grand-daughter of Field Marshal Alexander Suvorov, one of tsarist Russia's greatest military strategists. Mr Leontev, who says he can trace his family history from the 16th century, has not disclosed how much he paid for the estate but has admitted he had help from an organisation called "The Renaissance of Russia's Estates". He wants to restore it with full historical accuracy and has collected hundreds of old photographs of how the interior and exterior used to look.

Rather than simply live on the estate, which might create resentment he intends to turn it into a "cultural tourist centre" where guests will be able to stay for a few nights and experience a slice of 19th-century noble country life. "For me, such a venture has absolutely no commercial value," Mr Leontev said. "This is not business. I am doing this purely because my soul tells me to."

Local people have reportedly welcomed his arrival and are hoping he will use some of his money to restore a nearby park and hire them to help renovate the estate. Elderly residents have also asked him to rebuild the village church, blown up by the Communists in 1963, and local children have started to swim in the estate's ponds which have recently been cleaned.

Nobles are also waging a campaign to repossess their forefathers' properties in St Petersburg, the Italianate capital of imperial Russia and the city where many of their blue-blooded ancestors used to live in splendour. But the city's governor said she wants to sell the palaces to the highest bidder, causing fears that Russia's new aristocracy - the oligarchs, mini-oligarchs and wannabe oligarchs - will snap up all the properties, leaving the dispossessed aristocrats as dispossessed as ever.