Notebook: To have and have not in Zvenigorod

In Moscow's expanding satellite estates a new elite builds turreted castles, while pensioners can't afford gas, water - or even a road
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The Independent Online
Viktor Kolesnikov is not the kind of person to make a fuss. He didn't complain when the Moscow businessman opposite built an enormous house in bright red brick with turrets on every corner and a nasty metal roof.

The old man kept quiet when the next-door neighbour (who happens to be the deputy mayor) decided he needed a steam bath-house to complement his palatial dwellings. The fact that this outhouse is far larger than his own home is a matter about which Mr Kolesnikov may brood, but he keeps his views to himself.

He is even relatively mild-spoken about an issue that would have many others parading outside city hall, brandishing outraged banners. Some of his neighbours have running water, gas, and a smart new strip of tarmac leading to their doors. But not him. If you want services in the land of Russia's kottedjis (literally cottages, although they are closer to palaces) you must pay for them yourself.

Quietly disgusted though he is about this, Mr Kolesnikov keeps a low profile. It's only common sense. How else is a penniless 64-year-old pensioner to survive among Russia's elite, people who have an annoying tendency of settling their differences with bombs and contract killers?

It was not what he and Vera, his wife, had in mind seven years ago when they retired from a collective farm in Stavropol, southern Russia, and moved north to get away from the trouble brewing in the neighbouring north Caucasus.

Far from it. They saw themselves living blissfully in the country outside Moscow, on land owned by their daughter, a civil servant who, like many government workers, war veterans and others, qualified for a free plot.

Their land was on the edge of Zvenigorod, 30 miles west of Moscow. There are thousands of similar estates, many of them still half-built and empty, around Russia's larger cities, an eye-scalding red rash of brick so prominent that you can see them from a passenger jet flying overhead. They are generally hideous, symptoms - in my view - of the psychological impact of keeping people cooped up in tiny Soviet flats for decades, and banning them from building what they wanted.

When the Kolesnikovs first arrived, they found themselves living in the middle of a field of rye. Not any more: rearing up all around are vast brick houses. There are the banal - boxy affairs like the worst of post- war British council houses, only far, far larger. There are the downright hideous - 25-room castles, sprouting towers and dormer windows, surrounded by tall fences and peppered with warnings about the dangerous dog within. And there are the incomplete, shells whose owners have gone broke, wrecked by the last financial crisis. It is as ugly as a Los Angeles suburb, and similarly fortified.

Planning controls, theoretically, do exist; a land committee and the local city architect are among those who are supposed to give their approval. But these count for little in a country where every official wheel is greased with bribes.

In Soviet days, it was much stricter: from the 1930s on, pockets of land were allocated to about a third of the population, but they remained state- owned and were intended for growing food. Building a balcony, a second floor or a fireplace was illegal. Greenhouses were also banned, in case they were used for growing vegetables to sell. But now, in the new Russia, those with the cash (never mind its dodgy origins) can usually realise their megalomaniac architectural fantasies.

The Kolesnikovs have another still stronger cause for complaint. Here, as elsewhere in the kottedji world, local government, being broke, has done nothing to provide an infrastructure. The residents, often from separate collectives formed when the land was parcelled out, must pay for their own roads, lamp posts and water pipes.

Some are wealthy; others are not. The man over the road and his immediate neighbours have gas, running water, and telephone lines while the ageing Kolesnikovs collect their water by motorbike, rattling across an often frozen landscape to a well nearly a mile away. Some residents have just laid a strip of brand new tarmac; their own road is choked by rutted mud, junk and weeds.

"We will never see our road here in our lifetime," says Mrs Kolesnikov. Nor, with monthly pensions worth only pounds 10, do they have much chance of raising the pounds 750 to hook up to the water supply. And the likelihood of completing the home which they have been building next to their own for their daughter is nil.

The far end of the field has been cordoned off by a tall fence. Behind it stand lines of luxury three-storey homes, built by a private development company. Even the tiniest and highest windows have iron bars.

True, there is good cause for high security. Crime in the Russian countryside is reaching frightening proportions, fuelled by acute urban poverty. Horrifying stories have surfaced about the scramble for food. A few weeks ago two men caught stealing potatoes were beaten to death by outraged gardeners outside Ulyanovsk, on the River Volga. Earlier this month an elderly man, who was so concerned about protecting his vegetables that he stood guard over them at night with a rifle, shot dead his own grandson. He thought he was an intruder.

But, ultimately, it is not crime that worries the Kolesnikovs. Their concern is subtler, a sense that they can never belong to this new world, with all its depressing echoes of the worst of the West. What is evolving around them is not a society, but a series of closely packed forts whose owners fend only for themselves. "We should have stayed at home," says Mrs Kolesnikov sadly. "There all the neighbours knew each other, helped each other out. They were normal people living in a normal way." And they didn't have to build their own roads.