Street life: Samotechny Lane - Chocolate district with a hard centre

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The Independent Online
TO MOSCOW'S voracious property developers, Yevgeny Filatov is an obstinate and irritating little man. Others might call him a hero for resisting intimidation and standing up for his home, his heritage and his rights.

Mr Filatov has a delightful address. He lives at number 5, Molochny Peryulok or Milky Lane, so called because cattle from a monastery used to graze in meadows where the street now runs. A delicious smell of chocolate from the Red October candy factory fills the air.

But the district is overshadowed by the giant bronze statue of Peter the Great, arguably Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's most tasteless erection, and office blocks that Prince Charles would call carbuncles are going up all around.

Living in the wooden house that his great-grandfather built, Mr Filatov is the last private householder in this central area of prime real estate. The developers want to move him out to a soulless flat in the suburbs. If they get their way, only the aroma of chocolate will linger as a reminder of the district's charm. Before that happens, Mr Filatov is determined to make a big stink.

Last week he invited me to the house that, over the years, has welcomed famous Russian artists as well as nurturing Mr Filatov in his career as a painter. The living-room was hung with animal skins and his dark, swirling fairy-tale landscapes.

Mr Filatov took out a folder containing samples of delicate antique lace. His great-grandfather, Siegfried Thal, a Baltic German, had been a lace merchant. From the profits of the trade, he bought a piece of land in 1912 and built the eight-room house.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, Herr Thal fled to Germany where, as far as Mr Filatov knows, he ended his days selling books in Berlin. But the rest of the family stayed behind. Mr Filatov's grandmother, Margaretha Siegfriedovna, lived in the house until the age of 99. Her daughter Veronika married Mikhail Filatov and they had their children here. Yevgeny was born and brought up in Milky Lane.

The fact that the family has never left the house means that their claim to it is clear. Aristocrats sometimes come back to Russia looking for their lost property, only to find that it is gone or occupied by others. "In our case," said Mr Filatov, "there is something to claim and we are not arguing with any other residents."

In Soviet times, of course, Mr Filatov's mother and later Mr Filatov and his wife were forced to share the house with dozens of other people totally unrelated to them. The house was turned into a giant communalka or communal flat in which the residents were squeezed in, four to a room.

However, as numbers on the post-war housing lists came down, the neighbours went joyfully to new, self-contained flats in concrete blocks. Only Mr Filatov, wanting to maintain a living connection with his past, rejected the offer of a modern box and stood in the way of the house's demolition.

In the Gorbachev era, Mr Filatov was summoned to court to receive a compulsory purchase order. "The judge was very kind," he said. "She whispered in my ear that if I appeared at the hearing, she would have no choice but to order our eviction. She advised me not to turn up and so I played that delaying game."

Now, ironically, it is Mr Filatov who wants to go to court. The Iron Curtain has come down, Russia has joined the civilised world and an unfair decision by a Russian court could, in theory at least, be reviewed by international judges. "The constitution guarantees property rights, I have the title deeds to my house, I could go all the way to Strasbourg," he said.

The developers, preferring to avoid a court case they might lose, have resorted to dirty tricks. After a number of telephone threats, Mr Filatov's roof was set on fire. Next time, he fears that bandits might come and try to kill him.

He places no faith in politicians. At the coming presidential election, in which Mayor Luzhkov may stand, he intends to take his ballot paper and destroy it so that nobody else can use it. Hope for the future, he says, lies only in the development of an independent judiciary so that Russia's leaders are not above the law.

Meanwhile, he has a touching trust in the protective power of the press. I tell him sadly of the bag lady who was dragged off to jail despite appearing in this column and worse, of the death-row prisoner executed after my visit.

For what it is worth, I have promised that Samotechny Lane will keep a watch over the house at Milky Lane.