There's a problem in paradise: Mr Gorbachev is not leaving. Not that Mr Gorbachev, the bald one who lived down the road when he was president - he went long ago. This Mr Gorbachev is an angry guy whose hair looks like it dropped on his head from a tree. He is standing in the doorway of his dacha in Nikolina Gora, a village 35 miles west of Moscow where the city's intellectuals come in summer to commune with Mother Russia and gossip about life, art and money.

My dacha, actually, as I've come to think of it in the past month since friends rented it for me - the best dacha in Nikolina, they have assured me, the one with a toilet and a bidet] So I am here, driving up through a green glade, already territorial, already planning dejeuner sur l'herbe (with caviar), anticipating sun-dappled birch trees and wild mushrooms, with maybe a balalaika in the background playing 'Lara's Theme'.

Beyond the high green gate I am hailed casually - very, very casually - by a trio of young women and a snake-eyed toddler. 'Mama will be so amused to find you are arriving today,' says the girl in short shorts.

Tolya, my Russian friend who has come out from Moscow in his snappy red Lada to help, interprets; Tolya lights a cigarette; Tolya, the most genial man in Russia, looks uneasy.

In skin-tight leggings, Mrs Gorbachev suddenly appears, shaking herself like a bird in a sort of feathery bolero like the bed-jackets stars once wore in bedroom scenes in the silents - more Mae West than Garbo in her case. Her tiny feet are stuffed into little shoes with spiked heels which, as she moves worriedly in and out of the house, promising solutions, go tippy-tap on the floorboards. Befuddled in the doorway is Mr Gorbachev. He has not been informed that his wife has rented out the dacha and he is not going anywhere.

Gazing at the mattress - mine - still propped up against a wall, Mrs G pulls on a cigarette. 'Tonight] Tonight all will be ready]] Tonight by 10]]]' she insists. Later, it transpires that the Gorbachevs are in the middle of a marital breakdown and I have come a few thousand miles to find myself trapped in a movie by Mel Brooks out of Chekhov. I come to think of it as Oi Vey, the Seagull.

All around, as twilight falls on this idyllic patch of Russia, as the pine-scented air turns cool and sun sets on the rolling hills and forests, as mosquitoes rise in battalions off the Moskva River, the phones of Nikolina Gora crackle into life with dachniki worrying about my plight. Eventually my friend Jo, an Englishman who lives here, comes up trumps: another dacha has been procured; by the time I move in next day, its price, like everything else in Moscow, has risen.

In the dog days of summer, Moscow is hot, dusty and anxious; the countryside is cool and placid and it begins so close to the edges of town you can barely see the join, as if the city were always waiting to give itself back to nature. No one is as sentimental about the countryside as Russians, who can invest almost any old clod of earth with Tolstoyan meaning. Put two birch trees together, the old saying goes, and you'll find a Russian nearby weeping.

Everyone who's anyone in Moscow has a dacha in one of the nearby country villages. Peasant shack or rural palace, the country house is an expression of social and political stature, as it used to be for grand dukes and bourgeois merchants and Communist Party big-wigs.

Money could not buy you privilege in the Soviet Union; privilege came with your job and your position in the party, and with it went the perks. So if you screwed up, your whole life came apart. 'Take away your job,' says Vladimir Pozner, the Moscow journalist, 'and bye-bye privilege. No more summer country home, no more special resorts . . .'

Out of view of a deeply puritanical society, down a road lined with police, behind no-entry signs and high fences, the nomenklatura cavorted and connived and, no doubt, communed with nature. Right through the perestroika era (as it is now called), government officials still spent their summers in lavish sanitoria in the hills here, or in the compound at Zhovka, not far from Nikolina Gora. Some still do; some people think only the furniture has changed.

In dachas outside Moscow, the 1991 coup plotters plotted their coup. In another, Yeltsin eluded the coup's cops the morning of 19 August. A year ago, on that Monday morning when the coup was announced, Vladimir Pozner - himself living in a dacha nearby - was jogging in the woods, oblivious. In dachaland, almost no one knew anything; it was high summer and everyone was out of town, which was what the coup plotters had reckoned on.

'Come to a party,' someone in Nikolina Gora said to a pal in Moscow. 'We cannot come,' was the reply. 'We are having a coup.'

My replacement dacha is spotless. Brand new, it is all blond wood and red-checked curtains in the kitchen, a toy Swiss chalet backing on to a pine forest.

The kitchen is impeccable, the shower room immaculate, although you have to throw used toilet paper in a plastic bin otherwise it blocks up the system. Upstairs is a bedroom; downstairs is a living-room with a gilt chandelier and a dark red plush three-piece suite, top-of-the-range issue in the better dachas.

A few have gone Scando; most, though, simply make do and many are in complete disrepair: for years you couldn't get so much as a nail or a bucket of cement. Green paint, however, seems to have been in over-supply; most of the older dachas around here are green and white with cookie-cutter shutters, and wooden frills and fretwork, balconies and verandas.

The owner of my dacha, an elegant woman with perfect manners, has retreated to the other dacha on the property; a third is in the works. A high green wooden fence surrounds the three. All the best dachas are hidden from the road, from the overgrown alleys that wind through the pine trees. Nikolina Gora, which has a single shop and one public phone, seems as wild and unpretentious as a New England resort in the Fifties; flocks of geese march across these barely paved roads with stolid indifference to the Volvos and Mercs that now prowl the lanes.

This isn't some antique peasant village in a novel, though. It was founded in the Twenties by a group of artists and academicians who rented land from the local soviet and built their dachas, which could be sold or inherited only with the blessing of the co-operative. There were about 200 dachas - no building was allowed until two years ago - so you were always having your intellectual CV vetted before you could get in, and Nikolina Gora quickly acquired the cachet of the unobtainable. Wannabe dachnikis had to wait in line, in one case for l7 years.

One of its greatest charms, locals boast like proud estate agents, is the sandy beach along the river. This is the first clean stretch of river close to the city. Obsessed with health, Russians desire frequent swims in the river, and on a sunny afternoon kids paddle and fat men float. Standing up to her waist in water and gazing spiritually at the hills beyond, a big blonde in a small white bikini smokes a cigarette.

Later, walking in the woods, I come across a gang of boys, cigarettes dangling from loose adolescent lips. They are not picking mushrooms or picking up girls; they are re-selling petrol. They call out 'Capitalism]' Last summer some smart-arse entrepreneur rented a stretch of beach and charged for access; you could not pay with roubles, only with your Visa card.

For the most part, though, the younger generation at Nikolina is prosperous, cheerful and speaks English. Meet them on the lanes heading for tennis or volleyball, and they are tanned and tall and young and lovely, unlike the 'high lifeitsi', the privileged kids of the Brezhnev years of stagnation, who stole cars and sometimes drank themselves to death in their parents' dachas. 'Hi,' they greet you. 'Have a nice day.'

Dacha social life consists of long meals and lively talk - of philosophy and hard currency. One night at dinner in the lavish new dacha of an acquaintance, a couple of guests arrived in an official car with a police light on the roof. Kissing my hand, one of them informs me he is an adviser to President Yeltsin. Over an elaborate Georgian meal, he makes a long toast about the marvels of America.

'The presence of foreigners made him let us know how important he was,' Jo says.

Mostly, any kind of countryside gives me the creeps. I want to call the front desk and ask them to turn down those birds. But this is my sixth trip and Jo tells me that Moscow, a madhouse which I love and which reminds me of New York, is not the Real Thing.

So here I am, on the porch of my own dacha in the Russian twilight, eating salami and caviar, drinking red Russian wine with Jo and Tolya. Jo has gone native. He says I can never understand Russia unless I understand the countryside - which I never can because, like those wooden dollies or the green dachas, or like Russia itself, it is hidden, inaccessible, secretive.

Also, in Nikolina Gora, as Tolya, a passionate city boy, points out, there is no shopping.

Anyhow, it suits Jo, although today he is feeling sorrowful because his driver has wild strawberries in his garden while he gets his food from the Moscow shops, which makes him feel a fake.

There is a copy of Dr Zhivago beside me which I have packed for the trip but never read, and in the woods the cicadas make a noise, as someone once said, like little men winding their watches. At night, tortured by mosquitoes, I get out of bed, and sit and try to experience Russia, but there are wolves howling in those hills, and before dawn the cocks begin their incessant crowing. Soon, though, there is the more comforting sound of cement mixers.

Up and down the country lanes, huge trucks lumber, loaded with wood and paint and bricks the colour of dried blood. Everywhere in Russia, there's land grab; in Nikolina Gora everyone wants to secure a slice of paradise.

People here are nervous. Are taxes going up? Inflation? Will the residents suddenly be charged for their land? Is it legal to buy and sell land? No one knows. But two years ago it became clear you could at least build on your land and the frenzy began; every property has a half-built house or extension; piles of planks lie in every yard. In order to get the cash to build, renting to foreigners is an option. It is almost a matter of honour to rip off foreigners these days; everywhere you see Russians nudge one another and whisper, 'Ask for more, ask for more.'

Fiercely protective or self-

regarding (depending on how you look at it), the village always resented outsiders. In the old days, locals tell you, 'the only thing that mattered was the new occupant's intellectual standing'.

Here is the house of Anatoly Karpov, the chess champion; there the dacha belonging to Sviatoslav Richter, the pianist; there the film-making half-brothers, Nikita Mikhalkov (the real Russian, the one with soul) and Andrei Konchalovsky (who went to Hollywood and lost his).

As in summer places from Nantucket to Provence, residents are ferociously territorial. At lunch in Jo's garden one day, we're singing songs from Guys and Dolls while eating bortsch, and Kolya Petrov, the pianist, says: 'In Peredelkino you would not be allowed to sing. In Peredelkino,' - Kolya laughs dismissively at the famous writers' colony - 'they'd be talking about Heidegger]'

One day I visit Peredelkino, where Boris Pasternak lived and is buried; in the cemetery a funeral is in progress, in a field a couple of women in headscarves tend a patch of vegetables, no one has left flowers on Pasternak's grave.

'I built it, I put a nail in it, it is mine. This is a different thing from the West where a home means nothing, where it is easy to get and all you need is money,' Kolya Petrov says. 'My house is my soul.'

An expansive, merry man, Kolya has a figure to match. In his disarming way he can discuss his soul, your house and cold cash in the same sentence. Welcoming us to dinner at his rambling dacha, where the whole neighbourhood drops by at will to use his tennis court, he says: 'So how much did that wine you brought me cost?'

Cats and dogs wander in his wonderful wild gardens. His generous wife, Larissa, hurries in and out, chic in a black summer dress, blue eyes glistening with pleasure at the idea of so many to feed.

Under the trees the table is stuffed with food: wild mushrooms, pale pink tongue with peas and horseradish, black caviar, red caviar, salad, pickles, vodka, wine and beer. There follows a roast pork, its crackling skin the colour of caramel, and a rice pilaff loaded with apricots. As the stars come up, there is fruit and cake, and as Larissa pours the tea, the talk begins.

Among the guests are a crabbed little professor, wearing a Sorbonne sweatshirt, who once met Heidegger at a train station. There is the former minister of culture under Mr Gorbachev - I'll call him X - and his wife, who was once a famous actress. She is small, white and pinched. She watches her husband closely out of icy blue eyes. She barely speaks except on one occasion. 'Nyet pravda,' she spits.

X, meanwhile, begins a two- hour performance of his own version of The Coup, the mini-series. So far as I can tell, he was a hero in his own lunchtime. Later, in Moscow, I hear that in fact he has become a victim of his own story- telling.

Nothing seems more potent than a group of well-dressed Russians sitting in a country garden on a starry summer night, sipping tea and reminiscing about their history. In Nikolina Gora, though, it was also a local event. It's not just its history that makes this place peculiar, but its geography.

A stone's throw away, along the road back to Moscow, down the best-tended road in the country, where even the bus stops have ornamental penguins, power had its country house and still does. President Yeltsin lives here in the dacha that Mikhail Gorbachev once occupied, and huge Zils still glide down side roads, curtains drawn, as they did when Stalin used to come to meditate away from town.

Just past the sign for the village of Barki is that other dacha where, on the morning of 19 August 1991, Boris Yeltsin, hearing of the coup, called in his cronies. From all over the neighbourhood, in shorts and sweat pants, they hurried in, looking for a typewriter. There was no typewriter. Someone broke into a house nearby and stole one. Boris Yeltsin's daughter typed the decree Yeltsin would later read out from the top of a tank. Meanwhile, on a table stood two dozen apples specially prepared for making some country liqueur, and Mrs Yeltsin stood by helplessly as the new Democrats ate them all.

Getting there Union Travel (071-493 4343) at 93 Piccadilly, London W1V 9HB, offers a fixed-date return fare from London to Moscow with Aeroflot for pounds 300; for a stay of at least a week British Airways (081-897 4000) offers a return fare of pounds 388 for a fare booked at least a month in advance.

Dacha hire Reggie Nadelson arranged her dacha through friends. Intourist (071-538 8600) announced this week that within the next couple of months it will be launching a programme of holidays featuring accommodation in dachas - at the moment the company has no details of prices.

Car hire Hertz (081-679 1799) offers car hire (booking requires confirmation 48 hours in advance to ensure that a car is available) for pounds 267 per week unlimited mileage. The price excludes a local tax of 14 per cent and collision damage waiver of pounds 7.85 per day.

Further information Intourist Moscow Ltd, 219 Marsh Wall, London E14 9FJ (071-538 8600).

(Photograph omitted)