MOSCOW - I had an afternoon outing to the old Orthodox monastery of New Jerusalem last weekend and was astonished by the transformation of the Russian countryside since last summer.
The gentle hills around the town of Istra in Moscow region are still dotted with tumbledown wooden cottages, and peasant women in headscarves still sell pork fat, jars of homemade jam and tulips at the roadside.
But now the landscape bristles with red-brick mansions, many of them with towers and turrets. The golden dome of the monastery, being restored after the Nazis nearly flattened it, used to be the biggest thing to be seen for miles. Not any more. The country homes which the new Russian super-rich are building hit you in the eye.
Like the dachas of the elite in Communist times, these palaces, coyly called 'cottagi', are surrounded by high fences. But from the road you can see the huge bay windows, swimming pools and triple garages. Villagers grumble that outsiders acquired land to build, while they only got small plots. They probably do not even know the new buzz word 'reelti' (real estate).
An acquaintance told me he was having a house built in the country. 'That's nice,' I said. 'Maybe you will invite me for Sunday lunch and I can try out your Jacuzzi.' 'Oh no,' he laughed, 'I'm not going to live in it myself. I am building it to use as a bribe.' Real estate in Russia is not only a home to call your own, but a currency harder than the rouble or the dollar. Corrupt officials are said to prefer it to money. Criminals turn up their noses at cash in favour of solid property.
This week police in Moscow arrested a gang who kidnapped a family and, as a ransom, demanded not a suitcase of dollars but their victims' flat. The bandits said that they were homeless. 'Well, I think they will have no problem with accommodation for the next few years,' wryly remarked the television news reader.
To build a house in the country is still cheap by Western standards. Contractors use labourers from Ukraine, where workers are grateful to come to Russia for the equivalent of pounds 50 a month. A stately home can be put up for about pounds 16,000 and sold for pounds 66,000. A small flat in the centre of Moscow costs about the same as a four-storey house in the country.
The market in real estate has been made possible by laws allowing Russians to privatise their homes, for which they once paid tiny rents. Whoever was living in a five- room flat inherited it when Communism died. Whoever was living in a one-room flat received just that. Whoever was homeless found his birthright on the street. It was simple, but not fair.
Now Russians are starting to buy and sell property, with the help of estate agents.
The property developers try to obtain large communal flats in the centre of Moscow. These were the homes of merchants and aristocrats in Tsarist times which, when the Bolsheviks came to power, were filled with several families. The developers buy up small flats on the edge of the city and try to persuade the communal flat-dwellers to move out there, so that they can restore the old flats and sell them for a fortune to the new bourgeoisie.
Even a simple, legal property purchase or sale is a cloak-and-dagger affair. There are no building societies, so a buyer must have the money in cash. There are no solicitors, so the vendor and purchaser bring armed men to the contract-signing. A huge cut must be paid to the estate agent. Only then can the seller drive off into the sunset and the new home- owner start planning his interior decorations.
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