Postcard from the edge of Moscow heatwave

Helen Womack
Saturday 08 July 1995 23:02

MOSCOW has been hell this summer. A ferocious heatwave combined with the ever-increasing traffic - sometimes it seems every Russian male has a second-hand, if not a new, car from the West - has made it impossible to breathe in the city. Muscovites have been flocking to their doctors with respiratory problems. All who could left for the countryside when the schools broke up for the holidays in June.

In Soviet times, Westerners were not allowed into the region around Moscow. Not only were the defence plants off-limits but miles and miles of unspoilt countryside with nothing more secret than tumbledown villages and cowsheds were thought to be vulnerable to foreign spies. That ban has now been lifted.

Foreigners are now allowed to rent property outside Moscow, and many have taken country dachas. In June I went to Lutsino, on the Moscow River, where some colleagues and I share the rent on a wooden mansion. The landlady is the daughter of a nuclear scientist, who cannot make ends meet without letting the summer house, which has been in the formerly privileged family since the 1940s.

The whole of old Lutsino, it seems, has been taken over by foreigners, while through the pine trees the Russian nouveaux riches are building what they call "kottegi" (cottages) - enormous new red-brick houses bristling with towers and turrets and surrounded by high walls. The foreigners lounge on their verandahs like characters out of a Chekhov play, or have barbecues. What the New Russians do behind their walls is anyone's guess.

"This is not real rural life," said my friend Vitaly on hearing about my escape to Lutsino. "Come on, I will take you deeper into the countryside and you will see what most poor Russians do at their dachas."

We drove about 70 miles south of Moscow to Druzhba, a settlement of wooden huts and vegetable plots allotted to the workers of the Kolomna Heavy Machine Building Factory. Here people were stripped to the waist, but they had not come to sunbathe. They were toiling to ensure that they have enough potatoes, cucumbers for pickling and soft fruits for bottling to see them through next winter. Carless workers must hike 20 miles with their produce in rucksacks back to the town of Kolomna.

Unlike the mansions in Lutsino, the sheds in Druzhba are primitive, although still described as dachas. Vitaly's father Mikhail, a widower, built his two-storey hut himself. It has no running water and he cooks on gas canisters. But it does have a fresco. The whole of one wall is covered with an Alpine scene which the old man copied from a calendar.

In the evening, the workers go skinny-dipping in a pond and then gather in each others' huts for vodka and folk-singing. When you first witness this, it is very moving. But by the fifth night, when you realise they are singing the same songs over again, the novelty wears off.

I met a woman called Jana, the only person in Druzhba who speaks English. She is head of languages at the Kolomna Teacher Training College. An educated woman, she feels the limitations of life here. Jana has been abroad only once, on a short study trip to Cambridge. "My hosts asked me where I learnt English," she laughed. "I said 'Kolomna'. They misheard and thought I said 'Columbia'."

Druzhba may be glukhoi ("deaf") as the Russians say in an expression which would be better translated into English as "out in the sticks" but, of course, one can go deeper in the countryside, where the land becomes wilder and wilder.

For me it was time to return to Moscow. The heatwave has eased. And as more and more of the inhabitants have gone away on holiday, life in the city is becoming tolerable once more.

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