Dacha as a mirror of change in Russia

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Moscow. (RIA Novosti political commentator Vladimir Simonov). My friends, Olga and Eduard, are building an English palace in the countryside near Moscow.

This young couple made a fortune during the chaotic privatization of the 1990s. Behind a three-meter-high stone fence they are building a multi-story house with observation turrets on the sides, an indoor Olympic size swimming pool, numerous Jacuzzis and two parking lots for four cars. All this splendor is crowned with a personal coat of arms on the balcony - a big lion standing to attention with a shield in its paws. I think I've seen a similar image at the entrance to the Moscow Zoo.

Olga is a founder of a Moscow bank, and Eduard owns a chain of jewelry stores. They realize that this is nouveau riche style, but the temptation to have a prestigious country estate prevails over good taste.

The unfinished palace faces a row of shabby wooden houses built of tin plates and other construction leftovers. They are slated with asbestos - hazardous for health but cheap. Chained dogs bark at everyone who approaches adjacent kitchen-gardens planted with potatoes, carrots, beets, and crammed with hothouses for tomatoes and cucumbers.

The residents of this village, which was built without construction permits, have the same feelings for the owners of wealthy houses like Olga and Eduard as the serfs had for their landlords in olden times: envy if not outright hatred.

Both the palace of my friends, and more than modest houses across from it fall into the same category of dacha. Today as in the past, any dacha is a coveted dream of every Russian. Psychologists attribute this love for dachas to the desire of the Russian soul to be close to Nature, which reflects a romantic side of the national character.

The glaring contrast between multistory stone palaces encircling major Russian cities, and "Soviet-style" summer dachas mirrors an appalling gap in the living standards between the richest and poorest 10%. In some estimates the difference is 13 to 15 times. Western sociologists believe that a gap close to 7 or 8 times is a threshold of social security, and keep warning that Russia is ostensibly on the verge of a "pre-revolutionary situation".

Luckily for them, the owners of both categories do not have a clue about these apocalyptic forecasts.

The owners of huts continue growing vegetables in their kitchen-gardens to supplement their modest salaries and pensions, picking mushrooms, and gossiping with neighbors. The owners of suburban palaces look through magazines on landscape design, and generate a real boom in trade in building materials, lawn-mowers, and giant cobblestones. The latter are considered to be the second best decoration of a "noble English garden" after exotic plants. Regulars of the Chelsea Flower Show in London would consider this Russian fashion a bad joke.

It is interesting to watch the dacha becoming an important factor of Russia's economic, legal and even political life. In the last few weeks Moscow City Court passed a decision on the demolition of 13 dachas built in the village of Yekaterininskiye Valy within an hour's drive from Moscow. The Nature Inspectorate, a government ecological body, believes that the cottages were built illegally in the nature preservation zone on the banks of the Istra water reservoir, and threaten to pollute the sources of water supply for Moscow.

The State Prosecutor's Office is now reviewing the circumstances surrounding the purchase by Mikhail Kasyanov of a state villa outside Moscow. The press claims that before his resignation the resourceful former prime minister had contrived to buy by proxy a pompous, multistory structure at a ridiculously knock-down price.

The dacha continues to be used as a universal yardstick to judge both its owner's success in life and moral standards.

Obviously, this explains the vigorous public interest in the Government's decision to amend legislation in the next few days in order to simplify the registration of dachas and adjacent plots of land.

About 80% of all dwellings and dachas in the Russian countryside are not duly registered, which means that their owners cannot perform any legal operations with this property, for instance, hand it over to other people by right of succession. Furthermore, unregistered property cannot be taxed, which costs the state millions of rubles. When everyone rushed to build new Russia, the dacha seemed to have fallen out of the legal field.

Now this strange situation has come to an end. Local government bodies will, by a simple procedure, verify whether a dacha and an adjacent plot of land conform with the current norms and legislation.

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