Letter from Russia

Samantha de Bendern discovers why the Russian countryside is littered with half finished houses
November 20, 1996

Imagine a country where everyone, everywhere, has decided to build a house at the same time. You could call it builders' paradise. For those of us who live here it is simply the "new Russia"-an uncharted territory somewhere on the raw edge of capitalism.

A year ago we moved into the village of Kalchuga, ten miles west of Moscow, after tearing to pieces and rebuilding a country dacha in the village. We are now recovering from those months of begging builders to work for us, and entreating overpaid tradesmen to sell us their paint, bathroom taps and other building materials.

Kalchuga is neither a securely fenced-in "foreigners" compound nor a conventional Russian village. It lies on the most expensive strip of real estate in Russia, on the Moscow outskirts where all the Communist party leaders had their dachas. Nevertheless it has managed to retain many of the typical features of a Russian village: grumpy old ladies, a few drunks, pretty cottages with wooden lace-trimmed windows and a water pump for those many homes without running water. It also boasts the ubiquitous feature of the new Russian countryside: a string of building sites.

Over the past three years, the landscape around Moscow has gone through the most spectacular transformation. Empty fields have sprouted entire new "villages," conglomerations of half built greco gothic monstrosities with towers and columns, usually erected haphazardly on parcels of land barely large enough to hold them. For the "new Russians" who are building these monuments to riches and freedom, it is essential for the garden to be tiny: anything too large would suggest that the owners are planning to grow vegetables as their Soviet parents would have done.

In the field nextdoor to us, barely larger than our plot of land, three houses and a tennis court are currently being built. The most worrying aspect is not that where there once stood beautiful trees there is now mud and bulldozers. The problem is that these houses will be an added strain on the local utilities and services that are already overloaded to breaking point.

In Kalchuga there is no rubbish collection. We take our bins into town in the back of a car, but most people dump rubbish in the woods, burning what they can. The Russian newspapers, printed in Moscow, arrive a day or two late. Power cuts are frequent and telephone conversations are interrupted if one spends too much time, as this limits the number of calls that can come in and out of the village. Most houses have no plumbing. This would not be remarkable if Kalchuga was a Siberian outpost, but this village is situated in the most privileged area in Russia. The state cannot possibly catch up with the pace at which the countryside is becoming suburbanised-and so far there are no private alternatives.

Despite the Jaguars and jacuzzis, it seems that most of Russia lacks the basic conveniences that we take for granted in a developed country. Grandiose homes, with whirlpool baths and computer controlled security systems, are being built in areas where there is little running water, poor power supplies, limited telephone lines and no sewage. It is often too late to change building plans once these problems are discovered; countless half built mansions litter the countryside while architects haggle with local utilities.

Our house is a case in point. The original builders connected themselves to an underground gas pipe which belongs to the KGB. They bribed the local electricity authorities in order to get power. As the house is not officially connected to any energy sources, I have not paid a gas or electricity bill for over a year. I am not comfortable with this, but to legalise the situation now would entail such a bureaucratic nightmare that I cannot summon up the courage to face it.

At times one has to be more resourceful than merely siphoning gas off the KGB. Last month, after our septic tank overflowed into the bath, I spent weeks trying to convince the local septic tank disposal man to empty our tank. Wads of dollar bills could not persuade him: he was overworked and overpaid, and my flimsy offerings could not possibly compete with those of the gold medallion down the road. Finally, the most shameless survival tactic acquired in Russia was called upon: a short skirt, red lipstick and a tearful tantrum in his yard. It worked; the tank was emptied that afternoon.

Meanwhile, construction goes on nextdoor. When I asked the builders what they would do about sewage, they tried to convince me to enter into business with them importing biological toilets from Australia. They cannot waste time figuring out how to connect to the state sewage pipes. They plan to finish building before the deep winter when the cold will make working outside impossible, and they will return to their native Ukraine.

But it is not just the lack of utilities and the cold that accounts for all those half finished houses dotted around the countryside. Hot Russian summers also present problems. During the height of the heatwave this summer we heard gurgling sounds from the building site next door. The builders were filling the big hole, which was supposed to be the foundation of the house, with water. It was too hot to work, they explained. Would I like a swim?