Toronto Star

Tycoons’ haven cuts to the soul

Poet Oleg Khlebnikov outside his dacha at Peredelkin­o writer’s village, where he has lived for 20 years.

- Carol J. Williams is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

The ochre leaves of the towering birch trees flutter in the warm breeze, shaking loose a confetti shower that blankets a forest promenade where Russian writers strolled for generation­s to drink in nature’s inspiratio­n.

The birch-shaded alley led east to the banks of the Setun River from Peredelkin­o’s enclave of gingerbrea­d wooden cottages where literary luminaries, including Boris Pasternak, plied their craft. To the south, the wanderers had an unfettered view across farmland and meadow to a 15th-century church and convent near the railway station connecting the village to Moscow.

Nowadays, though, the tree-lined path stops short at a walled compound of palatial villas built for billionair­e bandits and business tycoons. The bucolic vista has been replaced with a four-metre-high metal fence that separates the McMansions from the writers’ colony along the canopied path. The newcomers’ Audi and Mercedes-Benz sedans speed along the rutted surface, the siren blare of their SUV security escorts scattering the few remaining pedestrian­s like startled geese.

Three- and four-storey palaces loom above the surroundin­g walls, their telescopes, rooftop terraces and Italianate balconies as discordant as if space ships had landed in the vast field.

Poet Oleg Khlebnikov has lived in the old writers’ retreat north of the birch alley for 20 years, penning his verse on an oil cloth-covered wooden table on the veranda of a dacha he leases from the Literary Fund, a cultural heritage bureaucrac­y that inherited the enclave after the demise of the Soviet Union. No longer state-funded, the landlord is on the verge of bankruptcy and forced to manage the properties with an eye on potential profit.

In spite of the invasion of “new Russians” and their garish mega-dachas, Khlebnikov prefers life here to the even noisier bustle of Moscow, a 20-minute train ride away. “The air is better here. You see squirrels climbing trees and dogs can live outside, as they should,” observes the white-haired poet.

The literary lights that made Peredelkin­o synonymous with Russia’s soulful heritage of novels, poetry, screenplay­s and song would turn in their graves to see the village today, Khlebnikov laments.

When a neighbouri­ng property was rented to a criminal kingpin a few years ago, the prestige of living in the shadow of Pasternak’s refuge spurred envy among the magnate’s cronies, who sought to outbid him for the residence through the cash-strapped Literary Fund.

“It ended up in a shootout with three of them dead and the survivor in prison,” Khlebnikov said with a disgusted shake of his head. “Some of these new neighbours have never read a single poem, but they want to be able to say ‘I live next door to Pasternak.’ ”


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