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#13 - JRL 7010
The New York Times
Design Dispatch
January 9, 2003
The Czar Didn't Sleep Here

NEAR ZHUKOVKA, Russia Here in Moscow's version of the Hamptons, the final touches were being applied last month to a five-bedroom estate built in the Russian Art Nouveau style for a wealthy Moscow couple. Rising among firs inside a walled compound, the house is a daydream of czarist Russia, with bas-reliefs of mythological figures and mosaics of lilies splashed across the exterior walls. Still to be built are a guesthouse; a banya, or steam bath; and a pool overlooking a large pond.

Inside, intricately wrought bronze animals form the balustrade of a marble staircase. Floral inlays of semiprecious stone line the walls of the grand entryway. "Look at that it's worthy of a museum," said Mikhail D. Kharit, the architect and developer of the estate, pointing to Tiffany-style windows and parquet floors with five hues of wood.

Mr. Kharit's company, Intex, is one of the most prolific builders of country estates, known as usadby, for a new class of Russians who have grown wealthy sometimes fantastically so in the Wild East economy of the post-Soviet Russia.

The roughly 100 usadby (oo-SAHD-bee) that Mr. Kharit says have been built around Moscow are the inevitable expressions of new wealth: post-Soviet McMansions. But their gothic gates and silk-draped parlors are clear echoes of the Russian aristocratic country estate, an institution still deeply embedded in the consciousness here, though swept away by the 1917 revolution. "Communal apartments are not a normal way of life," said Mr. Kharit, who built bridges during the Soviet era. "It's normal when a child can climb into the attic and find his grandmother's toys. We're having our first taste of these sweets, and we want a lot right away."

The highly publicized restoration of the 18th-century Konstantinovsky Palace in St. Petersburg as an official presidential residence, at a cost of nearly $200 million, has helped promote the notion of palaces as national icons, and has accelerated the boom in new usadby. "It's not respectable to be a bandit," Mr. Kharit said. "Now everyone wants to be an aristocrat."

Most usadby are tucked away off the Rublyovo-Uspenskoye highway, which links Moscow with this affluent suburb, where land values have increased nearly tenfold in the last decade. The highway is known as "the government road," its name left over from the era when hundreds of Soviet officials lived nearby in bland brick state-owned dachas. Many still live there, but today the road is lined with health clubs and expensive restaurants like Czar's Hunt, whose menu seeks to replicate czarist banquets, and Dacha, where Asian and Mediterranean meals are followed by live chamber music.

The main house of an usadba, including furniture and land, typically costs $3 million or more. The most elaborate usadby have a guesthouse and separate quarters for servants and bodyguards. Guests at one Georgian-style estate leave their Mercedes-Benzes at the gate and ride to the house by horse and carriage.

The usadby are one manifestation of the growing tendency of affluent Russians to affect the trappings of a bygone aristocracy. "Clients want beautiful houses," said Azad Khachaturov, a Moscow architect who has built a dozen estates, including one with its own stables and church. "They want to return to their roots." Never mind that those roots rarely show any hint of true gentility.

Nastya Yegorova, a Moscow architect who has designed three usadby, said she even created a coat of arms to mount on the facade of one family's usadba. "Everyone is promoting their name," she said. "They want to create origins, an aristocracy. All of that was cut off so suddenly here. Now they want to restore it."

Soviet regulations once limited households in state-owned apartments to 129 square feet of living space for each person. By contrast, Oleg Shuranov, an interior designer and a founder of a firm called Fine Design Studio in Moscow, was recently hired to decorate a 16,000-square-foot home with a dining room seating 20. "We sensed that these people were trying to create an instant 300-year history of their family," he said. "This is a tendency in Russia in the 1990's. People are trying to live a decade in a year."

Mr. Kharit has done more than his part to create instant history. Among other things, he wrote "The New Russian Country Estate," which is bound in fake leather and is partly a history of old Russian estates and partly a promotion of his company's renditions.

Russia now has over 40 shelter magazines that both feed and are fed by the usadba construction boom. They are full of ads for tapestries, frescoes, Tiffany glass and decorating advice. "They shouldn't just be a house where a family lives," said Svetlana Bikbayeva, the editor and publisher of Archidom magazine. "There must be a linden tree alle and a driveway."

In a modern twist on the usadba concept, Konti, a Moscow developer, has built an usadba condominium complex called Pokrovskoye-Glebovo on the grounds of an old estate, long since fallen into ruin, where Catherine the Great took tea and Tolstoy met his future wife. Not surprisingly, Konti is playing up the history: its promotional booklet calls the complex a "XXI century aristocratic estate" and says that residents can rightly call themselves "new aristocrats." The complex, which will have a formal garden based on Peter the Great's Peterhof and Bach piped into the parking garage, was the brainchild of Timur Timerbulatov, a developer and former Soviet tank commander who is known for giving building sizes in tank lengths and making sarcastic references to Marx. Ninety percent of the completed apartments have been sold, at up to $1 million, according to Konit.

Today's usadby are modeled on the old provincial estates, the settings of Tolstoy novels and Chekhov plays in which aristocrats fell in love and mused about life's ironies over endless rounds of tea. The grandest had ballrooms, formal gardens and thousands of serfs. The most famous include Arkhangelskoye, ancestral home of the Yusupovs, one of whose scions killed Rasputin, and Ostankino, built by Count Sheremetyev for the serf actress he loved.

Only a few hundred of the original estates that once existed near Moscow and the surrounding regions have survived. Most are caught in a bureaucratic maze. New laws allow the government to sell them, but bribes are often required, and potential buyers say they worry that ownership could be revoked on a whim.

Dmitry Zhuravlyov, an owner of Russkaya Usadba, an antiques store that sells Russian empire-style furniture and other treasures saved from old estates, looked unsuccessfully this summer for an usadba to turn into a private home and museum. He concluded that it would be easier to build a new usadba than to buy an old one, he said. (Owners of the new usadby rarely buy Mr. Zhuravlyov's antiques, preferring instead to fill their 1,000-square-foot living rooms with replica furniture bought in Italy or Spain.)

Mr. Shuranov, who is an architect as well as an interior designer, said that "all old objects keep the energy of old owners."

"You take on their fate," he said, adding that his firms tell clients that "they're starting a new life, so buy new things."

For all their eager opulence, the new estates are shrouded in secrecy. A visit to one last month was handled like a K.G.B. operation, with a furtive meeting at a bus stop and passage through a checkpoint at a guarded gate.

In Russia, where business has often been associated with corruption and tax evasion, homeowners are reluctant to reveal the full extent of their wealth. Glossy shelter magazines devote endless spreads to usadby, showing architects and elaborate interiors, but they never show or identify the inhabitants. Not even Mr. Kharit would agree to be photographed at the usadba he built for himself.

This discreetness results in part from a fear of class hatred and a lingering conviction that what happened in 1917 could happen again. Mikhail Yatkovsky, president of the Foundation for the Revival of the Russian Country Estate, said he recently asked a vodka magnate who owns a spectacular home in Sardinia why he didn't build one near Moscow. "He said he will when he's not afraid that it will be taken away," Mr. Yatkovsky said.

Of course, some Russians object to the notion that anything as superficial as usadby could be interpreted as evidence of a new aristocracy. Grigory Revzin, architecture critic of Kommersant, a top Russian business newspaper, said he regards them as more of a passing fashion than a lasting way of life. "Usadby have all the good things a grand piano, a pool, everything for receptions but they treat the house like a European luxury hotel," he said. "To say that a Russian aristocracy has revived is completely wrong."

Dima Baryudin, a third-year architecture student at the Moscow Architectural Institute, said young designers worry that the usadby will have detrimental influence on Russian culture by conditioning clients to reject any possibility except imitations of historical forms. "Russia used to be at the forefront of modern architecture," he said. "We had constructivism and an avant-garde."

Many of the same criticisms were voiced about the original estates when they were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. "In Russian estates, with rare exceptions, everything is a mediocre copy or the work of third-rate craftsmen," Baron Nikolai Wrangel wrote in a 1910 essay on manorial Russia.

Today the demand for usadby is so great that Mr. Kharit is turning them out with industrial efficiency. He has converted the 15-acre grounds of a Soviet-era construction plant into a production center that cranks out fittings and fixtures and parquet floors. Over 1,000 people work for Intex, and he has hired 30 master craftsmen, many of them restorers formerly employed by museums, to create sculptures, fine woodcarving and mosaics. Their materials include a concrete compound, patented by Mr. Kharit, that looks like naturally aged stone.

On a recent tour of the workshops, Gothic-style sculptures lined the floor of a hangar-size assembly area. Mr. Kharit paused to encourage a sculptor who was consulting a coffee table book on St. Petersburg's imperial palace parks while fabricating a model of entwined women on a pillar capital.

Earlier, musing on his role in the rise of the usadby, Mr. Kharit said: "When I build an usadba, I feel like I'm creating a universe. I'm like God populating the universe, and all the creatures living there are my creatures."

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