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FEATURE-Russian dacha craze risks environmental carnage
By Oliver Bullough

PEREDELKINO, Russia, June 16 (Reuters) - In idle moments the writer Boris Pasternak used to gaze across the valley at a vista of trees and golden domes, but this may be the last year when visitors to his country house, or dacha, can also appreciate the view.

The valley's meadows, where the author of "Doctor Zhivago" strolled during the lonely years of Soviet persecution, could soon vanish beneath luxury dachas -- the latest status symbols for Russia's new rich who like to call them "cottages."

"What will I show visitors? There will just be rooftops. We won't be able to see the church where he is buried," said Natalya Pasternak, the daughter-in-law of the writer forced to refuse a Nobel Prize by the Soviet government in 1958.

Since Russia threw off Soviet rule in 1991, Moscow's businessmen have poured millions into building lavish dachas.

The traffic-choked roads along which Muscovites flee town on Friday nights are lined with billboards promising comfort in exclusive villages, their English names like "Falconers" or "Sherwood" adding an exotic touch.

But ecologists fear the building boom is putting intolerable strain on the environment, endangering not only wildlife, but the air and water Muscovites depend upon.

"The last decade and a half have been catastrophic for unspoilt land in Russia," said Guslana Kartyushova of the environmental organisation Greenpeace.


She said some 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres) of protected forests surrounding the capital -- crucial to help filter the city's choking smog -- had been sold in the last decade.

"The majority of these are in the regions nearest to the city. In some areas, half of the forest has been lost."

Estate agents charge sky-high prices for plots near Moscow.

"In the last few years, the majority of the forest that has been sold has gone to the elite. It is so expensive that only the very rich can afford it," Kartyushova said.

Dachas are a way of life for Russians, though for most on a far more modest scale.

During Soviet times, they were a perk for government officials, artists and writers, who were given houses in villages like Peredelkino.

For ordinary Soviet citizens, they were a refuge from cramped communal apartments, their vegetable gardens supplementing the meagre selection in state-run shops.

Dachas, albeit on small plots and made of wood which made them unusable in winter, were as near to private property allowed by Soviet ideology.

The new rich have taken the tradition to startling extremes. Muscovites swap stories about businessmen building houses to resemble yachts or castles, or investing millions in self-designed mansions which then fall down.

Water is also at risk. While developers were scrupulous in building the actual houses, they often scrimped on less glamorous elements -- such as waste systems.

"There can be up to 100 houses in each village, and each one costs about a million dollars. But they don't spend a single kopeck on cleaning up their sewage and waste," Kartyushova said.

"And this is ending up in the city's water."


Though the Moscow region government denies the problem is serious, the state-run firm that supplies Moscow's water, Mosvodokanal, said the building boom was harming water sources.

Yevgeniya Bogomolova, the company's spokeswoman, said some 250 hectares (618 acres) of forests crucial to water purity had been built on in the last three years.

"Most of the developments have been cottages...It is a big problem, especially because they chop down the forest. And that is important for maintaining ecological balance," she said.

She said this altered water flow and cleanliness, making it harder to provide clean and regular water supplies.

"This means we have to pay more money to clean it, which means higher rates for the customers," she said.

Ineffective law enforcement and corruption prevented a solution, she said. Villagers in Peredelkino agreed, saying that some landowners had been threatened until they sold their fields.

Boris Pasternak's view is still largely unspoilt. But the field in front, once dotted with the white flowers of potato plants, is fenced off, rutted and scarred with piles of sand.

According to media reports there are already nine dacha villages being built near Peredelkino. Every time Natalya Pasternak left the house she was reminded how firmly dacha hunters have her village in their sights.

A tatty notice was tacked to the gates: "I want to buy a cottage in this area," it said. "Top prices paid."

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