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#9 - JRL 7256
The Electronic Telegraph (UK)
July 18, 2003
Moscow for sale
By Hamish Scott

With foreign investment pouring in and a local elite growing fat on the proceeds, a new Russian revolution is well under way. Hamish Scott looks on from afar at a property market in a state of ferment

To become an expert on an unfamiliar place, one need only study property advertisements. I once met a Frenchman in Dijon whose knowledge of Britain was entirely gleaned from Country Life. His view of our culture was, I must admit, a little odd. He had never heard of David Beckham, but he could recognise a Robert Adam mansion at a glance, knew the price of fishing on the Tweed and opined that Weybridge was declasse in comparison with Richmond. I was quite impressed. He even knew that the Wiltshire village where I lived was "assez convenable pour Waterloo". He could easily have convinced me that he'd been there.

Well, now I can hold my own in a conversation about life in Russia. Not that I have paid a visit, at least not for 20 years. But I have been reading Moscow Residential Property News. It has little in common with Country Life, apart from being published in the English language, but as a window into an exotic culture, it is equally as telling. If Pravda was the organ of the old regime, then this is the mouthpiece of the new, for property lies at the heart of market economics.

The first shock for a British reader comes with the prices. In the Arbat, Moscow's arty enclave, a one-room studio with "functional layout" is advertised for rent at US$3,500 a month. Compared with most examples, however, this is a bargain. A month in a two-bedroom apartment in a "ministry-style building" is US$7,000. Its decor is what might be termed "interrogator-chic", with bright lights, bare walls and a solitary couch.

Alternatively, there's a "representative-type apartment", which is clearly a step up from "ministry". Of ornate, pre-Revolutionary design, it looks like an expensive brothel and the monthly rent is US$12,000. And if you're interested in buy-to-let, there's a golden opportunity available. It is described, less than seductively, as two-fifths of a brick-built building in a yard near the metro. In the photograph, it could be mistaken for a prison, with grilles and wire mesh to deter intruders, but the neighbours are, apparently, "respectable". The owner is offering it for sale in shell and core condition for US$260,000. And that, it would appear, is bargain-basement entry-level to the Moscow market.

This, clearly, is a market in a state of ferment. There is a sense of aspiration, opportunity and surging confidence. The adverts show fitted kitchens and designer decor. They feature "luxury townhouses", landscaped grounds, two-car garages and "period details". There is reference to the quality of local schools. Aside from an insistent interest in "security", this appears to be a thoroughly familiar world, like Weybridge, only richer.

But this, we know, cannot be a true, unvarnished picture of the state of Russia a decade after its latest revolution. Only a minute elite of Muscovites have, as yet, acquired the keys to this exclusive world in a city where the average monthly wage is still less than US$700.

For an explanation, one must turn from the adverts to the stories in the magazine. Like the articles on pruning Labradors and breeding roses in Country Life, these link the tempting houses to the broader world they represent. And Moscow Residential Property News has some fascinating editorial.

There is a breathless feature on "the Dacha Beat" that lists the "in" locations for a country cottage. Foreigners, apparently, favour Serebryany Bor, near the Anglo-American school but, for Russians with bulging wallets, there is nowhere to beat Rublyovka, where even a run-down house rents for US$7,000 a month and those with western plumbing can fetch US$25,000. There are, it seems, two distinct elites; employees of American and European companies that are exploiting the vast potential of the Russian market and Russians who have grown fat on this rich flood of investment. And the latter group does not see money as a precious, leaking reservoir to be dammed in and conserved. It is a river, newly sprung out of the barren earth and gushing faster every year. It is there to be splashed in, wasted and enjoyed for however long it lasts. That is why most apartments are for rent rather than for sale.

The magazine does not shy away from dealing with that cornerstone of get-rich-quick economies; corruption. An article on "Charity in Russia" explains how building permits are best obtained by a suitable donation to Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's pet cause; the building of Christ the Saviour Cathedral. This, the writers advise, will prove more beneficial than a similar donation to the National Sports Fund, which is likely to be spent on the importation and resale of tax-free liquor. And in "A spin with the stars", Moscow's top astrologer, Pavel Globa, explains that he does not charge politicians for his services. Unless dollars are available, he prefers the older currency of favours. It would be hard to find such useful advice in any English magazine.

Then there is the upbeat leading feature, "Moscow's Millennium Makeover", which really sets the scene and concentrates the mind with its statistics. Ten years ago, just 0.3 per cent of homes were privately owned. Now that figure is above 40 per cent and rising. But just 15 per cent of homes meet "European standards", the new benchmark of the culture. So there are plans to build or renovate up to 20 million square metres of residential property, along with the creation of a vast new infrastructure.

After decades of neglect, a whole society is being modernised and upgraded by new owners. Some parts have already been glitzily transformed, although the place remains in chaos while the builders are at work. There are fortunes to made, or so it is believed. And, as for the final bill, with mortgages, international loans and overseas investment readily available, such details can be settled later. In a land of revolutions, tomorrow never knows. Imagine Weybridge with Kalashnikovs.

In most respects, the world presented by Moscow Residential Property News is cynical and hard. In fact, it is downright scary. But there is another side to the magazine and, therefore, to Moscow. "Free, unlimited vodka for your secretary every Wednesday night" we are told in an advertisement for a US-style steak-bar.

That is disgraceful and demeaning. But it has a fumbling, adolescent innocence that reminds one of Benny Hill rather than of true depravity. And in "Letter from the Editor" (in the photograph she looks rather sad and whimsical), an article on "Adopting a Russian Soul" is trailed. Saving a child, she writes, might interest readers with a yen for serious commitment.

If, on the other hand, you are just looking for a lifetime friend, why not adopt a kitten instead? She has three to spare. Reading this, one realises that the Russian mind has a logic and values, of its own. It's no wonder that we had some small misunderstandings during the Cold War.

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