Andrew Osborn








Putin Place: Lakeside Residents Clash With Russia's Power Elite --- Modest Dacha Owners Say They're Harassed; Class Struggle Is Back

The Wall Street Journal, 25th September 2007 11:55

By Andrew Osborn

SOLOVYEVKA, Russia -- Eleven years ago, the odor of burning wood and an intense orange glow over the trees prompted Irina Abramenko to dash to a neighbor's villa just up the hill from her cottage in this sleepy vacation village.

As smoke billowed from the villa and a crowd looked on, the neighbor frantically tied bedsheets to a balcony and cajoled his adolescent daughter into shimmying down. He was naked but for a sheet around his waist; minutes earlier he had been in the sauna.

Ms. Abramenko says she fetched the distraught man some pants and a shirt and shouted orders to local men who pushed her neighbor's car safely away from the fire. The man could do little but watch as the flames razed his house, or dacha, to the ground.

The man was Vladimir Putin. He'd moved to the dacha with his wife and two daughters that summer after losing his job as a senior official in the mayor's office in St. Petersburg. After the fire, Mr. Putin had his dacha rebuilt in the same style on the same spot.

Today, Mr. Putin and a small circle of neighbors from the dacha compound are part of Russia's new power elite, filling top jobs in government and state-controlled companies. Mr. Putin, 54 years old, is Russia's president. One neighbor runs a huge subsidiary of the state energy colossus OAO Gazprom. Another runs the national railroad, and until recently, another headed the state nuclear exporter. Lakeside property values have soared.

Meanwhile, longtime residents like Ms. Abramenko say they're being harassed by an association founded by Mr. Putin and his powerful neighbors. Many of the 500 or so people who live in far more modest dachas down the road say access to a favored swimming beach has been cut off by a security barrier. Some claim they've been cheated out of land. Over the past few years, these residents have waged a bitter -- and so far quixotic -- battle of letters and lawsuits with their well-connected neighbors over access to the prime land along the shore.

The disputes in this small village are a dramatic example of those seen across Russia, where proximity to power has led to vast wealth for a few, raising hackles among the many left behind. President Putin's nearly eight years in office have brought a big boost in living standards for tens of millions of Russians. But the benefits haven't been spread equally, and the gap between rich and poor has gone from wide to yawning.

"We have been here since 1962," says Nikolai Chuvikov. "We had a spot by the shore where Putin is now and then they moved us." Dressed in a scruffy sweater, rubber boots and clutching a cheap filterless cigarette, Mr. Chuvikov, 71, and his wife grow vegetables in their small yard to supplement their joint monthly pension of 8,250 rubles, or about $330.

Dacha living is a centuries-old tradition rooted in the Tsarist-era practice of rewarding faithful retainers with country estates. The Soviets continued the custom. Frequently a summer getaway from polluted city living, dachas cut across social divides and can range from glorified wooden sheds to mansions.

Located near Russia's border with Finland, sparkling Komsomolskoye Lake was largely undeveloped until the 1960s, when Mr. Chuvikov says his uncle was given use of the land by a local official. The first dachniki here were ordinary citizens who often built their dachas with their own hands. In the early 1990s, Mr. Putin and a group of St. Petersburg associates discovered the fish-laden lake, famed for water so pure locals say it is drinkable.

In a book of interviews published during his first Kremlin campaign in 2000, the future Russian president describes how he scrambled to keep up with surging inflation as builders slowly completed his dacha. He joined neighbors in trying to improve the area: A 1996 residents' petition demanding the installation of electricity lines bears his signature.

Ms. Abramenko, the neighbor who says she fetched Mr. Putin clothes during the fire, bought her cottage near Mr. Putin's dacha in 1995. A vivacious redhead, Ms. Abramenko says relations with her neighbors were initially good. She reminisces about chatting at the Putins' dacha with the future president's wife, Ludmilla Putin, and recalls how her own aged mother entertained Mr. Putin's father over tea and pancakes. She also remembers the Putins' spacious living room with its open fireplace and magnificent views across the lake.

When asked to corroborate her story, a Kremlin spokesman declined to discuss Ms. Abramenko.

It was only after Mr. Putin got a job in Moscow following the 1996 fire that problems arose, she and other residents say. Around that time, the powerful owners of the shoreline houses, including Mr. Putin, formed a management company called Ozero, Russian for "lake," to handle their land. Within a few years, residents say, the company, headed by a longtime Putin associate, started trying to resettle a handful of locals whose log cabins gave them access to a swath of forest and shoreline that Mr. Putin's friends coveted.

Most agreed, accepting larger plots further inland with building materials in exchange. In 2002, Ms. Abramenko says she was approached by the management company's chief engineer with an offer of $30,000 for her land, then one of the few lakeside plots not owned by Ozero. While that was a handsome sum at the time, Ms. Abramenko believed it far less than her property was worth. She turned it down.

That's when the trouble started, Ms. Abramenko says. Soon after refusing the offer, she arrived to discover that the road to her dacha -- the same access route used by Mr. Putin's friends -- had been blocked with a barrier. Since then, Ms. Abramenko can only get to her property by making a detour. She has to leave her car in a nearby field and carry everything to her dacha on foot.

One year later, Ms. Abramenko, who spends most of the year in St. Petersburg, arrived to find that an 8-foot high wooden fence had been thrown up around her dacha's perimeter, depriving her of access to the lake. Later, after she started taking legal action, the local government filed a lawsuit claiming she had acquired the property illegally.

She defeated that lawsuit, but then learned that prime land adjacent to her plot was bought in 2003 by Sergei Fursenko, chief executive of a unit of Gazprom who also presides over one of Russia's most-famous soccer clubs.

Ms. Abramenko says the land should have been offered to her by law, but someone forged her signature on a document that waived her right to buy. Government experts later confirmed the document was a forgery, according to legal documents.

Ms. Abramenko went to court, suing first to have the barriers and fences removed and later to challenge the purchases that were based on the forged documents. The Priozersky District Court is expected to rule in the case next week.

In court, Mr. Fursenko's representatives have denied Ms. Abramenko's claims outright. They argued that she could still get access to her land, albeit from a different side, and that the road barrier was necessary to protect foreign delegations who visit Mr. Fursenko in connection with his work. They also insisted that he acquired the land legally and access to the beach was not entirely cut off.

Ms. Abramenko, now 51, says she has repeatedly tried to contact Mr. Putin, the man she helped 11 years ago, hoping he might intervene. But he has remained silent, she says. The Kremlin declined to comment on the matter.

Other neighbors have also been fighting Ozero, which put up a fence in 2002 barring access to a popular swimming beach.

Viktor Roshchin, a retired merchant seaman who heads the association representing the residents of modest dachas, thumbs through files overflowing with letters to government regulators seeking to force Ozero to reopen access to the lake.

"Who haven't we written to?" he says with irony. "But nothing changes."

Three years ago, Mr. Roshchin got a response from a state regulator to one complaint. The letter said inspectors had checked and found no obstacles to beach access for Mr. Roshchin and his neighbors.

Surprised, Mr. Roshchin and a group of neighbors set off to test the waters by climbing through a hole in Ms. Abramenko's fence. They were stopped immediately by Ozero's security guards. Minutes later, Mr. Roshchin says Vladimir Smirnov, then head of Ozero and the chief of the state nuclear exporter, arrived.

In a police report, one of Mr. Roshchin's neighbors accused Mr. Smirnov of throttling her and trying to push her head underwater, saying, "You wanted land. Now you'll see some." In the same report, Mr. Smirnov denied the attack, charging that the group appeared drunk and were trespassing on private property. Police, called by Ozero security, ruled there was no evidence a crime was committed.

A spokesman for Ozero couldn't be reached for comment. In letters, Ozero officials have argued that the local residents agreed in 1999 to cede their beach access in return for a walkway and a new beach to be built by Ozero at a cost of $18,000. But Mr. Roshchin and his neighbors say the new beach, a marshy spot choked with reeds and eels, is almost unusable and insist the 1999 deal was annulled.

Ozero has had more success with the authorities. Earlier this summer, one of the country's top environmental regulators stepped in to stop the construction of a vacation village on the shore close to Ozero, according to a press release from the Ministry of Natural Resources. The regulator called on prosecutors to bring criminal charges against a local developer for "damaging the forest and fertile soil."

The developer, Rubik Surmisizyan, claims the case was fabricated to force him off the land, which he alleges Ozero wants. He says investigating officials have told him that the legal onslaught was ordered from "on high, from the sun." Hearings are pending.

Protected by a wooden fence that's nearly 10 feet high, Ozero residents relax in sprawling brick and wooden homes surrounded by birch trees near the shore. The high fence -- topped with video cameras -- makes it hard to see other individual homes in the area, which local records say sprawls over 22 acres. Locals say some residents arrive by helicopter.

Ms. Abramenko and her neighbors point out one Swiss-style brick villa, with a red-tiled roof adorned with a satellite TV dish, its windows covered by white metal shutters. It enjoys an unbroken view of the lake and has its own pier. Locals say that's Mr. Putin's house.

When running for president in 2000, Mr. Putin reported in an official declaration that he owned a property in the area. Four years later, when running for a second term, it was not mentioned. But locals report sightings of Mr. Putin's daughters in the past two years and are convinced he still owns the property. Most of the time, they say, the house stands empty, its shutters down.

A Kremlin spokesman said Mr. Putin sold the dacha "several years ago" to an unidentified buyer but declined to respond to detailed questions on the subject.

Just who lives in the elite compound now is equally hard to ascertain. The information is not publicly available, and in recent years Russia's super-rich have grown increasingly private about their finances and property empires.

Official property records show that Mr. Smirnov, one of the atomic-energy industry's most senior officials and one of Ozero's original founders, owned property there as recently as last year. Vladimir Yakunin, the head of state-owned Russian Railways and a man often mentioned as a possible future president, also still owns property in the compound, according to someone familiar with his affairs.

Viktor Zubkov, the little known bureaucrat Mr. Putin picked earlier this month as prime minister, doesn't own a dacha in Ozero. But he was a top official in the region in the late 1980s before going to work for the future president in St. Petersburg city hall.

On the other side of the fence, Mr. Roshchin, who married Ms. Abramenko two years ago, cooks his suppers in a converted shipping container with two windows. The place is heated by a wood-burning stove, and water is drawn from a nearby well. His bathroom, located in a small wooden outhouse, is a bucket.

Ms. Abramenko says she has no quarrel with Mr. Putin. She just wishes he would step in to rein in his friends.

"When his place burnt down I gave him trousers and a shirt," she says. "Now I have one question for him. Why doesn't he put his lawbreaking friends in their place?"