My Own Private Ivanteevka

At our dacha northeast of Moscow, it isn't easy to sleep in on weekend mornings these days. The summer sun comes roaring up about 4:30 a.m., setting off a cacophony of cackling roosters. A couple of hours later, neighbors begin their fevered repair work on their property, hammering or clanking metal--sometimes all day long.

But it doesn't bother our two daughters, ages 3 and 5, who manage to snooze away, oblivious to the noise and light. That's because they're pleasantly tired from all the play the day before in our spacious backyard with its lawn and apple trees. Nearby fields and pine forests offer frogs, butterflies, goats, cows, and, most important, space to run and fresh air to breathe.

The dacha, located in the small town of Ivanteevka, has been an important part of our lives for nearly a decade. My Russian-born wife, Marina, bought the semi-detached home in 1986, a year before we met and two years before we married. Repairing the place has been a pain, but we enjoy our retreat.

The 30-kilometer trek to Ivanteevka from Moscow is also an informal way to keep up on some of the changes transforming Russia. The most important of these has been the most fundamental: the restoration of property rights. Owning land outright was a stubborn taboo of the Communists who ruled Russia for 72 years. But even under the Communists, Russians considered the dacha a beloved refuge from a hard life dominated by the whims of bureaucrats. They sleepwalked through jobs in Soviet enterprises during the week, but labored like maniacs at their dachas.

For years, the state kept a heavy thumb on what individuals could do with their property. Russians now may buy and sell land with little interference. As a result, Moscow's suburbs are sprouting everything from tiny wooden houses called izbas to grandiose brick mansions that can go for $1 million or more. Busy roadside markets lure homeowners with shovels, tomato plants, and electric meters, snarling traffic and doubling our 45-minute drive.

Today's freedom to buy property is a far cry from when Marina purchased hers for 14,000 rubles (about $5,000 then). The place was a mess and Marina and I, then on my first Moscow tour for BUSINESS WEEK, spent hours cleaning it up. In 1989, I was reassigned to New York and Marina prepared to emigrate. She decided to sell the dacha and had a buyer lined up willing to pay 20,000 rubles.

A TOUCH OF HOME. The Communists, who considered it unpatriotic to emigrate, quickly changed our plans. The sale had to be approved by a local government committee--which happened to include a policewoman who had processed Marina's emigration papers. When Marina appeared before the panel, the policewoman exclaimed, "The little bitch is emigrating to the States! No way are we going to approve her sale." Marina was ordered to sell only to a person on their "official" list--at the "official" price of 2,500 rubles. She ended up renting out the dacha.

Now we're glad. Within four years, we were back in Moscow with two small children who needed a backyard. We decided to Americanize the dacha. Bringing in a truckload of fill, we graded and seeded the yard. Within a year, the rich soil had yielded a thick green carpet. Marina's brother made a patio for us. We set up a hammock from Pawleys Island, S.C., and to keep the lawn mowed, we bought an electric trimmer.

Our neighbors view our lawn mania with amusement. Most Russians don't want lawns; they'd rather use every inch to cultivate vegetables or flowers. A couple of months ago, I hired two neighbors, retirees in their 70s, to fix our roof. After the job was done, I gave them snifters of vodka and went back to cutting the grass. "That's not the way we do it in Russia, you know," said Volodya. His sidekick laughed, "We'd use a scythe, it's more honest."

The neighborhood has its share of characters, including four women who tend a herd of goats. They sell sweet, thick goat milk in old glass bottles. Our favorite neighbors, though, are Mikhail Sergevich Popov and his wife, Nina. They live across the unpaved street in a handsome, two-story house that Misha, 69, built after he retired. He acts as a volunteer custodian for neighbors who only use their houses on weekends.

Misha's real talent is restoring samovars, and for this he's a local celebrity. He has 30 shiny silver and gold samovars on display in his living room and about 30 more awaiting repair in a basement shop. Most are roughly 100 years old and come from the city of Tula, famous for elaborate samovars. "I found some in the garbage and in old houses," he says. "I'd see them lying around and ask the owner if I could take them." He uses chemicals to get rid of tarnish. The hardest repairs involve fabricating new parts, but Misha has little trouble: He was a metalworker for 40 years.

SQUATTERS' RIGHTS. Since he arrived in Ivanteevka in 1933, Misha has seen the town grow from a village of about 10,000 to a small city of 53,000. Only 45 minutes from Moscow on the electreechka, or electric train, the town is quickly turning into a real bedroom community. Just beyond city limits--about 300 meters from our property--scores of small garden plots have been carved out of the woods and fields in recent years. Some are expanding into tracts under a peculiar system in which squatters get plots from authorities and then form tovarischestvo or comradeship groups to privatize them.

Some Ivanteevka folk still cling to old ideas about private property. Our neighbors, who own the other part of our house and whose land sweeps in a narrow "L" shape behind our own, twice used our land to store rotten boards and old pipes. In a 20-below cold snap last winter, our pipes burst and the water caused minor damage to the neighbors' home. When they asked for money for repairs, I said, sure--as soon as you remove your debris. At that, one of them, a 70-year-old retired auto worker, flew into a rage. "Your land?" he screamed. "You American spy, you American fascist. We'll see what happens when the Communists come back and take your land."

He did clean up the garbage, but relations between us remain tense. All in all, that's a small price to pay for our very own piece of Russia. That's especially clear these weekend evenings. Around midnight, the hammering has stopped, the kids have crashed, and the sun finally sets. The only sounds are the wind and the crickets.

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