Homecoming For Russia's Erstwhile Elite

Prince Yevgeny Meshchersky clambers out of a muddy trench where he is laying a sewer line. "Excuse me, I am not prepared to greet guests," he says, wiping his hands on his brown coveralls. He ducks into a dilapidated building, emerging in clean clothes to offer a handshake and a tour of the Petrovskoye-Alabino estate.

The place is a shambles. A columned palace that once housed a world-class art collection is now a roofless ruin. The lawns are choked with weeds, and the outbuildings are boarded up. Nevertheless, 47-year-old Meshchersky plans to make this his home. For more than a year, he has squatted in a fire-damaged gatehouse, fixing it up while he fights for legal ownership of the property seized from his family after the Bolshevik Revolution. On a ruined wall is a sign that reads: "Monument to Soviet Vandalism."

NOBLE CAUSE. Meshchersky is in the vanguard of a push by descendants of the Russian aristocracy to reclaim family holdings that were seized in the wake of the 1917 revolution. Emboldened by property-rights language in Russia's 1993 constitution, they are petitioning the courts and pressuring local authorities to let them occupy their ancestral homes. They're also seeking legislation that would return confiscated properties to their precommunist owners. Although only a handful are pursuing claims, some 14 million Russians could be eligible for restitution if such a law passed. "We cannot bring back the dead," says Meshchersky, whose grandfather was shot by the Bolsheviks. "But we can show the world that Russia is no longer a place where you can rob, loot, and destroy."

Maybe, but the nobles will have a difficult time rallying support in the midst of Russia's recent economic collapse. Even before the crisis hit, Parliament had blocked legislation that would have allowed private ownership of land. President Boris N. Yeltsin's government has returned only those properties that were confiscated from churches. While local authorities have allowed the heirs of some aristocratic families to occupy abandoned rural estates, they are refusing to turn over more valuable urban property. Even Russia's best-known survivor of the gulags, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, says that the nobles' quest is misguided. "You cannot draw up a restitution law on the principle of returning everything to everyone. In that case, you will be causing new injustices," Solzhenitsyn told the newspaper Izvestia recently. Many aristocrats' houses were split into apartments decades ago and have been home to other families for generations.

IDYLL WORSHIP. Still, Russia is heeding some aristocrats' pleas, and it is doing so for economic, not altruistic, reasons. Local governments are hoping that prominent families will develop returned property as tourist attractions. Officials in the Gatchina region south of St. Petersburg recently approached the family of the late Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, offering to return part of the family's holdings along the Oredezh River. In return, they want the family to help build a Nabokov memorial and conference center, which would include an apartment for the author's son, Dmitry Nabokov, an opera singer who lives in Switzerland. Dmitry Nabokov wants to recreate the place where his father spent idyllic boyhood summers. Vladimir Nabokov was 18 when his family fled Russia. "His severest sense of loss was not of lost samovars and icons and kopecks, but the loss of his childhood and the scenery of his childhood," the son says.

Yevgeny Filatov, a descendant of a wealthy Moscow merchant clan, has received little assistance from the government. Filatov has waged a three-decade-long battle to live in his family's 174-year-old wooden house in a fashionable Moscow neighborhood. Today, the property is worth some $2 million. The house had been split into apartments, with Filatov's family retaining one of the units. In 1965, the city decided to demolish the building, and everyone moved out--except Filatov. He saved the house by getting it designated an architectural monument, then staved off eviction efforts after the state claimed the building was unsafe. Last year, the city agreed to develop a small museum in the house, with Filatov as live-in director. But the city doesn't recognize him as the building's legal owner. And the place is badly run-down. "It's dangerous even to go to the bathroom," he says.

GRAND PLANS. At least Filatov has a bathroom. The building where Prince Meshchersky, his wife, and three children live has no running water, no heating system, and until a few weeks ago, no electricity. The acrid smell of a past fire clings to the rough wooden walls and plank floors. "We have enough work here for our whole lives," sighs Meshchersky's wife, Lyudmila. She hauls water from a well and tends a large vegetable garden and a rabbit hutch. Her husband has grand plans for the property, including a hotel and other amenities to attract tourists, though he plans to leave the ruined palace as a reminder of communism's folly.

The estate, which dates to 1780, once covered 10 square kilometers southwest of Moscow. The palace was a cultural center where the nobility attended concerts and dances and strolled through an art gallery containing masterpieces by Velazquez and Botticelli. The Communist government sold off the palace's contents and later turned the property into a concentration camp. Surviving family members had fled to a rural area outside St. Petersburg, where they attempted to conceal their aristocratic background. Meshchersky recalls hearing furtive conversations about the estate, but no one dared visit it.

He first saw it in 1996, after he had married and moved to Ukraine to work as an engineer. Meshchersky rushed to the estate after relatives sent word from Moscow that the government was planning to allow wealthy families to build summer houses on the property. He cleared away mountains of garbage and repaired a gutted gatehouse for his living quarters. He and his family spent the winter huddled around a woodstove. Meanwhile, Meshchersky filed a petition in the local courts seeking to be declared the property's owner. The court ruled against him, but he is appealing.

His chances look slim. At least five other families have filed similar petitions, and none has succeeded, according to Alexei Firsanov, chairman of the League for Property Rights Protection, a group that seeks restitution for confiscated holdings.

Time is running out for some petitioners. Ninety-five-year-old Georgi Shtruk filed a claim two years ago for his ancestral home near Moscow's Garden Ring road and is still awaiting a final court decision. Shtruk's family moved out of the building decades ago after the property was broken up into communal apartments, and he realizes that he will never live there again. But, says his nephew, Alexander Kochetkov, who is assisting with the court case, "in his lifetime, he would like to see justice restored."


"COURAGE AND RESPECT." The courts may be unsympathetic, but many Russians admire the nobles' determination. Neighbors have welcomed Meshchersky and his family, bringing food and supplies and addressing him as "Prince Yevgeny" with a respectful tip of the hat. "People are pleased that a man has found courage and respect for his ancestors," says Sergei, a neighbor who stops by to chat on a recent morning. Sergei says the place is haunted, and neighbors have seen ghosts on the lawns at night dressed in 19th century costumes. "I've seen them, too," Meshchersky replies. "Don't worry, they won't hurt you." The nobles may not win their legal battle, but they could help Russia come to terms with the ghosts of a brutal past.

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