There are two other people waiting with me for the number 21 bus to Koltyshevo.
If you walk through the forest nearby, after an hour or so you’ll reach a health spa on a picturesque lake . But we are going in the opposite direction, towards the lone shop in front of some wooden barrack-style buildings. These were built in the 1960s to house workers at the battery hen farm.
At the time, these buildings were supposed to be temporary, built to last a summer month or two. Their foundations were minimal. The walls? Two layers of planking covered in a layer of plaster. But 50 years on, workers from the (now closed) farm still live there.
In Koltyshevo, the streets don’t have names, but the houses have numbers. We are going to house number one, the one they call ‘the manor’, an old country house, built more than two centuries ago (no one knows the exact date).
After the revolution, the house was divided up into flats and has since, slowly but surely, fallen into disrepair. The avenue of lime trees leading up to the 'barracks'—the only trace of its aristocratic past.
History of a house
Andrei Chizhkov’s guide to Moscow’s estates doesn’t have much to say on Koltyshevo, situated some 80km north-west of Moscow.
The 'manor'. Image courtesy of Arthur Bondar.
Until the middle of the 19th century, the village was called Voskresenskoye (Resurrection) , and belonged to Andrei Tatishchev, a man whose family went back to the legendary Ryurik dynasty, the Viking founders of Russia in the 9th century.
The village later passed to the Norov brothers, one a major and the other a cavalry captain. Koltyshevo’s last private owner was a country gentleman by the name of Popov, who, in 1901, won it in a game of cards. In 1917, the village was nationalised by the new Bolshevik authorities.
Now Tatyana Ivanovna, a packer, who moved to Koltyshevo as a child in the 1970s, lives on the first floor of the manor house with her family; she and her children and grandchildren live in one flat, and her mother and brother in another.
‘There were just elderly women living here, people who had worked for Popov back in the day,’ says Tatyana Ivanovna, remembering the house’s previous residents. ‘They told us about the hen house down by the river, the nail factory that stood where the bus stop is now, and the big stables near the houses behind the lime trees—all of them gone now.'
Tatyana Ivanovna in her kitchen. Image courtesy of Arthur Bondar.
‘On the other side of the road, where the private houses are now, there were birch trees and a pond. I remember that from the 70s. Before the revolution, they would spread a big tablecloth on the lawn on special occasions and have a party for everybody who worked for the Master, and he would sit with them. The old ladies were very flattering about him; they said he would bring food for his workers in the fields three times a day.’
‘They say there’s a small painting of our manor house, by an unknown artist, in the Tretyakov Gallery. You can see it had enormous verandas and stucco mouldings on the façade. Now that’s all gone as well.’
There’s very little of the old estate left. There’s a plinth near the barracks and the new children’s playground (four years on, the sand is yet to be delivered).
There used to be a statue of an angel on top of the plinth, a memorial to Popov’s youngest son who died as a child and is buried there. The residents say that Popov’s second son, a pilot killed in the First World War, is also buried somewhere close by, and there are in fact two mounds under the plinth.
'This wouldn't have happened in Master Popov's time.' Image courtesy of Arthur Bondar.
The angel itself disappeared after one of the locals decided to check whether there were valuables hidden in it. A man in camouflage trousers lies a metre away, drunk. ‘That wouldn’t have happened in Popov’s time,’ I think to myself, walking round his sleeping body.
Tatyana Ivanovna has had her flat in the old manor house for 16 years. Her family used to live in one of the wooden barracks, but it burned down in 1998 because of faulty wiring.
Although Tatyana Ivanovna is of retirement age, she still works in a furniture factory in the nearby town of Solnechnogorsk, along with her daughter. Her son, a university graduate, commutes to work in another town: there’s no work in Koltyshevo.
‘In the Soviet years, Koltyshevo was always a “transit centre”. That’s what people called it. People would come here and join the waiting list for a flat belonging to the battery farm. There was building work in the villages nearby so a lot of people moved here, but they would be temporarily registered as living in our house. Even on the roof – I have no idea how that worked, but I remember the police coming once and asking for someone from flat 18. “We only have ten flats,” I said, “or 16 if you count the attic. But 17 and 18 would have to be on the roof, so you’ll have to look for him there.”
‘At the time, I was working in the local health spa, first at the swimming pool and then in the dining room. It wasn’t far to go – just two kilometres. But in the 2000s, the place changed management; they sacked all the locals and took on migrants who were willing to work for next to nothing. They’re all illegals, so they [the employers] don’t have to pay any taxes. They [the migrants] still live and work at the sanitorium, and hardly ever go into the town; they’re too scared. They nip into the shop and out again, hoping to pass unnoticed. Have a look around: you’ll find out a lot more.’
As I leave the house, I bump into a dour-looking elderly woman: Polina Pavlovna, Tatyana’s mother. She is holding a small shopping bag and two sticks that she uses to get to the shop and back. Polina Pavlovna is 82, she lives on the first floor, and finds it harder every day to climb the steep stairs.
Polina Pavlovna. Image courtesy of Arthur Bondar.
There’s a large armchair downstairs in the yard. This is where Polina Pavlovna rests after shopping, and as she sits down she begins to relax; first a smile appears on her face, then she starts talking. Her voice is very soft; I have to sit beside her on the ground to hear everything.
‘It’s lovely around here,’ Polina Pavlovna tells me. ‘The river used to be wider, and you could catch pretty big fish. There was a bog further on, and legend has it that Catherine the Great lost some horses in it —as you do!
‘I was born in Odessa, but I can’t stand the sun. I don’t mind the cold and rain, but as soon as the sun comes out, I don’t feel well. My husband and I have been together 56 years, we used to walk all over the place. But he’s disabled now. He can’t walk. And he lives in a wooden house nearby. That’s easier for him, but the family and I live here in the “big house”.
‘We’re old now, our memory is going, but this house will stand for centuries – it just needs a bit of patching up on the outside. It was built out of some kind of clay mixed with eggs and metallic powder. But nobody wants to do that kind of thing now.
‘They want to rehouse us, but I’m not going anywhere. They are saving this house for themselves, waiting for it to fall down so that they can build over the whole place. You can see how they’ve built all those private houses behind us.’
Sitting in the shade, away from the hated sun, Polina Pavlovna falls to reminiscing:
‘I’m not afraid of death. I used to work as a warder in the Gulag. It wasn’t even a labour camp, it was a prison—once they went in, they never came out again. That place had its own laws. It’s the north after all. The most terrible place on earth.
‘The banks of the Pechora River were the height of this house. They would spend all day felling trees, floating them down the river, loading them into trucks and driving them away. It was easy for someone to fall in between the logs and that would be the end of them.
‘I used to be a lively one, I helped everybody, and I managed to keep out of trouble with the bosses. “Tell them everything but don’t tell them the truth; cooperate but don’t give anything away.” That’s how we lived there. I had to get on well with rich and poor, inmates and bosses. If you’ve any sense, you’ll get on with people: what’s the point of staring at the ground?’
Polina Pavlovna suddenly comes back to the present: ‘Our lads went to the council and said, “Give us the cement and other stuff, we’ll fix the house up ourselves.”
‘But they don’t want to do that; they’d rather wait for the house to fall apart. By that time, they’ll be gone, and the house will still be standing 100 years from now.’
Life without basic amenities
The house hasn’t been repaired for 20 years. The central heating pipes were replaced a couple of years ago when the old ones broke down.
After a fire in 1998, the only good well stopped working: the water went cloudy, then completely black and the shaft had to be filled in. Then they ran a pipe from the water tower and put in one cold tap in the communal hall.
The residents remember how, when they dug the trench for the cold water pipe, they found pre-revolutionary coins and bits of crockery and even an antique bronze teapot. But now when you draw water from it, you have to leave it to settle for two or three days before you can drink it, there’s so much rust in it. And it still doesn’t smell right, so the residents have to carry drinking water from a standpipe in the next village.
The water pipe was installed six years ago, and that was the last thing the management company did. This year the residents wanted a new roof, but the council offered them just four roofing panels.
‘What’s the use of that?’ says Svetlana, Tatyana Ivanovna’s daughter. ‘The whole roof is leaking.’ A ceiling in their flat recently fell in when someone was sleeping below; fortunately, it crumbled to dust and they weren’t hurt. It’s not easy to put up a new one; the joints are rotten so there’s nothing to nail the panels to.
There are rugs all over the floors because of the damp in the house, and it’s freezing in winter as the radiators don’t always work. The residents know all the workers at the local heating plant by name.
The flat on one side of the ground floor is occupied by a disabled man, a wheelchair user, but the one on Svetlana’s side is empty. Some people bought it just to get a residence permit, but it’s empty in the winter, so the floors upstairs are always very cold.
All the residents dutifully pay their council taxes, but they have no plumbing or gas. They have an outside toilet and wash in the steam bath in the manor house yard. In May, a new management company cut off the electricity in the communal hall because the previous company had left unpaid debts. While the companies fight it out, the residents have to look out for themselves, and they have wired up a light off the circuit in the flat above.
The new management company also keeps sending the residents strange bills—for a non-existent cleaner of the communal areas, for example. The residents had once again to traipse to the council offices and lodge a complaint. ‘Nobody from the company has ever been in Koltyshevo’, says Svetlana. ‘They have no idea what the building is like and what state it’s in, and now they want to charge us for a cleaner.’
For years now, the residents have been trying to get the house declared unsafe (you can pull bricks out of the wall). But the council says it needs to be inspected by independent experts.
In the end, the flats have been declared unsafe, but not the house itself, so when anyone complains they get the answer, ‘your flat is unsafe; get it repaired yourself.’
DIY – the only solution
Some of the residents have given up waiting and are indeed repairing things themselves. They have been trying to cover the ceilings in polystyrene tiles, but have to nail them on because it is so uneven that no adhesive will stick.
It’s also useless to whitewash the walls: the mould just absorbs it. And any repairs to the roof only last until the autumn; with the winter rain and snow it starts leaking again.
Irina lives on the ground floor with her disabled husband. ‘But he won’t talk to you, he doesn’t like journalists,’ Irina warns me. We go outside through the unlit hall for a smoke. A couple of years ago the hall floor was damaged and her husband couldn’t get in and out of the flat without help. The management company wouldn’t even answer her letters. In the end, she bought some cement and had a ramp built.
‘I brought him home from hospital recently, with help from the family’, she tells me. ‘He had been able to drive using one leg, but now his second leg is also useless as well. So we can’t use the car, and I don’t have a licence yet. I used to work in the school in the next village. I was a technician in the canteen, and then maintenance manager.
‘But then they closed the school and just left the nursery and infant classes. I got a job at the battery farm, but then they had cuts there too, so I’m looking for a new job.’
‘We get by here. The people who live in other buildings arranged to share the cost of repairs with the management company. They did the work, even replaced the roof themselves, and then the company refused to pay their half of the costs. Now they are in debt, and it’s growing. I have a big hole in my kitchen ceiling.
‘When I sit at the table, a rat comes through the hole and climbs down the radiator pipes. Autumn is coming – when you turn off the light the whole pack appears. My corner of the house has already settled – I can open the window and walk out. So the walls are damp, and there’s nothing you can do, although we put new windows in ourselves.
‘We pay for heating all year round because the plant runs on diesel. There’s a gas pipeline 100 metres away, but we can’t get it over here. What do we pay our taxes for? In 16 years they haven’t even repainted anything. At local election time, they brought two iron front doors for the building by the bus stop, and delivered one to us by mistake.
‘That’s all we’ve ever been given, not that we even needed it: our door was still in good condition. It was a solid oak one installed back in the Squire’s time. Can we be quiet here? One of my neighbours is asleep; she does nightshifts at the airport.’
Lost and found
We creep up to Polina Pavlovna’s flat, trying to avoid the stairs squeaking. She shows us her books, and gives us booklets with Bible quotations to read. A thin man in camouflage trousers stumbles in – the one who had been sleeping beside the monument.
‘Who are you, dickhead, some kind of Baptist?’ he says.
‘No, I’m a journalist’.
‘Same thing!’ he says, disappointed, and goes off to his own room, but then he comes back, muttering incoherently. Polina Pavlovna tries to lead him away. ‘My son Pyotr – he’s my real trial,’ she sighs. Pyotr won’t go: ‘I fought in the Donbas, you know! I have a war injury!’
He pushes an ID document in our faces. It contains a cancelled stamp from a border crossing with Ukraine.
‘What were you doing there?’ I ask.
‘A mate of mine, a squaddie, was staying with me and we went fishing. We had a bit too much to drink, and off we went.’
Polina Pavlovna shakes her head sceptically. She’s obviously used to taking her son’s stories with a pinch of salt. We go out into the garden. The heat is stifling; there’s probably a storm brewing. It’s less muggy under the old lime tree. The elderly woman settles in her usual big armchair and starts reminiscing again.
‘I was a feisty one: I’d clout anybody, my sister, the lads. I’d go walking alone in the forest; I wasn’t afraid of anything. Some people are born strong like that: my dad was one.
‘When I worked in the Gulag, I took pity on the inmates: I would slip them tea leaves hidden in my sleeves. They needed a strong brew, but they couldn’t get any tea themselves. We warders always went around in pairs, so I’d say to my partner, “you go on ahead, I’ll just tie my bootlace” and I’d slip the tea under a leaf somewhere on the ground. And the inmates would be waiting for me. It was pretty awful there. Prison’s like a war zone.
‘There was a mountain nearby, and it would still glow after sunset. A Jewish prisoner once said to me: “that’s bones glowing.” People would die of cold and their bodies would be left on the mountain, so that’s why it glowed.’
As Polina Pavlovna comes to the end of her story, I see there’s a storm coming and, as Koltyshevo falls quiet, even Pyotr stops making a racket.
On the way back to the bus stop, I pass the shop. Men are sitting round a small plastic table drinking beer. ‘Hey, what you doing here, you lost or something? Have you forgotten something here?’
Somewhere in the distance, a sad, dying sound can be heard, just like the breaking string at the end of the Cherry Orchard.
It’s just the 21 bus signalling its arrival.
We are grateful to Arthur Bondar for assisting with images.