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Suspicious Fire Guts Historic Russian Dacha

The "Muromtsev Dacha" on January 3, after the blaze
The "Muromtsev Dacha" on January 3, after the blaze
MOSCOW -- A mysterious fire has gutted the historic Muromtsev Dacha, the 1930s wooden country house in a Moscow suburb that was home to Russian writers like Venedikt Yerofeyev.

The building's fate had long been under dispute, and local supporters say they suspect the cultural monument was deliberately set ablaze.

The structure used to be one of an entire community of old wooden houses in the suburb of Tsaritsyno in the south of Moscow.

By the time it burned down on January 3, however, it was one of the few historic dachas remaining in Tsaritsyno, where Moscow Mayor Yury Luzkhkov has overseen the demolition of many old houses and the clear-cutting of trees on what is decidedly desirable real estate.

The two-story, green dacha was home to six families and a museum dedicated to its more famous residents and visitors, including Yerofeyev and Ivan Bunin, a Nobel prizewinner.

Local authorities in Tsaritsyno had long sought to demolish the building and clear the site for a car park.

An undated photo of the dacha before the January fire
Residents and supporters of keeping the Muromtsev Dacha say they believe the historic building was deliberately set alight.

"The fire started on the first floor, in an unoccupied flat where there was no electrical equipment, but the window [to that flat] is the one closest to the entrance, so the residents are absolutely convinced that it was arson," Natalya Samover, a member of Archnadzor, a grassroots organization that seeks to protect Moscow's rapidly dwindling ranks of historical buildings, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service after a visit to the burned-out site. "When they went outside, they saw that the window had been opened. It was minus 20 degrees [Celsius] outside; no one was going to open a window."

Residents of the building had been lobbying for the last six months for the dacha to be granted protected status because of its cultural legacy.

Rich History

Kirill Boldyrev, who has a flat in the dacha, says local authorities had threatened the residents, with police warning him personally that the building could burn down.

Nikolai Boldyrev, a resident with his son, Kirill Boldyrev, tries to put out the fire himself.
"It's not that they threatened us directly," Boldyrev says, "but they warned us in a form which was very close to a threat -- saying, 'You understand. There could be a fire. The house is there today, but tomorrow it won't. Do you need that? Leave in a good way.'"

The dacha had long been a meeting place for intellectuals and artists. The latest building was built on the site of the original dacha of Sergei Muromtsev, a Russian nobleman who became the chairman of the first Russian parliament in 1906. His niece, Vera, became the first wife of Ivan Bunin and the rows of linden trees that still exist around the dacha are mentioned by the writer in a short story.

In Soviet times, Yerofeyev -- who is most famous for his poem "Moscow Stations," which tells of an alcohol-soaked train journey -- lived in the Muromtsev Dacha with the Boldyrev family.

Samizdat publishers also settled in the house in Soviet times, and artists and writers were frequent visitors.

Many of the house's literary mementos -- such as notes written by Yerofeyev -- were kept in the dacha's small museum and are believed to have been destroyed in the fire.

Bitter Dispute

Residents of the Muromtsev Dacha have long fought for its preservation. In the mid-1990s, police officials attempted to seize half of the house for use as a brothel.

The pressure ended only after Paul Klebnikov, a Russian-American journalist who was a friend of the Boldyrev family, published an article about the situation. (Klebnikov later became the editor of the Russian edition of "Forbes"; he was shot dead outside his office in 2004 and his killer or killers have never been prosecuted.)

Residents say the weekend fire was small at first and could have been easily contained. But they say firemen failed to properly extinguish the fire, allowing it to reignite and ultimately destroy much of the house.

Residents are now living temporarily in a nearby building. Boldyrev says they are still hopeful the building can be saved.

"We're living nearby in a house, a banya where we used to bathe," Boldyrev says. "We can feed ourselves; there's a generator and gas. And we have a 24-hour watch, so that nobody comes and sets the house on fire again."

Disturbing Pattern?

Residents have been asking authorities to recognize their right to live in the historic building for years. According to Russian law, residents of a property can claim ownership after 15 years of residence, but Boldyrev says their efforts have been thwarted by the courts.

"It's an obvious, clear fact," he says. "My great-grandmother was registered here, my grandmother was born here, my father was born here, I was born here, and I am now 25 years old. And we went to the local schools."

The Russian Supreme Court was set to examine their case later this month. It is unclear how the fire will affect the proceedings.

The fire, whether arson or not, was hardly a surprise, following a recent spate of fires in historical buildings located in prime locations in the city.

With often poor fire-safety standards and a lack of upkeep, fires are not uncommon in Russia. But many people believe many fires are deliberately set to destroy old, culturally protected buildings in order to clear the way for more lucrative development.

Rustam Rakhmatullin, a journalist and activist who has supported the Muromtsev Dacha residents' bid to get the house registered as a cultural landmark, says that the blaze was predictable.

"It's not surprising. On the 20th [of January] there was to be an appeal in the Supreme Court about their right to live in the house. And the Supreme Court, unlike the Moscow courts, could decide things differently," Rakhmatullin says. "There was a chance here. This in itself is suspicious."

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