Doctor Zhivago’s humble beginnings have turned into billionaires’ playground

The ocher leaves of the towering birch trees flutter in the warm breeze, shaking loose a confetti shower that blankets a forest promenade where Russian writers strolled for generations to drink in nature’s inspiration.

The birch-shaded “alley” led east to the banks of the Setun River from Peredelkino’s enclave of gingerbread wooden cottages where literary luminaries, including Boris Pasternak, plied their craft. To the south, the wanderers had an unfettered view across farmland and meadow to a 15th century church and convent near the railway station connecting the village to Moscow.

Nowadays, though, the tree-lined path to the river stops short at a walled compound of palatial villas built for billionaire bandits and business tycoons. The bucolic vista has been replaced with a 12-foot-high metal fence that separates the McMansions from the writers’ colony along the canopied path. The newcomers’ Audi and Mercedes sedans speed along the rutted surface, the siren blare of their SUV security escorts scattering the few remaining pedestrians like startled geese.

See the most-read stories this hour >>

Three- and four-story palaces loom above the surrounding walls, their telescopes, rooftop terraces and Italianate balconies as discordant as if spaceships had landed in the vast field.


Poet Oleg Khlebnikov has lived in the old writers’ retreat north of the birch alley for 20 years, penning his verse on an oil cloth-covered wooden table on the veranda of a dacha he leases from the Literary Fund, a cultural heritage bureaucracy that inherited the enclave after the demise of the Soviet Union. No longer state-funded, the landlord is on the verge of bankruptcy and forced to manage the properties with an eye on potential profit.

In spite of the invasion of “New Russians” and their garish mega-dachas, Khlebnikov prefers life here to the even noisier bustle of Moscow, a 20-minute train ride away.

“The air is better here. You see squirrels climbing trees, and dogs can live outside, as they should,” observes the white-haired poet.

“It used to be a state farm in the Soviet era. Writers would steal beets and carrots for their dinners as they crossed through,” Khlebnikov recalls of the fields now home to modern Russia’s ostentatious elite.

The literary lights that made Peredelkino synonymous with Russia’s soulful heritage of novels, poetry, screenplays and song would turn in their graves to see the village today, Khlebnikov laments.

NEWSLETTER: Get the day’s top headlines from Times Editor Davan Maharaj >>

When a neighboring property was rented to a criminal kingpin a few years ago, the prestige of living in the shadow of Pasternak’s refuge spurred envy among the magnate’s cronies, who sought to outbid him for the residence through the cash-strapped Literary Fund.

“It ended up in a shootout with three of them dead and the survivor in prison,” Khlebnikov says with a disgusted shake of his head. “Some of these new neighbors have never read a single poem but they want to be able to say ‘I live next door to Pasternak.’”

The 1958 Nobel laureate who wrote “Doctor Zhivago” lived out his high and low years here in a prow-front dacha that looks like a ship run aground in the birch forest. It was here that Pasternak, once celebrated as one of the nation’s most important poets, wrote his masterpiece novel in the late 1940s, angering authorities with its portrayal of the Bolshevik Revolution’s brutality and cultural destruction, and lived out his life in seclusion.

The brown dacha is now the Pasternak Museum, where the humble trappings of his last years have been reverently preserved, from the massive oak desk to the slender ground-floor bed where he died of lung cancer in 1960.

Museum curator Natalia Gromova despairs of the decline of the writers’ colony and the pressure on the Literary Fund to lease historic homes to the highest bidder.

“Nowadays the public’s knowledge of poets is very low,” she says wistfully. “One only becomes famous if his verse is set to pop music.”

The museum still gets about 8,000 visitors a year, but that income is no match for the millions that developers offer the Literary Fund to transform the village to suit the whims of the nouveau riche.

“New Times, New Prices!” a placard on the fence flanking the birch alley reads, hawking the Kalinka Real Estate Consulting Group’s offer of custom-designed villas. And with the new residents have come a golf course, fitness centers and themed restaurants such as Mafia, across from the cemetery where the luminaries of Peredelkino’s past are buried.

Modest dachas with white-framed windows once housed the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, novelist and songwriter Bulat Akudzhava, Stalin biographer Alexander Fadeyev and children’s poet and fabulist Kornei Chukovsky. Yevgeny Yevtushensko, a protest voice who emerged during the 1960s cultural “thaw,” can still be seen prowling the grounds of the woodsy retreat.

In the colony’s heyday, many of the cottages offered sweeping views of the field stretching nearly a mile between the birch alley and the 15th century Church of the Transfiguration. Today, the church and convent are no longer visible from the alley, blocked by the mansion complex and overshadowed by a recently constructed temple put up by one of the billionaires in memory of his mother.

Those like museum curator Gromova, devoted to shielding Peredelkino from the ravages of new money, deplore the new temple, with its thicket of gilded crosses and garishly tiled onion domes, as an embodiment of the tastelessness transforming the village.

The intrusions of modernity negate one of Pasternak’s most famous lines, a verse said to have been inspired by the vista of knee-high golden grass beyond the birch trees.

“To live a life is not as easy as crossing a field,” Pasternak’s pensive Yuri Zhivago observes in a poem in the novel.

Today, crossing that field might be the more daunting journey.


Palestinian-Israeli violence raises talk of a new intifada

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17: Report says Russian-made missile system downed jet

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard mourns a general killed in Syria