This is Nikolai Boldyrev.  He’s unlocking the door of the Muromtsev Dacha Museum, which he founded.

On a wall inside is a sketch of the original Muromtsev dacha:

The dacha was on the edge of the enormous Tsaritsino park in southern Moscow.  It was situated pretty much in the park, at 3 Fifth Radial (the neighbourhood has a radial site plan) and is named for its owner, Sergei Muromtsev, legal scholar and president of the first Duma in 1906.  Here the so-called  Muromtsevsky Constitution was drafted and during its early years the house held regular underground political gatherings for pioneers of Russian parliamentary democracy.

Construction of the summer house started on 15 June 1893.  It cost 19,800 rubles, paid by Muromtsev’s wife Maria Klimentova, a singer who was Titania in Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin at its premier in Moscow in 1879. Ivan Bunin, the first Russian to win the Nobel prize for literature, spent his summers in the area and was a frequent guest at the house–in fact he met his second wife, Muromtsev’s niece, there in 1906.  In his writing Bunin commented on the dacha’s Swedish style (seen from the tower’s mansard roof) and he described its lilacs and the allé of lime trees that are still in the garden.

Muromtsev died a hundred years ago, on 4 October 1910, leaving the property to his widow and benefactress.  During the first world war she sold it to a merchant’s widow, Raisa Ivanovna Vlasova, but it was seized on 25 September 1918 by the Military Commissariat and, like many other Tsaritsyno dachas, it was nationalized.  It subsequently became an elementary school, popularly called “Vlasivka”, and after a proper brick school building was built in 1937 it was turned over to the teaching staff as housing.  During the second world war it was close to Moscow’s largest grain silo, a target of German bombing, and in 1941 a bomb exploded in the pond near the house. One wall was damaged and a corner of the house fell in, but the teachers continued living there.

Below is the house that is today known as the Muromtsev dacha:

It was rebuilt in 1960 on the concrete foundation of the old building.  Timber is mutable but masonry is largely not;  the stoves and chimney stacks were reused from the old dacha and stood at 3 Fifth Radial until 7 March 2010.  Twenty years after the rebuilding, in 1979, the house was declared uninhabitable due to dilapidation.  It was handed over to the Institute of Clinical and Experimental Medicine “to accommodate special equipment” for a period of five years, after which the demolition of the building and improvement of the area was foreseen by the Soviet Academy of Medical Sciences. However, the lease was continuously renewed until 1989.

The fireman below is sitting in an antique Thonet bentwood rocker taken from the dacha on the night it burnt down in January of this year.  The chair disappeared later that morning, along with a brass microscope from 1864 and other valuables that hadn’t burned.  According to at least one tenant, the above-mentioned physicist Nikolai Boldyrev, they were looted by the firefighters.

Photo Ekaterina Deeva,

The Muromtsev dacha was wooden, and on the evening of 2 January the fire department was called to put out a smallish fire on the ground floor.  Natalya Samover works for Archnadzor, an organization formed to protect significant buildings in Moscow: “The fire started on the ground floor in an unoccupied flat where there was no electrical equipment.  The window is the one closest to the entrance, so the residents are absolutely convinced that it was arson. When they went outside, they saw that the window had been opened. It was -20c. outside; no one was going to open a window.”

The firefighters, whose station is five minutes’ walk away took half an hour to arrive, but they immediately set to work.   Soon the police and some city officials drove up and spoke to the senior fire officer.  Nikolai’s son Kyril Boldyrev, a 24-year-old physics graduate of Moscow Technical University who also lived in the house, said “Personally, I distinctly heard them say: ‘We do not want this house.'”  After that, the firemen broke all the ground-floor windows letting oxygen in to help the combustion.  They did nothing more to extinguish the flames until after midnight when the building’s roof had fallen in and the interior was gutted.

Maxim Martem'yanov, Частный Корреспондент

The dacha’s most celebrated postwar tenant was Venedict Yerofeyev who lived and wrote there on and off during the 1970s and ’80s during a period when it was an unofficial cultural centre.  Yerofeyev (sometimes he’s transcribed as Benedict Eeroveyev) wrote Moscow-Petushki. Also called Moscow To The End Of The Line in English, it’s a prose poem about a drunken journey on a suburban train in which the hero recounts the events of his life, including the declaration of war on Norway and leading a crew of alcoholic telephone-cable layers (he’s fired for making a chart of their different drinking habits).

A later tenent was Forbes magazine editor and investigative journalist Paul Klebnikov, who was murdered outside his office in Moscow in 2004.  Klebnikov was a friend of the Boldyrev family and once saved the dacha from being turned into a brothel.  In 1996, a local police officer started harassing the family, asking for half of the house to use as a brothel. After Klebnikov wrote an article about the situation the harassment stopped.

There were three families at home in the house on 5th Radial at the time of the fire, among them the Boldyrevs (family members have lived there since 1938).   Despite having qualifications in physics and optics and having been offered jobs elsewhere, Nikolai Boldyrev, who has lived there since 1959, chose in the 1980s to become the genius loci, the protector of the Muromtseva dacha.  He turned part of the ground floor into the Muromtsev Dacha Museum, with artifacts and photographs related to Yerofeyev and the building’s earlier history.  Boldyrev’s  grandmother, a former teacher of geography lived in the dacha when it was teachers’ housing. She is still alive, 103 years old.  Below you can watch Nikolai Boldyrev with his 24 year-old son Kyril and young daughter Anfisa showing visitors around in the summer before it burned (in the museum you can even catch a glimpse of the Thonet bentwood rocker).

Who owned the Muromtsev Dacha?  The federal government previously owned Tsaritsyno but handed it over to the city in a deal in 2005. The Boldyrevs, who had been there since before World War II, have no documents of ownership. “Once the Tsaritsyno park complex became Moscow city government property, our house came under attack,” said Nikolai Boldyrev. “The city authorities were determined to make us move out.” In an attempt to protect their home, the six resident families filed an ownership application. The Civil Code allows anyone to claim ownership if they have lived in a building continuously for more than 15 years. The court rejected their appeal despite the testimonies of eight witnesses and phone-bill evidence that confirmed the length of their residency.  “After the court session, we filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, but soon afterward the Tsaritsyno police came to the house in the middle of the night, threw one of the kids out of the bath, started breaking windows and telling us to get out,” Boldyrev said. “They said that if we don’t move out, the house might ‘accidentally’ burn down.”  At the time of the fire there was a court battle being fought to obtain preservation status for the property on grounds of its historical significance.

At 6:30 a.m. on Sunday 7 March bulldozers escorted by a police unit and OMON riot police arrived  to officially “remove construction debris”.  In fact they removed the families, who after the fire had been living on the property in contractors’ cabins (two people ended up in hospital, having been thrown out of windows).

Photo Vladimir Astapkovich. Copyright ITAR TASS

Then they knocked down the remains of the dacha, including the 1893 chimney stacks.

Kyril Boldyrev said it was an “illegal operation”; police wearing masks “refused to identify themselves or show us any documents.”  Natalya Samover of Arkhnadzor also called the action illegal.  She said “the only document that we are told exists, but was not shown on Sunday, is an order from the local prefect to remove rubbish”.  The actual work, which took all day, was carried out by immigrant labourers who can be expelled from Russia any time the mayor feels like it.

This is what the site of the Muromtsev dacha looks like today:

Photo: Ilya Varlamov

Many cities in the Northern Hemisphere had a bitterly cold winter this year, it even snowed in Barcelona.  Even so, how desperate could southern Moscow be for new snow-plough storage that the authorities resort to knocking down people’s houses?  Come to think of it, isn’t the dacha on the edge of a vast piece of parkland?  Everyone in Moscow knows this property won’t get a snow-plough garage unless hell freezes over.  What’s probably going to be built here is a luxury apartment building, five-star smoked-glass vulgarity in an ancient park setting, and what scum these people are who run Moscow for their own profit.

In January, Moscow’s Mayor Yury Luzhkov dismissed opposition politicians’ calls for an investigation into the dacha fire.  He called the building a “cabin” and disputed its cultural significance.  It is Luzhkov’s ally, Deputy Mayor Vladimir “His only hobby is labour” Resin who oversees Moscow construction.  On 15 March The Moscow Times reported that Resin had hired former Moscow police chief Vladimir Pronin as an “unsalaried advisor”. Pronin was fired by the Kremlin after a drunken police officer went on a shooting rampage killing two people in a supermarket last year.

Update: Here is a very informative video I was sent.  Do take a look.  It’s translated into English from a Vesti television report:

Addendum: I’m not much use at translating the Russian language and there may be errors in this article, though I vouch for the gist of it.  From the few English-language sources that exist I gleaned the most from Languagehat’s additions to the Muromtsev Dacha’s English Wikipedia entry, from The Moscow Times and from three well-illustrated articles on the Muromtsev dacha at Poemas del rio Wang whence also came four of the photographs.