Drying out in `Village of Fools'

SUN JOURNAL

Sobriety: A businessman uses his wealth to create a free addiction treatment center in rural Russia.

March 10, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DURAKOVO, Russia - In this nation of dying towns sheltering people too old, too poor or just too drunk to escape, there is no other place like Durakovo, the "Village of Fools."

In fields and forests south of Moscow, Durakovo's residents saw logs, tend sheep and build window frames. The main street winds past new brick stables, a cottage built in English Tudor style, a stone castle and the foundations of a new Orthodox Church. Alcohol is forbidden. Everyone has a job.

The industry, prosperity and sobriety come as a shock.

Why is Durakovo thriving? Because it has found a new purpose. A Russian businessman who moved here almost a decade ago has used his wealth to turn the 400-year-old agricultural settlement into a free addiction treatment center for scores of desperate Russians.

In this historically hard-drinking country, addiction has taken a terrible toll. Soviet authorities decreed that alcoholism was caused by capitalism and so didn't exist. As a result of this official blindness, millions of alcoholics went untreated, and many died. As Russian society came under greater pressures in the 1990s, drug and alcohol use rose still higher.

Durakovo offers a rare avenue of escape. Its residents include a 67-year-old who has spent 44 years in prison for alcohol-inspired thefts and a 15-year-old boy trying to break a glue-sniffing habit. "You work hard to save yourself and glorify God," said Alexei Boysenko, 27, who spent seven years as a heroin addict before he came to the village in 1999.

Mikhail Morosov, 47, is the village's principal landowner, organizer and guiding spirit. He marches around his village followed by a small entourage of employees and villagers that he calls his "children."

Stopping in one of his stables, he examines the hooves of a big white horse, then gives the animal a kiss on the nose. He leads the way to the town's stone banya, or sauna, used by residents each week for purification ceremonies.

"Luxe, no?" he says.

He strolls past the garage, where some of his 12 Land Rovers are parked. Why so many? "It's a symbol of something that's not easy to reach," he says.

Village residents revere him. "Mikhail Feodorvich is not only a serious friend; he's like a mother and father both to me," says Andrei, 32, a recovering drug addict from the city of Kursk, who asked that his last name not be used. For two years, Andrei has worked in Durakovo's cattle barns. When he arrived, he craved a drink and considered running away.

"At first, it was hard to live by the rules," he says. " `Don't go here.' `Don't do that.' It was hard to stand. But later you come to understand that all these restrictions do you a lot of good."

A decade ago, Durakovo was like any other Russian village - an island of farm life that hadn't changed in hundreds of years. It got its name, says local legend, after an aristocrat won it from another in a card game called "Fools."

It has an eerie, Disneyland-like look. The farm animals live in showcase barns. Every cottage has its own pets. (Morosov keeps an owl, raven and stork in his office.) The architecture is out of a fairy tale.

That's deliberate, says Morosov, who designed the new buildings himself. "Many of the people who live in Durakovo don't have any idea what a proper childhood is," he says. "We make the village like the childhood they lost."

His own childhood was painful. Morosov's father, a trolley car conductor, was a heavy drinker, and when his parents separated for a time, he lived with his grandmother. When the boy was 9, his 24-year-old uncle drowned while swimming, drunk, in the Moscow River. Mikhail swore he would never touch alcohol. But he was drinking by the time he was 14.

It didn't seem to hurt him. With his salesman's gift to cajole and persuade, he defied the Soviet system and made a lot of money manufacturing and selling souvenir lapel pins. Drinking was always part of doing business.

"Alcohol was a kind of assistant, in friendship, in business, in life, in everything," he says.

But business dried up. He moved into a guard's hut and drank all day, every day. Just as the Soviet Union collapsed, Morosov realized his life, too, was collapsing. He turned to the Orthodox Church, enrolled in a treatment program and began to yearn to escape the alcoholic haze of his life in Moscow.

Visiting a friend, he drove through the fields of Durakovo in 1993 and found an old Orthodox shrine, its cupola smashed and filled with a stork's nest. He took it as a sign from God. Morosov built a small cottage and launched a business in a nearby town - building a factory to mass-produce Russian Orthodox icons.

As he brought friends and acquaintances with alcohol problems for increasingly lengthy visits, he transformed the place from just another Russian village into an informal treatment center.

"Rumors spread," he says. "That's how people learned about us."

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