Along Power Avenue

On a warm day in early September, a crowd of Russian villagers set up a roadblock in Kalchuga, a tiny village seven and a half miles outside of Moscow. It lasted only 10 minutes--just enough time to make a point. A TV crew filmed the group brandishing posters and chanting slogans against a luxury housing development going up in a local forest preserve, while red-faced policemen tried to break up the protest. Just an obscure event? Not exactly. The demonstration blocked traffic on Rublyov Highway, which leads from Moscow to the homes of some of Russia's most powerful officials. Many of the cars stopped were government limousines. "Every day you close the road for government cars," one of the protesters told a cop. "But when we close the road, you push us away. Who are you working for, anyway?"

In another time and place, outsiders would have ignored a few dozen souls protesting wildcat real-estate development. But this is Vladimir Putin's Russia, and the Rublyov Highway is the jugular vein of the country's political and financial elite. The five-month-old protest is striking a nerve among Moscow's ruling class and giving ordinary Russians intimations of an unholy alliance of power and money in the country today. "Nothing like this [roadblock] has ever happened before," says Kalchuga village elder Sergei Grachev.

The Rublyovka, as Muscovites call it, was a favorite of communist leaders who lived in guarded compounds strung out for miles along both sides of the road. During the Yeltsin era, non-Kremlin-dwellers were able to savor the cachet of Russia's most prestigious address, as long as they had enough money. Now, leading business people, media executives and pop stars live there, too. They even speed down the road in black Mercedes sedans with flashing rooftop lights, just like the government bigwigs.

For years the residents of Kalchuga, whose 30 or so traditional homes are hemmed in by the housing developments of the megawealthy, lived in peace with their elite neighbors. Then last May villagers noticed construction in the local forest, a protected nature reserve. They learned that a real-estate developer named Megatorg--the company letterhead provides no phone number or address--had received permission to build 14 luxury houses on a four-hectare site. In 1999, it seems, the then Prime Minister Putin's government released 84.7 hectares of forest preserve in Moscow province for development--in apparent conflict, say protesters and ecological experts, with environmental-protection laws.

If that weren't galling enough, local government officials say they have documentation proving that "residents in Kalchuga" OK'd the project. Incensed villagers held town meetings and signed petitions protesting the development. "I cry when I see the forest," says Olga, 56, a former nurse, who refused to give her last name. "We walked here, and fell in love here, and rested here. And now they've destroyed everything."

The developers' motives are less sentimental. Real estate along the Rublyov highway fetches $10,000 for 100 square meters, not including high rural construction costs. With millions of dollars at stake, it's no wonder that strangers have recently begun offering the villagers inducements, which range from refrigerators to $200 in cash, in return for abandoning the cause. Some, it is claimed, have also made threats. "There will be victims," says Boris Kazmennykh, a villager who has refused to join the protest. "It's getting dangerous to cross the road around here."

Konstantin Makarov, the head of the district that includes Kalchuga, dismisses the activists as ungrateful "anarchists." He rejects the protesters' allegations that he and other government officials are in collusion with Megatorg. Maybe, but there does seem to be intense official interest in the project. When a reporter and photographer from NEWSWEEK visited the development site last week, local police threatened them with arrest and demanded to see their identification papers, asking them, Communist Party style, what they planned to write. Who were they working for?