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Worn to the bone and left alone ‘Defrauded co-investors’ are one of Russia's biggest protest movements, but that hasn't helped

Meduza
Defrauded co-investors rally at Pushkin Square in Moscow. November 28, 2010
Defrauded co-investors rally at Pushkin Square in Moscow. November 28, 2010
Mitya Aleshkovsky / TASS

According to various estimates, there are somewhere between 40,000 and more than 100,000 “defrauded co-investors” in Russia — people who paid money for new apartments, but were never able to move in because construction on these homes never finished. The problem has persisted for more than a decade, and the thousands of people cheated out of their money have spent that time organizing protests and appealing to state officials, but the government has yet to resolve the situation. Vladimir Putin even issued an executive order giving the country three years to abandon shared-equity construction completely. A year later, however, it still dominates Russia’s residential real estate market. In a special report for Meduza, Pyotr Manyakhin, a correspondent for Batenka.ru, learned more about how Russia’s cheated investors are fighting for their rights.

“There are enemies of the people among us who are preventing new developers from continuing construction!” yells an elderly woman from the stage at a Communist rally on February 3 in Moscow. “We’re for social justice! We’re for Grudinin!”

Pulled over people’s outer clothes, the orange shirts reading “Defrauded Co-Investor” are lost among the red banners and veteran communists passing out copies of the newspaper Trudovaya Rossiya (Labor Russia). The defrauded co-investors are gathered farthest from the stage, where Communist Party presidential candidate Pavel Grudinin addressed his supporters just a few minutes earlier.

“We’ve lost all hope. We’ve gone to the Kremlin. We’ve gone to the mayor. Nothing happens. We get the same run-around everywhere. Nobody can force the developer to finish building the house — the developer has gone bankrupt,” says Valery Ryabkov, squinting in the falling snow. “Now we’ve got three children, a co-investment contract, we’ve won seven lawsuits, and we’re registered formally as defrauded co-investors. And nothing. We bought this apartment ourselves. The government didn’t give it to us. We didn’t receive it for our three children, like it used to be in Soviet times. I’d gladly support the Communists!”

Ryabkov says everyone in his family is now a defrauded co-investor: he and his wife Yana and their three kids — at least two of whom were apparently born into this status. In 2012, the Ryabkovs sold their only apartment and bought a two-bedroom unit in the “Tsaritsyno” residential complex (which had been under construction for six years at the time, but the family decided to go ahead with the purchase). In order to buy the property, the Ryabkovs used their federal subsidies for multiple-child families to take out a mortgage at 14 percent. To make the payments, Valery says he’ll “have to work two jobs for 10 years.” His family is now living in a rented apartment and paying the mortgage on a home that’s still unfinished and unoccupied.

“They raise billions in fines with just one traffic camera. We need 15 billion rubles [$260 million],” Ryabkov says, though the city estimated in November 2017 that it would take 60 billion rubles (almost $1 billion) to finish building the entire housing complex. “Konstantin Timofeyev, the head of Moskomstroiinvest, covered up his offshore withdrawals. He should be in jail, and the government should pay to finish the construction. The developer is already behind bars.”

“Daddy, are you still talking about that? Why'd you say my name?” Valery’s son, Timofey, asks.

“No, you’re Timofey and he’s Timofeyev,” the father answers, taking a flag from the child’s hand that reads, “Defrauded Co-Investors of the Tsaritsyno residential complex.” The flag hangs from a plastic telescopic rod, instead of a wooden stick. Valery then continues: “We thought we were under the state’s protection. That’s actually a load of crap.”

“Daddy, this guy here said, ‘You shouldn’t write ‘defrauded co-investors’ on the flags.’ He says we should write: ‘BUMS!’” Timofey yells.

The head of the “Nastyushka” conglomerate that owns the Tsaritsyno residential complex was indeed arrested on fraud charges. The Ryabkovs’ home is almost ready: the building frame is done (and it only took the better part of 10 years), but the communication lines still haven't been connected. The developer went bankrupt just before finishing the job. After several appeals by co-investors to the district attorney, the Construction Ministry, the Kremlin, and the courts, Moskomstroiinvest hired a new developer: a city-owned company called “Mosotdelstroi Number 1.” The project’s new roadmap says finishing work on the housing complex should begin in late 2019 and wrap up by late 2021 — a mere 15 years after breaking ground.

By 2021, however, many of the apartments could be missing their tenants. According to Elena Godlevskaya, who serves in a co-investor civic action group, 27 homeowners in the Tsaritsyno community died from heart attacks and strokes in the last year alone. (There are 6,000 co-investment contracts in the housing community altogether.) Godlevskaya says, “Some people, seeing no escape from debt, unable to master the complicated costs of housing and mortgages, and failing to overcome the collapse of their family or the deaths of loved ones, were ready to take their own lives.”

Ours are a passive people

Shared-equity construction came to Russia in the early 1990s with market economics. Private construction companies sprung up like weeds, when the co-investment real estate market was still totally unregulated. According to experts, the partnership model itself emerged in the mid-1980s in Argentina, where the authorities created a joint-stock company that accepted deposits from members of the public, which were used to finance various construction projects. The deposits were converted into shares in the company, which could be exchanged for a certain number of square feet in an actual housing complex. The country’s economy was in ruins at the time (Argentinians endured 12 denominations in seven years), and shared-equity financing worked because ordinary people simply couldn’t get bank loans, unlike construction companies. Thanks to this model, the number of property owners in Argentina rose almost tenfold.

Russia’s first defrauded co-investors started appearing in the 1990s, but they didn’t mobilize into a political movement immediately. “There weren't really any organized protests back then. It was more local associations of people. There wasn’t a political [component], but the problem was visible,” says Nadezhda Kosareva, the president of the Urban Economics Institute and a professor at the Higher School of Economics. Kosareva helped develop the federal law that regulates shared-equity construction in Russia today. The legislation emerged, she says, largely in response to the country’s defrauded co-investors eventually forming a mass movement in the early 2000s. In 2003 and 2004, a whole series of laws were adopted on affordable housing that included new town-planning and housing codes, as well as regulations on shared-equity construction.

The data varies when trying to count the number of defrauded co-investors in Russia today. Representatives for the Construction Ministry told Meduza that there were 836 “problem sites” in 69 different regions across the country, as of January 2018. The head of the ministry, Mikhail Men, said in September that 38,000 people bought homes at these sites. According to a working group in United Russia’s General Council, however, the country's defrauded co-investor population is three times greater (almost 120,000 people).

Defrauded co-investors attend parliamentary hearings at the State Duma. July 3, 2017
Defrauded co-investors attend parliamentary hearings at the State Duma. July 3, 2017
Marat Abulkhtain / State Duma photo service / TASS

The co-investors themselves say they’re sure the government is understating their numbers. Vitaly Kiselyov, the leader of the Krasnodar Co-Investors’ Union, says he and his many children are just one of 15,000 families in the city still waiting on their apartments, though Vladimir Ustinov, Vladimir Putin’s presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, says there are fewer than 3,000 defrauded co-investors in the entire district.

In 2016, Kiselyov’s mother bought his family an apartment that had supposedly been on the rental market for four years already. To this day, however, the Kiselyovs haven’t been able to move in: the building is still uninhabitable. “Nobody does anything. I can’t even look at it. The whole thing just kills me. Ours are a passive people,” says Kiselyov in despair. “We’re tired of waiting for our own homes. My grandmother called me to say that she bought an apartment in a new complex. The paperwork says the building is finished, and she was issued a deed and all the necessary documents. But in reality, it’s just an empty field. There’s no construction whatsoever. Now she has to live in a tent. There are people who have died before getting their apartments.”

Kiselyov organizes protests, pickets, and public letters to the city’s administration. He says the government decided to “mock” Krasnodar’s defrauded co-investors when it appointed former Mayor Vladimir Evlanov to head the city’s working group on addressing the co-investor problem. Many of Krasnodar’s still unfinished high-rise apartment complexes were started during Evlanov’s tenure, and a lot of these construction projects were never authorized by local officials. Thanks to the mayor’s negligence, Kiselyov says, developers even managed to build a whole neighborhood without any regulatory oversight from the city. “This is an insult,” Kiselyov says. “Evlanov told me, ‘Finish building your own house!’ In fact, they shouldn’t have allowed the unauthorized construction in the first place.”

Like most protesters in the defrauded co-investor movement, Kiselyov and his union have turned mainly to the government for solutions. They want the state to create an interdepartmental commission staffed with local officials and representatives from the Interior Ministry, Investigative Committee, Federal Security Service, and Attorney General’s Office. So far, the commission hasn’t happened. “The administration sees no benefit in it. It’s one thing when they’re chiding some developer and threatening him with fines — that’s a civil proceeding,” Kiselyov explains. “But if that same developer is summoned by investigators or the FSB, he starts singing a different tune.”

Several professional lawyers and politicians have also joined the protests. Alexander Bakaev, a lawyer and the former head of the Novosibirsk Defrauded Co-Investors’ Association, joined the movement after buying a home that was never finished. In late June 2010, protesters pitched tents in the center of the city, demanding the completion of their homes. Bakaev put his tent in the square outside City Hall. He also went out, bought the cheapest mobile phone he could find, programmed his number into it, and mailed it to the mayor, suggesting that the mayor didn’t seem to know how to contact the protesters. The phone ended up coming back unopened, but the very next day City Hall’s Construction Department offered to meet with the defrauded co-investors.

Bakaev is a prominent activist in the Novosibirsk area. Together with colleagues in the regional public chamber, he organized the “national-cultural” “Siberian Will” group. He’s also criticized Moscow’s regional policies, demanding that the state provide people in Siberia with the same social benefits offered in the capital. For such outspokenness, Bakaev and his associates have even been accused of separatism, and in 2014 local officials refused to let him stage a “March for Siberia’s Federalization.”

Today, Bakaev says the issue with his apartment has been resolved, and the new head of the local co-investors’ association is Valery Naumenko, a deputy in the Novosibirsk City Council from the Communist Party. But Bakaev remains the group’s chief consultant, and he’s still an activist with the organization, offering legal help and filming documentary movies (for example, about the city’s history). When he first started doing all this, Bakaev says both the public and the government thought of co-investors as “losers at a casino” who “willingly handed over their money to scammers.” But those perceptions have changed, he says.

Nevertheless, co-investors have a complicated relationship with the authorities. When these activists tried to organize a series of pickets along central roads in major cities on May 1, 2017, local officials around the country staged outdoor festivals to crowd them out. And the conflicts aren’t always so gentle. In Yoshkar-Ola, anti-extremism police investigated a picket by defrauded co-investors; in Ryazan, the authorities used tractors to disperse a crowd; and in November 2017 the Attorney General’s Office banned a website operated by co-investor activists in Gelendzhik (apparently because they planned a protest on the same day that Vyacheslav Maltsev’s supporters hoped to stage a “revolution”). Irina Denisova, the head of a co-investors’ civic action group in Saratov, told Meduza that local police officers contacted her activists and said they were “all extremists” (in the end, she got off with another warning).

“We had one suicide, and two families broke up”

There’s a name that chills the flesh of co-investors in Saratov: Alexey Abasov. Through his construction company, “Grad-S,” Abasov sold apartments in the unfinished “Breeze” housing complex and another 13 high-rise buildings at various stages of completion. He and his wife, Galina Chernova, own a total of 163 apartments. Today, Abasov lives in a jail cell, and Chernova is under house arrest. The couple’s deceit is so notorious that their victims even wrote a small poem about it:

Irina Denisova points to a fenced-in lot on the shore of the Volga. Its tall weeds are covered in snow. She explains that her home was supposed to be built here. Throughout the surrounding area, there are several other abandoned construction sites at different stages of completion. They make up about half of Saratov’s Ulesha neighborhood. On the raised support beams at one site, somebody has written the letters “SOS” in red paint.

Denisova says the construction was never finished because Abasov embezzled part of his co-investors’ money, along with 163 apartments. According to state investigators, Abasov and his wife committed large-scale fraud and are responsible for leaving people without homes. In November 2017, Saratov Mayor Mikhail Isaev announced that it would take roughly 3 billion rubles ($48.4 million) to finish building Abasov’s housing complexes.

Alexey Abasov, incidentally, isn’t the only developer who’s been arrested in Saratov. Locals started investing in another now-abandoned construction site back in 2007. Located on Polytechnic Street, about a third of the apartment complex was finished, with two stairwells built all the way to the roof. But then it turned out that the developer never had the rights to the real estate. The site was declared illegal and all work was suspended. In the summer of 2015, more than a dozen defrauded co-investors moved into the windowless, doorless brick building and tried to live there. The first frosts quickly disabused them of this idea.

Today, there’s a message written on the building’s walls that reads, “Defrauded co-investors are starving here.” The only resident is a homeless man named Vitalik who heats himself with a fire fueled by construction debris and waste from a nearby gas station. He says nobody has come around in a long time.

Many co-investors themselves say they’ve given up the fight for their apartments. “And why should we have to do anything? Are we supposed to stage a protest somewhere?” complains Olga Golikova, who’s one of Saratov’s cheated homeowners. “The co-investors signed a settlement and now we’re waiting for the housing to be built. True, it’s been two years now, and they even removed the crane from the construction site.”

In the summer of 2017, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin visited Saratov (his hometown), and met with several defrauded co-investors. Afterwards, the police promptly arrested the developer Alexander Tikhonov. Locals who bought apartments from Tikhonov, however, weren’t thrilled to see him behind bars. Several co-investors told Meduza that his incarceration clouds the future of their settlement.

According to Russia’s Federal Construction Ministry, co-investors usually owe their problems to attempts to circumvent the law or to outright fraud. Alexander Golovko lives in St. Petersburg and heads the movement “Homeless Co-Investor” (which calls itself a nationwide organization, having staged a few protests across multiple regions). Golovko says he was defrauded by the construction company “Lenspetsstroi.” In 2014, he signed a co-investment agreement on a new home in a housing complex on Leningrad Prospect, planning to move in a year later.

The building was supposed to have 18 floors, but only nine have been finished, so far, and the communication lines still haven’t been connected.

Golovko says co-investors demanded a tour of the construction site in 2015, when they sensed something was wrong. He says they were showed an “empty field” with a foundation pit and several piles of earth. “Then, in order to imitate some kind of activity, Lenspetsstroi started hiring workers according to this strange scheme,” Golovko says, recounting what he heard from one of these laborers: “A construction worker shows up and works for two or three weeks, and then asks for his paycheck. He finds out that — instead of paying him — they’re going to offer him square footage in the housing complex that still isn’t finished. He asks them, ‘Guys, have you gone fucking insane?’ and he walks out.”

A protest in St. Petersburg organized by the “Homeless Co-Investor” movement. November 26, 2017
A protest in St. Petersburg organized by the “Homeless Co-Investor” movement. November 26, 2017
David Frenkel / Kommersant

In March 2018, police opened a fraud case against Lenspetsstroi. (The company refused to discuss the matter with Meduza.) Golovko, meanwhile, has organized 16 rallies for the rights of defrauded co-investors. Like many in his situation around the country, Golovko pins most of his hopes on the authorities, believing that the state should monitor construction projects at every stage and respond quickly to any reported delays. But he’s not optimistic about the protests. “Everybody’s all decisive online, but nobody wants to freeze their butts off at rallies, fight with the police, take it to court, and file a report with the district attorney,” Golovko says. “They pay the mortgage for their unfinished homes and they rent apartments. Some people drop everything and leave Petersburg altogether. We had one suicide, and two families broke up. The elderly aren’t living this one out.”

Golovko says Lenspetsstroi has even resorted to “information war” against the co-investors who protest against it, “wiping out” negative online reviews of the company’s older, troubled housing projects. Lenspetsstroi even sued two defrauded co-investors when they tried to write an investigative report about the company. In March 2016, Lenspetsstroi announced that it was ready to countersue co-investor Anton Galushkin, who previously took the company to court for illegally publishing their private correspondence. (The court said it lacked jurisdiction in the matter and rejected the case.) Lenspetsstroi also filed a lawsuit against the website 47news.ru, which reported on the allegations against the company.

According to Golovko, Lenspetsstroi has even created fake communities on social media where accounts “imitate dialogues in which people supposedly visit construction sites and discuss all the improvements being made to the buildings' grounds.” These groups publish videos showing workers standing around and moving pillars and concrete blocks at unfinished construction sites. Sometimes they lift something with a crane. Almost all the videos feature the same four workers.

Putin disappoints

“Go ask the president! He’s to blame for the sanctions!” According to defrauded co-investor Vadim Shamsutdinov in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, that’s what developer Oleg Burkin told him, when he asked why his company is 18 months late on building his home. Shamsutdinov recalled this story on July 3, 2017, before the State Duma during parliamentary hearings on problems related to shared-equity construction. Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin asked him to repeat the name of the developer who blamed Vladimir Putin and “made a note of him.” A few days later, Burkin sent a letter to Volodin denying that he’d ever said a word about the president or Crimea. He insists that Shamsutdinov still owes him money.

Desperate for a personal solution to their problems, defrauded co-investors in Russia often appeal directly to Vladimir Putin. On November 7, 2017, a message reading “Putin SOS” appeared atop one of the high-rise buildings in the Tsaritsyno housing complex. It was written in paint and bricks by defrauded co-investors. A few days later, representatives from 35 other “troubled” housing complexes made a joint appeal to the president’s administration. On February 3, 2018 (after attending a rally in support of Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, carrying signs that rhymed, “V. V. Putin, please come to our aid! We’re not a reason to be afraid!”), a group of co-investors made another appeal to the president, leaving a “list of instructions” at Putin’s official receiving office in the capital.

Sometimes Putin even answers these appeals (in November 2016, he telephoned the leader of a civic action group in Chelyabinsk), but the effectiveness of these calls isn’t clear. “We wrote to Putin. We send a messenger to the president’s administration. To be honest, we were disappointed,” says Irina Denisova. “It was just the typical clerical stuff. They recorded our statement, stamped a receipt, and that was about it.”

“Appealing to Putin helped, but not for long. At first, Moscow was calling the management companies that were supposed to connect our communication lines,” says Krasnodar activist Vitaly Kiselyov. “They called me and started asking how things were going, but nothing more happened.” Meanwhile, Kiselyov’s colleague, David Galustov, says plainly that appeals to Putin are worth exactly “zip.”

In November 2017, Vladimir Putin ordered the government to develop a plan that would enable the country to abandon shared-equity construction projects entirely within three years. According to Construction Minister Mikhail Men, the state intends to switch to a procedure whereby banks will allocate money for specific construction sites, and the people buying homes in these buildings will transfer the money to escrow accounts with the banks, which will assume the project’s potential risks.

Nadezhda Kostyreva, president of the Institute for Urban Economics, says the planned reforms wouldn’t eliminate co-investors “as a class.” The proposed scheme, she says, would mean merely that bankers, not developers, would assume the construction risks on these housing projects. “The funds on the escrow accounts wouldn’t be protected completely because the cost of apartments exceeds the maximum deposit insurance,” Kostyreva explains. “We’re still a long way from times without shared-equity agreements in housing, when everything is just a straightforward contract of sale, though current civil statutes do permit contracts on things that will be created in the future.”

The Construction Ministry says it’s received all the government’s road maps for resolving Russia’s problems with defrauded co-investors, and lieutenant governors around the country have been tasked with implementing the plans. Last year, regional governments finished building 140 stalled housing projects, and officials say they’ll oversee the completion of another 360 apartment complexes in 2018.

This doesn’t end the problem, however. Sources in the Construction Ministry told Meduza that Russia’s current laws on shared-equity construction are “outdated.” “When they adopted Federal Law 214, they proceeded from the concept that a co-investor isn’t an equal shareholder, treating them more like clients,” says another expert at Kostyreva’s institute, arguing that Russia’s existing legislation protects co-investors and forces developers to assume most of the risks.

To help alleviate problems with defrauded co-investors, the government has also created a special registry. In theory, any homeowner can apply to be added to the registry once their housing is at least nine months overdue. People simply need to provide copies of their equity-sharing agreement and (ideally) a court order upholding their claim against the developer. In practice, however, not everyone who should qualify manages to get added to the registry. Co-investors say the authorities limit the number of people on the list in order to conceal the true size of the problem, which costs regional governments more budget resources, the bigger it is.

Irina Denisova says there are far more stalled construction sites in Saratov than the 25 buildings listed on the state registry. “We applied to be listed, and they told us right away that we’d be denied,” she explains. “A working group met to discuss the inclusion of 14 Abasov construction sites. First, they rejected two sites, and then they accepted two sites. You got the feeling that they wanted to preserve this magic number.”

In order to get on the state’s registry, co-investors need to have signed an equity-sharing agreement where the buyers acquired the rights to fixed square footages in a housing complex. The state effectively offers no protection to people who signed “investment contracts,” which establish only a preliminary sales agreement. Co-investors in the “Tulskaya” housing complex in Novosibirsk, where construction halted a decade ago, are stuck with an investment contract. In the summer of 2017, this group staged protests and hunger strikes (with some of its demonstrators ending up in the hospital), but the existing mechanisms for addressing this problem simply don’t apply in their case, says local human rights activist Alexander Bakaev. Today, the Novosibirsk government has even drafted legislation that would grant developers no-bid access to real estate, if they reserve 10 percent of the new homes for defrauded co-investors.

In an effort to “prevent the emergence of new defrauded co-investors,” Russia’s Construction Ministry created a special fund in October 2017 to protect the rights of shared-equity co-investors. Now all developers who negotiate a shared-equity contract are required to deposit 1.2 percent of the deal’s value into the fund. In just six months, officials say they raised more than 164 million rubles ($2.6 million). This money is earmarked for compensation payments or construction costs to finish incomplete housing sites, in the event that developers declare bankruptcy. In late March, Construction Minister Mikhail Men said there were 15,500 shared-equity development projects now insured by the fund, with money deposited from 675 developers in 76 different regions across the country. Nadezhda Kostyreva says this is just a temporary measure, and the ultimate goal remains the total elimination of shared-equity construction in Russia. “People endure such insane things, and it has to be addressed, somehow,” she says.

Meduza was unable to find out what the developers themselves think of all this. We visited the offices of 11 different firms, but every single company refused to speak to journalists, after learning that the questions would concern defrauded co-investors.

An unfinished residential building in Kaliningrad. September 7, 2017
An unfinished residential building in Kaliningrad. September 7, 2017
Artem Kilkin / Kommersant

“Nobody lives here”

An unfinished nine-story apartment complex on Sibirskaya Street in Novosibirsk turned 25 this year. The building’s history is typical for abandoned residential high-rises in Russia. According to one of its first co-investors, a local school principal at the time had handed over the rights to part of the school’s campus, hoping to get a few apartments for new teachers. Construction got underway in 1993, but it soon came to a halt when it turned out that the developer didn’t get all the necessary permits. Then the company declared bankruptcy. Using the money from the sale of the construction lot, the school was able to build some extension classrooms for its youngest students, but it never got any housing. Homeless people sometimes slept in the unfinished residential complex, and school children occasionally ran through, chasing after a soccer ball that went over the fence.

In 2010, the regional authorities found a new developer to finish the building. Workers showed up, installed new PVC windows, replaced the badly dilapidated upper floor, and then disappeared, never to return, after realizing that finishing construction on the long-abandoned site simply wasn’t profitable. Afterwards, a group of three started guarding the property: two stray dogs and an elderly ex-con named Ivan Mikhailovich who lived down the street.

Four years later, after yet another company abandoned the construction site, the real estate’s current owners formed a housing association to seize the homes back from the developer. People invested their own money in the project, paying to finish the construction: 7,000 rubles per square meter (about $10 per square foot, by April 2018’s exchange rate). “Don’t ask questions if you don’t know the answer. Don’t go shouting in public squares or staging protests,” says an exhausted Vladimir Kem, the chairman of the housing association. “We’re tired of all this. We’ve done an enormous amount of work. We’ve had many different inspections and court decisions. It’s time this building was finally built.”

Creating a housing association is one option for defrauded co-investors. In this case, they gain the right to sign a contract with a new developer, simultaneously dropping their claim against the previous developer. As with the building on Sibirskaya Street, this often requires some additional investments — but not always. “To avoid spending more of their own money, people usually take the following approach: they find an investor for their abandoned construction site that can use its own funds to complete the project, in exchange for which the investor receives development land from the regional authorities,” explains Alexander Bakaev, who advises the Novosibirsk Defrauded Co-Investors’ Association.

According to Nadezhda Kostyreva, despite all these difficulties, money from shared-equity co-investors is still the bedrock of Russia’s construction industry. “Developers are really worried right now about reforms [in federal legislation], but they were even more scared in the 2000s [when the government started regulating shared-equity construction]. The developers were screaming that all building would come to a halt,” Kostyreva recalls. “But they survived somehow, and the total volume of construction has since doubled. They were building up to 25 million square meters [269 million square feet] in apartment buildings back then, and now it’s more than twice that.”

The Agency for Housing Mortgage Lending says 620,000 shared-equity co-investor agreements were registered in 2016 — five percent more than in the year before. The Co-Investors’ Protection Foundation told Meduza that Russia’s Federal Cadastral Records Agency registers more than 100 new shared-equity agreements every single day. According to the newspaper Vedomosti, 90 percent of all construction projects in Russia are financed with money from shared-equity shareholders and investors — simply because housing is far cheaper at the excavation stage.

With the help of investors, the Novosibirsk Defrauded Co-Investors’ Association, the local authorities, and the money of co-investors, the 21-year-old construction site on Sibirskaya Street was almost finished. In early 2018, they started beautifying the surrounding grounds, and even built a four-story extension that’s supposed to house a children’s center. The building was supposed to be ready in December 2017. Ivan Mikhailovich, the site’s elderly watchman, has died. The site’s billboard was taken down from the fence, and the dedication placard is covered in snow.

On New Year’s Eve, however, every window in the building was still dark. Three months later, when Meduza’s correspondent visited, he found two men smoking outside the site's new fence. “Nobody lives here,” they said.

Story by Pyotr Manyakhin in Novosibirsk, Moscow, and Saratov, translation by Kevin Rothrock