In the center of the Russian town of Saransk runs a quiet side-street named Democracy Street, nestled between the thoroughfares of Communist Street and Soviet Street. No. 1 on Democracy is a newly built 8-storey apartment block painted in beige and white pastel shades, housing 14 apartments where city bureaucrats and businessman live. But now they will be joined by the legend of French cinema Gérard Depardieu.
In January, the actor, 64, became a Russian citizen amid a row over a newly-planned French tax on the rich and became resident of Saransk, a town with 300,000 residents some 630 kilometers east of Moscow. The town is the capital of the Russian republic of Mordovia, a region famed for its prison camps where one of the Pussy Riot members is serving her two-year term for hooliganism.
In February, Depardieu was formally registered as a resident of 1, Democracy, in a flat belonging to family members of Russia's State Film Fund head Nikolai Borodachev, a friend of the movie star.
The actor will enjoy his new home, says his neighbors who were themselves keen buying the flat when the building was first put on the market. "For a long time, we wanted to buy that apartment," Alesya and Andrey Akishev, who live in an adjacent flat, tells Metro. "It's a nice, bright two-room apartment. But the price for the place was too high."
The Akishevs in fact knew who exactly would be their neighbor even before Depardieu visited the town.
"All of a sudden, the snow was cleared away from the courtyard," recalls Alesya. "The entrance to the building was thoroughly cleaned. And I thought to myself, if Depardieu is really coming, someone ought to run out and get the bread and salt [a traditional welcome offering in Russia]."
Alesya and Andrey are both well-known restaurateurs, running a number of businesses in Saransk. They hope to speak with Depardieu next time he is in town – last month, the actor said he would like to open a bakery and café in a closed grocery store.
"I like the idea [of Depardieu opening a business]," Viktor Korobeynikov, who runs a nearby restaurant, tells Metro. "All the more, it's unlikely we'd be in competition. He will sell pastries and other cheap foods, while I run a high-end restaurant. And I doubt that the French cuisine will be in great demand in Mordovia. People here prefer vodka or cheap beer."
While Depardieu could change his neighborhood into a French boulevard, there had been talk of the actor taking up a post in local government. Governor Vladimir Volkov of Mordovia had offered Depardieu a position in the local ministry of culture, but the actor turned it down.
Yet Depardieu has done his duty in promoting this previously-little-known region, says the man who heads the culture ministry in Depardieu's stead. "Gérard's mission as a messenger for Mordovia is more important than a ministerial position," says Vladimir Sharapov, who previously ran the local philharmonic orchestra. "Indeed, who knew about little Mordovia before the famous actor became a resident here! We hope this will attract tourists from around the world to our region."
While Depardieu is an official resident in Saransk, no-one knows when he will visit next. City officials hope he will come for Victory Day on May 9, the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.
Meanwhile, Saransk will be waiting and expecting from their Frenchman. Authorities hope that he will help develop tourism. Realtors believe that the cost of housing in the city center will now surge. Intellectuals hope Depardieu will attract international theater and film festivals to Saransk. And residents will want to try his French pastries, while some women dream of becoming Madame Depardieu.
DEPARDIEU'S RUSSIAN AFFAIR
• January 1, 2013. Vladimir Putin has signed a decree granting Russian citizenship to Gérard Depardieu. On January 5, the actor received his Russian passport.
• January 11. Depardieu received a felt hat consecrated in a shamanistic ritual and was made an 'Honorary Udmurt' by the people of Udmurtia, a Finnic-speaking region.
• February 21. Depardieu received a residence registration in Saransk. However, he has not yet spent a night in his new apartment. He impressed with his knowledge of local history, likening himself to Yemelyan Pugachev, the chief of a peasant rebellion in the 18th century. He said he plans to open a bakery and café in the town.
• February 25. Depardieu was named an honorary citizen of Chechnya. He received the keys to a five-room apartment from Chechnya's president Ramzan Kadyrov. In reply, Depardieu promised Kadyrov to make a film about Chechnya.