Hello! My name is Shannon, and I’m an American traveler. I write a blog on LiveJournal in English, and communicate with only Russian speaking subscribers there. I’ve traveled to Russia four times in the past two years, visiting different parts of the country. Today, I’ll tell you about the day I spent in a Russian village on 1 March 2015. I hope you will enjoy it!
1. In village areas, there will always be many abandoned churches. When we first entered the Chukhlomsky District, this familiar scene greeted us.
2. I didn't know what to expect, but at the sight of the abandoned church a sudden feeling of despair fell upon me. I anticipated the apocalyptic village scenes I saw a few years ago, and honestly I didn't want to experience it again. When you're faced with these landscapes over and over again, it's easy for the mind to float into a depressive state. A few minutes later, all worry was lifted. Immediately I could tell that living conditions in this village were much better, with decent wooden houses framed in colorful windows.
3. The main area we visited is called Astashovo, land of wood! If I recall, lumber is the main export of the region, with many male villagers working in lumber yards and transport, hauling huge logs to larger cities for housing construction.
4. You can travel on the village roads for many kilometers and not pass another car, but we shared the forest road with this truck for a brief moment in time.
5. In this region, I was happy to encounter a project dedicated to tourism in Russia! Lack of tourism infrastructure is a constant complaint of mine, not only because it makes navigation difficult, but there's also some sadness for me that few Westerners visit Russia on vacation. A Muscovite by the name of Andrey Pavlichenkov stumbled upon an abandoned mansion in the village and decided to invest in its reconstruction. There's an entire Facebook page dedicated to the project. I suggest you join and support this worthwhile initiative!
6. Construction has been ongoing for three years, and Andrey expects the restoration will be complete by next summer. Very nice man, who once studied in North Carolina and speaks perfect English! He is now on a road trip in America, exploring Utah and other Western States. The mansion will have a few guest rooms upstairs, normal showers and toilets, and operate in the same style as a European or American bed and breakfast. I promised him I will try to return to the village next summer for the grand opening, and be one of the first foreign guests to stay in the mansion. Unfortunately, my leg injury still bothers me, so I couldn't climb up the wobbly ladder to the top. See me waving from below in the photo? :)
7. The onsite leader of the construction project is this man - Slava. A tall, gentle giant. He was our main contact in the village and introduced us to many of the residents. He claimed he couldn't speak English, but somehow I think he understood just fine based on some of his facial expressions. He was probably too shy to try to speak the language with a native, like many Russians.
8. Slava's house is bare bones, but in complete order. A few beds, stove, wooden benches and kitchen table. It was here that four men slept on the night I went to the forest house alone. Special thanks to Slava for preparing my hot banya, carrying the wood and explaining how everything operates.
9. For me, the most important part of every journey is to see how normal citizens live. There can be no doubt that Russian villages are dying for the most part, occupied mostly by old pensioners, but in these homes there was still life. First stop was the house of Nadezhda, a pensioner with a tragic life story. Hopefully you can still see the kindness in her eyes, even if you never get the opportunity to experience it in person.
10. Her "prayer room," where she spends five hours a day praying! I don't know how it's possible, but I take her word for truth. The room was formerly occupied by her son, who died 15 years ago. Every day since, Nadezhda has turned to the salvation of religion, without it she explained she couldn't survive. Her grief would have overtaken her many years ago.
11. The most beautiful stove of all the homes we visited. The colorful flowers and designs were painted by her granddaughters.
12. I noticed almost all village homes had similar decorations, with onions, garlic or some other vegetable hanging from the walls. Do they eat these, or is the food just there for decor? I'm not sure. Maybe it's a type of food storage, since kitchen space is limited. Russians, please explain! :)
13. One of the bedrooms, and patterned carpets which are multi-purpose in Russia! They can be used for a mat, wall decoration, or furniture covering.
14. The main living area of the home is very large, filled with plants, dishware and more carpets! :)
15. This is where Nadezhda's husband spends most of his day. He has Parkinson's disease, causing an unsteady hand, trembles and difficulty hearing. Nadezhda's main duty now is to care for him, prepare meals, assist with medication, and to provide companionship for the man she's spent her entire life with.
16. Before we left, Nadezhda wanted to show us her medals. She brought out many boxes, filled with shiny objects emblazoned with various USSR symbols. The discussion turned quite interesting, and she explained that she worked all her life as a choir director. We began to hear about her difficult life, one tragic event after the next, and then a small tone of anger arose in her voice. She can't understand how a citizen who worked so hard for so many years, earning so many medals, is left with such a small pension. "Why doesn't the government take care of me?" Total pension for her and her husband is around 7000 rubles/month. Not enough to provide adequate medical treatment for him, nor lead a comfortable life. I really wanted to hear Nadezhda sing, but she grew indignant and said "no!" - her voice is reserved only for church songs and she now sings only during services. Very religious woman. In the end, she explained that we MUST go to church, it isn't enough to be a believer or simply pray each day...of course, I don't share her belief but I simply nodded. I didn't want to waste my time or energy trying to argue with a babushka! A sport only for the brave and strong. :))
17. A stop at one of the newer churches led to a unique encounter. There I met a "monk-priest." I wanted to speak with him, to understand more about how the Orthodox religion differs from Catholicism or other sects, and he agreed. He spoke no English, but Alexander was kind enough to act as our interpreter, not only for this encounter but in all communications with the villagers. We sat inside, chatted for about an hour, and I think I even taught him a few things. I grew up going to Catholic mass, so I told him about communion in U.S. churches, how everyone sips grape juice or wine from the same goblet, and takes wafers into their mouth...
I'm always curious what leads someone to the priesthood, so I asked him. He's a musician and former member of a well-known Russian pop band. He explained that he received a lot of adoration and attention from fans, yet it never left him fulfilled. He was always searching for something more...and he found it when he went to church one day with a friend. After that, he gave up his comfortable life as a musician, and went to a remote monastery to become a monk. He then made his way to the Kostroma region, where he now serves as a priest in a church that's about 100 years old. Previously, the church was used as a garage by collective farmers during Soviet times. Restoration was made possible by financial contributions from two of his former bandmates. I can't say one bad thing about this man. I told him upfront that I'm not a believer, and he didn't try to preach to me. Just a normal, intelligent and pleasant conversation between two humans. I later learned that the priest also collects money and repairs potholes in the village himself, because the government provides absolutely no funds for this type of work. Btw, Nadezhda told me that this priest saved her life after her son's death. He provided a lot of grief counseling, took time to pray with her, and she visits his church regularly.
18. Walking through the village, you sometimes encounter houses that seem out of place. This reminds me of a Swiss ski chalet, some new construction that doesn't fit into the overall landscape of the village. I assume it's the dacha for some wealth city person, who probably only visits in the summer.
19. Neighborhood road and old Soviet car. It almost looks like a toy, being swallowed up by all the snow and forest trees.
20. In the village, there are still signs of abandonment and collapsing homes. I think it's almost impossible to escape such scenes in most parts of provincial Russia.
21. The village has no restaurants or cafes, but there's a small grocery store. The woman who worked there was shy, she didn't want to be photographed but I eventually convinced her after I bought some ham. Notice how she calculates sales? With a small calculator and my favorite abacus! :) Modern scales to weigh the meats and cheeses.
22. Different types of food sitting in barrels - dreaded pickles (this is the food I hate most!), some type of fish, and numerous canned goods and sweets on the shelves. What is in the piggie can? Some type of processed meat?
23. Next, we met Valentina. Another friendly villager, standing in the middle of the snowy forest road, waiting to greet us! She took us to the local social club, where villagers gather for entertainment.
24. The club is funded by the District, but the interior is old, with remnants from the Soviet era. A large selection of books is available for residents, movies are shown, and local actors even put on theatrical performances.
25. On this night, a special performance by an American bear. :)
26. A small gym, with some weights, balls and treadmills. I'm not sure these get much use, as most of the villagers are very old.
27. Ah...Putin! I noticed that he appears young, with a lot of hair, in almost all posters and photos. I conveyed my confusion to the locals, and they found it amusing. For me, it's very strange because in the U.S, Presidents are always depicted as their current self, even when they're serving two terms. There are numerous White House photographers releasing photos weekly in all types of social situations. Obama shooting basketball, at church, drinking beer, working in the Oval Office...so, there is no chance he will be eternally memorialized in posters or photos in anything other than his current physical state. You can see it easily - almost all U.S. Presidents have more gray hair when they leave office than the day they entered. Perhaps Putin is very vain, or Russia doesn't invest in an official press corp? I don't know the explanation.
28. Russian cowboy, Eugene! He runs the social club and tries to instill a sense of community in the village. He told the story of how life has changed over the years, with people socializing much less in modern times. "Villagers don't talk to each other like they used to...all the young people leave for the big city and a more comfortable life.." Huge respect for Eugene and all of the time and effort he puts into this center to facilitate entertainment for people living in the remote forest. What else would they do without this center in the dead of winter? Sit and waste their lives away in front of the TV, or with their mouths affixed to a vodka bottle?
29. Valentina prepared the first home-made meal of the evening. Mushrooms, potatoes, and some type of meat pie. All of the typical dishes at a Russian table, including tomatoes, pickles and cucumbers.
30. She invited me down into the dungeon, or so it appeared. I crawled down into the very tiny space and discovered a lot of treasures!
31. So many potatoes!! Enough to last all winter, grown in the yard during the summer months. Canned vegetables, fruits, beets, mushrooms. All of this I've seen before because my aunt has a huge garden and cans food the same way at the end of each summer. She stores it in her large basement rather than a lower attic like this.
32. For dessert, delicious fruit jams and tea.
33. Valentina's husband, sorry I don't know his name but he barely spoke and didn't join us at the dinner table. He seemed deep in thought and contemplation, though I have no idea what was occupying his mind. I know much less about Valentina, we didn't speak to her as much as Nadezhda. However, I wish to thank her for the nice meal, tea and fruits!
34. There are some young people in this village, and a local school. I'm always amazed when I hear stories of Russian kids walking over 5 km each day just to get an education. In the U.S., we recently had a story about a Detroit man who walks 30 km a day to his factory job. You can Google it. When a local newspaper wrote a story about him, Americans immediately set up online donations to buy him a car. In the first day, the site raised over $30,000. Numerous times, I saw the young boys chasing big trucks on the bikes. Village entertainment, I guess. Even the dog joined in, barking and running like a maniac down the road.
35. Final stop of the night - the village drunks. Valentina wanted to take us to meet them, but the other villagers were hesitant. Maybe they thought it would leave a bad impression, but such people exist in every single town on the planet - in the village, and in the big city. There's absolutely no distinction and when I first posted a photo of this couple on Facebook and called them "drunks" people immediately yelled that I was being offensive. Well, I simply call people what they are, and DimDimych and Anna are drunks. I know alcoholics very well because I've had a few in my own family. My grandfather was tied to a whisky bottle his entire life, leaving my grandmother to care for ten children on her own. So, the seriousness of the disease is no joke, but people choose their own path in life, and no one can alter the course except that person, and that person alone.
36. My grandfather was a mean and abusive drunk, I remember it even as a child. But I can't say the same for DimDimych and Anna. They were charming, sweet and friendly, welcoming anyone into their home. I don't think they ever realized that I'm American, or even paid attention to the language I was speaking. Several times DimDimych tried to carry on a conversation with me, completely oblivious to the fact I couldn't understand a word he said.
37. The house was dirty and incredibly hot. I don't know how they awake each morning, after falling asleep in a drunken state with such oppressive warmth in the home.
38. The kitchen table was littered with bitten pieces of bread, old cigarettes, lemons, and vodka glasses.
39. They were quite pleased to have new company, an unfamiliar face, bright smile...perhaps our visit was the highlight of their month. We sat, took photos, and did one vodka shot.
40. These two have been together a long time, probably living in miserable, poor conditions, yet still very affectionate. Constantly hugging and kissing, with Anna slapping DimDimych's head playfully on occasion, or out of aggravation. It was hard to tell. :) In this situation, it was impossible to try to translate a normal conversation, so I can't tell you their life history. I think, however, that you can easily create their story in your mind based on my pictures.
41. This day in the village was the most memorable of the entire journey. I admire these villagers for their determination and perseverance through the decades. I can still vividly recall the expressions, voices and warm emotions of Valentina, Anna and Nadezhda today, as I sit here typing from my desk.
Their lives are a testament that the human spirit is very strong, much stronger than most of us can imagine. When Alexander translated the post about my overnight stay in the forest house, he asked the provocative question - "Can an American survive in a Russian village?" For a lifetime, I'm not sure, but for one day and night, the answer is a definitive "yes!" Thanks to everyone for the hospitality, food and insight into a completely different way of life.
Other Stories from the Village
Alone in the Russian Forest
Nadezhda - Village Farmer