Life with a Heart Complaint

Life in Oryol has changed little since Ivan Turgenev wrote about it 160 years ago, though the villages he described are disappearing. Earlier this year President Medvedev removed the governor who had been in place for 16 years and some of his officials are now on trial. The resulting snap elections may well benefit the communist party, says Elena Godlevskaya
Elena Godlevskaya
26 November 2009

“A heart complaint is a series of disorders which are mainly caused by a reduction in the contractile force of the heart muscle. They are caused by the heart being overworked and exhausted, when its blood supply is disrupted and by toxins etc.”    

 Great Russian Encyclopedia

The Oryol Oblast is one of the smallest in Russia. From Moscow to the Oblast centre, the city of Oryol, is 382 km to the south, and the Ukrainian border is approximately the same distance again. The Oblast is often called the centre of Russia, even the heart of Russia. So what is the heart of Russia like?

Firstly, it is diseased. We are still suffering from the consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe, when a radioactive cloud covered hundreds of towns and villages. In some areas, people are still paid so-called “grave payments” – small benefits to improve their food and medicine, which are barely sufficient for a standard selection of flu medicine. The average male life expectancy is 61, i.e. many do not live to collect their pension (in Russia the retirement age for men is 60). The mortality rate exceeds the birth rate by one and a half times, and this is considered to be an acceptable figure: several years ago it was twice as high.

Secondly, the heart of Russia is rapidly growing older. Every third person in the Oblast is a pensioner and over half the people are more than 50 years of age.

Even though more people live in the towns than in the country, the area is going through a process of active de-industrialization. Factory buildings are rented out and transformed into retail and office spaces. From January to September this year, the index of industrial production here fell by almost 40% compared to the level for last year, one of the worst figures in the country. The losses of major and medium enterprises are 2.5 times higher than last year. So today, the heart of Russia can’t “beat” independently and effectively lives off colossal subsidies from the federal budget.

The only thing that was cause for joy this autumn was the abundant grain harvest, which brought in over 2 million tons of grain.  This is a good figure that is comparable with figures from the middle of the economically prosperous 1970s, but it didn’t solve any problems.  The farmers can’t sell the grain. One the one hand, prices are very low – wholesale merchants offer 2 rubles per kilogram – and on the other, there are so few granaries, that there is nowhere to store it. Some of last year’s harvest is still lying in the grain elevators. Additionally, a large amount of the grain is fodder and there are no animals to feed it to. Over the last fifteen years, livestock numbers in the Oblast have fallen by almost three times.

Although there are officially more people in towns, the Oblast is at heart really a farming region.  The towns are mainly full of people fleeing the hopelessness and extreme poverty in the villages.  Turgenev drew a brilliant picture of a peasant in his story “Khor i Kalynich”: “The Oryol man is short in stature, stooped, gloomy, looks at you suspiciously, lives in wretched aspen huts, labours as a serf, doesn’t engage in any kind of trading, eats badly and wears bast shoes… The Oryol village (we’re talking about the eastern part of the province) is usually situated among tilled fields, near a ravine, which has somehow become a dirty pool. There are a few willows, which can always be pressed into service, and two or three slender birches, but you won’t see another tree around for a mile all around; the huts are huddled up higgledy-piggledy and the roofs are thatched with rotten hay…” Some of this has changed, of course – there is no compulsory labour, bast shoes are only woven as souvenirs and there is hardly any rotten hay to be found. But most striking of all, the Oryol man, usually ill and a drunk, has been replaced by the woman. A contemporary journalist once paraphrased Nekrasov’s famous lines:

"There are women in Russian villages
With calm and serious expressions,
Beautiful strength in their movements
And the walk and look of an empress."


“There are women in Russian villages
And that’s absolutely all there is there”.

This second version is an excellent description of the Oryol village, which is kept alive by the hands, patience and endurance of women. So the heart of Russia is female.

How long it can keep going, no one knows, but the village as a territorial unit is increasingly disappearing from the map of the Oryol Oblast. Over the last 10 years around 100 settlements have disappeared. Recently, for example, we lost the villages of Moscow and the Cape of Good Hope, though Mars, Cuba and Red Square still remain. But for how long?  Just the district surrounding the town of Oryol has lost 19 settlements in the last five years. 

So Turgenev’s statement that the Oryol village is usually situated among tilled fields is incorrect. These days not more than 70% of fields are tilled. Recently on the train I heard a mushroom-picker talking about how he got lost. “I wandered around for three days,” he said “although seven years ago I knew these places quite well. Wherever I went, there was young forest that was the height of a person.  There were no voices, no sounds of machinery or any harvested or sowed fields – and on the few roads I came across there was no trace of cars. I decided the devil was leading me in a circle. Although I’m not religious, I prayed. I don’t know if it helped, but on the evening of the third day I reached some enormous oaks, like in a fairytale. And there were men there with beards almost down to their waists. They silently took me to the outer room of a house, gave me bread and water and showed me where I could spend the night. In the morning they took me to a path and showed me where to go. After a while – my God, a dumper truck! I was so happy I almost cried… Now I’m afraid to even try and work out where exactly it was. But it was definitely in the Zalegoshensky region, and that’s one and a half hour’s drive from Oryol”.

The huts aren’t higgledy-piggledy any more. They are increasingly abandoned, but the places where people do actually live are also nothing to write home about. Electricity and gas are the only mod cons, and not every village even has gas. Water comes from the well or the water tower. Most of these towers in the villages were built in the Soviet period. Naturally, they are all breaking down, which is a real catastrophe for the villagers. Clothes have to be washed, gardens watered and animals given to drink.  They themselves need to drink too, but there isn’t any water. Sometimes children are only accepted into kindergartens if they come with a bottle of drinking water. People are forced to collect rainwater, and snow in winter. And if there is neither the one nor the other, they even collect water from puddles. One local newspaper reported that “villagers have classified two types of puddles that are suitable for drinking from: one is called “just a puddle” and the other is called a “Sunday best”. It is obvious that the water, or rather the liquid resembling water, is disgusting in both cases. The “Sunday best” puddle may be further away, but it has better quality water, according to local standards, not so murky and with fewer frogs in it. That particular water supply problem has now been solved, but it still exists in dozens of other Oryol villages.

But the main problem for village people is schools. The school is everything in the village. More important than gas, water supply and even work. If there is a school, then there is a village. If there is none, then the settlement disappears. The logic is simple: a person lives for the sake of his children. If the next generation has nowhere to learn, what’s the point of living in that area? More than 50 schools have closed over the last 10 years.

Let me tell you about one of them. It’s in the village of Glybochki in the Shablykinsky region, 80 km from Oryol. This autumn it celebrated its 130th birthday. It was opened in 1879 by a favourite of Tsar Paul I, Pyotr Kirillovich Essen.  He is well known in Russian history as the governor-general of the Orenburg Krai (now oblast) and the governor of St. Petersburg. In the 19th century, the school was designed for 400 children, and Glybochki was a big village, not the hamlet it is now.

The destruction of the ancient village (its name is mentioned by historians earlier than Oryol) began with the destruction of the church after the October Revolution. Now it’s the turn of the temple of learning. Last year there were 25 children in the school. This year there were only 10 and the local administration decided it wasn’t worth keeping on six teachers for them. Former pupils came to celebrate the anniversary of the school. Some of them have got PhDs. One of the former teachers is now a successful businessman.  He is prepared to fund one teacher in order to preserve the school, but he’s afraid that he won’t gain any backing. “This is our culture and history. Glybochki is mentioned before Oryol in Karamzin’s History of the Russian State! It must be preserved! This school even carried on during the years of the Nazi occupation. Does that mean that reformers of the village are worse than the occupiers?”

No one in Glybochki doubts that this is the end of the village. And the remaining children… The children will travel several kilometres to another village school. If there is a bus.

There are problems with school buses in the Oryol Oblast. The old fleet is outdated, and there isn’t any money for new buses. Plus the uneven roads and the lack of snow-clearing equipment. Of course, in good weather you can walk – the example of Lomonosov, who walked across the whole of Russia to study in the capital is still very vivid. But children are not allowed to walk to school during the wet autumn and the freezing winter. So villagers have a right to education, but there’s no education… The military enlistment offices which have unwillingly to test recruits for literacy have long been alarmed that the number of young men from the country who have difficulty reading is increasing every year.

So Russia’s heart aches, fears for the future and lives in the hope that maybe something will suddenly work out.

The hope that something will “suddenly” work out runs through many TV series, where “Cinderellas” instantly turn into princesses. Until quite recently smallholders placed a lot of hopes in so-called investors. Before the crisis there was no shortage of rich people wanting to purchase land in the Oblast. But unfortunately for the smallholders, most of them knew absolutely nothing about land in central Russia. They knew about profitability, intensive technology and the workforce. But they didn’t know that land also means people. Yes, poor, people who have taken to drink, can’t pronounce the word “nanotechnology” and don’t know what innovation is. They have a toilet in the bushes and wear GULAG-era vests. But they are still people, whose lives are wrapped up in the land that is for sale, and are inseparable from it. So the land was sold together with the people, ballast for which the new masters of their lives had no need: they couldn’t after all be a source of new capital, and in fact proved to be a major headache. So the cows were slaughtered, and no one cared a rap that the milkmaids had been deprived of their livelihood. The schools were not their problem, and it was better to bring in specialists on a rotation system from another more civilized region. As it turned out, the investors didn’t breathe new life into the villages.  They destroyed them.  This was the paradox. In the cultural centres of the major villages that are left, the villagers increasingly sing with tears in their eyes:

“Raise a monument to the village
On Red Square in Moscow.
There will be old trees,
There will be apples in the grass,
And a crooked hut
With a porch falling apart,
And the mother of a fallen soldier
With a shameful pension in her hands…
May the children left to grow up in the villages
Stand timidly by.
All their inheritance in the world
Is this hard slave labour.
Raise a monument to the village
To let the people know, even if only once,
How humbly, and how peacefully
The village awaits its hour of death”.

 Incidentally, two years ago a deputy from the Shablykinsky district council proposed building a monument to the villages that had vanished from the map of the region. His proposal was treated as a joke…

I’ve written almost nothing about the influence of the economic crisis. It makes itself felt, of course. The incomes of the already poverty-stricken population have dropped (our standard of life in the Oblast has long been one of the lowest in Russia), unemployment has increased and tax revenue into budget has been halved. But the problems the heart of Russia is currently trying to cope with are not so much a consequence of the crisis, as the result of the long rule of Yegor Stroyev – that same Stroyev who was a secretary of the Communist Party under Gorbachev, and the chairman of the Russian Federation Council under Yeltsin.

His authoritarian rule lasted almost 25 years, so he is responsible for everything we have (and what we don’t). In February this year, Medvedev removed Stroyev from the post of governor for inefficiency. Corruption scandals swept the Oblast. The former first deputy governor and the former head of the Property Fund and property management were put on trial.  An international arrest warrant was issued for the deputy governor for industry.  Criminal cases were opened against the former deputy governor for social issues (now the deputy chairman of the Oblast government), the heads of major regional enterprises and a number of deputies of the Oblast legislative assembly. They are accused of exceeding their official powers, negligence causing serious damage to the Oblast, fraud and stealing state property during the time of Yegor Stroyev’s rule. The respected senator of the Russian Federation has so far been left alone. But a criminal case will be opened against those involved in the disappearance of tens of millions of Euros in the Russian-German project “Wheat-2000 Oryol”, the result of which was a lawsuit of over 4 billion rubles filed by Vneshekonombank against the government of the Oryol Oblast. The debt has been restructured over a period of 30 years, which means that our children and grandchildren will be paying for the errors of the former governor.

All of this makes the heart of the Oryol Oblast red: the influence of the Communist Party is increasing every year. At the last elections to the State Duma, United Russia as a party only won one electoral district in Oryol. Now snap elections for the mayor of Oryol have been announced, as the former mayor Alexander Kasyanov was dismissed from his position on 3 September after being sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for non-payment of taxes.  City residents are said to be going to vote for a candidate from the Communist Party and many members of United Russia may even do the same. The local office of United Russia couldn’t even find a worthy candidate in its ranks, and had to bring someone in from St. Petersburg. So perhaps Oryol will have a “red” mayor, which would be a sort of response to the destruction of villages, the plundering of the Oblast and the impoverishment of most of the population. But will this heal the heart of Russia? That’s a big question.

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