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Russian provincial life: down on the farm

In any country farming is a hard life, but in Russia the mass exodus to the cities of people of working age has had catastrophic results. Local authority programmes go someway to reversing the flow, but not enough. For many town dwellers the country is only for holidays, says Elena Strelnikova

We’re on holiday

“Hallo! Is there anyone there? Can we have some real delicious-smelling country bread?” A group of urban residents, including me and my family, are trying to find a shop in a small hamlet of about 50 houses. Or rather, we’ve found the shop, but it’s shut and locked with a big padlock. Obviously not expecting any customers on such a hot August day. 

The Russian countryside is fantastic for active holidays, living and cooking amidst nature, but it is much tougher for those who live there. (Photos: Flickr / Vektorii and neiljacklin.com)

But we’re in luck. The unknown guests have attracted the attention of a swarthy little boy of about six or seven. “Mum is digging in the kitchen garden,” he says. In Russia women in the country sow, reap and do everything else too. She digs the vegetable patch, looks after the house, brings up the children and, as Nekrasov wrote, “can stop a runaway horse and will go into a burning izba [wooden peasant hut].” No one calls them “women”, they’re all known as "baba" [peasant woman, also used familiarly – ed]. The woman from the shop was just one such, though she was welcoming and good-humoured.

“Do you want local bread or what we order in?”

Orenburg_map

“Local, of course.  It smells so delicious and it's so soft…but your prices are the same as in the town. Are the salaries good here?”

“Of course not!  Unlikely to get up to 10,000 [roubles a month, around 240 Euros]. We manage as best we can. Where are you from?”

“Orenburg. We're on holiday, going down the river on catamarans and kayaks. We started at Isyangulovo in Bashkiria [Republic of Bashkortostan].”

“What are the roads like there? Our central street isn't too bad, but all the others are just dust and dirt.”

Roads

Roads are a real issue for our province. The extent of our road network in the Orenburg Region puts us in fourth place for the Volga Federal Region and seventh for Russia. The network extends over 13,700 kms, but less than a third of them are asphalted. Not a brilliant image for our region, but it was behind the decision of the regional authorities to change things for the better. The result was an all-region special-purpose programme to be completed by 2020 called “Roads to our Villages.” Each section of a road is officially opened with pomp and circumstance and the obligatory TV cameras. Not long ago my husband split his sides laughing at some of the coverage: “The road to the village is finished!! They laid gravel, steam-rollered it, and then they reported back on their valiant achievements. I just thought that at last a village would have some asphalt, but they’ve no shame, showing it on TV like that!”

One time we were coming back from the Orenburg Nature Reserve, part of which lies along the border with Samara Region. We were driving along a wide (two lane) evenly surfaced road, hurrying to get home before the rain started (because then only a tractor can get through). At one of the bends in the road we were extremely surprised to see a sign saying: “No overtaking”. Are they out of their minds? You hardly ever see a bus or a car and it's 30km to the nearest village in either direction. Roads in our villages are being asphalted bit by bit, but they make a real meal of it.

Construction

We were greeted as though we were family in the Bashkiria district centre, Isyangulovo, because we are both neighbours and friends.  They get mineral fertiliser and high-class seed from us and we get petrol and students from them. True, their fuel is among the most expensive in Russia, but our education is cheaper than in Bashkiria.  Our district centres are quite similar:  in almost all of them there are good roads, well-kept front gardens and a couple of schools. In the Orenburg Region there are ever more recreation areas and it is particularly noticeable that they are private projects. Of course it's mainly farmers that embark on building, but ordinary village people also manage to put a bit away. 

The “Village House” programme has been in operation for some time.  It's funded by the region and enables village dwellers to buy building materials at an annual interest rate of 3%. A bank loan is at least 11% and you have to be in the public sector.  But 3%!  Many people have picked up on it, though not all are satisfied with the quality of the materials, but it's some kind of advance in resolving the housing question. Apparently this programme has really taken the fancy of officials in the cities, who quickly got themselves some land in villages near Orenburg, registered themselves as living there and built themselves cottages at very favourable rates, just like real villagers.

"The local 'Village House' programme enables villagers to buy building materials at very cheap interest rates. Apparently some city-based offiicials are so impressed by their scheme, they've registered themselves as villagers, bought land and built themselves country residences."

Meanwhile the regional authorities love boasting to the national government about their successes in low-rise building.  Not long ago there was a special exhibition dedicated to the village “Ekovalley”, which is a positive example of public/private sector cooperation, as the governor reported during the meeting. “We put in electricity, communications and roads at a cost of 400 million roubles, but a developer did the building in the village. We had an agreement with the company to build 3 kindergartens and 2 schools.  It's this kind of project that is enabling us to bring down the cost per square metre of housing.”  This idyllic picture is much helped, I might add, by the fact that the elite cottage estate lies 10km from Orenburg and is intended for people with above average incomes.  The housing question is by no means the least important issue in the towns either, though it has become more acute during recent years as young people flock in from the villages.  Running away from the nest! If these nice houses were built in the villages jointly by developers and the state, then offered to young professionals for free or at minimal cost, then there really would be something to report.  But as it is….

The young are leaving...

There is a catastrophic shortage of young working people in the villages. Even the Agrarian University acknowledges with a sigh that their entrants are mainly interested in law, economics and bookkeeping, but there's a shortage of agronomists, livestock experts and vets. And graduates from these faculties rarely return to their village, hanging on by their fingernails in the city if they can.
 
“Our 1950s generation is not planning on going anywhere,” Anatolii Ivanovich tells us. He was born and brought up in Novopavlovka village and is delighted when he meets travellers. Catamarans and kayaks are rare birds of passage here and Anatolii, slightly tipsy, is glad of a chance to talk. “Not many people keep cattle any more, because it's not worth it.  Hay is expensive and dealers buy up the meat for next to nothing.  We give the hens milk to drink.” “Do people drink here?” “Why not, when there's an excuse? My children and grandchildren come to see me, and I have to celebrate that somehow! But hard drinking, that's someone who doesn't want to do anything. We work round the clock, so there's not much time for relaxation.”

We sail on. It's so beautiful: we watch the sand-martins building their nests on the banks and the eagles soar overhead. “That's an oystercatcher.  There are lots of them on our Sakmara river,” says our experienced guide. A heron is standing stock still on the bank. We all take photographs of her from every angle, but she pays us no attention whatsoever. “Perhaps it's plastic? Well of course… someone brought it here, several kilometres away from civilisation, and put it up specially for the tourists!” As if wishing to refute our inane suggestions, the heron turns her head slightly. “It's alive! Hurray!” “Idiots”, thinks the heron.

It's an odd sort of place. The landing stages are lopsided, the boats look abandoned and there are no houses to be seen. A couple of kilometres further on we meet some locals. “Does [catching and selling] fish put food on the table for you?” we ask. “I feed them more than they feed me,” sighs the old man on the bank. This is Malga village. The local population has left, but their places have been taken by summer cottagers. In the Orenburg Region there are settlements where there's only an old man or woman left. They look after their vegetables, keep their stove alight and are in no hurry to go anywhere. 

It's extremely rare that in one of these orphaned villages there is anyone who is not very close to pensionable age, though in one village there is a middle-aged woman called Tatiana: an architect by training, but a plantswoman by vocation. She has ended up alone in her village – her husband died, her daughter left for the city and her fellow-villagers went off to more promising villages. But Tatiana stayed. She decided not to have a TV or a mobile and there's no internet in her house. She has her dog Gerda, two cats, her house, her vegetable garden and the orchard she planted herself and she is completely content. She paints and writes books and articles. There's no such thing as a “typical” village dweller!

It is predominantly elderly women who tend farms, working from dawn till dusk.
(Photo: Demotix / Aleksei Kunilov)

Village life

While we sail past the next village we talk about village life. My daughter has been shocked by it: “There's only one school” (pretty good village, I think, many children are bussed to school in the next village), “one hospital” (also not bad, ambulances can take anything up to two hours in some places) “and you can buy everything in the shop: bread, milk, shampoo and anything else!” 

The head of one the areas in the region tells me that this has had a huge effect on village people:

“They used to keep a cow, so there was always milk, butter and smetana [sour cream] for the family. Now you can buy it all in the shop and much cheaper than if you'd produced it yourself. My wife is a maths teacher. She would get home at 4. She should have been preparing next day's lessons, but we had cattle, so she had to milk, tidy up and feed them. She would get to bed at 1 and have to get up at 6 for work. While the children were little this was how we lived, but then I took pity on her. OK, I said, we'll start buying from the shop. What's most important is that there should be work available in a village: on the threshing floor or at the farm. One village I visited had no work and everyone was drinking. I told them that a pig farm had opened up in the next village and there were vacancies, but they said it was too far – 25kms! I organised a bus for them and 20 people immediately got jobs. And they stopped drinking!”

And, by the way, young people have started coming back to this particular village. A young primary school teacher has joined the staff and the local authority even arranged accommodation for him at its own expense. He's in a rented flat at the moment, but that's only for now.

In another area the villagers organised a cooperative. They get milk from the peasants themselves and deliver it to a dairy. “We pay 7 roubles 10 kopecks and sell it for 8,” says the chair of the cooperative, Rufina. “Of course that's cheap (milk bought in shops costs on average 27 roubles a litre). Last August it was already more expensive, so the number of cows in the villages increased. But I'm not much of a granny” – she's only 45 – “my daughter's son was ill, but I had no time to sit with him, because I'm at work all day. My son is studying to be a vet. I'm looking forward to him coming home, because we really need him!”

My friend, who had to go back go her village for family reasons, tells me that only people who steal keep their cattle in their own backyard.  “It's not profitable to keep a cow, because the feed is very expensive, so they steal from work. Either from farmers or from the collective farm. I got myself  some new hens, because the old ones had completely stopped laying.” “Did you leave your dog in the town?” I ask. “No, he came here with me. The first week was very stressful and he didn't put his nose out of doors. Now he's loving the dirt – the cows go past and leave cowpats behind, so he rushes out and rolls in them. He's frightfully pleased with himself, though he doesn't have anything to do with the local dogs. He's a town dog – a completely different class!”

The mass exodus of working-age people from the
countryside has resulted in increasing unemployment
and alcoholism in villages. (Photo: Demotix / Kim-TV)

This August Orenburgers have had really hot weather. Everyone in the city has air conditioners, but in the village life only really gets going in the evening. In the kitchen gardens you can see the vegetables frizzling in their rows. “So what's the point of sweating away in one's one garden, when you can get it all from the vegetable growers for kopecks?” My erstwhile town-dweller friend on a rant again. Of course I agree with her, but I wonder how my cucumbers are getting on at the dacha. Have they dried out? I ring my sister quickly to make sure that she's been watering them.

In August Orenburgers go on a diet. Watermelon. They are grown in the south of the region and have been for nearly 100 years. Chalyapin [the famous opera singer, d.1938 - ed] himself enjoyed them when he was on tour in our parts. They're good this year. If you buy them in the field, they're three roubles a kilogram; in the town they're seven. Actually, that's not expensive. This year Orenburg peasants (still 40% of the population in the region) have been very pleased with the durum wheat, the buckwheat, sunflowers and peas. An above average harvest and all that remains is to sell the produce at a good price, though at the moment it's selling for below cost price. The state has promised to help…

Our week of green travelling has come to an end. The children are longing for ketchup, mayonnaise, yoghurt and coca-cola…all the products with chemicals in them. When I ask everyone if we should go to live in a village, the answer comes in unison: “Holidays only!”

About the author

Elena Strelnikova is a journalist based in Orenburg (Southern Russia)

Read On

Life ebbs away from Russian Villages - BBC News

Exodus leaves Russian villages to ghosts - RT.com

Russian farms: looking for a size that is just right - Russia Beyond the Headlines

RuralRussia.com: a US-Russian scientific project run since 1991 to collect and collate "accurate, research-based information about rural Russia"


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