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Pete and Marty's Russian Adventure
Pyatyorka Orphanage Riding Program

   As we crossed the Atlantic on our way to Moscow, the front page news of Russia's war with Georgia was quickly replaced by the global financial crisis. Concerns for a new Russian-American "cold war" were overshadowed by the failure of the global banking system. So I expected that our Russian friends might want to talk about news. I had forgotten how they seem to have a natural aversion to the word "novesti".

   Over the years I have always used the ice breaker "kak novesti ?" -what's the news?" when seeing old friends for the first time. And almost invariably their reply has been a backward motion of the left hand and a lifting of the eyes skyward. This visit was no exception. Putin had shut down the Russian stock market the day we arrived and all our friends wanted to talk about was the great mushroom season, how cold it was last week and the traffic gridlock in Moscow. Apparently if we don't talk about it, then it doesn't exist.

   As always, Luba picked us up from the airport and aided by her grandson Nikita, quickly loaded our bags into the aging Giguli and inched our way into Moscow. There had recently been so many cars inside the Ring Road that an unprecedented large-scale traffic jam had brought the city to an all-day standstill. But after a quick meal and overnight rest, the dawn gifted us an open road as we headed west towards Luba's summer home or "dacha".

   As many of you may remember from previous stories, Luba and her mother took the radical step of remaining behind in her small dacha village last year as her 300 neighbors and friends returned to Moscow for the winter. "Mam", as Luba calls her 89 year old mother, had slipped into serious dementia and was unable to cope with the small city apartment were she lived for many years. Needing round the clock care, the only place she now felt safe was in the country surrounded by her garden, her cats and her wood stove.

    As a young girl Mam had knew only the life of the small Russian village. She was a child of Russian peasants and survival had been a day-to-day matter that depended on the weather and the crops. When her new husband went off to fight the Nazis, she was pregnant with her first child and did not see her husband again for four years.

Now as she sits on her bed by the stove she carries on a loud, round the clock dialogue with friends that are long dead.    One day it is her sister, the next her father. Through her small mouth comes a form of oral history. If it could be deciphered, it might provide us with an intimate window into the world of Soviet history. But unfortunately all one hears is a woman, albeit surrounded by loving family, who is riding out an emotional storm of traumatic memories on a very small raft.

Mama died in August of 2009 one summer evening in her sleep. Luba and her family went through an extended period of grieving and in the end Luba decided to return to her childhood village to see who was still alive. She was happy find several cousins still living there who welcomed her with open arms. In the speing of 2010 Marty and I will return with Luba to see if there is some way that Peace Fleece might work with some of the village women to help shear their sheep and spin their wool.

      One sunny day Marty, Luba and I decided to go visit several of the surrounding small villages where people still live in log homes (izba) and sell fresh milk from goats or cows. Baba (grandmother) Nadia was out back of her pristine, small farm tending to her chickens when we arrived. Dressed in brightly colored shawl and skirt, she welcomed us as if we were old friends. Our task for the day was to find some wool from which Luba could make more felt animals. Nadia had some lovely soft Romanov lambs wool which we purchased. She then directed us to a neighboring village where Baba Nadeshda tended a small herd of goats and sheep.

      Nadeshda's community truly reflected the classic small Russian village or 'darevnaya'. This word is also used to describe the spiritual essence of those peasants who have lived and died there. So one can be in downtown Moscow enjoying fruits and vegetable grown in the village gardens and be filled with the spirit of 'darevnaya'.

      I remember many years ago during the 'unstable times' when I was weeding a friend's country garden. At the time he was an up and coming 'big boss' and I marveled at the change that came over he and his big burley bodyguard when we were in the country. As they hung their shoulder holsters over the fence post and started weeding carrots, they became like little boys again. 'Scratch any Russian and you will find a peasant' my friend used to say.

      Finding Baba Nadeshda and her sheep was a special journey in itself. Entering the village from the south we asked a woman with goats for directions. After a tour of her farm and a discussion on goat genetics and why her present buck was no longer viable, we were directed toward the village green, the historic hub of the 'darevnaya'. Here was where the villagers once cut their winter hay.

      In a ring around the green, now brown and weedy with disuse, lay the thirty or so log homes, interspersed by a smattering of new houses. Stopping again for help, we were again asked for tea by complete strangers. Then we met an ancient man working on his tractor who pointed out Nadeshda's house. Finally reaching her back yard, Luba announced to a farm hand that some American sheep farmers had arrived looking to buy some wool. Shortly a weathered face propped on a rugged set of shoulders and clutching a waking stick rounded the corner and we were face to face with the fairy tale grandmother from Hansel and Gretel. The warm, toothless grin, the single white hair curling down from the chin, the pointed nose sporting a mole, the tall felted boots and knee high wool socks, crusted with years of mud and manure. A black cat appeared to complete the picture.

       At first she was too shy to let us in her barn much less see her animals. But once we began describing shearing techniques, the search for the scissors led us through the barn door and moments later we were able to catch a look at her sheep. Her days were now spent following her flock as they grazed the periphery of the village. Sadly there were only a few families with animals left here but that meant ample grass and hay for her needs. But all her wool from this years clip had been sold so after agreeing to return next spring, we began the 40 minute walk back to Luba's home. On this walk home an idea began to take form in our minds.

       Today Luba makes her felted farm animals from wool that was grown in Romania or Ohio and from mohair that was grown in Texas and washed and combed in South Africa. Once it is blended here in the States and becomes Peace Fleece, it is carried by either ourselves or our friends to Russia for Luba to use. What a carbon footprint!

The obvious solution is for Luba to purchase fleece from her neighbors or for her to produce it herself. So as darkness fell and we made our way home, we began to play out what it would look like for Luba to become a shepherd, a "cha-ban".

Imagine if you would a dacha community of 300 families each living on about 1/4 of an acre of land. Each parcel supports a small house, garden, tool shed, privy, steam bath and car park. Now add a flock of 3 sheep, small barn and place for hay storage. Pretty tight quarters. But Russians have lived like this over the years, whether it be at the country dacha or in a crowded Moscow apartment. Upon returning home, we began redesigning the back yard hoping to find space for a few new woolly neighbors. Luba will keep us posted.

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Horses and Kids in Yaroslavl

A cold wind blew down the Volga River as we crossed the new bridge heading north out of Yaroslavl. The van was filled with kids from the Pyatyorka Orphanage and they were excited to introduce us to their four legged friends across the river. One year had passed since we helped initiate the Russian-American Horse Healing Project and we were eager to see first hand the results. From working with horses and local youth here on our farm in Maine, we knew that young people could find new ways of expressing their feelings through brushing, walking or riding a horse. As we watched the kids from the orphanage work thru their routines with their teacter and fellow students, we were excited to see that horses were again taking the lead in helping young people navigate the path to adulthood.