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Russia Trip, Winter '06

Meet our Russian Staff, Farmers and Artisans.  
Written by Peter Hagerty, Feb 1, 2006.

Thursday, January 13,   Moscow Region
Warm lights, short lines, sparkling bathrooms, for a moment I lost my bearings. Had we boarded the wrong plane in Zurich? The last time we'd been to Dom Dyedevoa airport just south of Moscow's Ring Road was back during the Soviet era when Marty and I and the kids were on our way to the southern part of Russia. Since that time, Dom Dyedevoa or "Grandfather's House" in English, has gone through an amazing transformation. Unlike its corrupted cousin to the north, Sheremetyevo, which is bent under the weight of ancient x-ray machines, long lines and mafia taxi drivers claiming they can take you anywhere, Grandfather's House is a welcomed change for the weary traveler.

Then all at once there was eight year old Nikita, jumping up and down wanting to take the biggest suitcase and Luba standing with her radiant smile, having not seen Marty for two years. After a round of hugs we collected our bags and like a circus act tumbled out of Grandfather's large airport doors towards Luba's tiny green Zhiguli car.

Marty writes in her journal , "The high point of our airport pick up was when I turned to Luba as we were driving out of the parking lot and asked her what she wanted to do with the parking receipt. I hadn't seen her for over two years and was feeling a tiny bit shy until she grabbed the paper receipt and put it to her face and pretended to blow her nose into it! My shyness vanished as I laughed and remembered Luba's wonderful sense of humor".

So here we were, once again, surrounded by the sounds and smells of a country that has drawn me back over forty times in the past twenty years. Luba, our Moscow coordinator, her grandson Nikita, her husband Sasha and her daughter Anna and partner Adam, all would take us into their apartment and their lives like they had so many times before. Trusting us with their most intimate pain and greatest joys, this family of five continually welcomes us into a country that is undergoing a profound change.

It was January of 2006. The weather was mild. People were walking in the parks, sliding on the hills and snuggling on park benches. It was winter but for now these Slavic folks were not staying inside. In a few days the weather would turn brutal, but for now the sun shone and the snow melted.

Nikita got a new snow sled for Christmas and wanted to try it out so the four of us headed to Kolomenskaya Park and the monastery hill that abruptly ends at the Moscow River. Someone had made a rogue sledding path that disappeared down the steep hillside of maples and beech. Luba and Nikita jumped on the sled and disappeared down the twisting slope, screaming at the top of their lungs, both grandmother and grandson dodging trees and totally out of control until they finally "bit the dust" inches from an ancient larch tree. Later Nikita and I went down a far more benign hill and destroyed the plastic sled as we landed hard after an unexpected bump.

The next day we were off to the Korneva Farm about 2 hours northeast of Moscow. Here we found Ludmilla and Sasha and two of their three children trying to give life to a new coal furnace in their basement. During a tour around the farm to see their 60 bull calves and newborn lambs, we met Vera their shepherd decked out in her Sunday best, complete with bright red lipstick and gold eye shadow. There are few fences in Russia and Vera spends most of the year on horseback tending to the Korneva's large heard of cows and sheep as they graze together over the farm fields. Marty writes in her journal, " I am moved by Vera's relationship with her horse and the opportunity she has for such a perfect job. I feel the desire in me to live and work with our horses and animals on a daily basis."

Back in the kitchen over lunch, Ludmilla's mother proudly presented us with this year's crop of Farm Socks, much of the yarn hand sheared, hand dyed, hand spun and hand knit from the Kornevas own sheep.

Sunday, January 16,   Yaroslavl Region

On the four-hour car ride north to Yaroslavl, our driver Alexander was the first to pick up the news. Five of us were crammed in a Czech Skoda when the first snow began to fall. Marty and I were dozing in the back seat when Alexander reached to fine tune the radio.

"Minus 30" he said to Oleg sitting in the passenger seat. Oleg shrugged. He had seen cold before. "But for five days?" said Alexander. We were about to experience first hand a record breaking Russian winter and I realized we were very underdressed.

About 50 km south of Yaroslavl, Oleg got on the cell phone to call Andrei, a horse trainer I had met on my last visit. I was very anxious for Marty to meet Andrei and to explore the idea of holding a US-Russian horse-training workshop at his farm. But we had a very busy schedule planned for the next four days and couldn't afford to backtrack. His farm was nearby the highway and he would welcome a visit, even though it was late, dark and growing colder.

Stall after stall of beautiful pointed ears and curious eyes greeted us as we entered the warm barn made of thick concrete walls that warded off the relentless wind and snow. Thirty-six horses of different breeds and sizes chewed their evening hay. Having visited numerous farms in Russia, this was clearly the nicest barn I had ever seen.

"We have here the champion troika team in all of Russia", Andrei said, proudly pointing to the three horses that comprise the team and diverting all the credit and attention away from himself, their trainer and driver. Asked what he looked for in a horse, he responded, "Last year I was asked by Gasprom (Russia's natural gas monopoly and one of the richest companies in the world) if I would find them a winning team. I traveled to the south of Russia to a famous breeding farm and was shown 160 horses. None of them grabbed my attention."

"As I was about to leave, a anxious, agitated horse caught my eye. For some reason I liked him and I found two more with his qualities. Not fancy but they had spirit. I bought these and trained them for Gasprom. We shall see how they do."

Monday, January 17,   Russian "Pokholodaniya" or Big Freeze

Russians pride themselves on being able to withstand the cold. In the winter of 1940, Moscow recorded its lowest temperature, -47 degrees F. That winter birds froze in the trees. Russians feel the cold has been their secret ally against the invading armies of Hitler and Napoleon. But the week we spent in Russia, more than 50 people died of the cold and tens of thousands were left without heat when pipes burst and apartment buildings caught on fire from faulty space heaters.

We were somewhere between Yaroslavl and a small and remote town of Nerekhta where our button makers live when we began to realize how cold it was outside the car. We had taken a short cut through the forest and farmland to reach this ancient town but we were unable to see through the frosty side windows of the car. We would scrape and scrape and just when the blue sky and snow-covered fields came into view, the scene would vanish from sight under a new layer of frost.

"How cold is it outside," I asked Oleg who was driving. "They promised -35 today," he replied. Returning home late that night, I felt the cold go straight to my bones as we made the short run from the car to our fourth floor apartment.

The Christian Science Monitor wrote on January 24, "Moscow shops report a huge surge in the sale of valienki, the toasty warm Russian peasant boots made of felt.'People come in, buy valienki, put them on and leave the shop' says Viktoria Dubrovik, director of Bitsa clothing shop in Moscow." Our third day in Yaroslavl found us at the 'Yaroslavl Factory for the Manufacture of Valienki Boots' where we purchased seven pair of these magical boots for Peace Fleece customers back home. Folks had sent me drawings of their foot size, as there is no apparent correlation between valienki shoe sizes and U.S standards. So we had an interesting two hours as workers from the factory floor brought us boots fresh off the press to be matched with our paper drawings.

Meanwhile, across the hall the director's phone was ringing off the hook as he added new orders to his list. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this factory almost went bankrupt but the workers and managers joined forces and formed a cooperative which today is a thriving example of how hard work and innovative risk-taking can lead to success. The visit was topped off with a delicious lunch in the factory cafeteria where workers and managers enjoyed home cooked meals in a warm and cozy atmosphere.

Sitting in her Yaroslavl kitchen, 77 year-old Lidiya Nikolaevna hand sands our knitting needles to give them their final luster. Born in a log home in a small village, she is no stranger to the Russian winter and she had spent the day coming up with cold weather outfits for Marty and me. Reaching deep into the closet of her apartment, she clothed us like a doting tailor in furs from head to toe. For the first time, I felt safe from the elements.

Thursday, January 20,   The People

One question I often find myself asking, especially in the middle of the night when my body clock is still on Maine time and I am staring at the ceiling, thinking of home, the kids and my friends far away is, why do I come here? What is it about Russia that draws an Irish Catholic kid from Boston half way around the world to struggle with an imposing language and try to make a small family business a success? On this trip, however, with the harsh weather and long working days, the answer became obvious to both Marty and me. There is something very inspirational about the Russian people with whom we work.

In Moscow, Luba recently shared with us a childhood dream of hers. She was ten years old and standing in a large field. In her dream she was the President of the Soviet Union.
"Why do the Americans hate me so much?" she asked herself. "Why? I am a good girl!"
In that same year half way around the world there lived a fourteen-year-old boy old who would sit at night on his porch and look out over the Atlantic Ocean at the lights moving on the horizon. Any minute he expected a rubber raft to land on his beach and Russian soldiers take over his home.
A young nine year old girl on her summer vacation that same year watched her neighbor build a bomb shelter and wondered how long he would be able to survive underground after an atomic blast.
Luba, Marty and I had been profoundly effected as children by the fear of a nuclear war. Now that fear was gone

Luba has shared her apartment and her family with my family and friends for over 16 years. We have celebrated the birth of her grandson and mourned the death of her son. We have helped her whenever we could to care for her aging parents, bringing over hearings aids and visiting them whenever we are in town. And she has visited my mother here in the States. What is clear about our families is our willingness to share our lives with each other. The kitchen table in both our homes is the center of activity. When our family and friends gather there, all is well.

Oleg is a 48-year-old retired schoolteacher who is the head of our operations in Yaroslavl. Whenever I need to find someone, be it a horse trainer or a sheep specialist, one of his vast army of ex-students is just a call away to spend the day at our service. When we walk the streets of Yaroslavl going to the bank or the food shop, we are often stopped by hugging friends eager to share the latest news with their beloved teacher. Oleg has been able to make the transition from educator to international businessman without losing the warmth and charm that made him such a success as a history teacher in a small village school.

Ivan is our young man on the go, 23 years old and already an accomplished computer programmer, archaeologist and elementary school teacher. Whether he is negotiating with our artisans or convincing airport customs to lower the duty and taxes on our shipments, he is a hard working example of the new Russian entrepreneur. He is a teacher of English as well, working three mornings a week at a local school doing his 6 years of alternative service in lieu of serving in the Russian Army.
Ivan is also very resourceful. When we needed a new knitting needle team, Ivan's father Yuri became the needle maker, his grandmother Lidiya the needle sander and his wife Masha's artist friend Tanya was enlisted to paint the balls.



Our Russian staff has a work ethic that is exceptional. We spent hours with them on this last trip as they translated for us as we discussed the subtlest of details with our artisans and craftspeople. They encouraged everyone to be engaged in the process and they made sure that all issues were resolved before we left.

Yet there was always time for tea and no one went without a meal. Furthermore the stress level, at least from Marty's and my vantage point, was negligible. Maybe it's because our Russian friends and co-workers, tempered by a tragic history, have lower expectations of what can be accomplished in one day.

One way it translates for me is that, even though I have spent relatively little time in quality sleep mode and worked long hours in intense and sometimes passionate discussion, I came home from Russia more relaxed that I have on weekend vacations back home. Whether we were working with our staff in our small Yaroslavl office, crammed in the car, or sitting in some remote village, the quality of the work we got done together seemed above average and very satisfying. And always at the end of the day, no matter how late, there was always the invitation from them to come home, have a meal, and stay the night if it was too cold or too far.



My friend Jeannie Ferber shares a personal story in her book "Make a Hole in the Fence" about a stranger who walked through the Russian winter night across frozen farmland just to check and see if Jeannie's car had gotten stuck on the icy road. This is what Russians do, it is just part of their persona. When you are with them, they take care of you, clothe you against the cold, and make sure no stone has been left unturned.

On the train from Yaroslavl to Moscow after saying our goodbyes, we settled ourselves into a sleeping car filled with Russians coming down from the far north. One young child, seizing the opportunity to venture forth from his sleeping mother, approached me with his favorite book.

"Dadushka (grandfather)", he said, "please read to me". Even though I do not as yet have any grandchildren, in Russia with my white hair and glasses I fall into this honorable category. Dadushka is the polite way for children to speak to someone of my age but it is also spoken with affection and respect. As I began reading, I realized that, like the airport to the south of Moscow, merely by hanging on to life for this long, I had crossed some threshold. Thanks to great friends and family, our business in Russia has become a reflection of all the things in my life about which I am proud, like being truthful when the truth may be painful, reserving judgment until everyone has their say, accepting that you have made mistakes and that most certainly you will make more.