Catalog Catalog

Autumn in Russia, 2012

Russian Log Izba

Hannah, Luba and Julia

Leaving Home
       Nizhny Novgorod, the name just rolls off my tongue like warm butter. A Russian city on the way to the Ural Mountains five hours train ride east of Moscow and eleven hours by train south from Yaroslavl. Here artisans from Russia's third largest city make wooden buttons for Peace Fleece.

       Last spring Oleg Koren from our Yaroslavl office uncovered a wool washing factory near Nizhny Novgorod which offered Russian wool for sale to the west. I called their overseas phone number and was delighted to speak with Alexander Topnikov, the director of Borwool in Russia. He invited our Peace Fleece entourage to visit his mill and we set a tentative date. Hannah and Julia Stiles, sisters who work with us here in Maine, would join Marty and me as we headed to Russia where our long time friend Luba would join us. I bought airline tickets for mid-October and Luba organized our Russian train travel.

       Then over the summer we got an e-mail from Ivan, our wood products coordinator in Yaroslavl. We had written him saying that we were going to Nizhny before heading north to see him and we hoped to meet the artisans that milled and painted our wooden buttons. He cautioned against this idea.

       "Peter," he wrote, "it is possible that some of the painting is done in prisons. I do not advise that you visit these people."

       Well, needless to say, this came as quite a surprise. Now more than ever we wanted to find out what was going on. And as often happens, I heard from an old friend and fellow traveler about an American couple living in Nizhny Novgorod who worked with recovering drug addicts, alcoholics and newly released prisoners. I called them as well and they enthusiastically agreed to meet with us and help us find out what was really going on with our button painting.


Sasha cleaning mushrooms

Luba's Dacha Garden

Yaltinskaya Street and the Dacha
       Sometimes it is hard to stay optimistic when visiting Russia. When we arrived at Domdedevoa Airport Luba crammed all five of us in her tiny Jiguli, strapped two hundred and fifty lbs. of luggage on the roof and in the trunk and drove "hell bent" into Moscow traffic. Before our short trip was over we had whacked the side view mirror of a fellow motorist, been sideswiped by a panel truck and nearly slammed into the last car in a left turn lane.

       After a hearty bowl of chicken soup at Luba's Moscow apartment, we slipped out of the city under the cover of darkness and headed towards her dacha. For the next three days Luba's husband Sasha filled our tummies, breakfast, lunch and supper, with wild mushrooms, first in soup, then pickled with garlic and finally sautéed with onions. Between these extraordinary meals we visited with neighbors, hiked the surrounding countryside and slept.

Alexander, Peter, Marty, Luba and Hannah

Marty taking samples of Buryat wool

Nizhny Novgorod
       We arrived in Nizhny Novgorod on the midnight train and caught the last bus over the Volga River to Naberezhnaya Street and our small hotel. Somehow we missed our stop and had to retrace our path on foot down the side of a high hill overlooking the city from whence we had come. Guided by several friendly strangers who appeared out of the night, we found ourselves down by the river and the "red light" district, complete with strip and pole dancing clubs. The police just shook their heads as our small group of five out-of-towners dragging their oversized bags rounded a corner in a sketchy neighborhood way too late at night asking for directions.

       When we finally reached an open door with no discernable sign saying anything about a hotel, we climbed to the top floor and walked into a total different scene. Our hotel turned out to be a hostel. How much difference an "s" can make! Passing young and happy Russians with tooth brush and towel in hand heading for the common shower, we made our way to our simple but adequate bunkrooms, dragged our suitcases into the corner and collapsed on the metal beds, lulled to sleep by the traffic and river flowing by four floors below.

       BorWool was founded in 1952 in the small village of Nekludovo across the Volga River from Nizhny Novgorod. Alexander had kindly arranged for a taxi to pick us up at our hostel and by 10:00 am we were all sitting in his conference room enjoying coffee and tea. The company buys Merino fine wool from southern Russia, the republics of Dagestan and Chechnya as well as from the central Siberian regions of Buryatya and Tuva close to the China border. BorWool works as well with companies in Eastern and Western Europe, Southeast Asia and New Zealand and its modern scouring train washes hundreds of thousands of pounds of wool each year.

Scouring Train

Handling Bales during Soviet Times

       BorWool does not use any soap during the first two phases of the scouring process which may have accounted for the lack of a sour smell of wet wool that often accompanies the washing process. As we walked through the plant I watched the relaxed way Alexander interacted with his employees. He often directed our questions to them, some of whom had worked in the mill their entire lives. The company is presently owned by a German firm and trucks leave for there on a regular basis. He prepared a wool sample for us from the Buryat region and said that he would help us meet the farm families that raised this wool. We now need to explore if this opportunity is affordable or not.

Mike and Karen

Our Hotel on right
       Back in the city we joined Mike and Karen for lunch at small café in a modern shopping center where they described their long term project. Under the auspices of a Christian Church they help men and women recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. These folks are placed in very rural village settings where they live for up to one year far away from old habits and acquaintances. It is clear that both Mike and Karen love their work and we were moved by their energy and commitment.

       After lunch we went in search of a street bizarre where painted wooden buttons painters might be found. It turned out that the local prison was a ways out of town and we ended up not finding anyone who was selling anything similar to our Peace Fleece buttons. "You know Pete," Mike said, "it is quite common here for men to earn money while in prison. They learn a craft and at the same time make small amounts of cash which makes their lives a little easier while in jail." We thanked them for their help and invited them back to our hostel's common kitchen where we pooled a variety of dishes from a collection of plastic bags and celebrated the love we shared for the Russian people.

Peter types while Hannah sleeps

Three cups of tea

       Some of us were coming down with a cold so we slept on the train most of the way to Yaroslavl. Our wagon was filled with new recruits to the Russian army heading for basic training in the north. Their freshly shaved heads and crisp new uniforms did little to bolster the mood they must have felt as they left their friends and loved ones behind. Thankfully Russia is not presently fighting any wars on domestic or foreign soil so hopefully these young men will be safe from harm's way.

       The staff of the Bear's Den was still up and waiting for us and smilingly reported that for reasons of "renovation" we would be sequestered in the "Delux" suites for the same price as the economy rooms that we normally occupied. I was scolded upon arrival when I failed to recognize the concierge and used the formal "you" when greeting her. We have enjoyed the hospitality of this hotel ever since we gave up the narrow sofa at the Yaroslavl office six years ago. We assume that we are part of only a handful of Westerners that stay here as no one in the hotel speaks English.

       Whether riding on a train or sleeping in a hotel, the temperature of the rooms in Russia is controlled by the government, not by the specific institutions. Because the country was enjoying a abnormally warm fall, we had to turn on the air conditioning in our hotel room and open every window in the train near us if we wanted to be comfortable.

Meal at Omar's New Lambing Barn

Omar and Ludmilla's Sheep Farm

       So after a delicious complementary breakfast we joined a group of young teenagers aboard a school bus from the Pytorka orphanage and headed out to Omar and Ludmilla's sheep farm about 30 kms from the city. Here we toured the impressive construction of new sheep barns, saw a portion the fall crop of over 1200 new lambs, met three new Romanov rams imported from the Czech Republic and then sat down to a delicious Dagestani meal of lamb cooked in milk and garlic.

       We met Omar's beautiful wife and son in law for the first time and shared with them the Ramadan greeting "As-salamu alaykum" "Peace be upon you" with the reply "wa alaikumu el salaamu" which means "may peace be with you also". I was surprised how moved I was by this simple yet unexpected exchange. Somehow here in this remote region of Orthadox Russia it took on an especially powerful significance for me.

Julia's drawing class at Pytorka Orphanage

Hannah's Needle felting class

"How Long Can We Do This?"
       Somehow we all managed to find our way back to America where our extended families and friends welcomed us home. Luba and I still joke about "how long we are going to do this?" But when Marty and I considering ending our yearly trips to Russia, we always come back to the fact that these friends so many miles away are ones we care about most in our lives.

       It does not take much for us to get emotional as we recall their faces, of Sasha hunting for mushrooms in the forest, of Luba mothering me all the time, of Oleg and Ivan and the Yaroslavl crew organizing our business there. And the staff and students at the orphanage. These folks and the ones we are just getting to know we cannot afford to leave behind.

       As I reflect on these writings I somehow feel that this may be one of the best trips of the many I have made over the years. One moment stands out that seems to capture the essence of this voyage. It had been a long day for us, up early to the sheep farm, then back to the orphanage for lunch and a felting and drawing workshop taught by Julia and Hannah. Then finally a visit to the horse stables across the river where several of the Pytorka students proudly showed us the progress they had made riding and grooming their steeds. But before we would sleep that night, Marty and I needed to meet Ivan at the railroad station to buy tickets back to Moscow.

       The weather was unseasonably warm so Marty and I decided to walk the five kilometers from the Bear's Den to the station. When we arrived there was Ivan holding the hand of his five year old daughter Anna. While waiting at the ticket window, I thanked Anna for accompanying her dad. Ivan then announced, "Every morning for the last month her first words were 'Daddy, is Peter coming today?" My eyes welled up as this shy little girl smiled up at me.

       The next night at Anna's grandparent's apartment I looked up and down the table at the smiling faces of her family. Her great grandmother Grannie sits at the head of the table. This babushka lives by herself in her ancestral village for the summer months tending to her garden and sanding our knitting needles in her free time. Her son Yuri Kuznetsov and his wife Galina, Ivan's parents, sit to her right and have made Marty and I feel very special every time we come to Yaroslavl. Yuri speaks French with me and is our major needle maker. Galina works at a local bank and showers us with gifts and concert tickets. To my left sits Masha, Ivan's wife and on her lap perches Anna's newest sister, Vasalisa. Only Ivan's sister is missing, on a business trip to Spain.

Anna and Pete

       I first came to Russia in August of 1975. On my first morning I walked out of my hotel onto Red Square and wondered aloud what an Irish Catholic from New England was doing in a country where he spoke not a word of the language and knew not a soul. Now almost thirty years later the answer is clear.

       For years my grandmother Josephine feared the Soviet Union and the atomic submarines that prowled her coastline. For years Grannie Kuznetsova feared America and the missiles pointed at her home. This fear was the foundation stone of the Cold War and it brought us frightenly close to mutual destruction. Today Russia accuses the US of selling weapons to Syria.The US has been saying the same about Syria for months. And every day innocent civilians continue to die.

       When we gather at the Kuznetzov's table for a meal, four generations face one another and celebrate the magic of good food and friendship. In Russian this is called "mir ee druzhba" and it is powerful stuff. Vegetables are from the dacha garden with fruit juice from the village trees. Here in this setting we are able to do what our leaders in Moscow and Washington have such difficulty doing, to talk frankly and openly with one another. And the energy that comes from this table is palpapable, empowering me to believe that all is possible.

       I often leave Russia for home exhausted and fighting a cold. But today I bring home with me the very thing I need most to keep me going, a belief that our two great "superpowers" can work together to solve the world's problems. As I return home to a divided country I am empowered by my Russian friends to believe that all is possible.This is why I first came almost thirty years ago and continue to return every year since then.