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Stories from Russia, 2010

Written by Peter Hagerty

Photography by Marty Tracy.

Spring on the Russian Steppes

We arrived at Moscow's DomDedevoa Airport one day to find Luba patiently waiting for us. We had missed a connection in Dulles and our re-scheduling was complicated by Iceland's volcanic ash cloud. Two bags were missing as well and wouldn't arrive till the following day so we made our way to Yaltinskaya Street for a lovely supper prepared by Luba's daughter Anna. Anna and her family had just returned from Ghana, West Africa. While she was there she had done her hair up in waist long corn rows which looked very striking. For those of you that know her, she has been very reluctant over the years to use her English language skills with us but her mother in law in Africa knew no Russian so Anna chose to overcome her shyness. After supper we went for a walk in the park with her and her children and talked together comfortably in English for the first time in the 26 years I had known her.

Anna's Corn Rows


She and her husband Adam are thinking of moving to Ghana in September. It has been quite a journey being a mixed race couple in Moscow. It is a bit easier these days but even as we walked pushing the stroller, I watched the occasional stare of an older Russian mother. Anna said that she and her husband Adam only go to the park as a couple if they have some of their friends to go with them.

Peace Fleece Small Village Project

One time years ago, Luba told me a wonderful story. She described one day the small village where her parents were born about 300 km.southeast of Moscow, a land of rolling hills and giant wheat fields. Her mother and father were married in the early days of the Second World War and shortly afterwards, Luba's father left for the Western Front and would not see home again for four years. When the war ended and he retuirned to his village, he met his young son Ivan for the first time and several years later Luba was born. Then the entire family decided to move to Moscow but they never forgot their small village.

Every summer when school was over, Luba's whole family would leave Moscow by train at 4 in the afternoon and arrive at the Lev Tolstoy Station at 3:30 the following morning. Their father would gently pick she and her brother up from the train seat and carry them to an awaiting horse drawn wagon loaded with hay. There Luba and Ivan would continue sleeping until they arrived at her parent's small village. Luba vividly remembers how she would awake to the sight of the morning sun coming up over the horizon. The wagon would arrive and her cousins, aunts and uncles would be gathered under the apple tree in front of her ancestral home preparing breakfast for the hungry travelers.

From the very moment I had heard this story I had wanted to return with Luba to her village. But for the last eight years Luba had been her failing parents' primary care giver and she was never abe to leave Moscow. First Luba's father died and then her mom passed away last August. But as Luba's mom Tatiana slipped deeper and deeper into dementia during her last year, she carried on a continuous dialog with her old friends in the village who had died years ago. As I sat with her by the woodstove at the dacha Tatiana would argue passionately with a neighbor about someone's chicken or cow. I would close my eyes and be tansported back in time by Baba Tatiana's voice.

But now with both her parents gone, the trip was on and Luba woke Marty and I at 4 am and we feasted on a breakfast of potato pie and tea. We then headed southeast from Moscow on the M-4 in her old green Giguli down into a part of Russian where I had never been.

Peter, Valentina and Luba

Valentina's Barnyard
After traveling for five hours on good roads, we left the highway and soon entered countryside with giant rolling hills covered with bright green pastures like those you see in May in Vermont covered with cows. We drove through a small town with a tumbling brook where men and boys were fishing for river trout, some with fly rods. The houses where these farm people lived were four story crumbling apartment buildings from the Khrushchev period. Built in the 60's these homes replaced the log "izbas" of peasant times and were to become the trademark of Soviet agriculture. Today was a national holiday in Russia and most people were either on foot or bicycle or riding the occasional horse drawn wagon. As we crested one hill we saw the bright steel grain silos of Lev Tolstry in the distance and several miles later arrived at the village of Troitska where would live during our short stay.

We arrived at an old Russian stone dwelling on a hill overlooking a small valley where sheep and cattle were grazing. This was the house of Luba's cousin Valentina, a 70 year old widow who lived alone. Strangely no one was home and the house was locked. We headed off to see her Valentina's son Sergei who told us that his mom was ill and had gone to the hospital that morning. Sergei gave us the keys and we returned to Valentina's and turned in early, msde ourselves a light supper and turned in early, hoping that we could visit her at the hospital the following afternoon.

The next day, after a breakfast of eggs, potatoes and a salad of fresh tomatoes and cucumber, we headed out on foot for the five kilometer walk to Luba's ancestral village. The weather was gorgeous, about 60 degrees with a light breeze and bright sun. Valentina's house soon disappeared from sight and before us lay a giant wheat field maybe 1000 acres in size. I had never seen agriculture on this scale. Here and there wind breaks of poplar and birch had been planted by the Soviets after WW2 and in the far distance we could just make out the small forest of Luba's youth.

The giant wheat fields

"I have not walked this road in over 40 years", Luba smiled. "You see the grain towers in the far distance. That is Lev Tolstoy where the train came in. We could watch the smoke for miles. By the time we arrived asleep in the wagon all my cousins would be awake to greet us and we would eat breakfast under our apple tree. We would run around half naked all summer. It was a wonderful time".

We first visited Luba's parent's home, now slowing coming apart from neglect. After her parents and Ivan had left for Moscow her uncle had continued to live there. When he died it was sold to someone for next to nothing and remained vacant for many years. Luba has tried to buy it back but to no avail. Trees have grown up in the front yard and brush has covered the vegetable garden but the old apple trees are still there.

Luba's Ancestral Home

Luba's relative Raisa still lives in the small village

For the next few days we visited with neighboring relatives who would invite us to eat and drink till we wanted to lie on the grass in the sun and fall asleep. Most everyone was over sixty, some closing in on 80. Many women wore bright scarves (babushkas) and sported gold teeth. Some could shear sheep and split wood with the best of them. Most had potato patches an acre or more in size with a similar sized garden of salad greens, tomatoes and cucumbers, the summer staple diet. It was clear that Luba had great respect and affection for the last survivors of a fading generation.

Pete w. Shepherd and wife. She is getting ready to shear their sheep.

Their Romanov sheep

Over the years Peace Fleece worked hard to develop a relationship with Russian sheep farmers. We purchased a small flock of ewes back in the early 90's with a farmer named Fydor Krut. We worked with Pavel and Galina Potstrelov for many years helping to improve their flock until Pavel died in 2003. We helped give birth to the Moscow Area Sheep Association (MASHA) and I had taught at an Agricultural College in Sergeiv Posad in the hopes of interesting young Russian farmers in raising sheep. And we had purchased home grown, hand spun and hand knit socks from the Korneva Farm for many years. But we were never successful in developing a long term relationship with a small rural community where we could share each others knowledge of sheep and wool and form mutually beneficial projects.

And during this entire time Luba had been by our side, driving in her Giguli over miles of bony roads, translating for hours every day and showing us her unrelenting affection for the rural way of life, in spite of the fact that she had spent the great portion of her adult life living in Moscow. Now with her parents gone she was free to consider a different lifestyle. Her husband Sasha had moved to their dacha full time, initially to aid in the care of her mother. But now he was a full time resident there, spending time with their three grandchildren, fishing the brooks and hunting for mushrooms. She now wondered aloud as we walked the fields and woods of her childhood if there might be something here that would work for her.

When we were in Russia last fall, Luba asked us to visit an industrial complex where a Canadian-Russian joint venture sold modular log homes. We were escorted through attractive houses of all sizes and shapes which the company would erect on the lot of your choice. Luba shared with us her dream of setting up one of these homes in her ancestral village or restoring a cottage there that had fallen on hard times.

Luba with relative Ivan, Injured in World War 2 and now blind

Saying Hello, Saying Goodby

"You know in the past women would gather at different people's homes to spin the wool from their sheep and knit socks, hats and mittens for their families. It was a time of sharing stories, some old, some new. News was announced, laughter and tears sometimes followed. Now the women have no place to gather. There is maybe 30-50% unemployment in my village. Maybe our project could be a good way to bring these women, especially the young girls together."

So while we were there she floated the idea out to her relatives. A local administrator stepped forward and offered Luba a four acre plot of land on which to build a house. Was there other available space somewhere in the village for such a group to gather for summer youth projects or knitting classes? Was there someone in her family who could house, feed, cut hay and care for a small flock of Peace Fleece sheep during the winter months when Luba would return to Moscow? Was it realistic for her to spend two weeks every month during the time she could be there to coordinate efforts and develop programs?

The jury is out but the courtroom is alive with excitement. As friends, fellow knitters and felters, we look forward to your thoughts and ideas for what to include in our Peace Fleece Small Village Project. Our wildest hope is that someday we will rebuild one of the vacant cottages in the village and invite folks from around the world to join Luba here in the summer and through a common love of fiber and animals, share our dreams and our unique cultural differences with the people of this small village in Russia.

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