Stories from our Russian Trip, October 2009

Written by Peter Hagerty, November 19, 2009.

Baba Tatiana 1920-2009

It never ceases to amaze me how I can travel half way around the world in less than a day and have everything fall into place time and time again. It is a profound luxury that most of the world does not come close to enjoying. I arrive at an airport, am handled with consideration, fed good food and whisked off to my destination.

Several years ago there was an article in my college magazine about Frankfurt Airport as a cultural crossroads for Europe and beyond. The author implied that in Germany's finest travel center, Frankfurt Main Rein one might find samples of every race that inhabits the globe. The magazine's readership was quick to fire back that the greatest portion of the world's inhabitants can not afford a meal at the airport, much less an airline ticket.

I remember this story every time I get on a plane these days and am eternally grateful that I have the means to travel as well as the reasons. These reasons are my friends on the other end. Most recently that means Luba, Ivan and Oleg and each of their extended family who were waiting for Marty and me to arrive in Russia in early October.

Luba's 89 year old mother died in August of this year. As those of you that have been corresponding with Luba know, it has been a very challenging period of her life, these last five years when she first said good-by to her father and finally to "Mam". During the last year of Tatiana's life, she kept an ongoing daily imaginary dialogue with the people she conjured up from her youth in her small village 300 km south of Moscow. One moment she would be looking for a chicken and the next moment arguing with her neighbor about whether her husband was a good man or not.

This demented stream of conscience was a disturbingly powerful distraction for Luba that left her often sad and exhausted. Unlike the West, there is no tradition in Russia for sending the old folks off to nursing homes. After Luba's father died, her mother could no longer tolerate the idea of returning to Moscow at the end of the summer from their dacha. So two years ago Luba and her husband Sasha went out into the forest, cut up some dead standing pine and birch and prayed that this might keep their small summer home warm through the winter.

In order to cope with this trying situation, Luba began felting the characters from her mother's stream of conscience and out came the Green Bull, The Girl with Skates and the Spinning Mama all featured on our web site. Our customers snapped up these wonderful felted figurines and in so doing provided the money necessary to purchase additional wood for heating their "pech-ka" (Russian fireplace). Luba has now made it through two winters at the dacha and is a seasoned pioneer.

Girl with Skates

Peter and Sasha spinning with a "vereteenoa"
  When Luba picked Marty and me up at Domodedevoa Airport several weeks ago she was as radiant as ever and eager for us to meet her new grandson. So we headed for her apartment on Yaltinskaya Ulitsa. There her daughter Anna had supper ready and granddaughter Sonya and her new baby brother Leonid Oscar were the center of attention during the evening. We had come in hopes of traveling back to Tatiana's village to explore a dream that was gaining force in Luba's life, the dream that she would return to live in her mother's small village.

Many years ago when I was just getting to know Luba and her family, she told me how she as a young girl would return every summer with her brother Ivan and her parents to the village where her parents were born. They would take the train from Moscow and arrive in the middle of the night at Lev Tolstoy, a mere whistle stop that happened to be the place where Tolstoy chose to die. There in the middle of nowhere a wagon pulled by a horse and full of straw would be waiting for them in the darkness. Her parents would gently pile the sleeping children up on the wagon and head south.
Just as the June sun was rising in the East they would arrive for a reunion breakfast with all her cousins and aunts and uncles. There was never a shortage of things for she and Ivan to do and the summers would fly by.

In recent years Luba was unable to visit her extended family there. Taking care of her parents and holding down a full time job left no time for travel. But now with her parents gone she had recently returned. She found her old home in shambles. But her relatives warmly welcomed her and she quickly jumped into the life of the village. Because she had a car, she could take relatives to medical appointments and other errands. As the days passed, memories of the old village life came flooding back, memories of the traditions that held the village together.

One such memory was of the women of the village getting together several times a week to spin wool into yarn. It was a time of sharing, of problem solving, of celebration. Each woman would arrive with her own "vere-teen-oa" (drop spindle) or "prel-ka" (spinning wheel) and the wool from her own sheep. They would spin through the cold winter afternoons or under the branches of the apple trees during summer.

Luba now feels that such an activity might be the very thing that the wives and daughters might again enjoy. So our second day in Russia found us visiting a store where one could walk through and sit down in small, pre-fabricated and reasonably priced log summer homes erected on your site anywhere in the Moscow region, even 300 km away. Our heads began to spin as we imagined a Peace Fleece spinning center in Luba's small village where American spinners could visit their Russian counterparts like we here at Peace Fleece did in the waining days days of the cold war. But as it turned out, the October days were now too short to make the long drive safely to her small village so we postponed the trip until May.

Oleg, Luba, our guide and Pete and friends at Valienki Factory

After a trip to her dacha to visit with Sasha and feast on the mushrooms that he brought home every day, we invited Luba to accompany us north to Yaroslavl. We felt that she might well use some time away from her routine plus we were eager for her to get to know our Yaroslavl staff better. She shares the same passion for art and business with Oleg and Ivan. Luba was our first real coordinator in Russia, dating back to the early 90's. But she had to stop working with us in order to spend time with her parents.

Yaroslavl weather was Russian Fall at its best. We had two days with absolutely clear blue skies and two more that were slightly overcast. We visited the Valienki Factory where Gregory Andrevitch explained to us the financial intricacies of the felt boot market. We then had a tour of the factory where women working in dark spaces with steam rising around them were producing beautiful grey, black, and blue knee high felted footwear. Quickly Luba disappeared behind an enormous machine and it was a while before our guide realized someone in our party was missing. She was quite alarmed to find Luba passionately picking a worker's brain to learn how this felting process worked on an industrial level. We purchased winter boots for ourselves and everyone we could think of and headed to the factory's cafeteria for a wonderful lunch.

Because Russia only recently experienced the "fast food" phenomenon, there are very few small, private and affordable places where one can buy a lunch. But these common cafes are a holdover from the Soviet years when each factory had a lunchroom where the workers could enjoy, cafeteria style, a cheap and delicious lunch. First there is homemade soup, then a salad, then the main course, topped off with a cake and a glass of black tea with sugar. All for 120 rubles or about $4.00.

For me it is absolutely essential that I find one of these when arriving in a new city or town. Sadly they are disappearing from the landscape but happily there is one now on my radar screen just two blocks from our hotel in Yaroslavl. The other is across the bridge spanning the Volga at the Valienki Factory. The women cooks there remembered us from last year because every time I eat there I am so ecstatic and appreciative of they're cooking.

After the Valienki factory we headed out to a rather "sketchy" neighborhood up in the hills on the outskirts of the city. Here all the houses were wooden log homes, the surrounding factories and railroad yards a throwback to the Soviet era and the roads so filled with deep muddy ruts that we had to go at a snail's pace. "Even the police won't come up here" said Oleg. "Too many gypsies and men from Turkmenistan." This community apparently was a living example of what happens to dark skinned members of the prior Soviet empire who today live on the margins of Russian society. Every day police make random checks of people leaving bus and metro stations, looking for families who are living illegally in Russia, stopping only those with dark hair and skin.

Artist at Misha's Puzzle Factory
We were hunting for a small factory where young Russian artists who were followers of the pioneer educator Rudolph Steiner had created a place where they could make toys for sale in the Waldorf School tradition. We had come across their work at a kiosk at the Yaroslavl zoo last year and were immediately inspired by their quality.

Oleg's car slipped down one rut and up out of another and finally came to a halt at the feet of a small man with a cigarette guarding a large steel gate who, when given the right nod, swung it open and we entered a factory courtyard. To the right were piles of crushed beer bottlers ready for the recyclers, straight ahead a railroad yard and to the left, emerging from a dark doorway walked a young man in jeans and ponytail. This was Misha and he beckoned us to follow him up and inside.

Climbing the steel stairway I smelled smoke from the wood burning stove that Misha used for heat. Entering a second floor hallway stacked with drying lumber, we discovered a smaller room, cozy, warm and sun filled. A group of young women sat at their stations painting puzzles and children's toys. There was music playing in the background and a pleasant feeling filled the room. We asked Misha if perhaps he would consider painting our knitting needles for us and he agreed to discuss it with his co-workers. It was very inspirational to once again meet this new generation of Russians who were setting up enterprises and producing creative and socially valuable products.