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Good Bye Pavel
Written by Peter Hagerty, July 18,2005

 
     My mother used to say that bad news travels faster than good. But it had taken two months for Galina's letter to reach me here in Maine telling me her husband and my old friend Pavel had died. I had come to her small Russian village more than 12 years ago to buy sheep. At that time they had a one-ton horse named Platon who has just sired a beautiful colt named Valiet. I looked forward to working with that young colt every time I visited them. I remember the time we took off over the back pasture on our first ride, him full of beans and my thinking what a mess I would be in if I fell off and broke my neck.

      When Pavel became sick years later he wanted to give me that colt Valiet so I could take him to the States, give him a good home and breed him to some New England draft mares. I was touched by his kindness but he just said he didn't want to worry about the horse after he was gone.

      Many people still use horses in this part of Russia, mostly on wagons and sleighs. When Pavel and Galina moved to Shepelova in 1987, they used Platon to drag timbers from the nearby forest to make their hay barn and sheep and cattle sheds. Gorbachev was president, the Soviet Union was coming undone and Pavel and Galina, both in their late forties, had moved to the country to grow their own food with animal power.

      Shepelova is about three hours north of Moscow and on the same latitude as Hudson Bay so it sometimes takes a while in the spring for the soil to warm up. As Galina and I walked out over their 100 acres of hay fields in early June, we came upon old hay ricks she and Pavel had made on which they dried their grass and clover hay. Many of the tripods now lay crumbled on their sides and we collected them like old bones and piled them up.

      "I had to sell the sheep and the horses," she said sadly. "I have only one worker, Sasha, who is older than me. How can we live here in the winter alone? How could I ever survive now that Pavel is gone?"

      The sun broke through the giant thunderheads and a quick bunch of rain fell from the sky. I myself have been coming to Russia now for twenty years, to work with farmers, buy their wool and sometimes give advice. But mostly I listen. I knew that there was nothing I had to offer Galina in that moment of loss, only my friendship and my love. The ocean of uncut hay around us unfurled till it met the distant forest and murmured, "who will cut us now that Pavel is gone?" When the winter winds raced across these snowy fields, I would be at home in my cozy farm in Maine.

      "Pavel was Jewish, you knew that. And you know that there are not many Jewish farmers left in Russia. In the Russian Orthodox Church there is a tradition that nine days after a friend dies, all his neighbors gather to remember him. We had such a gathering here on the farm in March. People called Pavel a pioneer, a dreamer, a teacher, a friend. They said that he gave so much that there was nothing left for himself."

      When Pavel was a young man, he shoed horses in Moscow at the Troika Stadium, just a few blocks from where I stay when I am in town. Later he trained riding horses but his love and his dream had always been to farm with the large Ruski Taji Lavorse breed which he later brought to Shepelova, a small village of log homes on a dead end road miles from the nearest town.

      His first mare Vietka was bred by Platon and then along came Valiet. He mowed hay with the mare and stallion and Valiet began planting potatoes when he was three. Ten acres of wheat and twelve acres of oats were cut by the horses as well. One spring during planting I came to Shepelova to do a workshop on sheep shearing. It had been raining for weeks and all the roads in and out of the village were deep in mud. But the farmers came anyway, on horseback and wagon.

      Later that summer I returned to help with the haying. It was in July. When I left Maine on a Friday, haying was in full swing and I had been raking hay that morning with our horses on an International dump rakes. That evening I jumped on a plane and the following afternoon was walking down the dirt road to Shepelova. As I rounded the corner, I saw Pavel, also on a horse drawn dump rake, making windrows of hay in this large field.

      Because there were no phones in the village, no one knew I was coming. When Pavel finally spied me, he signaled for me to come over, gave me the reins and said he had a haying crew to get together. With no further adieu, Valiet and I were back to work on virtually the same dump rake that I had been riding back in Maine. For the first time I no longer felt like a guest but more like part of a team and that was a very special moment for me, one I will always cherish.

      As I write this final chapter of my time with Pavel, it is a June evening in Shepelova and I am in the same small bedroom in which I have slept these last twelve years. The walls of my room are over 16" thick and there is still enough light coming through the small ornate window so I don't have to turn on the light, even thought it is approaching 11. As I watch the light reluctantly fade I remember a very cold January morning. Twenty American farmers and their families from Eastern Washington had braved cold to visit Shepelova and have lunch. But when the bus driver who had brought us from Moscow saw the single lane plowed road leaving the main road, he refused to drive any further.

      Not to be outdone, the group put on the wool caps and farm hats and headed down the 5 km road to the farm. The sun came up the wind began to blow and slowly the group began to stretch out into a long thin line with me in the lead. I began to wonder if we had bitten off too much when I spotted Misha, a neighbor of Pavel's coming towards us on his horse drawn sleigh. When he saw our mob stretched out on his normally deserted winter road, he froze in panic. He then began to turn his sleigh and run.

     "Misha", I yelled, but he refused to turn his head. "Misha, please it is I, Peter!"

     Finally he stopped but as I ran up to him, he still refused to look at me. "My God" he finally uttered, 'what is going on?" Misha was truly shaken.

     I explained to him the situation and asked him if he would take his sleigh and go down the road and pick up the stragglers. At first he was reluctant but by now a few more of our group had arrived and smiled hello so all at once he was off on his mission.

      Racing down the row of trekkers, he spun his sleigh around and commanded the last in line to get in. Now apparently there is not a lot of Russian spoken in Eastern Washington and Misha does tend to have an overbearing attitude at times which may have explained the confused look verging on panic on the faces of his passengers as they shot by around the corner and out of sight. (Galina has come into the room as I am writing and as I share this memory with her, she crumbles into the chair with uncontrolled laughter).

      Like a crusader on a mission for his god, Misha is back a few minutes later to fetch his next victims. When I finally arrive at the farm, everyone is packed into the living room enjoying a hearty lunch and Pavel, Galina and Misha are in their glory. Shepelova will live on even after my friends are gone. There is a special magic there.

     The Russians call this special magic "derevnaya" or the spirit of the small village. No matter where you are in the world, if you meet a Russian and he is a general or she is a doctor or politician, all you have to do is ask them about the small village and they will immediately soften, take you into their confidence and share the precious memories of working with their grandparents in the village garden of their youth. You might be driving with a friend through a deserted forest and all at once the car slows to a reverent crawl and your friend says "look, I think there was once a village there".

     Perhaps it is because Pavel put so much of himself into his land, his animals and his village that for me he is not gone. He has just moved across that line of vision, harder to touch but not hard to feel. And I plan to return as soon as I can to check in with my old friend, maybe set back up a hay rick or two and listen for the chatter of the hay rakes and the breath of the horses as they move across the fields of Shepelova as one more Russian village refuses to die.