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Stories from Russia, 1999-2002
Written by Peter Hagerty, May 19, 2002.

Spring in Russia and beyond
Every year since 1985 I have traveled to the many countries that once comprised the Soviet Union and worked with farmers there, helping them to raise their sheep, improve their wool and lamb crop and more recently learn more about the use of horses on the farm. The following are some high points of my latest trip. For more information on these farms, click onto Peace Fleece International.

The Flight
We are high over Eastern Europe when my friend Deborah hands me a piece from the Atlantic Monthly entitled "Why Russia is Finished". I seem to run into these articles of gloom every time I get near to the place and this one sets my mood in a downward spiral.

Crime, disease, you name it. Jeffery is a very good writer with excellent credentials, now living in Russia for 10 years with a Russian wife and I find that I disagree with very few of his observations. "What's the point of my even trying to make a difference", I ask myself with the self pity of one who has had too little sleep and too much airline food.

As I look out over the clouds, I find myself remembering the Lone Ranger who, as my childhood hero with his trusted friend Tonto, faced evil in its most simple terms and always won. The Lone Ranger's evil took an external form, a bank robber, a cattle rustler, a prairie fire. As he rode Silver to victory, no evil rubbed off on his outfit of white.

Jeffery's article reminds me a bit of a Lone Ranger story. Greedy bureaucrats and ex-spies driven by dark times acting in cruel ways, destroying the lives of a nation of innocent people. Does Russia need a Lone Ranger to come riding to the rescue?

Unfortunately my childhood Lone Ranger no longer works for me as my savior. As an adult who has, on occasion, been forced to look at his own dark side, I have come to accept the fact that good and evil live inside of me and they shape my daily personality. Behind the face of every Russian apparatchick (corrupt bureaucrat) there is a parent, a child, a husband, a lover who, like me, is just trying to walk that fine line of good and evil. Behind the face of every "new" Russian (novi Russkie) driving the big German car with the new country house and the offshore account there is the man helping his grandmother in the garden on the weekend putting away the pickled onions of the winter.

The Russian word "derevnya" means spirit of the small village and for most Russians this spirit is alive and well in spite of MTV and sex clubs. In the past during moments of difficulty or conflict, I have on occasion been able to shift the conversation to the garden, the animals, the knitter's fingers constantly at work and like magic, the mood shifts and we are able to move forward. This is "derevnya" at work and its spirit is tangible.

In Maine I often feel like I was born a century too late. In Russia I can help a man fix a broken harness or ride a seven year old stallion to the neighboring village and feel totally at home. I derive my energy and my strength from the forest and the field and the soil. The challenge for me is to see past the pain of a nation and its people in dire straits and tap into the strength of the "derevnya". As long as there is one last row to plant, one last sheep to shear, one last toast to make, what's the point of throwing in the towel?
Planting potatoes at Shepelova, Zagorsk Region

The City

Moscow was undergoing a May Day heat wave and it seemed as if everyone had taken advantage of the four day holiday to head for the dacha (country house). The metro was half empty and you could drive right through the center of town with no traffic jams.

I was on my way to do some grocery shopping at the Kopeck Market around the corner from our apartment when I noticed a man in overalls rebuilding a small stone wall under a line of overhanging poplar trees. Delicately he placed pink and blue flowers in a pattern on a small plateau of soil surrounded by stones and then took an old watering can and carefully nurtured the plants. He was still there working when I came back and he returned the following morning to extend his project up the alley. As I admired his patient work, I felt on some level that this man was there for me, to welcome me back to a city I had visited so many times over the past 17 years. As his fingers worked to arrange the soil, his lips moved as if singing a silent song, perhaps the old Russian verse "you never know what you will find if you just turn over one more stone."

That night there was automatic weapons fire somewhere outside but not too far way. A quick burst. The shots echoed off the buildings. A dog barked, a car honked and the residents of Yaltinskaya Street slept on through another warm spring night.
Broken Harness on Istra Road

Irina with Sergi and Evgeni

Podolsk Region southwest of Moscow

Tamara Nickolaivna Brusova with her Romanov fleece

Tamara Nickolaiavna Brusova's eyes twinkle as she reaches for the refrigerator to extract her latest jar of chesnok (garlic) preserves which she has laid in waiting for my return. With my wife Marty many miles away at home, I am free to embark on a garlic binge with no fear of offending my love's lips. Garlic had, I believe, helped save Tamara's life years before as she battled a blood disease and every year since her recovery we (I) celebrate by covering everything I eat with Tamara's garlic compote.

"My one great worry now is finding a horse for this winter" Tamara confides in me as we make our way down to the sheep fields."The children need one to ride to school and if I can't find one, it will be a great loss". Tamara's right hand woman Irina has two children, Sergi and Evgeni. Both are now of school age and must start attending this coming year. The school is only 4 km. away but with the road closed after the snow comes, it might as well be on the other side of the world. Irina may have to move off the farm, lose her job with Tamara and rent an apartment near the school. But a horse and sleigh would allow Irina to transport her children and stay working with Tamara. The search is on to find Tamara $500 for a new horse and sleigh.

Istra Region northwest of Moscow

We get an early start on May Day morning. We are up and leave Moscow by 6:30 and consequently when we arrive at the Korneva Farm 90 minutes later, the only one up is Sasha milking their 20 cows and milkmaid Vera moving the young stock out to pasture across the road. But the dogs barking soon gets everyone awake and outside and I am feeling quite badly that my thoughtless planning has interrupted one of this family's few day of rest each year. But young Anton has no time for my guilt and excitedly tells me how he had been so worried for my safety when he had seen the Trade Towers on television. Oldest son Fydor is home from the veterinary institute and as Ludmilla and Sasha move around the farm pointing out what was new, broken and exciting, you can see how proud they both are of their sons.

Fydor is approaching 6'4" and every inch is filled with kindness. You can see his love for animals as he works with the herd. In two years when he finishes his vet degree, he will have to join the army and perhaps fight in Chechnya. Fydor's mother Ludmilla proudly shows me her latest project, her manure pile where she is composting tons of sheep, cow, pig and horse manure annually with the help of an army of workers, the California Red worms. Ludmilla digs into the pile to expose the worms at work. "The small red worms are crossing with our large Russian grey worms," Ludmilla beams. "We are very excited". Peace Fleece is hoping to raise $1000 this year to help the Korneva family build an automatic manure system to handle their animal manure in an environmentally sound manner.
Ludmilla exposing her army of red workers

Shepelova Village, Zagorsk Region NE of Moscow
Fydor and Anton Kornev

Pavel and Galina with dogs and sheep

For the last several years I have asked Luba and Sasha to drop me near where the main road meets the dirt road to Pavel and Galina's village. Then I have about a 45 minute walk to collect my thoughts, shake off the dust of the drive from Moscow and visit the village cemetery. I first came to Shepelova in 1994 looking to buy some Romanov sheep. I met Pavel and Galina Potstrelov, purchased 6 ewes and have returned twice every year since to get to know their village and to share knowledge of raising sheep and farming with horses.

Being the day before Easter, people have already visited the graves of their ancestors under the tall aspen trees, leaving flowers, candy, bread and sometimes a glass of vodka. The graveyard is about one acre in size and its trees are bordered to the north by the dirt road and to the south with pasture and hayland. Today is warm with a strong breeze from the south and the early afternoon sky begins filling with fair weather clouds.

Nikolai Yarmolovitch' grave is in the very center of the trees looking south. Born in the Kuban Region of Russia at the turn of the century, he could ride a horse before he could walk and his 19th birthday found him leading a battalion of young men of the White Russian Army fighting for the Tzar against the new communist revolutionary army. A colonel before he was twenty, he was awarded the Russian Cross before he was driven across the Ural Mountains and into a lifetime of exile and hiding. Stalin never stopped looking for him and the search continued under Breshnev and the KGB. But he was never found.

Sometime in the 1940's Nikolai, his wife and children secretly made their way west out of the forests of Siberia. They were looking for a small, remote village where they could safely settle. Somehow they found their way to Shepelova, and Nikolai began teaching school in exchange for room and board. Baba Clara, one of the few residents alive today who knew Nikolai and his family, tells of that time when village life was hard but rewarding.

"During the war, we lost so many men that we were so grateful when children were born. We worked in the forest then, cutting lumber for a mill not far away. Many of us were young, looking for young men to marry.We had our fun when we could, dancing at a different home each Saturday night. There were wolves in the forest then and we could not walk home alone." It was during this time that Nikolai taught the new generation of Shepelova. Without electricity, phone or television, the children learned of the Soviet State from the words of a man who had spent most of his life running from that very same government. Baba Clara said he was a good teacher and a fine man and although no one knew of his past till after his death in the 1989 at the age of 95, to most it came as no surprise.

When Pavel and Galina came to Shepelova shortly after Nikolai's death, they too were on the run. In the space of three years, the Soviet State had collapsed, they had both lost their jobs and savings and they knew that the only food they would eat in the coming year was the food they grew themselves. They were both well past 50. They met Nikolai's widow and purchased the school house where Nikolai had taught for so many years. In the past nine years they have learned to farm, faced disaster countless times, and have survived.

As I stand by Nikolai's grave and the warm Easter winds blow up from the south, I look through the trees and see a village in the distance that has changed little over the past 100 years. Although there are fewer people living here now, those that do still greet strangers like myself with the same openness that they showed to Nikolai many years ago and for this I am very grateful.

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