Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Our Village

by Dmitry Orlov

Club Orlov (2005)

A few years after the Soviet Union collapsed, I spent some time living in a small Russian village where my wife's side of the family owns a house. There is nothing special or unique about this particular village; I am sure that it is just one of thousands like it, scattered over the vast expanse of Russia. It is a simple place that caters to simple needs. Like many such places, it was only very slightly affected by the collapse of the Soviet economy: you'd have to know what to look for to detect changes, and none of them made obvious the fact that elsewhere life had changed in dramatic ways.

The United States is now facing a predicament similar to the one the Soviet Union confronted some two decades ago. There is a great deal of discussion, among those few who try to think for themselves, about the right way to respond to the permanent energy crisis that has already started to grip the country. The entire American way of life is an artificial life support system that runs on fossil fuels, and it is going to get knocked out as these fuels run low. Of the few people who have any notion that this is happening, even fewer can imagine what might come next, beyond the gut feeling that it will be unpleasant.

Some people have started to entertain thoughts of returning to a rural way of life and surviving through subsistence agriculture - like the people in our village. This is, of course, an excellent idea. If meadow voles could talk, they would categorically deny that their lifestyle and diet are in any way affected by fossil fuel prices and shortages, stock market crashes, cities looted by armed mobs, internment camps run by federal emergency goons, or what have you. But we are not meadow voles, and when we decide to start living off the land, as with any new endeavor, it is important for us to learn as much as we can, and to think things through. However, given the subject matter at hand, to be of any use, such learning and thinking must be sufficiently concrete, simple, and down-to-earth.

There is an element to American culture that never ceases to amuse me. Even when grappling with the idea of economic disintegration, Americans attempt to cast it in terms of technological or economic progress: eco-villages, sustainable development, energy efficiency and so on. Under the circumstances, such compulsive techno-optimism seems maladaptive. I love the new advances in organic farming, which I find fascinating and very useful, but why do people seem incapable of doing the simplest things without making them into projects, preferably ones that involve some element of new technology? Thousands of years of happy composting using heaps and pits are behind us: now we need bins - and plastic, oil-based ones at that!

Contrary to the impositions of the whiz-bang-blinded and the gadget-addled among us, living off the land is not about projects, or systems, or organizations, but about shovels and buckets and hoes, and it is not even so much about skills or techniques, as it is about habits. Yes, you too can pick up the healthy habits of growing and gathering your own food, storing it, cooking it, eating it, excreting it, and, yes, even composting the end result. The temporary bounty of fossil fuels has allowed a lot of the former peasants to live like nobles for a time - residing in mansions, moving about in carriages, and having people serve them. Once these sources of energy are depleted, many of these former peasants will be forced to revert back. They will once more have to live in huts, travel on foot, wield their ancestral scythes and sickles to provide their sustenance, and do their own chores.

But we are people, not voles, and mere subsistence is not enough. Village life is about growing food, but it is also about much more. It is about the sense of security that comes from knowing what you need and how to help yourself to it. And it is about the profound experience of beauty that only comes from direct, daily contact with nature. Finally, it is about the sense of eternity, of the timelessness that comes from knowing that nothing ever has to change unless you want it to: great empires may rise up and crumble all around you, but the village will abide.

A Home in the Village

When Natasha, my wife, was a teen-ager growing up in the sunset glow of the Soviet Union, her mother, grandmother, and aunt bought a house in a small Russian village. At that time this was an unusual thing to do, and something of an experiment. While many Saint Petersburg residents owned vacation homes, hardly any of these were in small, remote, working villages. More recently, there has been a virtual stampede of middle-class people from Saint Petersburg and Moscow rushing to buy houses in villages. Formerly, however, such people preferred to spend their summers in resort communities, which offered possibilities for recreation. Natasha's family was the only city family, and the only family not descended from people in the vicinity, among the population of the village.

From that time, Natasha spent at least a part of each summer living, and doing her share of the chores, in this village. She would have much preferred to stay in the city with her friends, and spent time there only because her family insisted. After we met, I spent quite a bit of time there myself, and found the place much more to my liking than she ever did. This is hardly surprising, because I happen to like villages. From when I was five, my family spent at least a month, in the middle of the summer, living in various villages, in different parts of Russia, the Baltic states, and the Ukraine. Each of these villages remains in my memory like an uncut gem surrounded by the gray gravel of city life.

It is notable that the men of the family had little or no say in the decision to purchase this house. Natasha's mother, grandmother, and aunt formed a sort of matriarchal triumvirate, which ruled the family nest, generally not bothering to solicit the agreement of her father, grandfather, or uncle in making decisions. With the exception of her grandfather, who was elderly and did not mind spending the summers in the calm atmosphere of the village, none of them spent much time there, and gratefully helped gather, transport and eat the tasty food that grew there. This approach seems to have worked very well for all of them. Clearly, it is more important to keep men fed than to listen to their opinions, regardless of their wisdom and originality.

The Village, Soykino

Our village is called Soykino and is located right on the border between the Novgorod and Pskov regions. It consists of eight houses lined up in rows along the main highway connecting the two regional capitals: six houses on one side, two on the other. Two of the six houses stand vacant, and are used for storage. The village is about five hours' drive from Saint Petersburg, or a day's journey by train. It is within a half an hour's walk from a somewhat larger village, Sitnya, which has a general store, a dairy farm, a bus stop, and a post office. Sitnya is about an hour by bus from an even larger local town, Soltsy, which prospered during the middle ages due to its proximity to some salt seeps, which were used to produce salt. Soltsy has several tree-lined avenues, several stores, a school, a hospital, a train station, and a bus depot.

The houses in Soykino are surrounded by a few hectares of farmland, which is used for potato fields, kitchen gardens, orchards, and hay fields. The houses are log cabins, one log wide, two logs long, the narrow end facing the road. Most of them are covered on the outside with clapboards, which are invariably painted a fast-fading cheery yellow. Our family was the first in the village to clapboard and paint their house, and others followed, copying us down to the exact color. All houses are supplied with enough electricity to power a few light bulbs, a refrigerator, a radio, and a television set. Telephone calls can sometimes be made from the post office in Sitnya, which is open a few hours on most workdays, but more often than not the telephone line is down.

Heat is provided either by the traditional Russian stove, which takes up half a room, has a warm bed at the top, and only needs to be fired twice a day, or a tiled Dutch stove that only takes up a corner of the room. Some villagers use propane stoves for cooking, while others have cooking stoves stoked with firewood. None of the houses has any sort of plumbing. Each house is adjoined by a storage shed and a cozy outhouse. All outhouses except ours are positioned over septic pits; while ours is a technologically advanced composting toilet, which consists of a bench with a hole positioned over a bucket that is periodically dumped onto the compost heap, and which makes its humble contribution to the bounty of our kitchen garden. Some houses also have pole tents with hearths, which are used for cooking and eating during the summer months.

Many of the houses are surrounded by picket fences. The fence that runs along the road is generally seen as a requirement, and has a latching gate. The fences between houses are optional; contrary to the erroneous English saying, good neighbors make for optional fences. The back fence is often missing.

The houses lack driveways, and are reachable from the road via planks thrown over the drainage ditch that runs along the road. There is one car-worthy log bridge, which serves as the driveway for the entire village, but since only a couple of the residents own cars, it is rarely used.

The houses are surrounded by kitchen gardens and orchards. Beyond the houses lie hay and potato fields, and beyond those, the river Sitnya, a tributary of Shelon, which, via lake Ilmen, river Volkhov, lake Ladoga, river Neva, and the Gulf of Finland, eventually drains into the Baltic Sea.

The People of Soykino

The permanent population of Soykino, numbering just over a dozen, consists mainly of middle-aged or elderly people, who are often visited by their children and grandchildren. Some of them work in the neighboring Sitnya, which, with a larger population and a dairy farm, offers some possibilities for employment.

Soykino has just one family that could be called a proper farming family, the Mukhins. This because they actually produce a cash crop of sorts: fodder, which, however, they keep for their own horse and sheep. Father, mother, and three daughters harvest hay in the surrounding fields with the help of their family horse and a hay-wagon, scythes, rakes, and pitchforks. Along with everyone else, they also tend their potato field and kitchen garden, and pick mushrooms and berries in the surrounding forests. It is common knowledge that the hay fields around the village are for their use, although it is unclear whether this arrangement has any official sanction. More likely, these fields, separated from the road by a ditch and a row of houses, are effectively out of reach of the communal farm. The other villagers approve of the Mukhins because they like fertilizing their cucumber patches with manure from their horse, which is considered a precious commodity.

The residents of neighboring Sitnya rarely venture out to Soykino, although lately the links have started to expand to encompass firewood delivery, cow manure delivery, and plowing services. There is an additional contingent of itinerant laborers, alcoholics, and thieves, and their various permutations. These pay sporadic visits to Soykino, and have to be negotiated with in order to have one's firewood sawed and split and one's property left unmolested.

Of the population of Sitnya, the most visible are a few youths who buzz by several times a day on ancient two-stroke motorcycles. These are the dregs of the local youth. Most everyone their age tries very hard to escape at least as far as Soltsy, where there are some jobs. Others are drafted into the army, never to return. The ones that remain do so because they are unfit for military service.

It was not easy for us to gain acceptance into Soykino society. After several years of concerted effort at making contact with the locals, they at last started to acknowledge our existence, saying hello, then bartering food and favors, and finally even coming over for visits. This was universally considered a great victory, because a great social divide had been breached. Everyone who lived there had lived there for generations, and was suspicious of newcomers. The flip side of this acceptance was a certain lack of privacy: the typical village way to invite yourself over for tea is to show up and yell "Hey, are you there?" across the fence. But such visits are, of course, essential for keeping up on current events and for making arrangements.

Agriculture in Soykino

The main purpose village life for everyone there, our family included, is to survive, regardless of economic conditions, by using the few short summer months to grow and gather enough food to last the entire winter. Although in better times it is possible to survive in Russia by working a job or two, and paying cash for food in stores and at farmers' markets, during leaner years one's cash may not amount to much at all. Overall, most people would agree that the economy is not to be relied on exclusively, and so most people, city folk included, try to grow and gather at least some food themselves. Should the economy evaporate completely, as it has repeatedly threatened to do, they will at least have enough to survive the winter.

The staple is made up of potatoes, which do not grow well in the thin, sandy soil around Soykino. Without fertilizer, the potato harvest can amount to less than the potatoes that were planted the spring. Fertilizer can be had for free by picking up after the herd of cows from the communal farm which wanders past the village twice a day, but this is considered hard work. Most people try to arrange to have manure delivered to them by people from the dairy farm.

Second in importance only to the potato fields are the kitchen gardens, which generally take up all available territory around each house. Cucumbers, eggplant, and squash are commonly grown, along with some green manures. Tomatoes are grown as well, but require hothouses in order to ripen. A typical village hothouse is a rickety affair made up of polyethylene sheets stretched over poles and weighted down with logs. Some of the houses also have a few apple and plum trees, as well as raspberry and currant bushes. Since the soil is thin, a concerted effort is made to marshal organic wastes, and most plots sport large compost heaps, overgrown with burdocks, which can be used in lieu of toilet paper.

Since most houses lack either wells or pumped water, irrigation is provided for by collecting rainwater from the roofs of houses and sheds. The gutters run into barrels or old bathtubs, from which watering cans are filled. This makes watering the kitchen garden a bit more labor-intensive than spraying water from a hose, but nowhere near as bad as fetching water in buckets from the river.

Except for the one horse and a few sheep, the village is without livestock. Milk can be had very cheaply from the herd at the dairy farm, a half-hour walk each way, and is used to make sour cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, and butter. Several villagers raise chickens, which are prized as much for their wild colors as their egg-laying ability, with the normal, white chickens definitely outnumbered by the black, red, and brown hens and roosters. Eggs are considered a good present to take along when going to visit neighbors. Some villagers also raise rabbits, which are the only source of meat, used in rabbit stew. The villagers seem to lack respect for rabbit meat, and are shy about referring to it as such, preferring to simply call it "meat".

The Ecosystem

Almost everyone in Soykino gathers mushrooms and berries in the forest. Of the mushrooms, the prized ones are Boletes and Chanterelles, but many of the bitter, semi-edible mushrooms are used as well, soaked and then pickled. The mushrooms are dried and used in soups and stews throughout the winter.

Of the berries, raspberries are made into preserves, while blueberries and blackberries are eaten fresh and baked into pies. In early summer some wild strawberries can be found, in small quantities, but quantity is hardly an issue when it comes to these, given their amazing aroma and flavor. Later in the season, there are plenty of cranberries as well.

The land around Soykino consists of large rectangular plots of mixed forest and meadow cross-hatched with drainage ditches. Much of the surrounding land was in the past swampy, and a great effort had been made to drain it. Out in the forest, there are some abandoned homesteads, where fruit trees and currant bushes often continue to thrive untended, and locals who know such places sometimes come back with baskets full of fruit.

The name "Soykino" is derived from "soyka" (the Russian word for "jay") and there are indeed plenty of jays to be found there. There is also a family of storks, whose nest used to majestically adorn the top of the tallest pine tree in the center of the village, but who have recently relocated to the cemetery some distance down the road. They can still be seen leaping about in the fields, catching frogs, then airlifting them up to the nest. There is also the usual rowdy family of crows, and a particularly infuriating, thieving clan of magpies, who have developed a taste for soap, and instantly swoop down and steal any bar of soap that is left unattended. Of the smaller birds, swifts and swallows are particularly common, and woodpeckers are not so much seen as heard in the forest across the road.

As for quadrupeds, the semi-feral ones consist of quite a few dogs, who roam in packs, and whose bark is fierce, but whose bite is mostly nonexistent, and a few cats. Properly domesticated visitors from the city quickly revert to their wild form, showing up once a day to be fed.

Quadruped wildlife proper includes several hedgehogs, who are not the least bit reticent, and stomp around snacking from the dog dishes with an air of entitlement. In early summer, one can sometimes see an entire hedgehog family scampering up and down the compost pile.

Out in the forest, there is no shortage of mink, which are hunted for their pelts during the winter, and hares, which are hunted for meat. Wild boar, lynx, and black bear can also be found. The wild boar are considered the most dangerous, as they roam in packs and sometimes charge people.

Visitors & Transportation

The highway that runs on the other side of the drainage ditch from Soykino is one of regional importance. It links the two regional centers closest to Saint Petersburg: Novgorod, a medieval capital of Russia, and Pskov, an ancient fortress built to defend Russia against the Lithuanians. Belying their fierce reputation, the Lithuanians never once ventured to attack Pskov, and now amicably show up to sell vegetables and dairy products at the big farmers' market there, while the ancient fortress stands intact and attracts many tourists.

In spite of its regional importance, the Pskov-Novgorod highway sees no more than a few dozen vehicles in any given 24-hour period: a few bicycles and two-stroke motorcycles, a tractor, a few trucks, and the odd speeding Mercedes-Benz sedan carrying a member of regional government and/or mafia. The slower-moving ones receive escort from the village dogs. The traffic does not interfere with the pedestrians, who like to meander down the center of the road. Exactly once a year, a road crew passes through filling potholes and mowing the margins.

The main means of transportation to and from Soykino is on foot, or by bicycle, to Sitnya, from which, two or three times a day, one can catch a bus to Soltsy. The trip takes about an hour each away. There is just one antique bus, which has been in continuous service since the late fifties, and a single bus driver, who drives it and maintains it. When the engine stalls from the relentless double-clutching needed to shift the worn-out gears, passengers file out and wait by the side of the road, while the driver resuscitates the engine, with his heel jamming down the clutch fork, and his hand on the jumper cable. On a recent trip, the bus died, and the driver took a hatchet and walked off into the forest, returning some time later with a wooden part he crafted, which he installed, and the trip resumed.

The driver knows most passengers by name, and often takes care to make sure that elderly riders know how they are going to get home. The fare is very modest, making the bus popular with elderly people on fixed (and very tiny) incomes. I saw at least one elderly veteran, his threadbare jacket festooned with medals, board the bus and calmly pay the fare using some token quantity of Soviet roubles, which had been out of circulation for about five years. The driver accepted the worthless bills without comment and handed out a ticket.

Although Soltsy has a train station, a much shorter route to Saint Petersburg involves taking the bus to a railroad crossing, and waiting there until a train comes by. Unfortunately, the only train that stops at the crossing is one that stops at all the crossings, and averages no more than ten kilometers per hour. At each stop, there unfolds the seemingly endless ballet of baskets and bags and children and live animals being handed up to the cars or down to the grade, because there are no platforms. This makes the Soykino-Saint Petersburg journey an all-day affair even when all the timetables match up.

Other than the train, the bus, and the hay-wagon, a neighbor's 1950's Moskvich has on occasion been pressed into service as an ambulance, rushing people to the hospital in Soltsy (non-emergency cases are usually handled by a doctor/veterinarian down the road in Sitnya).


The only store in Sitnya, which started a cooperative during Perestroika, sells bread, cigarettes, vodka, and a few varieties of canned food. Of these, the first three are the most heavily purchased, with bread the only purchased item on which the local people really depend as a staple. Lines form in anticipation of bread delivery, which is baked in Soltsy and delivered several times a week. When bread is delivered, it is bought up rather quickly, and the villagers walk back with their prize, as if from a hunt. They often pinch off parts of the loaves and eat them on the way, discussing the quality of the bread, which is generally quite excellent - much better than can be found at a supermarket in the US.

Social Life in the Village

The main elements of communal life are visits, barter of food and favors, and use of sauna. Visits are almost universally unplanned and unannounced. Most often, people stop by on the way, sometimes coming into the yards, and sometimes simply talking across the fence.

The village has many benches scattered throughout, which consist of a length of split log hand-planed smooth, flat side up, which is joined to two round logs, which are buried vertically into the ground. These are found both next to the houses and outside the fences, and are used to sit and chat with neighbors. There are benches where you can warm up on sunny but frosty mornings, and benches to while away hot mid-afternoons in the shade. There was even a bench where I could stretch out on a clear night and watch the myriad of stars, the asteroid showers, and the Mir space station whizzing by periodically. I have built several of them myself, in strategic locations.

Typical examples of barter involve exchanges of rabbit meat, eggs, vegetables and other perishable items that would otherwise be distributed unevenly and perhaps go to waste. Staples such as potatoes are generally not bartered.

Sauna use presents one of the more complex examples of social interaction in Soykino. During my stays there, it was my responsibility to fire the sauna at least once a week, but since I enjoyed doing it and had little else to do, I fired it twice a week. It was quite a bit of work, but it made me instantly popular.

Due to lack of running water, villagers undertake serious bathing only once or twice a week, generally on a Saturday, in a Russian sauna. This is typically a small log cabin, located on the outskirts of the village. The better Russian saunas have stoves that are stoked from a vestibule rather than the room where the actual bathing takes place. The simplest Russian saunas - so-called "black" saunas - consist of a single sooty room with an open hearth for heating a cauldron of water and some benches, and lack a chimney. The saunas in Soykino fall somewhere in the middle of this range: there are typically two rooms and a chimney, but the stove is in the main room. Due to some common design problems, the draft is weak, and the room invariably fills with smoke while the water is being heated.

Firing a sauna involves more than an hour of concerted effort, and the result serves at least half a dozen people. Since firing half a sauna is almost as much effort, neighbors take turns at firing the sauna. Although most houses have their own sauna, everyone eventually decides which sauna is the best, with the result that only one or two saunas in the entire village ever get used.

In order to prepare the sauna, many buckets of water are carried from the river, about half of which are emptied into the cauldron, and the rest into a large cask next to it. Then a fire is lit and stoked until the water in the cauldron is near boiling. Once the fire burns itself out and the smoke clears, the villagers come to bathe, alone or in parties. Hot and cold water are mixed in washbasins. An integral part of the bathing process involves getting whipped with dried birch boughs. These are believed to have great healing powers. Although it is possible to flagellate oneself in this manner, the preferred method involves taking turns with someone else, and thus bathing is generally a team effort.


There is no church either in Soykino or in Sitnya. There is a large church in Soltsy, and a smaller one in Molochkovo, about half-way to Soltsy. For church aficionados, Pskov and Novgorod are chock-full of churches, cathedrals, and monasteries. Some Soykino residents venture to Molochkovo or to Soltsy to attend church for Easter, which is the main religious holiday. Although devout religious observance is rare, most people are baptized, and make a point of baptizing their children. This is considered a good thing to do, independently of any belief in God or desire to belong to the church. It is doubtful that any of the burials at the small village cemetery in Sitnya involve priests.

Life goes ever on

It was difficult to discern the effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and of the subsequent political and economic upheavals, on everyday life in Soykino. Nevertheless, the odd imported item at the village store, a foreign license plate on a car, and television and radio broadcasts that would be unthinkable in the Soviet times gave away the fact that elsewhere times have changed.

In Sitnya, activity on the dairy farm had experienced a definite slowdown, but is otherwise no different. Perhaps the only common denominator was a slow decay of everything man-made all-around, a gradual wearing-out. As the economy wound down, things that continued for decades faltered or stopped. But electricity supply to Soykino was never shut off, and the bus to Soltsy continued to run. Bread deliveries never stopped.

Even if these things were to happen, some of the villagers in Soykino, and thousands of villages like it throughout Russia, would probably have found ways to survive. A few would have starved or frozen to death, or simply sickened and died. But while the future cannot be predicted with any great certainty, this unpredictability has to do with economics and finance, which have a lot of importance for those in the cities, but are of only very marginal significance to places like Soykino. No matter what happens in the cities, it is likely that the trees will continue to grow, the river will still have some water in it, and the villagers of Soykino will continue to tend their plots, curse the flies, and, in their idle moments, the politicians.

Progress comes to Soykino

Ten-year update: thanks to a small infusion of funds from abroad, and some excellent local craftsmanship, the house has been outfitted with a much better stove, a screened veranda, and a well.

Perhaps the biggest change that has occurred is the appearance of cell phone towers. Now everyone has a cell phone, making it possible to ask for a ride, a load of manure, or a load of timber, or a horse to plow the potato field, all without the need to walk over and negotiate in person.

The general store in Sitnya has purchased a few refrigerators, and now sells many more items, including dairy and meat. It recently held a village festival, setting tables out in front. Locals brought home-baked pies and sang old-time and patriotic favorites with the help of a Karaoke machine.

Given this pace of development, I can predict with some confidence that during the next few years we will see the introduction of wireless high-speed Internet access for the entire village.


Natasha and I are very happy that Soykino exists, and that our family owns a house there. Simple and humble as it is, it has much to offer: community, nature, shelter, and food.

As I mentioned, the collapse of the Soviet economy was barely detectable in Soykino. Reasoning by analogy, if some of the more pessimistic (or, as more and more of us think, realistic) predictions come true, and the developed portions of the United States become completely dysfunctional, much more so than they are presently, a village such as Soykino, if one existed, would remain similarly unaffected. And if you owned a house there, you could live there, and be unaffected as well.

Upon arriving, you would no doubt have to explain to the other residents what happened: "You see, the economy collapsed, and now there is nothing more for me to do out there". And they would say: "No! Really? That's a pretty big thing, isn't it?" And you would say: "Huge! Could you please pass the pickled mushrooms?"

(c) 2005 Dmitry Orlov. All Rights Reserved.

Bill Totten


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