This site is our response to everyone who has ever asked us what Russia is like, and for anyone who might have never wondered, but should have. It’s an attempt to put into words Russia as we see it; our go at explaining that big old riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, that in fact, never went away. It’s about understanding the views, opinions and psyche of a nation that hits our headlines daily, without many of us ever really knowing why. And ultimately, it’s about providing a picture of Russia, as seen first-hand by two people, who think that although the journey they’re on to try and understand this country might never end, the process itself is worth sharing.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Village People

Living in Moscow it’s easy to forget that for much of Russia’s rural population who do not live in the excesses (or simple adequacies) of the country’s capital, life in the 21st century has not yet begun. A friend and I spent a night living like locals (well, almost) in the Siberian village of Tashtagol and understood rather quickly how male life expectancy out in the sticks of Russia can average as little as 46 years in the worst regions.

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The plan to stay at the datcha for three nights doesn’t get off to a good start. “Firewood’s in the barn and the toilet’s over there,” says Andrei, the next door neighbour enlisted to help us out, nodding over at a small wooden hut around 20 metres away yet separated from us by untouched snow nearly 6 foot deep. “You’ll have to dig your way over,” he adds, with a chuckle. I have other priorities in mind - the temperature outdoors is minus twenty something and although the stove is doing its best, indoors it is still averaging a good ten degrees on the wrong side of zero. “How cold is it forecast to be tonight?” we ask tentatively. “Ooh, around minus 48 I should think,” is the unwelcome reply. I hope that is a rural Russian joke.

Left to fend for ourselves and having quickly assumed traditional gender roles Johann is shovelling snow to clear a path to the barn outdoors and as the female hunter-gatherer I pay a passing motorist to give me a lift to the local shop to buy supplies for the night. Admittedly, had I been true to my Russian villager role I would have braved the wait for a bus, but then my English feet are freezing and my English patience exhausted. My groceries, however, are decidedly “local” (in ‘the League of Gentlemen’ sense and admittedly not out of choice); some dubiously-looking sausage, cheese, black bread, a pot noodle and some instant smash.

On my return it’s already dark outside and the hut has heated up to a tropical minus two; I even have a go taking my coat off. In preparation for the night ahead Johann does some frozen wood chopping and does his best to fill a bucket, which is more hole than bucket, with some frozen coal. Our supply of frozen wood and frozen coal does not fill one with optimism. The buckets of water collected earlier from the village’s only tap have begun to freeze over despite being next to the stove. So has the water that has emptied straight onto the floor from a hole in the sink and that has collected near the entrance. My ideas of a steamy-hot banya and hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire are gradually being replaced by a somewhat colder reality.

Having eaten a dinner of all the above-mentioned ingredients fried together in a pan, exhausted any frozen wood chopping opportunities and even having stomped our way through shoulder high snow to the outside loo, we find ourselves at 6pm and at a bit of a loose end. With no transport, and nowhere to go to in the near vicinity even if there was, we quickly understand the allure of drinking oneself into oblivion and thus the crux of Russia’s rural demographic crisis. Hacking at the ice that has formed around the entrance provides some brief entertainment but we’re freezing in bed by 8pm; the thermometer inside our hut is has reached two degrees. Hourly efforts at keeping the stove alight prove futile; our two degrees Celsius average doesn’t get any better. By morning we decamp to an apartment in town – I’ve already had enough of the “real” Russia.

The most surprising thing about this experience was not our complete ineptness at keeping a stove lit, nor my reluctance to use an outside loo in subarctic conditions but rather the fact that 27% of Russia’s population of 140,000,000 live in rural areas with many in conditions largely similar to that from which we had quickly fled. In Abakan and Krasnoyarsk, two other Siberian cities we visited, just outside the city centre one finds clusters of these traditional wooden houses, which, despite being so tantalisingly close to civilisation have sporadic electricity supplies and no access to running water. Moreover, a large proportion of those living in such conditions are not sturdy youths who can chop wood and fetch buckets of water with relative ease, but the older generation who have nowhere else to go – living in rural poverty since time immemorial, excluded from the Soviet Union’s modernisation drives, brushed aside under capitalism and condemned to an existence below the breadline.

Such impoverished living conditions for so many of Russia’s citizens have clear implications for the country’s pretensions to superpower status on the world stage. The facts are contradictory; a member of the G8 that is, in parts, a third world country. A UN report published in 2006 presents some sobering statistics; the poverty rate in Siberia averages 35%. In one district this was as high as 77%. In another, nearly 16% of housing was classed as being in dilapidated or dangerous state of repair. Progress has been made over the past ten years yet many households remain excluded. The future prosperity of the country as a whole depends on lifting the most backwards areas into the 21st century and providing running water to rural communities is one of the important tasks that Russia faces today.


The Expatresse said...


All I can say: wow.

Lil' Bro Peep said...

Brilliant that you got pot noodle. Amazing story. My experience of going meeting Booty Luv seems to pale in comparison.