||The provinces of Russia, the true Russia! Moscow is no more Russia, than
New York is America. OK, maybe there is less of a disparity of wealth in
America, but the situation is similar. Moscow is urban living at its extreme
in this country, not suburbia, and definitely not the norm, so every so often,
I flee the smog and crowds for the countryside.
Now don’t jump to conclusions about how far away from Moscow I go. At the
most, I head to one of the Ring cities, that grew up around Moscow because
they were a day’s carriage ride away. See, there is Toilet Maxim here that
indicates the level of provinciality you have reached.
Inside the Garden Ring Road in Moscow, most respectable establishments have
Western toilets and the accompanying accoutrements, like toilet paper, running
water, lights, a door, things you would find in any normal American restaurant.
As you get farther away from the ring road, the facilities gradually deteriorate.
By the edge of Moscow, you still have a toilet, but now there is no TP and
the plumbing will be sketchy.
Once you leave Moscow, the lights stop working, then the door goes missing,
and finally, the toilet gives way to a hole in the floor with footpads on
either side, the infamous “bomb run” toilet. Toilet usage is also city
relative. It is not unusual to find footprints on toilet seats in the
city, where provincial people, used to the bomb run toilets, continue the
squatting tradition. (See the proof to the right: an actual Moscow Club toilet
guide I swiped!)
I personally, try to stay within the “toilet ring” if you will, so I travel
an hour or less on the elektrichki to my destinations, which is what I did Saturday.
I went to the city of Zelenograd, where I had my Peace Corps training, to
see a friend of mine and celebrate Victory Day.
Victory Day is the biggest holiday in Russia, honoring the end of
World War II, where the Russians quite rightly assert that they were the
actual defeaters of the German army. There are parades in every city
square, whit the annual Army Review in Red Square, and wreaths laid at
all the monuments to the war.
I wish I could say that I saw more of the festivities than the
scene at a shrine to the defenders of Moscow (pictured at left),
but I went into the woods to celebrate the day sitting around a fire,
eating shashlik and toasting the Red Army. I also wish I could say that
I saw the fireworks in Moscow, but I don’t remember much past 4 pm,
having consumed my limit of vodka and promptly falling asleep till the
I guess I really don’t know much about the real provinces of Russia,
and you know what, I am not to distraught about my ignorance. Sometimes,
ignorance can be bliss.
Moscow Times, September 16, 1998
Cabbage Is Wealth in Cash-Free Villages
By Natalya Shulyakovskaya
STARIYE PETRISHCHI, Central Russia — One recent summer morning,
economic catastrophe struck a family in this small village: A third of
their wealth disappeared overnight. A national devaluation? A run on the
local bank? No, the theft of 25 heads of cabbage from their garden,
about a third of the family’s annual production.
In Stariye Petrishchi — a cluster of about 15 wooden one-story,
low-ceilinged homes in the Tula region, about 210 kilometers south of
Moscow — they don’t talk much about the ruble-dollar exchange rate, the
price of imported soft drinks or the implications of the government’s
default on its T-bills.
‘What sort of dovlars are you talking about?’ asked
Vladimir Piskunov, 53, mangling the word ‘dollar’ and shaking
his head at the oddity of questions about how the financial crisis has
hit his village. As he rolled home-grown Russian tobacco into a
cigarette made from a scrap of newspaper, Piskunov said he and his
neighbors hadn’t seen rubles in months, much less foreign currencies.
This is the moneyless economy that dominates life in Russia outside
of Moscow and St. Petersburg. About 80 percent of the rural population
and about 4 percent of the urban population live largely outside the
national financial system, surviving on food they grow themselves, said
Lilia Ovcharova, a senior researcher with the Institute of
Social-Economic Problems of the Population.
In this Russia, more than half of all people grow their own potatoes
and their own cucumbers, according to surveys by The Russian Market
Research Co., a market research group. Some are also paid in
manufactured goods or products. At the Dzerzhinsky collective farm near
Stariye Petrishchi, for example, workers have been receiving their
salaries in meat and grain for more than three years, said Director
Kislov himself survives by raising four pigs and 40 turkey-duck
hybrids, and by growing potatoes alongside the usual
cabbage-apples-cucumbers-beets-garlic Russian peasant survival kit. This
year, Kislov harvested five tons of potatoes, four tons of which he
hopes to sell. He will also try to sell the meat and dairy products
produced by his collective farm. But sitting behind an old table in a
bare office, Kislov said he was pessimistic about his chances of
success, despite talk in the national media that the ruble devaluation,
by making imported food more expensive, will help domestic farmers like
‘We tried sending cars to sell our produce and milk in Moscow —
and the mafia wouldn’t let us in. We cannot sell our milk even to the
nearby Tula stores,’ Kislov said.
In Stariye Petrishchi, luxury items — such as bread or tea — could
be obtained at the local store until it closed about two weeks ago. But
even the demise of the store was seen mostly as a mere inconvenience.
‘We couldn’t go there anyway, we couldn’t afford to buy even a pair
of socks there,’ said Tamara Vinokurova, 65, whosaid her tab of 150
rubles at the store left her too deep in debt to shop there.
Sugar — vital in the fall for canning vegetables and varenye, or
homemade jam from wild berries — is about the only dry good that
villagers in Stariye Petrishchi really need money for. Sugar is also a
crucial ingredient used to distill moonshine from potatoes or apples,
something Piskunov said every villager does.
Villagers pool their resources — and their even-more-important
personal contacts with regional wholesale warehouses — to buy large
sacks of sugar and divide them up for canning. Those rubles come almost
entirely from the meager government pensions of elderly women who
comprise the majority of the population of roughly two dozen. But
pensions have not been paid since June. Residents have no gas or running
water. They drink well water, use outhouses and cook on old stoves
fueled by wood gathered in the nearby forest.
Vinokurova and her husband eke out a living by raising goats and
chickens, pickling cucumbers and planting potatoes, cabbages, and beets.
The two have developed heavy callouses on their hands since inflation in
the early 1990s destroyed their life savings — but today the 50 jars of
pickled cucumbers they have stacked up on rough homemade kitchen shelves
provide them with some security from future financial crises.
But canned food is no help in time of injury or illness, and there is
virtually no health care system in rural Russia. Some medicines are
available, but medicines cost money, and Ovcharova of the Institute of
Social-Economic Problems of the Population said medicine would grow
prohibitively expensive and rare in the villages.
‘We have no phone and the only doctor’s office is 4 kilometers
away,’ said Vinokurova, giggling nervously as she sat in her
sour-smelling kitchen. ‘If trouble happens to you here — all you
can do is pray.’