Former Soviet Union: Home to mother

the forest while the wealthy build palaces amid the trees, and where geologists and journalists play nurse to baby bears
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There is something apocalyptic about the Russian summer this year. Foreign television shows Russians hurling themselves into rivers to escape the heat, and drowning, and plagues of locusts swarming through the wheat lands with dire warnings of half the harvest being devoured. When I was in church in St Petersburg recently, the priest was delivering a sermon to his congregation of city-dwellers, who vanish into the birch forests at this time of year to spend the summer in their dachas. "We should pray for the peasants," he said in tones that my atheist actor companion thought would do well on the stage.

St Petersburgers have always had their dachas, or country cottages. But in Soviet times, egalitarianism dictated that the dacha could be no more than one storey high; thus were spawned vast forest shanties of wooden shacks with roofs stretched skywards to squeeze a second, attic floor in between the rules. Today, wealthy "New Russians" are building "kottedzhi", which are more like fortresses than the English cottage from which the word derives: vast stone and brick structures with high fencing, a swimming- pool, a bath house and a 24-hour armed guard, in the depths of the birch forest. A friend dropped in the other day and produced an automatic rifle from her shopping bag; she'd just been to target practice. She was preparing for being alone at her dacha.

For all the wealth of the new rich, they continue the traditional rural pastimes of city-dwellers: collecting the first cucumbers from the vegetable garden for winter salting, searching for wild strawberries in the forest, jam-making and the ceremonial eating of it by the spoonful with the evening glass of tea. And mushroom-gathering. This is the king of pastimes. According to my men friends it is they who get up early in the morning, while the women are lying in bed, to collect the smallest, most delicious mushrooms that no one else notices and everyone delights in eating throughout the winter. The washing, marinading and bottling, which is the women's work, happens as if by magic, of course.

After my trip to church, I too left St Petersburg for the countryside, to visit some Petersburg friends who had bought a traditional log izba in an abandoned village near Pskov, in the sacred heart of Russia. The cottage had belonged to the last remaining inhabitant of the village, an old woman in her eighties who had stayed until her neighbour had died, while the other cottages fell down around them and grass grew over the road. According to my friends, the two of them used to sit on the bench outside the cottage and beckon to anyone who happened to wander through the valley, so desperate were they for company. After the neighbour died, the old woman was taken by her son to live in a communal flat in Murmansk; she survived for only a few months after leaving her village. She had left everything behind - wooden trunks of the family's clothes, galoshes, home-spun woollen socks, straw slippers. Vast storage containers made of woven birch roots stood in the kitchen; even the family photographs still hung on the walls.

We lived for a while in this relic of Russian rural life. We slept (three adults and two children) on the wooden platform beside the stove that served as a bed. Our mattress was stuffed with hay and wild thyme, which we had gathered from the overgrown meadows.

Had it been winter, we would have slept on top of the stove itself where a much smaller platform allows people to huddle together for warmth. But we were sweltering, and the river became our bed, our washpot and our well. The original village well was unusable. It had produced a colony of toads which the daughter had befriended, and with whom she put on a performance of Beauty and the Beast for us, after we had cooked shashlik on a fire in the midnight sun.

We went for milk to the neighbouring village, which was still surviving. As in many places all over the former Soviet Union, the collapse of the collective farm has brought extreme poverty. Here, as elsewhere, farm machinery lay rusting in the grass; elderly women in white headscarves were in the fields cutting the hay with long scythes like something out of novel by Tolstoy.

The scene was similar to one I came across a few years ago on the other side of Russia, in the Sayan Mountains, where I spent some time on a collective farm as it was being divided up. The tractors had been allocated to several villagers but they couldn't afford the fuel to run them. Others had got the cattle, but cattle weren't able to live all the year round by foraging; in Soviet times, fodder had been flown in for them from Irkutsk. However, the flights had stopped and now the cattle wouldn't survive the winter on the mountain vegetation. I was there in autumn when the villagers were slaughtering their new possessions, and because everyone had to slaughter them before the snow, the price of meat fell to almost nothing. The next summer, when I visited the area again, the inhabitants had been reduced to hunter gatherers - the men went off to hunt in the mountains and the women to collect berries in the forest. One woman said to me then: "If I had the money just to buy one chicken then I could sell the eggs, and we might survive, but we haven't even got the money for that."

Here in Pskov, the villagers are selling milk and berries and mushrooms to dachniki (the holiday-makers) to make a little money. For them, gathering the fruits of the forest is not a nostalgic pastime but a rare source of income. This year it has been so dry that the forests are providing little. "It's barren in there," a villager told to me as he sold me a jar of wild strawberries. "That's it! After the strawberries there's nothing - no bilberries, no cranberries, no cloudberries and no mushrooms."

On the other hand, in this part of Russia the misfortune that has befallen the human population since the collapse of Communism has been paralleled by a regeneration of the natural world. Meadow flowers are bursting through the old crop fields now that combine harvesters no longer pound the land and crop-spraying planes no longer drop chemicals from the sky. Myriad butterflies flip about in the sunshine. Storks have built nests on top of old electricity pylons; they hadn't been seen here for years.

It is a rural idyll for the city-dweller who, for two months in the summer, is on the land and at one with Mother Russia. For the peasants, this current return to nature is part of a continuum of deprivation and punishment that stretches back to the birth of Rus, in which they have borne the brunt of mistakes and chastisement meted out from above: tsarist power, Soviet power - Divine power?

The author is writing a history of St Petersburg