Russia's old country ways are dying out

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The Independent Online
AN EERIE silence has settled over Samotechny Lane. In the absence of the usual noise from the neighbours, birdsong can be heard in the inner- city street. The sun is scorching but the pavement is carpeted with what looks like a layer of snow. It's nothing out of the ordinary: just high summer in Moscow.

The "snow" is pukh, a cotton wool-like substance released by the poplar trees in the parks. Old Communist bosses had them planted with the intention of beautifying the city, but failed to realise that the trees reproduce in a way that gives half of Muscovites an allergy. The fluff is also a fire hazard. Last week, 100 cars in tin garages were burnt out after a boy put a match to pukh.

When the heat and the fluff become unbearable, there is a mass exodus and Moscow is abandoned to mad dogs and foreigners. The Russians go, as they have since Chekhov captured the delight and ennui of rural life, to a dacha, or cottage, in the country. The old elite have long had elegant wooden mansions. "New Russian" businessmen have brick ranches with swimming pools. But for most Russians, a dacha is a wooden hut on an allotment, rather like the place where my grandad grew rhubarb in the 1950s.

I am saved again from Moscow by my best friend, Vitaly Matveyev, who for the past three years has taken me to the village of Druzhba (meaning friendship), 200km south-east of Moscow.

Here, his father, Mikhail Alexeyevich, a retired factory worker, has a small house and garden among the allotments of fellow workers. The village is set in a glorious landscape of sunflower fields, birch woods and froggy ponds. Vitaly has access to this idyll, but I have the wheels to get us there.

The dacha, which old Mr Matveyev built himself, has two rooms - one up one down. On the wall of the sitting room is a fresco of an Alpine scene, copied from a calendar. But the house has no running water - it is really a gardener's shelter.

Vitaly may come here for holidays but his father has spent his summers toiling on the land to grow crops, without which the family would not have survived the long Russian winters. Old Mikhail, born in the same year as Mikhail Gorbachov, has kept a diary with entries such as: "Weather hot, watered the cucumbers, that cretin in the Kremlin is wrecking the country."

Last summer, I was there when Mr Matveyev had a bumper crop of cherries. The old man spent hours picking the fruit. Had I not offered him a lift, he would have carried the cherries in a basket on his back 20km to Koloma, where he lives with Natasha, his daughter, and her family. I helped Natasha to make cherry jam, a ritual of the Russian summer.

These memories flood back as Vitaly and I arrive at the dacha. But the garden is overgrown. The old man is not there. He is dying of cancer at the age of 65 because, as he admits, he has "smoked and drunk like a real Russian" all his life. There is no hospital bed for him. He is dying at home, with Natasha caring for him and only vodka to kill the pain.

The dacha was allotted by the Communist state but is now the private property of the Matveyev family. It will be passed on to his children. But Vitaly lives far away in Moscow and Natasha, who has a successful sewing business, does not see herself spending her leisure time digging a vegetable patch and endlessly pickling and bottling the crop.

For now, weeds are rampant in the garden and with the old man a whole Russian way of life is dying. A strange quiet has descended on the dacha, broken only by birdsong and the buzzing of insects. Nature is taking its course.