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close this bookCERES No. 140 (FAO Ceres, 1993, 50 p.)
close this folderCenterpiece
View the documentIs This Trip Worth It?
View the documentKeeping Up Can't Be Put Off
View the documentThe road to nowhere....
View the documentShipping on the cheap

The road to nowhere....

By Lada Alekseychuk

This is the Russian highway,” says Serghei, pointing at a muddy strip of land that winds between fields covered with grass of an almost unnaturally pure green color.

“Welcome to the wonderland.”

I poke my stick carefully at the mud, and it sinks easily to a depth of a good half metre. My nostalgia for the Russian countryside is cooling quickly. It was I who enticed my fellow painters, Serghei and Volodya, into bringing me to this remote village unspoiled by civilization. And it is I who feel suddenly spoiled by the lack of civilization. The prospect of wallowing in the mud for the next 10 kilometres does not seem all that inviting.

“Well,” says Serghei, “that's the only road in existence.” He smiles philosophically, though not without a hint of friendly malice, picks up his knapsack and moves confidently on.

Volodya seems to be enjoying my hesitation. He laughs and says encouragingly, “It's not as bad as it looks. Just walk on the edge where the earth is drier.”

Balancing like a team of tightrope walkers, we move ahead, one after the other, the village and its bus connection to the world dwindling into the distance behind us. Soon, we can see only the wet roofs of its grey wooden houses glistening through the morning mist.

Quickly gaining considerable skill in walking a country road, I immerse myself in the peaceful melancholy of the northern Russian landscape with its plowed pink earth, immense grassy fields and multicolored sparkles of birch groves.

But my poetic abandon is matched by another kind of abandon that is all around us-a combine lying on its side, a ripped-off truck without doors, a hay mower, a cart. Everywhere we look, agricultural machines are rotting peacefully in the peaceful landscape like skeletons of prehistoric animals.

“But what has caused such a mess?” I ask.

“That's easy,” Volodya explains. “There are no spare parts.” He keeps his gaze straight ahead as he speaks because to turn around would be to risk getting stuck knee-deep in the ever-present mud. “So the mess is only logical and typical, but this is something different,” he adds, pointing to a bent cement pole with metal rods sticking out of it like horns. “It must have taken quite a bit of time and effort to mutilate it like this, right?”

“Sure. And why do it?”

“Boredom, that's why.”

It is noon when we finally arrive at our destination, another village of about a dozen wooden houses, log cabins called izbas. They show no sign of life except for a ribbon of smoke issuing from the chimney of a shack down a hill. The shack is the banya, the village bathhouse.

An invasion of dachnikis

Like hundreds of other villages and hamlets scattered through the Russian countryside, this one was abandoned long ago. But then a group of artists bought a few shacks to use as dachas, country houses. Other dachnikis followed them, buying these cheap dachas. Most of them are retired people finding it difficult to survive on their pensions. They try to get the most out of the small plots of land that came with the houses by growing vegetables, not for sale but to have something to put on their own table and to take back to their children in the city.

All of this is explained to me by Volodya. “There is one couple who travel more than 100 km-and with only our public transportation-every weekend to take care of their few acres of potatoes, carrots and onions,” Volodya says. “That's common practice nowadays. Back to the future' so to speak.”

A sign at the entrance to the artists' shack echoes his irony. “The Russians: 20th century'“ it reads.

Inside and out, this izba is exactly the same as it was a century or two ago. A stone chimney occupies a good quarter of the only room, a huge bed beside it separated from the rest of the room by a brightly colored cotton curtain. An oil lamp burns quietly in front of an icon.

The long walk in the fresh air has made everybody hungry. My friends browse in their food stocks and come up with powders in paper packages labelled “A Special One”. This provokes a discussion between our hosts. One maintains that the powder is for soup, another that the manufacturers meant it as a porridge.

Old-age pioneers

As the discussion heats up, I notice a sign of life outside and go out to make the acquaintance of a neighbor and his goat on a rope. The man and his wife are old-age pioneers trying out of sheer necessity to re-colonize this godforsaken frontier territory. They used to live here only in warm weather but now make it their home year-round to care for the five pigs, four goats and two dozen hens they have acquired so they don't have to depend on unreliable state supplies of meat and poultry.

Back inside the izba the “Special One” is ready along with the luxurious offering of a piece of sausage, rarely available in the city and only with a rationing card. There is also a slice of stale bread procured in the city with the usual difficulties. For us, our dinner is a banquet. By the standards of the peasant families who sat down to eat under the same roof in centuries past, what we now enjoy would be a meal for beggars, but there are no peasants, no farmers here anymore. All of us in the izba are dachnikis. We do not work this land but come here to enjoy its wild beauty, to soak in its silence and then leave again, carrying away a handful of wild berries or a basket of mushrooms if we are lucky.

Serghei, a passionate mushroom hunter, takes us to the forest, a place of profound silence and clear but diffused and mysterious light. I enjoy being here, but Serghei grows more and more hopeless in his search. The hordes of city dwellers from Pskov have been here before us, it seems, and cleared it out.

A surreal sight

By contrast, stacks of flax lay untouched in a field nearby. It is a surreal sight, a crop carefully gathered and then abandoned to rot in the field where it grew, another absurdity of the Russian economy.

To escape the oppressing reality, we dive back into the fairy tale atmosphere of the forest, but another sight reminds us again of civilization, Russian style. Exposed to the rains and the snowstorms, a brand new excavator rests abandoned in the middle of a field. Obviously of foreign make, its yellow paint is untouched by a single spot of rust and the windows shine in the sun like the naive eyes of an expensive toy. The machine is in perfect shape except for the lower part of the scoop, grown over with weeds that must conceal some serious problem like...

I anticipate Volodya this time. “Lack of spare parts?” He nods gravely.

We bring back armfuls of fresh birch logs, make a fire and breath in its heady odor. We bask again in the profound silence and darkness surrounding our briefly inhabited, if not to say invaded, shack, which we'll leave before the morning when it is still dark so that we can make the train that will return us to civilization. Will the train begin to run the other way round one day, bringing civilization back to its cradle in the countryside? No one knows, but everyone hopes that some day it will happen.

An army of hacks

When we arrive at the village where the train stops, we find people standing in a long line in front of a shabby plywood barrack, waiting to buy bread. It is a twice-a-week event, an important one. The bread gets snapped up in an instant and late sleepers have hardly a chance.

A granite statue of a soldier with machine-gun stands guard over the scene of provincial Russian misery. The statue is one of the countless propaganda pieces that brought to life a real army of hacks in all the arts with their power, their quick fortunes based on bootlicking and their total lack of professionalism. Nowadays, these relics have unexpectedly acquired a certain, ironic market value.

“Somebody in Moscow must have made a tidy sum producing this masterpiece on the conveyor belt,” Volodya comments.

“No,” Serghei argues, “it must have been a provincial dilettante. The hacks from the capital at least know where the hands and feet grow from.”

The train whistle interrupts this learned discussion, and we rush to take our places. Across the track, a freight train passes in the opposite direction, loaded with fresh logs. They are piled in perfect order, with obvious care. Perhaps the loggers had a better road at their disposal.

Reading my thoughts, Volodya agrees. “Of course, this country can work,” he says. “The problem is to find the road.”