“And this is where they buried the Chinese.”
“Chinese?” I asked, wondering how anyone from China would have found themselves in this place, no less die in it.
“Yes, all 14 of them,” said Olga, a middle age woman who was acting as my guide. “They fought for the reds in the civil war. And over there is where Genghis Kahn buried his treasurer. No one’s ever found anything.”
That was how I was introduced to Alferovka, a village in the Voronezh region of Russia so small that its name does not even appear on Google maps. My invitation to this forgotten corner of the world was a stroke of luck. I had been itching to see the “real” Russia (at least that’s how the locals refer to the countryside) ever since arriving in Moscow. This was my chance.
As we walked along the bluff overlooking the Khopyor River, my host Olga filled me in on the rest of the town’s history. Alferovka was founded in the 18th century by Ukrainian Cossacks, and, unlike most Russians villages, its peasants were never serfs but free labors. The town had seen its share of hardships. First, with the Russian Revolution and Civil War that divided the village. Olga’s family lost their mill, expropriated by a “people’s committee” and left to rot because no one wanted to assume the responsibility of actually maintaining it. Then came the Nazi occupation and with it innumerable suffering.
On that cheerful note, we arrived at a series of wooden houses painted green and surrounded by an old fence. “This is where I grew up,” said Olga.
I felt like I had been here before. It was identical to the house I toured in Nizhny Novgorod were the writer Gorky had been raised. There is an undeniable logic to peasant housing in Russia, with each family plot its own little self-contained world. Besides the sleeping quarters, there is a separate building housing the kitchen, a work shed, and a barn, all forming a square around a central courtyard. And, of course, there is a banya, the steam bathhouse that is ubiquitous in rural Russia.
Olga invited me into the kitchen for some tea and butterbrot, a slice of black bread topped with a large wedge of butter and gobs of homemade jam. It was a humble space, with a simple wood table and chairs, but it felt cozy with the heat from the stove warding off the cool morning air.
Olga put down her tea. “I’ll have to leave you now. There are trees that fell in the last storm and need to be cleared. After that, I must collect some apples for the neighbor’s horse. There is always work to be done in the countryside,” she said with a smile.
“Can I help?” I asked.
Apples and High Explosives
After breakfast, I was handed a rusty saw and a pair of gloves. I spent the rest of the morning at work. It wasn’t particularly difficult work, but it felt good. It had been awhile since I last got my hands dirty. It also gave me an opportunity to survey the farm. There were no crops growing on account that Olga’s father had died, and she only came here to maintain the property. But the few acres of land still produced a staggering quantity of apples. Just one tree seemed to grow enough to provide a year’s worth of preserves for an entire family.
That afternoon, we brought several buckets full of apples to a neighbor. Alferovka, as it turned out, has quite an active barter economy. For our apples, we received a bottle of fresh unpasteurized milk (and by the way if you have never tried unpasteurized milk you, don’t know what you’re missing). We then went next door to a house that specialized in honey before picking up some fresh eggs from another neighbor down the street. Almost everything that we would consume had been grown or produced right there in the village.
That night, I sat down in the courtyard with Olga for a meal of crawfish under the ominous sound of military aircraft thundering overhead.
“There is a bombing range a few kilometers from here,” she explained with a laugh. “They are showing off. They know there is an American in the village.”
As I sucked on a crawfish tail, I asked about what it had been like growing up here.
“There was always a lot of work. When my father was alive the entire field out back would have been covered with crops. You know, my father built this house. He was a carpenter. He built almost everything here himself. He even built his own coffin!”
“That’s showing some foresight,” I replied.
After dinner, I walked to the bluff overlooking the river, the brilliance of the stars only dimmed by the occasional bomb blast in the distance. It was a surreal sight: the tranquility of the village and the immensity of the natural world shattered by the weapons of war.
In this rather contradictory setting, I began to wonder what it meant to be poor. You see, I was told by every Russian I had met that I really hadn’t experienced Russia at all, that the real Russia was poor, dirt poor.
It was true that my temporary accommodations in Alferovka lacked indoor plumbing (or running water for that matter), there was no cellular service, and heat came from burning firewood in a stove. But was that even important? I was enjoying it here. Hell, if I could have gotten a cell signal, I would have had no problem staying for…well at least a few months.
We Choose the Village
I passed the rest of my days at Alferovka doing odd jobs, relaxing by the river, or looking for lost cattle after the village cowherd got drunk (a fairly frequent occurrence). But my mind kept returning to the idea of poverty.
One’s natural inclination when confronted with rural poverty is that that the villagers are simply ignorant. That if they knew better, if they knew what they could have in the city, they would leave. Indeed, many of the younger generations had left, but as I got to talking to some of the neighbors, many told me that they had been to the city and would never live there. Even Olga’s own father refused to leave the town in his old age to join her in Nizhny Novgorod.
On my last day in the village, I was picked up by Ivan, another member of Olga’s extended family, and taken to Borisoglebsk, a provincial town northwest of Alferovka where I would catch my train back to Moscow. Ivan lived with his wife and two children in a small house on the outskirts of town. They had all the modern amenities of urban living: running water, indoor plumbing, cable TV, etc. But I still noticed that preferred to use the outhouse in the backyard.
“I’ve had a few opportunities to live in the city,” Ivan said. “But I would never leave my hometown. I like it here.”
Coffee and Contemplations
I peered out at the rain falling from the train window as a sipped my coffee. The problem of poverty was still on my mind. I just couldn’t see Alferovka as poor, but I wasn’t quite sure why that was so.
My thoughts turned to Olga’s father. Practically everything he owned he had built himself. Most of what he ate was the product of his land. The entirety of his wealth had come from him. And the more I thought of him, the more I began to understand.
There is a certain satisfaction that one feels when working with one’s hands, even if it is something as simple as sawing wood. I definitely felt it when, fingers blistered, I put down the saw. There is a direct connection between effort and reward, and the greater the effort, the higher the feeling of fulfillment. Just as the artist toils with paints to give birth to his own expression so too do the villagers work the soil to create. They are also artists in their own right.
We, by and large, have lost this connection with the land, with labor, with creation. There is nothing particularly satisfying when the results of a day’s work in nothing more than a stack of papers or, as is more likely today, unseen zeros and ones stored on a hard drive.
Most of us will never really know what it is to create, at least not in the same sense as Olga’s father. And yet we starve for it! We Tweet and post and send Instagrams. These are all creations, all things that we can claim as our own and no one else’s. But it does not satisfy. A 140-word Tweet does not satisfy. A quick snapshot from a cell phone does not satisfy.
Contrary to what I have been told, contrary to what the statistics say, rural Russia is not poor. It may even be the richest part of the nation. In 1917, when the Russian Revolution brought turmoil across the country, it was the village that kept the city from starving. During the Soviet Union, it was the small plots of land behind the dachas that supplemented a family’s meal. Even as late as the 1990s, it was the countryside that kept Russia alive. It’s not a question of wealth but of value.
Everything in the village has a use. Everything serves a purpose. Nothing is superfluous. But how much of what we own actually fulfills a need? We are no wealthier for acquiring assets that do not have a function than if we had gone without them. This is the difference that separates those who remain in the village and those who seek the city. Without purpose, material gains are meaningless; merely glitter on the cloth of necessity.
It is true that the village lacks consumer goods and capital. Existence there requires greater determination, and that existence can at times be harsh. But maybe that is what gives life value, to stand at the end of the day and point to our labor as our creation and ours alone.
I will probably never build my own house. Nor am I advocating the lifestyle of an ascetic. However, I do not doubt that there is an intrinsically greater value to that which we produce as individuals to that which is merely purchased, and we inevitably find greater satisfaction in the effort made than in the ultimate result. Whether an artist, a writer, a farmer or an engineer, it is what we personally create that holds the most worth. In a world of conveniences and rampant consumerism, maybe it’s time we ask ourselves what we truly value.