Despair in the Russian Village

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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Train travel resembles time travel in contemporary Russia. Last autumn Sergei Bassehes, my travel companion and interpreter, and I took such a journey from the city of St. Petersburg to the village of Vazhini, 150 miles northeast of the city.

The contrast was striking. Store windows in St. Petersburg displayed expensive Western-made goods. Well-dressed entrepreneurs in German-made luxury cars, shielded by body guards, attested to the growing wealth of a few of the city’s inhabitants. Meanwhile, Vazhini resembled the villages described more than a 100 years ago by the Russian writer Gogol – forsaken.

As we clambered out of our railroad car, a dozen young men armed with buckets of wild berries scrambled to sell their wares to the passengers remaining on the train. We were greeted by my friends Victor and Irene, who explained that most of the village’s men were unemployed:

“The lumber industry, our main livelihood, declined after the forests were depleted or sold to American or Finnish investors,” the couple explained.

For those who have jobs, there is rarely work. Victor is a crane operator at the railroad station, but he is seldom needed. He receives a monthly stipend of $17 from the state. Irene receives a teacher’s pension, which is just a few dollars more.

Sergei and I spent our days strolling through this village of 8,000, sometimes stopping for a cup of strong, dark tea and a few cookies with a friendly family. And in the evenings we occasionally shared a bottle of spirits, potatoes, fresh fish and cucumber-and-tomato salad.

Our conversations, though mixed with irony and laughter, were intense and often touched with despair. And while we frequently discussed God and the church, more often than not the subject was entangled in economic and political frustration and cynicism.

Beneath the few basic possessions that help make life bearable lies extreme poverty. For the average Russian outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, like Victor and Irene, the oppressive but comfortably predictable Brezhnev era has vanished, replaced by a free-market free-fall. For example, poor quality meat, produce and other supplies, if they can be found at all in the village’s meager shops, are comparable in price to first quality goods in New York City! Victor and Irene survive, together with the majority of Russians today, thanks to their garden and their rivers and streams.

One 73-year-old pensioner, now an avowed atheist, wished for a return to the good old days: “There are no certainties in life anymore,” he said as he fertilized his small plot with pig manure. “Nothing can be taken for granted: health care, work and food are no longer obtainable. What freedoms do I have today in my poverty?”

For Father Michael, the 30-year-old priest who staffs the village’s parish church, freedoms today include the right to worship God, celebrate the sacraments, preach, teach catechism and instill Christian values.

There were once some 60 churches in the region. Of the six remaining structures, only the church in Vazhini survived the Soviet period as a functioning one. Built by local craftsman more than 365 years ago, it is a lovely wooden structure that benefits from a unique wood-splitting technique that makes the logs watertight.

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Tags: Russia Village life Economic hardships