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Last Updated: Monday, 15 December, 2003, 01:48 GMT
Inside Putin's Russia: Ancient heartland
Bridget Kendall
By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Inside Putin's Russia is a series looking at life outside Moscow. In the second part of the series, Bridget Kendall visits the rural Vologda region, where the population is on the wane, but the few who remain are determined to soldier on.

Anatoly Ptitsin, elderly accordion player, with Bridget Kendall
In a word, the village is dying
Anatoly Ptitsin
In a charming wooden house surrounded by cabbage patches and birch trees with bird-boxes hung on them, hidden away in the tiny village of Volokoslavino, lives one of Vologda's last remaining traditional accordionists, a red-cheeked old man called Anatoly Ptitsin.

He and his wife are ailing. She groans as she feeds logs into the huge curved Russian stove that heats the water.

He tends his bees, carrying them down to the cellar to hibernate during the long cold winter, and in the summer chasing off bears who come lumbering out of the forest in search of honey.

He finds it hard to play the old accordion tunes he learnt as a boy 70 years ago without getting breathless. In those days young people would promenade for miles from village to village.

Nowadays there's no one to play to. The village only has nine permanent residents, most of them elderly.

"In a word, the village is dying," he told us as we sat in the kitchen drinking tea and trying his homemade honey.


A few miles away, the ruin of an imposing church towered over a handful of ramshackle dwellings. We stopped to examine it more closely and were shooed away by a woman in rain bonnet and gum boots. She had stopped her muddy motorcycle with laden sidecar and was eying us suspiciously. "How do I know you aren't spies?" she asked. Clearly, foreigners are a rarity here.

Like many of the churches we came upon as we drove through the countryside in Vologda region, some 400 kilometres north of Moscow, this one had been pulled down by zealots at some point after the Bolshevik revolution.

Later it became a factory, mass producing accordions. Anatoly Ptitsin used to work in the tuning department. Then, after the factory closed, someone set fire to it. So now it is a ruined church again.

Blacksmith Nikolai Mitin with Bridget Kendall
Nikolai Mitin has built his own forge
Not all churches are in such a bad way. Further on we came to the monastery of St Kirill, once one of the largest in Russia, now slowly being restored to its ancient glory.

The massive metal gates and new wrought iron fret-work round the windows are the work of a local blacksmith. His story, far from being about decline, is a tale of uplifting revival.

Nikolai Mitin spent his life as a mechanic in the local bus depot, but always longed to be a blacksmith. When private enterprise was legalised, he could not find any blacksmith to hand on the tricks of the trade, so - undeterred - he taught himself by trial and error.

Now he has built his own forge and does a profitable business in restoring churches - and in building security gates.

Not only religion is on the upsurge in Vologda, so is burglary.

"Forging metal is spiritual work - try for yourself," he said. And for 20 minutes I pounded the red hot metal alongside him, an impromptu blacksmith's apprentice.

A struggle to farm

As we drove on through Vologda's outlying regions, past endless rolling fields, golden leaved birch glades and deep dark pine forests, it was hard to decide: is rural Russia really in terminal decline, as the statistics seem to indicate? Or is there something else at work here, a spiritual rebirth, or at least the dogged resilience of a people used to making the best of hardship?

Farming in Vologda is certainly a struggle. Private farmers are unusual. A staggering 95% of agricultural holdings are still collectivised, "kolkhoz" farms, run and owned by the workers more or less as they were in Soviet times.

"We were offered the choice of registering as a share holding company or going back to being a collective farm, so of course we chose what we knew," said one kolkhoz economist, reflecting a general reluctance to risk anything new, in case it brought yet more turmoil.

Former teacher Sofia Anatolievna with a homemade pie
Sofia's persistence helps keep her community going
Some farms are coping. But unlike Soviet times, today the state can no longer be relied upon to bale out those that are losing money. They're on their own, left to grapple with the problems of drunken workers, rising running costs, and a fear that any economic revamp might tip them over into failure and condemn their community to destitution.

As for those rare individuals who have braved the odds and become private farmers, the man we met was a former pawn broker. He found himself in possession of a loss-making farm when another private farmer who went bankrupt.

Yet his plan to turn it round by breeding goats and selling organic milk to the lucrative health food market in Moscow was, he said, being thwarted by corrupt local officials.

Bitterly he said he only kept going "out of downright stubbornness".

Rising death toll

A refusal to give up is the key to people here. Where you least expect it, in this ancient heartland of Russia, you find individuals whose sheer persistence keeps themselves and their communities going.

Party for the Day of the Elderly
A party for the Day of the Elderly
In the village of Sudarushka, it was the former teacher Sofia Anatolievna. She greeted us at the door with home-baked apple tart and cabbage pies, as she bustled to and fro, seating the three dozen or so elderly folk she had invited to a party for the Day of the Elderly, organising singing competitions between them and doling out prizes of Tupperware and coloured headscarves.

Other villages might be threatened with extinction, but while this formidable woman was around, you could tell this would stay a vibrant little society.

Elsewhere was more bleak. Semigorodnaya is a sprawling community built around a now declining lumber yard. Here it was the local administrator, the straight backed, impeccably dressed Olga Fedotovskaya, who seemed to keep the place going.

Outside her office, goats grazed on weeds among the railway tracks, tired women queued at standpipes to fill their buckets with water. Here and there were the black silhouettes you see everywhere in rural Russia: charred shells of wooden houses, burnt down by some careless drunk, or perhaps deliberate arson.

Unperturbed, Olga strode through the muddy wasteland, patiently explaining the extent of her problems: no money to clear snow, or replace broken down ambulances, let alone build roads through the swamps to reach the remote communities left stranded when the local railway network closed down unexpectedly.

Local administrator Olga Fedotovskaya
Olga Fedotovskaya in the muddy wasteland of Semigorodnaya
And in her immaculate book, next to the ticked list of pensioners whose birthdays she always tried to remember, was a telltale list of deaths - six times higher than the number of births, a death toll inflated by alcoholism and - increasingly - suicide.

There's little doubt Russian village life is in decline. Many young people are leaving in search of jobs in towns, those who stay behind feel increasingly abandoned. But this is a region that prides itself on being 100% Russian, too far north ever to have been overrun by Mongols, or invaded by the armies of Napoleon or Hitler.

And that seems to breed a serenity, a firm belief that Russia has survived worse than this in its long history, that in time Russia will be prosperous, so long as they grit their teeth and somehow survive this difficult period.

Images by Teresa Cherfas, who also produced the series.

The second programme from Inside Putin's Russia is broadcast on BBC World Service radio starting on 15 December, 2003 at 0005 GMT. The series will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from 5 January, 2004.

Click here to listen to
Part two of Inside Putin's Russia

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