Letter from Orlino: An American Discovers the Muscular Dynamism of One-Story Russia

In the 1930s, the Soviet humorists Ilf and Petrov entertained their readers with observations of their travels across the Depression-era United States in One-Story America (published in English as Little Golden America). In the following essay, I return the favor, describing the energy of renascent Russia.


Letter from Orlino:  An American Discovers the Muscular Dynamism of One-Story Russia



by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


My wife and I came back to St Petersburg from Orlino yesterday like typical dachniki, as the owners or renters of summer houses are known in Russian: laden with our harvest of apples and beets, leaf lettuce and primeur potatoes from our third of an acre estate and bringing linen to be washed. We had been out in the countryside, in one-story Russia, for nearly all the past 9 weeks, and so we had large suitcases crammed with writings and reference books and all sorts of clothes we never wore.


For those of you not familiar with the geography of North-West Russia, Orlino is a hamlet of 200 or so souls, half year-round residents and half summer folks.


It lies 80 kilometers south of St Petersburg, nestled beside a large lake of the same name. You can find it on Google Earth, but since the photo posted there was taken in the midst of winter, the area deceptively appears to be permanently white and shades of gray.   


Orlino is located within a region known for its noble and/or artistic summer visitors in Russia’s pre-Revolutionary Silver Age of the late 19th century, early 20th century.


The country estate of the Nabokov family in Vyra, which the writer described as an Eden in Speak Memory, is 10 km away. Now the 18th century neo-Palladian wooden palace dating from the time of Catherine the Great which Vladimir Nabokov inherited from his diplomat uncle and briefly enjoyed in 1917-18 before it was confiscated by the Soviet state, is a museum bearing his name. The student tour guide uses his 30 minute talk to visitors to extol the civic virtues of the noblemen who were in the service of the tsarist government.


Shishkin, the landscape artist who is well familiar to bidders at Sotheby’s and not just to Russian Museum visitors, lived and painted his highly prized forest scenes in the nearby woods. Painters Roerich and Repin also came here for inspiration.


In the period before Peter the Great, the border with Sweden lay just nearby, as a two-sided monument on a vast boulder in the vicinity bears witness. However, the indigenous population was Finnish, as many local place names, including Vyra, demonstrate.


Six kilometers from Orlino is the nearest village of importance, Siversk, which is on the regional main railway line connecting St Petersburg with Luga 150 km further to the south in the direction of Kiev. In turn, Siversk was a well known resort in the 19th century, highly appreciated for the picturesque red cliffs formed by the fast flowing Oredezh river which passes through its center. Though widely spoiled by Soviet era multi-story apartment houses, the river area remains pristine and is used extensively by canoeing enthusiasts.


Orlino today continues the traditions of relative prosperity and orderliness that it laid down in the 19th century when it was the home to the Stroganov estate, now a park. Just a hundred yards from what remains of the Stroganov palace is the 200 year old Orthodox church with gilded domes which may be seen from far out on the lake.


The church’s survival testifies to the conservatism of the place. It was defended vigorously by the local population against repeated plans of the Soviet state to demolish it, and the price was ultimately paid by one priest who was executed by that state along the way.


Today an active young priest tends a congregation which musters at least 50 parishioners for Sunday services. And that, along with the town library and general store, serves as the center of social life.  Old timers regret the passing during the Soviet era of the one tavern which served beer on tap and provided a more congenial place to chat, a place where you could sit down for a spell.


Indeed, most of the population consists precisely of old-timers, pensioners, whose families were from here. Many spent their working lives in St Petersburg, where their offspring live today. Some stayed in place and worked on the collective farms that constituted the backbone of the local economy in the Soviet period.


The Central Street which provides the vertical axis from the regional trunk road to the lake and Peski (Sands) Street which is the horizontal axis running parallel to the lake at a distance of 100 meters and offering remarkable views of a charming rural Russian landscape unchanged from the days of Chekhov if not earlier both have a goodly number of large wooden houses dating back to the 1870s. Some are noticeably leaning or ramshackle, but most have stood firm and their only aesthetic deficiencies are the multi-generational additions of barns and farming sheds added to the back of the original structures and distorting the dimensions and architectural purity of the founders.


In its pre-Revolutionary heyday, Orlino’s houses were built by the better-off merchants of the region as principal residences. They decorated their facades not only with the traditionally ornate Russian carved cornices and window frame moldings, but with the occasional false pilaster and in-built balcony from which the owners could observe the passersby in the street when taking their tea outdoors. The current owners are land-rich but cash-poor, living on very modest state pensions which they supplement by their diligent farming and by the support they receive from their children.


I mention all this to establish that Orlino is to all appearances a static place which looks affectionately to its past.  But my own experience has proven that even here, far from the multi-billion dollar real estate projects of Petersburg, not to mention Moscow, and far from the extractive industries that literally fuel Russia’s economic expansion, there is a can-do spirit.   


One tip-off that notwithstanding their age, the local full-time residents are not stick-in-the-muds is the ubiquitous satellite dishes on their houses, nearly all directed at the free-of-charge Hotbird, which offers, among its several hundred channels, the two leading Russian purveyors of news and serials. But then Hotbird also carries Euronews in Russian (so much for Russian state control of media access!), as well as the German ZDF, the Italian RAI, the BBC and a host of other mainstream Western news and entertainment sources.  The other night we were delighted to watch Lohengrin  on the French-German Arte channel broadcast live from the Bayreuth Festival hall.  And, who knows, the babushka in the next house may have been doing the same.


One thing is certain: she was not tucked into bed. The lights were on in her house till well after midnight. And the same is true of many other neighbors.


Like my neighbors, as well, I enjoy in Orlino excellent mobile phone connections. Indeed, the 3G mobile internet service runs at the same wide-band speeds as I enjoy in fixed line subscription in St Petersburg.


If you keep an eye out, week by week you notice the embellishments, the improvements which the existing owners are ceaselessly making to their properties.  One modest house just up the road just had its foundations replaced: over the course of 10 days the fieldstones were removed and sleek poured concrete took their place.  Another, less modest residence dating from 1875 is undergoing a very substantial restoration following change of ownership:  the unsightly secondary structures in back have been flattened and removed; the original manor house is brought out in all its elegance worthy of the country’s museum of wooden architecture; and, in a New Russian show of raw power, all the shrubs and trees which hid it from view, including a 100 year old oak, were cut down in a day and removed over the next two days in a furious sequence of cutters, excavators and container removal services.


From the start of our presence in Orlino nearly two years ago as the new owners of a property with a building permit on Central Street, my wife and I have participated in this ongoing dynamic of construction and restoration.  At a permanent exhibition of dachas on the outskirts of St Petersburg, we found a building firm specializing in country houses that impressed us with its combination of traditional crafts and computer assisted design know-how.  And the managers in their late twenties, early thirties lived up to our expectations, taking into account our insistence on high ceilings and large window space in an open-area lay-out on a house of rather modest proportions built from squared beam pine timbers, a truly ecologically minded  house combining modern aesthetics with centuries old building techniques…and sufficiently insulated to be keep in the warmth of a wood-burning stove in winter.


Then, in the course of just 3 weeks, their team of 4 masters of the wooden arts from Central Asia assembled the raw supplies on site atop the previously prepared poured concrete foundation.


We were not there to witness their feat. We arrived from abroad only for the last week of the brigade’s work, and we stayed on location for just a day.  However, neighbors uniformly spoke of their amazement at the efficiency of the young team.


Our own appreciation of the drive and energy of the construction trades came later, when we commissioned the drilling of a well and related installation of pump system and plumbing. Or when we watched the twenties-something electrician put in his well-thought out wiring plan.


And yet, the most impressive show has come last, in just the past week. It relates to the landscaping work which the property sorely needed, because we had built on the site of a burned down 1880s timber house where a lot of foundation debris and roofing debris had been left buried on the lot.  


The work to be done was in its scope too little to attract the interest of your regular building contractor, and too great to be performed by absentee landlords like us.


In the preceding weeks, I had been unearthing bricks, shards of roofing ceramics, the occasional partly burned timber, mini-boulders and sheet metal which was strewn just under the surface.  I mastered using a sledge hammer and dismantled an awkward section of the old foundation that jutted into our driveway. Altogether I piled up a ton or more of this waste beside the house for eventual removal. However, my strength was giving out, time was slipping by, and there remained substantial work to rid the back yard of remaining buried rubble and to level the area for a proper lawn and garden.


At this point, by a bit of luck, I was put in touch with a brigade of construction workers from Uzbekistan who showed up on a Saturday afternoon. In the course of three hours, these four men with spades and wheelbarrows pulled another ton of waste from my yard, piled it up for removal and completed the leveling work.     


But the crowning moment came with the removal. The operator of the Kamaz dump truck and the excavator owner were busy all day on their regular jobs and could only show up after working hours. In the event this was a half hour before sunset, at 9.30 pm. 


I held my breath as the excavator/backhoe descended from the road into our driveway, passing through our gates with just inches to spare on either side. 


The excavator was a behemoth of undetermined manufacture.  Was it a Soviet era knock-off of some Western design?  Was it simply an ancient European or American machine?  In any case, it was bristling with hydraulic pipes and muscular energy. It belched thick diesel smoke with each exertion. I watched in amazement when it began scooping up the pile and ran along the rickety picket fence of our neighbors.


No bull in the china shop, this toro gently brushed along the fence and did its work leaving no destruction whatsoever and thereby violating the rule that when you do alterations you make two steps forward and one step back (breaking something that then has to be fixed by yet another service).


The sun set. Night descended and they turned on their headlights, creating an infernal image from some action movie where the hero is crushed by a monster excavator.


The final clean-up was jointly man and machine.  The truck driver and organizer of the job got down, took my shovel and heaved the smaller debris into the jaws of the excavator bucket. He worked like a demon and in 15 minutes was sweating profusely.


They took 4500 rubles (110 Euros) for the work, saluted and drove away, just under an hour after their arrival.  It was better than any television broadcast.


My conclusion from this experience is that with young guys working like this there is no reason for Russia to fear for its future.  You have to see and feel this muscular energy and ambition to prosper to appreciate where Russia stands and where it is headed. 


Our armchair analysts in Washington and on the university campuses haven’t got a clue. But then their sources of information from among the Russian intellectuals in the ‘liberal’ or ‘democratic’ camp’ are feeding them a very different story of a besotted people trapped in lethargy. I earnestly recommend that our area specialists make the journey to one-story Russia to see for themselves.


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2011

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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book,Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. An e-book edition will be issued shortly.