Letter from Orlino. July 2018

Each summer I spend several weeks of vacation at a country house 80 km south of St Petersburg, in the hamlet of Orlino, which has about 400 registered residents, two-thirds of them seasonal, “summer people,” as they are called with a certain condescension by the true grit locals.

We have high-speed internet and satellite television, so that business as usual is possible if I so wished. Moreover, there have been the broadcasts of the World Cup games to keep us connected to what the global community is excited about each day. Indeed, the England-Belgium match kept my wife on edge before her computer yesterday afternoon   Yet, overall this is a place to slow down, sniff the flowers and mingle with diverse people who are quite removed from my social circles in St Petersburg or Brussels. At the end of my stay, I share my observations on the state of one-story Russia in this once yearly letter from Orlino.

Many things change in daily life here from year to year, and I will talk about them at length below.  Other things are immutable: namely the predisposition of weather in these northern climes to disappoint, particularly spring and summer.  Given the rare beauty of White Nights from mid-May to mid-July when dusk passes imperceptibly into dawn in ethereal light, it is more than a pity when the sky is hidden by unbroken cloud cover or when you have weeks on end of cold rain, as occurred in 2017.

I got a reminder of just how constant meteorological fragility has been over not just one or two years but over centuries when taking in an evening of opera at the Mariinsky Theater before leaving for our dacha.  I was struck by the dialogues in the opening scene of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, when ladies of high society who gathered in the Summer Garden near the Neva remarked on the splendid May sunshine.  “We haven’t had a spring day like this for years,” said one.  “And the climate has become so unpredictable, not like in the past when the seasons were reliable.” says another. These lines were written by the librettist, the composer’s brother in 1889, and the piece, based on a novel in verse by Pushkin, was set in the 1790’s.

Two thousand eighteen has been the exception that proves the rule. May in the Russian Northwest where Orlino is situated was unusually warm and sunny day after day. June was also exceptionally bright. Of course, the weather here spoiled upon our arrival on 29 June but there are signs that summer warmth will prevail in the second half of this month and beyond.

Notwithstanding the difficult climatic conditions for agriculture in the Russian Northwest, during Soviet times there was large-scale farming activity here, employing a substantial part of the rural population. The nearby settlement of Lampovo was home to a dairy farming complex that had a herd of 5,000 cows. This state farm employed hundreds of workers, who, in typical Soviet fashion, were housed in a block of purpose-built 5-story apartment buildings set back amidst fields just a hundred meters from the district road.  That farm produced, among other things, a vast amount of butter that was entirely exported to Czechoslovakia, so that people in the region never tasted a pat. But they all had jobs.

The bigger issue is that the farm is long gone and with it the source of employment for all these families in the cheaply built and poorly maintained housing estate that has deteriorated into slum-like shabbiness and appears to be all the more anomalous alongside open and now fallow fields. I am told that some of the luckier residents have found work in the district city of Gatchina, more than one hour away by train. Others commute to jobs in St Petersburg and spend up to six hours a day getting to work and back.

I learned these details from our neighbors in Orlino, who told me as well about other industrial scale farms in the area producing potatoes, producing strawberries, producing even wheat that have all disappeared since 1991, leaving behind empty fields which are here and there being slowly developed into dacha-land.  Some of these new residences are splendid brick structures set behind high fences. Generally they are owned by absentee landlords who contribute little to the economy or social life of the area. They are not oligarchs, just moderately wealthy city folk.

My sources for this local lore are neighbors. First among them is Sergei, whom I introduced in one of my first Letters. Sergei is a master builder who drilled our artesian well, installed our plumbing system eight years ago, and has looked after our property when we are away ever since. Then there is the village librarian.  Surprisingly, the hamlet of Orlino has a library that operates in the afternoon five days a week. Kids are drawn there by the cookies and candies the librarian sets out for them in what is a center of social life in parallel with the Orthodox church a couple of hundred meters further down the Central  Street where we live in the direction of the lake.  A third source of both local history and current events is the general store, three hundred meters away in the opposite direction on Central Street heading towards the district road.  The store is owned by a tough-minded lady who has held some petty administrative positions here over time, including receiving annual fees for the garbage collection. Larisa knows everyone. And, of course, I gather tidbits of information every time I take a taxi from our hamlet to the nearest commercial and administrative center, Siversk, 10 km away.  The taxis may have progressed from broken down Volgas to comfortable and well maintained Hondas, VWs and the like over the past eight years of our patronage here, but the drivers remain talkative and informative.

From the perspective of these locals, Russian agriculture would appear to be in crisis. Of course, this view flies in the face of the objective facts, where we find that precisely agriculture is one of the drivers of Russia’s economic recovery these past eighteen years of the Putin era. Year-on-year growth of 3% is recorded regularly now. Russia has become the world’s biggest grain exporter, and, particularly in the period since 2014 when Western food products were placed on embargo in response to sanctions over Crimea’s reunification with the Russian Federation, the country has become self-sufficient in ever more sectors of the food market.

The point is that Russian agriculture is growing in response to rational economic incentives which favor efficiency and the climatic advantages of the South of Russia.  The Kuban region just northeast of the Black Sea has been a magnet for investment in high-tech and capital-intensive farming. Its administrative and financial center, Krasnodar, is now one of the richest urban areas in the country. Meanwhile, climatically disadvantaged areas like the Northwest, have been left to die on the vine. What is clearly missing is a government program to assist the transition of such areas to the new economy and generation of non-farming employment in the given localities.

In one respect, though, industrial-scale farming has survived in the Northwest:  year-round production of tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and other highly appreciated vegetables in newly constructed and rapidly expanding greenhouses.  Greater St Petersburg is no different from other major metropolitan areas across the country in developing these sources of fresh produce close to the consumer market.  But industrial-scale greenhouse agriculture is absent in our area.

This is not to say that Orlino and adjoining communities have been left unaffected by Russia’s new love for greenhouses.  Indeed, as I stroll down the quiet lanes of Orlino it is hard to find a good-looking house that does not have a brand-new polycarbonate inverted U greenhouse to one side or out back.

Such greenhouses are the latest fad.  Going back five years or so, we have seen here, as elsewhere in rural Russia, successive waves of must-have upgrades to any self-respecting Russian’s property.  One such fad was siding.  Siding gives new concrete-block houses designer facades. Siding turns granny’s weathered hundred year old gray log cabin into a neat modern dwelling, at least on the outside.

Another fad in this period has been grass trimmers.  The Russian countryside has very few golf-course style lawns. The grounds tend to be left uneven and covered predominantly with weeds that can grow waist high if the owner is away for a month or more. The weeds come in successive waves: dandelions, plantains and other pests which my botanical knowledge is too weak to identify. The ubiquitous answer to this challenge has been gasoline or electric powered hand-held trimmers. They are made almost    China, whether sold as no- name or marketed under German and other European brands.  On any weekend, the quiet mornings or late afternoons are punctuated by the high-pitched whirring of these trimmers as neighbors tackle their weed patches and bring temporary order to their property.

The polycarbonate greenhouses usually measure 3 meters by eight and may be more than two meters high in the middle, so that they can be entered and serviced in comfort. They have louvers to control the air temperature. Additional features may include self-feeding drip irrigation from cisterns and even heaters to extend the growing season well into early winter.

Every second Russian city dweller has a country property. The happy owners praise the clean air, clean water and generally healthful surroundings. In addition, for the middle classes Russia country residences are synonymous with weekend barbecues and socializing in the bathhouse. For the lower classes, dachas have always been a valued source of nutrition.

It is not for nothing that the zoning of all land parcels in Orlino is for “subsistence farming.” If properly managed, the standard 700 square meter plot of land can provide staples for a family of four for the year. Much of the land is given over to potatoes and cabbage. Then you absolutely must have several apple, sour cherry and plum trees. Add to that berry bushes: raspberries, gooseberries, black currant are  de rigueur.  The fruits are preserved in a variety of ways – as jam or juice or liqueur, to name but a few.

In the past, those with a green thumb would add to their yard flower beds and….a vegetable garden. This meant firstly root vegetables like beets and carrots, or green onions.

But we live in modern times, and Russians have acquired sophisticated tastes which extend to a variety of salads and other greens.  They also have become fastidious about what goes into their food and skeptical about what they find in the supermarkets or even farmers’ markets.

For these health food enthusiasts, their home gardening has become a vector for self-expression and family pride. That is what I see around me on the properties of our neighbors.

The polycarbonate home greenhouses did not come from Mars and did not land in a desert.  They represent the latest and most productive form of protected vegetable farming that has been going on here for decades.  What fifty years ago was glass-covered beds for seedlings became twenty years ago plastic film covered beds. The glass panes or plastic were removed as and when the air temperature and precipitation levels allowed the plants to continue on their own in free air.

The new greenhouses go several steps further.  They are suitable to take the seedlings straight through to final production of vegetables, and fruits like strawberries, safe from insects, birds and other threats to the crop. This also means no weeding and no pesticides.

Besides being certifiably organic, this protected farming allows my neighbors to experiment with non-standard plant varieties and, once they have identified what pleases them, to prepare their own seeds for planting from the last harvest.

What all of this leads to was made crystal clear to us this past week when Sergei and his wife accepted our invitation to “high tea” on our veranda.  They came with a wicker basket of vegetables from their greenhouse:  tomatoes, cucumbers in various sizes and yellow peppers. These products were exquisite: you will not find them in stores or markets. Additionally they are growing in the hothouse summer squash, pumpkins, and some raspberries.

They start with seedlings in March and go through three harvests to the end of October.  I asked what they buy in supermarkets these days, and the answer was short:  bread.

What I see in Sergei and his wife is a modern day pioneer spirit of self-providing, living off the land and taking pleasure in the uniqueness and wholesomeness of what they produce.

I do not insert politics into the chats with our neighbors, but inevitably it intrudes in one way or another. I know full well that this is Putin country, and yet there are changes in mood from year to year that are worth noting.

In the period before 2014, I heard a lot of grousing in Orlino about corruption.  It was not as vicious as what our intelligentsia friends in Petersburg were hearing daily from Ekho Moskvy radio station and retelling with malicious pleasure to me and to anyone else within earshot, but it was undeniably questioning the fairness of the regime from the federal level on down to local officials believed to be on the take. The reunification with Crimea in the spring of 2014, followed by the imposition of Western sanctions on Russian oligarchs accused of aiding and abetting the President in his aggressive policies abroad, changed all that.  The government and its officers now were seen by my interlocutors in Orlino as defending the nation, even at the expense of their own personal interests.

Four years of belt-tightening from the post-Crimea recession have finally corroded the patriotic euphoria here in Orlino as elsewhere in Russia.  One catalyst of change today is the highly controversial pension reform bill.

To be sure, here in Orlino there is no controversy:  the idea of raising the pension age is seen as an encroachment on financial security.  No one is interested in the argument that the reform would merely align Russia with the rest of the industrial world, even with the other former republics of the USSR all of whom have raised their pension age.  Everyone is skeptical of the government’s ability to improve health care and so extend life expectancy.

And yet there is no reversion to the “we versus them” mentality that prevailed before 2014. In this regard the issue of roads is telling.

Here in our district, the local roads are deplorable.  In places, filled potholes take up more of the road surface than the original asphalt.  As one clever Lada owner posted on his back window: “I pay my taxes. Where are the roads?” In Russian that rhymes nicely:   “я плачу налоги. где дороги?”

Since these roads are plied by municipal bus services which complain loudly about the cost of maintaining their vehicles given the deformations in the roads, finally we do get some “capital” repairs, meaning stripping the surface and putting down stretches of new asphalt. Not every year, not in every place, but at some locations and from time to time.

One such case of resurfacing took place here a week ago on the heavily traveled road connecting us to Siversk.  And yet the strip and resurface process was localized.  Where some part of the road was deemed serviceable despite its filled potholes, it was left in place.  I took special notice of the comment of our taxi driver:  “they are economizing on us.”

That was a fair-minded evaluation of what had happened.  He did not say that the road budget had been embezzled, diverted to someone’s pocket, as he would likely have said four years ago.  Instead, “they are economizing on us” – a politically directed observation that is not subversive in any way and potentially is constructive.

One other change this year worth remarking is the surprising cleanliness of our streets and beaches in Orlino.  We now have a local official tasked with keeping the public areas trash-free, and to all appearances, the public is responding positively. As I said in the beginning we have had excellent weather since early May and this brings large numbers of day visitors from nearby settlements to our Orlino lakeside for boating or swimming or making barbecues. They were in years gone by hopeless litterers.  That seems to have stopped entirely, for which we “locals” can be very thankful.  If I may generalize, it seems that Russians are becoming environmentally aware in ever greater numbers and across all classes. This season in this place manifestly demonstrates that.

Finally, what is special about this summer in Orlino is the World Cup effect. The pride of the nation in hosting this month-long sporting event reaches even into the depths of the countryside where there are no “fan zones.”  People who would never have watched a football match in their lives, have these past several weeks kept an eye on the FIFA broadcasts on Russia One.  The unexpected rise of the scorned Russian national team from its Group into the Quarter Finals caught the national imagination. And even after the knock-out of the Russian team, interest in the World Cup has continued unabated here in Orlino. Yesterday afternoon, when the match in St Petersburg for third place in the tournament was won by the Red Devils, we got a phone call from Sergey congratulating us on the Belgian victory.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

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Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on http://www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review  http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg