Spending some time in the countryside was one of our objectives on this trip to St Petersburg and now that we are into our third day I have some impressions to share about what has or has not changed out here since the start of the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.
My location is 80 km south of Petersburg, in the hamlet of Orlino within the Gatchina district of Leningradskaya Oblast. Population about 300 in season, maybe one third that number year-round.
Ours is the main street that takes you from the nearby intercity highway down to the large lake 200 meters away which is the pride of Orlino and the key attraction for summer visitors. Our house is lined up with others facing the street; and behind it the property opens onto a long strip of land that traditionally was dedicated to subsistence farming, meaning fruit trees, a vegetable garden and the obligatory patch of potatoes.
We are separated from the neighbors by picket fences and it is common to chat over the fence about the usual concerns of weather, infestations of Colorado beatles threatening the potato harvest and the like. Right now the key question is whether it is still too cool to plant the potatoes. When the birch trees are blooming, like now, is the right time to plant says one neighbor. No, the real test is to lower your trousers and plant your butt on the soil; if it feels cold, wait a while. So much for folk wisdom…
Politics rarely arises and it is not a subject of discussion today, though convictions can be expressed otherwise. One change I note is the appearance of the national flag on houses. Never saw that before. It fits into a broader pattern: a couple of weeks ago orders were given by Moscow for all schools in the country to raise the flag at the start of each week and for all students to sing the national anthem. Curiously, in a country that is in a proxy war with the United States, these public shows of patriotism look very much like America in the 1950s.
The quiet discussion of the war which we have had with locals closest to us shows unquestioning confidence that it was necessary to preempt an attack on Donbas and Crimea by Ukrainian forces planned for the first week of March and that it is being properly prosecuted. Yes, soldiers are dying, but that is in the nature of wars. Should there be a mobilization? Absolutely not! One professional special forces contract soldier is worth 100 recruits says our friend and handyman Sergei.
Though we come and go several times in the year, this is the first time in all ten years of our visits to Orlino that the neighbors took an interest in how we got here. Was it difficult, they asked? The fact that we come from Belgium, more specifically from Brussels, now registers with them in a way it did not in the past. I suppose I can thank Frau von der Leyen for that.
Finally, a word about television. Like most everyone in this hamlet, like most everyone living in the hinterland across this vast country, we have satellite television. The installation of the dish and tuner is a one time cost. We pay nothing for what we watch. There are on the decoder a few hundred stations listed, but in practice we only watched a half dozen foreign broadcasters plus the three main Russian state channels.
I was not surprised to find that French and German broadcasters are no longer available on our satellite tv. However, it was unexpected to see that BBC World News and Bloomberg are still available. This supports my conclusions about cable television in Petersburg: that the exclusion or retention of given channels seems to be the result of commercial deals between content providers and the Russian distributors. I imagine that the removal of nearly all foreign stations from our cable service in Petersburg is due to that factor rather than from any government orders. In this way it would be like the withdrawal of Hollywood film companies from the Russian market. “Animal World” is gone. “National Geographic” is still available.
Otherwise little has changed in village life from what we left behind on our last visit in October 2021. The food shops in Orlino and in the surrounding villages are fully stocked. Prices are unquestionably higher but not shockingly so. Local roads that were dodgy have been fixed and we drove on smooth asphalt. The taxi service has been improved; it now operates 24 hours. Gasification has finally come to Orlino: some residents on a parallel street to ours are now getting their connections after a wait of many years. Life is good…
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022