Why I went to the village
Tales from rural Novgorod
In January 2022, I received a peculiar but highly intriguing e-mail proposition: Would I be interested in buying a house in a village I’d never visited, located in an oblast I’d never been in, as part of a burgeoning collective farm-thing being organized by two city slickers from St. Petersburg who had no idea what they were doing?
Obviously I said yes, and 300,000 rubles later I was the proud owner of a time capsule in Novgorod Oblast. And while a certain so-and-so blogged from dimly lit hookah lounges because he refused to renew his visa, his village comrades—Ekaterina and Irina (not their real names)—started down the path of self-sufficiency by growing turnips and raising livestock. Life is full of choices.
It took me nearly two years but last month I finally traveled north to survey the progress that had been made in my absence.
I’m happy to report that for the first time in Russian history, everything is going according to plan.
How Edward became the manure master
Village life offers endless learning opportunities, and the skill I was most excited to master and put on my CV was the ancient art of milking.
I had been forewarned that this particular skillset required rhythmic finger-movements that could only be perfected through hours of practice.
Utter hogwash, of course—I was born to milk. Your correspondent has impeccably supple fingers and is supernaturally nimble, so there was no doubt in his noodle that he would be able to effortlessly extract cascades of milk from any and all lactating village mammals.
And so on a chilly October morning I found myself in Irina’s barn, face-to-face with Noch (Night) the Cow, who stared into my soul and asked: Who do you think you are?
I’m the milk maestro, I replied to her, telepathically.
And then I cracked my knuckles, sat down on the milker’s stool, and got down to business.
I pulled. I tugged. I squeezed with all my might. Three or four droplets—max.
WHERE IS THE MILK? I screamed into my mind, as beads of sweat raced each other down my mug.
Artlessly yank on my udders for as long as you want, buddy. Take your time. No pressure, Noch said to me as she munched on some hay.
The cow was being facetious, which I deeply resented. Milking is in fact a time-sensitive activity and you know when time’s up because the cow will become restless and uppity. If you’re extra lucky you might get kicked in the face.
With the clock ticking I was permanently relieved of milk-duty and
demoted promoted to manure-shoveler. Organic matter removal specialist, to use the preferred nomenclature.
Removing organic matter requires a level of finesse that most of you are incapable of and will never achieve in your lifetime. It’s all in the wrist.
You also need to correctly assess texture and composition in order to select the most appropriate removal tool: Can I scoop up that steaming mound of organic matter with my pitchfork or do I need to bust out the shovel? That’s just one of dozens of dilemmas that masters of my trade encounter each and every day. You wouldn’t understand.
(I also tried milking a goat and I sucked at that, too.)
My country manor is decorated in the classic “Babushka Rococo” style, and at the urging of Sotheby’s I decided to catalogue its priceless décor.
According to my calculations, I am the proud owner of:
valenki (2 pairs)
1 scary picture of a baby (embroidered, framed)
2 analog televisions
several drawers full of pens, pencils, and a diverse array of knick-knacks
1 calendar (2013)
2 women’s blouses
innumerable books, magazines, and newspapers
bed linen and sheets (a lot)
2 bottles of vodka (empty)
2 women’s coats
1 scythe (rusted)
1 map of Novgorod Oblast
4 women’s jackets
a frying pan containing an unidentified brown substance
1.5 stacks of firewood
2 tables, 2 beds, and 1 couch
1 glass jar of instant coffee (I think? not brave enough to open it)
1 kettle, 3 teacups, and 4 glasses
2 cutting boards
2 wall rugs
3 floor rugs
1 Shishkin masterpiece (printed, framed)
1 dresser (disassembled)
approximately 1,000 pots and buckets
1 dog (semi-feral) who follows me everywhere
And much, much more.
I haven’t even conducted a proper inspection of the attic yet.
I am also the rightful heir to several notebooks full of newspaper clippings.
Contained in these long-neglected pages are poems, advice columns, and even step-by-step instructions on how to brew “strong apple wine”.
(I will be translating some of these nuggets of knowledge—and I might even take a crack at some of the recipes—as part of a new semi-regular Blog Feature. Stay tuned!)
For example, did you know there are many alternative uses for alcoholic beverages? Newspapers don’t lie:
Pour beer on your head!
Treating hair with beer from time to time reduces the formation of dandruff and gives hair a beautiful shine … By the way, a foamy intoxicating drink is also an excellent styling tool: sprinkle your hair with beer and then put it in a beautiful hairstyle.
There are also numerous life hacks involving vodka. Next time you have a toothache, rinse your mouth with a “small sip of vodka” and “temporary relief will come immediately”. Now you know.
Viktor and the wolf
Born and raised in the local kolkhoz, Viktor Andreevich is a gentleman of advanced years who leads the village in tractor DUIs. I know because I spent an afternoon with him hauling hay.
I had finished removing all the organic matter from the barn and was enjoying a hot cup of instant coffee at Irina’s house when the front door swung open and a wiry man wearing a hat with earflaps slid into a vacant seat at the kitchen table.
“Would you like some tea or coffee?” Irina politely offered to Viktor Andreevich.
But Viktor had already poured himself a generous beverage from a bottle conveniently located in his coat pocket.
“A f***ing wolf ate my f***ing dog!” Viktor shouted, before emptying his glass and instantly refilling it, tears welling up in his eyes. “F**k!”
We tried to calm him and between drinks he explained what had happened. His beloved dog Taiga—who was “such a good f***ing dog”—had failed to return home after her normal routine of wandering around the village all day. The situation was unprecedented and could only mean one thing.
“F***ing wolves,” Viktor explained.
After finishing our coffee we piled into Viktor’s tractor and zig-zagged down the dirt road to a nearby field, where several haystacks as well as some unexpected good news were waiting for us.
Taiga was alive and well. The farmer who sold us the hay informed Viktor that he had seen his dog romping through the village that morning, happy and healthy.
Viktor sang as he drove us back to the barn and in his exuberance he backed the tractor into a woodpile, sending logs flying in all directions.
“F**k,” Viktor muttered as he surveyed the damage. “Well, what’s done is done.”
Ekaterina joined the party and the four of us began the labor-intensive process of moving the hay into the barn’s loft. The work was greatly expedited by Viktor, who masterfully impaled giant cotton-candy shaped bushels of dried grass with his pitchfork before launching them into the barn’s penthouse.
Nika also helped.
With the day’s primary task completed, Viktor Andreevich joined us for some celebratory beverages. He entertained us with sad stories, humorous stories, all kinds of village gossip and intrigue, and proposed five separate toasts in honor of his “f***ing great dog” Taiga, who had not been eaten by wolves and by all accounts was in excellent condition.
For his service to the Collective, Viktor was awarded a bottle of samogon acquired from the local moonshiner through a milk bartering arrangement.
“You’re a fine young man,” Viktor said to me as I escorted him to his tractor. “What’s your name again?”
“Roman? I have a grandson named Roman. A f***ing great name.”
He waved goodbye and his tractor zig-zagged into the sunset.
The next day I started construction on a new woodpile made from the debris of Viktor’s tractor-foul. All’s well that ends well.
The village beckons
I went to the village to live close to the essential facts of life and far, far away from Sergei Sobyanin and my mother-in-law. I wanted to cut deep into life, as if it were an extremely smelly cheese, and experience how stinky and delicious it could truly be…
I returned to Moscow two weeks later because I didn’t want to freeze to death. (I am gathering supplies and will bring Edward Junior for his debut village-visit next week.)
The Collective is growing at a rapid pace. A group of chickens recently joined the commune, causing great excitement in the barn.
There’s currently a wide range of village projects in various stages of development that I’m excited to share with you in future blog dispatches.
If you’d like to support Ekaterina and Irina’s noble village efforts with a few rubles, they would be eternally grateful:
HERMAN GREF SBER CARD # (if you have a Russian bank account): 2202200180876607
BITCOIN ADDRESS: 1DJoqoxbuyY6mDh79BgcMdw6nzzpJA6pJz
Donors will be rewarded with a complimentary glass of milk + shipping and handling.
Of course, joining Team Slavsquat for the incredibly low price of $35/year will also help me and my village friends achieve our Sustainable Development Goals.