The Taiga Home Companion: Letters Home from Moscow, 1993

Introduction | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14

Part 3: The Soil

March 21, 1993

Hey, people, I'm back. That is to say, Ian got a new power supply today, after convincing Apple to bend a rule and fedex the part to his boss in the States, who was coming here, and who brought it with him. Apologies to everyone whose letters I have not answered--I will try to work through the backlog in the next few days.

Each week brings e-mail from one or two new addresses, with the result that The Taiga Home Companion is now being sent to about 17 households in seven states, the District of Columbia, and the United Kingdom. To take advantage of this distribution, I have decided to start selling ad space during the broadcast. I hope it isn't too disruptive.

Moscow is melting. It started about Tuesday, with the sheet ice that had covered the sidewalks since my arrival suddenly being rent by streams and gullies. On Wednesday I experienced my first Moscow rain, as opposed to snow. Cold, wet, and drizzly, it reminded my of England. The combination of melting ice and rain have produced, in front of the entrance to my apartment building, the largest puddle I have ever seen, barring Lake Michigan. Ian says that it's not likely to go away. Fortunately, there is a route to the metro that takes one around the edge, or should I say shore, of the puddle.

The thaw is apparently sweeping all sorts of unpleasant things into the Moskva river, causing the authorities to pump more chemicals into the drinking water to compensate. The water smells pretty strong, and Ian and I are thinking about going to Finnish spring water at $1.10 for 2.5 liters. Meanwhile, I wrote another song (to the tune of "Piano Man"):

Oh, the water, it smells like a swimming pool,
And my blue jeans are covered with mud.
And I kneel at the tub
And I scrub, and I scrub
But I'll never get rid of this crud.

Speaking of mud, I had my first trip out into the Russian countryside on Friday, courtesy of the Moscow Guardian. The assignment was to accompany a Dutch freelance journalist named Jacobi to a farm out past Zagorsk. This farm is special, because it's a family farm, owned and operated by a couple, not a collective. Just a decade ago, even expressing a desire to own such a farm would make you suspect, but now it's all legit.

Humming along in a Commersant company Oka, painted like bumper car (down to the number on the side) and not much bigger, Jacobi and I made it out to the farm in about two hours. The trip to Zagorsk was fairly smooth, but north of Zagorsk the roads were simply terrible. Sometimes it would be a once-paved road that had been allowed to deteriorate, leaving enormous potholes. One stretch was paved with rocks--not gravel, but jagged, fist-sized rocks that made loud crashes as the front wheels hurled them into the muffler. At times there was only mud, the same sticky mud that kept the Wermacht at bay in 1941.

Parts of the landscape are attractive. At times we drove through woodlots of mixed birch and fir, the red buds of the birch contrasting nicely with the evergreen needles, and the tall, slender, branchless trunks of both trees producing an astonishing feeling of verticality. Every now and then, we would pass through a tiny village of perhaps a dozen houses, six on each side of the road. Some were very pretty, with colorful paint and white woodwork around the windows. These, Jacobi told me, were probably dachas and not working farmhouses. Real farmers were more likely to live in the boxy, six-story apartment houses that looked terribly lost in the country, but are typical of collectives.

As for the land itself, I kept on asking myself one of Prof. Stilgoe's questions: is this an inviting landscape? I kept on answering, no. Even when we crested a hill and could see rolling, snow covered fields for miles around, I could not summon that agrarian Aaron Copland/Bertolt Brecht feeling that the farms of Virginia or even Yorkshire inspire in me. After thinking about it for a while, it dawned on me--this land was untidy. Patches of shrubs in the middle of the field, ragged borders between field and forest, large pools of water which betrayed uneven grading. I asked Jacobi, "Is it my imagination, or is this land unloved?" She nodded, "the tractors are driven by drunkards who do not go straight, and the land is not cared for." I thought of the laser-straight drainage ditches of the Netherlands, of the geometrically precise irrigation systems one sees flying over Nebraska. Compared to those working landscapes, this was a mess.

But if the farmer we visited was at all representative of his class, it will be a long time before the Russian peasant, liberated from serfdom 132 years ago, is able to till his own soil and feed Russia with his labor. The couple we met have fulfilled a dream by buying their own land, paying off the mortgage, and even purchasing two tractors. But they work like dogs, and the agricultural infrastructure, designed for collectives, is not set up for or effective at providing isolated private farmers like them with seeds or for purchasing their milk and other produce. Basically, they are barely more than subsistence farmers, eating little that they do not grow themselves, and growing little that they do not eat themselves. It may be psychologically invigorating, but I'm not suprised that their children do not intend to follow in their parents' occupation.

How well my pictures will illustrate this I don't know. I only caught a few words of the interview while it was going on ("tractors. . . childhood. . . collective"), so it was not until we were on our way home that I learned the basic thrust of the story. Moreover, we were pressed for time, and it was raining. So I was unable to make the most of my opportunity to do a real bang-up National Geographic job of farm implements, felt boots, and the works. On the other hand, I think I did a competent job, and I had a hell of a lot of fun on the trip.

Now, for a word from our sponsor. . .

Coming to Moscow? Why not visit Delhi, Moscow's finest Indian restaurant? Every diner is welcomed with a mouth-watering fruit and vegetable plate, at a mere 3000 rubles a head. Don't refuse us--it's mandatory! Choose from our extensive menu of mouth-watering Indian specialties. Then choose again when our friendly waiter explains that we're out of everything you've chosen. And what meal would be complete without a diverting floor show, including The Guy with a Blonde and a Bullwhip and our very own Young Russian Man with Hairspray crooning (or is he lip-synching?) a nearly accentless version of "My Way" into the microphone? Yes, it's Delhi, an unforgettable dining experience!

I picked up a great piece of Soviet propaganda the other day--a set of four historical atlases, formerly (or perhaps still) used in high schools, at around 15 cents each. Some of the maps merely show that any nation will have different priorities than others; e.g. it's not too surprising to find maps of the Russo-Japanese war, though it would be hard to find such maps in American atlases. Other differences are ideological, like the inclusion of detailed maps of Paris during the June days of 1848 (something Marx talks about) and the Commune (yes!).

Some decisions border on the misleading. For example, the map of the U.S. Civil War colors the border states the same as the Confederacy, using hash marks to distinguish those slave states that did secede from those that did not. Meanwhile, the map is cropped to leave out California and much of Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin, making the Union appear much smaller than it actually was. The most blatant outright lie is the map that purports to show military operations in Europe from September 1939 to June 1941. Germany's invasions of Poland, Scandinavia, France, and the Balkans are shown in detail, as are British counter-attacks in North Africa. But there is nothing of Russia's invasion of Finland, the Baltic States, and Poland. In fact, Karelia and the Baltics are shown as parts of the USSR, and on the next map, the Finns (colored fascist) are shown invading the USSR, even though they were only liberating territory stolen from them the previous year.

I showed these maps to Ludmilla, my Russian teacher. This was probably a mistake, because I'm not sure of her politics, and I sensed I may have offended her. To make amends, I pointed out that American and British atlases are apt to emphasize the invasion of Normandy, while downplaying the conquest of Berlin (which is quite true). But it was a reminder that this is a country where not everyone is committed to the new order, and where people remain fiercely proud.

And that's the news from Moscow, where the men wear fur, the women clear the table, and all the children can both pronounce and conjugate the verb, "tchuvstvovat'."

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