Returning to Nature

MT
KONYAYEVO, Vladimir Region -- Deep in the heart of Vladimir region, in Ilyino woods, 30 families are recreating obshchiny, the historical form of social organization in the countryside -- but with solar panels, Internet access and motor-driven well pumps.

Rodnoye Ecovillage is about as far from civilization as it can get. A lonely bus stop and an empty grocery store are all that mark the opening of the route to Konyayevo, a town forgotten by history located 30 kilometers from the city of Vladimir. From there, it's another 5-kilometer trek down a gravel path marked only by the remains of frogs flattened under slow-moving cars.

Once past a lake with water still as glass, a grassy field with a smattering of houses appears: Rodnoye, in its attempt to disappear from urban life, almost succeeds in dropping out of view altogether.

Isolated is how Anatoly Molchanov, the founder of the ecovillage, likes it. "I wanted to return to the land," he said.

But the land doesn't have to be backward. Molchanov's backyard has a well with a motor pump, and in his living room he can check e-mails on a computer hooked up to the Internet via mobile telephone. He separates biodegradable waste into a concrete compost dump, where it is then reworked by nature into fertile, useable soil for his garden.

Nearby, his neighbor Lyubov Yelenskaya, 62, has just installed solar panels. "They can power two light bulbs and the TV through the night if I want," said the ichthyologist turned villager, who laid the foundation of her house with her bare hands.

"In Russia, there are many people who want to leave the city," said Alexander Metyolkin, a member of the Russian Ecovillage Alliance's advisory council and co-founder of the Lyubinka village in Moscow region. "[They] understand that cities, with their poor environments, are harmful to health and the mind."

No one can say how many ecovillages there are, but the number is small, they are disconnected and growing slowly, said Metyolkin. Across the country, there cannot be more than 1,000 with a population of more than 50 people, and most inhabitants are unaware of the Ecovillage Alliance, the only formation that might be called a network for the disparate settlements.

Near Moscow are several comparatively large ecovillages: Lyubinka, Mirodolye and Svetloye in the Moscow region, and Kovcheg, Blagodat and Rodnoye in the Kaluga, Ryazan and Vladimir regions, respectively.

Web sites such as Kedrovka.ru, www.eco-rus.com and the alliance's site at www.seu.ru give the best information on ecovillages, but they are rarely accurate because these communities are detached by their very nature.

The members of ecovillages pay from their own pockets for their own plot of land within a larger plot.

Some settlements follow principles drawn from books written by Novosibirsk entrepreneur Vladimir Megre about a young woman named Anastasia, who despite understanding the urban world well, took wisdom from nature.

Many use modern technology. Lyubinka inhabitants use hydroenergy and wind turbines for power, and build "eco-homes" from natural materials such as clay and straw. Many hook up to the Internet wirelessly from their mobile phones. Metyolkin communicated for his interview exclusively by mobile phone and e-mail.


Joyce Man / MT
Ecovillage resident Sasha, 7, is not forced to go to school and learns from nature.
These 21st-century rural settlements have been built by experts who are taking knowledge gleaned at urban universities back to the soil. "Seventy to 75 percent of our residents have higher education," said Molchanov, who lives among architects and scientific researchers at Rodnoye. Decisions are made at a low level, and the small size of eco communities means all residents are able to participate.

In Rodnoye, the issue of the moment is whether the settlement should build its own school, separate from the state, so that education can be, as Molchanov put it, "all about the children -- what they want to learn." The village holds regular meetings, and everyone attends and expresses their views.

For ecovillages, the biggest problem is purchasing land, said Molchanov, who often goes to the district and regional authorities for discussions about Rodnoye.

"Officials use different excuses to withhold information on available land or drag out the process on land that has been granted for ownership," said Metyolkin.

But for those who succeed in settling into ecovillage life, it is bliss.

Molchanov relishes his quiet days reading and meditating at home. He treasures the six backyard bee boxes that produce thick, rich honey, and the dark soil that provides tomatoes, parsley and berries.

He also believes he has found the perfect place to raise his son, Sasha. "Here, children are free. If Sasha wants to go down to the pond to swim, he just needs to tell me," said Molchanov of his 7-year-old, who does not go to school "because he doesn't want to."

According to the Education and Science Ministry, parents are free to keep their children outside of the school system as long as they themselves can provide and are versed in what constitutes a basic education under federal law.

"They understand the processes of nature just by being in it; not from some charts and diagrams," Molchanov said in his front yard, watching as Sasha handled the family's newborn black puppy, and returned it to its mother.

Molchanov said he doesn't worry about illnesses out in the woods. Disease is a sign that the body is out of its natural balance, he said. The best way to cure it is to be in nature.

In her garden, Yelenskaya busied herself by planting seedlings next to orange-red tulips that had already flowered. "Why would I want to be anywhere else when I can have all the berries and mushrooms I want right here?" she said.

In the months before the onset of winter, she said, she will finish the porch on her 121-hectare land and try to convince her grandsons and 87-year-old mother to come. "I want to build something for [them]; something for the future."