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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tough Times In a Magical Russian Village

It would take a lifetime to unravel the mysteries of a Russian village like Yemtsa, but thanks to Valya Boyeyeva, I enjoyed a tantalizing glimpse.


I met the 56-year-old grandmother during a train ride from Yaroslavl to Archangelsk. As our train passed over kilometer after kilometer of windswept snow-covered tundra, she told me in glowing detail about the village of Yemtsa where she grew up, met her husband, buried her parents, raised her son and daughter, and now lived on a small pension.


"Yemtsa is a magical place", she said, her grey eyes twinkling out from her frail, shriveled face. "The woods are filled with moroshka (cloudberries), klyukva (cranberries), brusnika (foxberries) and wonderful mushrooms. The men hunt elk, even bears. So there is plenty to eat".


I had been studying these villages as our train passed them. I saw tiny snow-covered shacks with chimneys billowing smoke into the sky, and narrow streets, with footpaths that cut waist-high fissures in the snow banks.


I wondered how anybody survived there. They did not look so magical.


Here, winter days shorten to four hours of daylight. Temperatures plunge to -30 degrees Celsius.


Boyeyeva's house, which she and her husband built themselves 35 years ago, is heated only by a woodstove. The toilet is an outhouse, and she must carry water from a central village well. She dismissed these inconveniences out of hand.


"Oh, you must try our water", was all she said. "We have such clean water".


But the seemingly indefatigable Boyeyeva lost her good spirits when she talked about her present difficulties. She and her husband draw a pension of just 6, 000 rubles per month. Even in bountiful Yemtsa, Boyeyeva cannot make ends meet.


"Oh, trouble", she sighed and then smiled as though it was not worth talking about. and then she concluded: "If life in the city is so good, then why do people come here to gather our mushrooms, breathe our air, and hunt our elk? "


At last our train came to Yemtsa. I asked Boyeyeva to show me around during the three minutes that our train idled there. Since there was no platform, I stepped down off the carriage ladder into ankle-deep snow.


Boyeyeva showed me the three-story school-house where her children had studied. I saw the village's narrow main street with its wooden homes. Then Boyeyeva pointed out, far in the distance, the cemetery which contained her parent's graves, where she would also be buried one day. The train whistle blew and, though I had an urge to stay, I climbed back aboard the train.


Before saying goodbye, Boyeyeva invited me to return for a longer stay. Who knows? Perhaps I will.