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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow Speaks and Russia Tries to Understand

Recently, in a district center on the banks of the Volga, an overnight train ride from Moscow, I sat at the table of my 80-year-old uncle Volodya. Waving a glass of vodka in his shaking hand, Volodya -- my oldest living relative -- said, "Moscow is deaf to our life ..." Then he looked at me and continued. "Take you for example, journalist: You often come here, that's true enough. But when is the last time you visited the steppe, visited your home village?" Everyone began to calculate how long it had been and it turned out to be more than 40 years. "But why should I go?" I asked. "All my close relatives have left." Uncle Volodya just answered, "But your distant relatives are still there." The next day, my nephew drove me to the village in his old truck. Four hours through blistering heat along the pitted road. The fields were turning golden in the sun. Gradually the green strip of trees along the road began to grow thin until it became nothing but a chain of dead trunks with bare, black branches. "It's the irrigation," he explained. "They overdid it, brought a whole ocean of water here from the Volga and raised the level of the salty groundwater so much that it killed the trees." A little farther down the road we saw the thick, dark greenery of some famous orchards that were planted by a landowner before the revolution and which, by some miracle, were never irrigated. In the village we stopped on a wide street next to a single willow, under which some geese were huddled. My nephew began waving to an elderly woman in a nearby yard: "Aunt Marusya, look who I brought!" Aunt Marusya looked at me for quite a while before she recognized me. She took us inside and gave us tea with milk, like they do in the country. That is when it occurred to me that, in order to learn to see the world through other people's eyes, you have to return to your home after many, many years away. Marusya used to work as a milker at the local collective farm. Her husband, a mechanic, died three years ago; she has no children. Now she is living on a pension that is so small that she is terrified that when she dies, she won't be able to afford a coffin. "That is what it has come to! When people die, they just wrap them in plastic." We drove to visit her niece, who has a brick house at the other end of the village with cherry trees in front and a color television in the main room. We sat at her table and began a long discussion. They told me that here, in the steppe, there have been a few changes, but most of it has been hot air and lies. There are no longer any collective farms; instead everything is either a cooperative or a joint-stock company. At least, that is what it says on paper. In reality, everything is just as it was before. The farmers get virtually nothing for their work on the farms and in the fields, so they work much harder on their own plots. "So why do people work there?" I asked. Someone answered: "Well, you know, it's like the old days. On your way home from work, you take a little feed for your own livestock." Marusya's niece keeps a few cows, two- or three-dozen sheep and a large flock of chickens and geese. You might suppose that the younger people in the village are getting rich, but you would be wrong. They still bring their meat to the old warehouse, which has now been renamed as some kind of association, since they do not have any transport to take it to the city themselves. "If only we had a refrigerated truck! Just one for all of us." In short, life for now continues, as Marusya says, po-sovetsky, in the Soviet style. She told me how last year they brought natural gas to her street. They tore out the old wood stoves in the houses and brought in new, gas ones. "But they did everything po-sovetsky." When it began to get cold, the workers stopped working. They did not have enough pipe to bring in the gas. Until February, everyone on the street slept in their overcoats, and virtually every day they went to complain to the local authorities. Finally they persuaded the workers to finish the job. "If only there had been a party regional secretary to scare them into doing something. Then it would have been finished in a week," Marusya told me. It is strange that she has such nostalgia for the times when a strong hand ruled the country and she led a truly miserable life. "Privatization is a wonder," said the husband of Marusya's niece, who works as a welder. "The former workshops of the collective farmer were recently registered in the name of an 80-year-old woman, the mother of a local boss. All the best farmland has also gone to the relatives of the former party bosses. The result is that the ones who had everything before still have it now." But what astounds everyone most of all is Moscow. When someone on television begins to talk about the reforms, no one in the village understands a thing. Isn't it possible to explain it all in plain Russian? After all, not everyone studied in the university like Gaidar. Nonetheless, they still expect the people to vote for them. Amazing! "These people lie worse than the Bolsheviks did," Marusya added angrily. She tells how the government took last year's harvest from the peasants without providing the equipment they promised, or the supplies, or even money. The people cannot understand why the grain elevators are full of Canadian grain while the local harvest rots in piles out in the rain. Who thought up this idea and how come no one shows him on television so that the people would know what to do with him if he ever flew out here in his personal plane? When I left the next day, there were two thoughts on my mind. The first was the final words that Marusya said to me, words that -- although she had not intended to offend -- struck me very painfully. "Thank you," she said, "for not detesting us." The second thought was a recollection of one of the reformers speaking on television during last year's election. "Smart people already understand what we are doing," he said when asked to explain the reforms, "and it isn't worth the trouble talking to fools." So the millions of my countrymen, living in the provinces and not understanding why these reforms and not others are necessary, were, in one fell swoop, relegated to the ranks of fools. Isn't that why the "alternative" party, which addressed their immediate problems, did so well at the polls? The dead trees along the road somehow seemed to be warning of something. After all, the irrigation that poisoned such a large area of land was originally intended to bring good to people. Like the current reforms. But those who are so enamored of large-scale products and the bottom line are living far from ordinary people, in a parallel world. It is strange how quickly so many reformers inherited this parallel existence from their communist predecessors. Igor Gamayunov is an investigative reporter for Literaturnaya Gazeta and the author of several books on social themes. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.