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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fear and Loathing In Dachaland

To paraphrase Tolstoy: Every unhappy village is unhappy in its own way.

This is the story of the death and rebirth of a village. It is a story of city dwellers gone to the deepest reaches of the Russian heartland to find nature, solitude, and that elusive and ill-defined state called peace of mind. It is also the story of what happens when an American journalist unwittingly disrupts the fragile equilibrium of a tiny, isolated community.

It is the story, in short, of a very strange weekend.

It begins, as so many stories do, with a train trip. From St. Petersburg I took an overnight train deep into the Kostroma region, an area of gently rolling hills and thick birch forests about 350 kilometers northeast of Moscow. From there I would take a bus and then hike a few kilometers to reach my final destination: the village of Gavriilovskoye, a collection of ramshackle houses on the edge of the woods.

I was traveling to have a look at the Russian glubinka, to see how people live in the tiny villages that still dot the countryside. I thought I could hook up with a family of locals, live with them for a little while, and get an idea of how they spend their time and support themselves while virtually cut off from the rest of society. I hoped the trip would offer some insight into an important but dwindling part of Russian society.

So, armed with a hand-drawn map and detailed directions, I set off to find Gavriilovskoye and a young man named Petya who lived there. Petya, who was born and raised in Moscow, decided six years ago to spend all his money on buying a house in the tiny village. Since then, he has split his time between Moscow and Gavriilovskoye, usually traveling there with his mother, who likes to paint watercolors of the surrounding scenery while Petya tinkers about the sloping old house doing repair work.

I had met Petya only once before, at a friend's dacha outside Moscow. He is a shy, studious man, given to blushing and shrugging his shoulders frequently. "He was born a century too late," is how my friends characterize him, and in fact it is easy to envision Petya in an earlier era, in so-called simpler times. I did not remember much about Petya from our first meeting, but two things did stick in my mind for some reason: I remember how very pale his face looked in contrast with his dark beard, and I remember noticing that his forearms were as hairless and smooth as a young boy's.

At 6:35 a.m., my train pulled into Galich, a small town not far from Vologda. I stumbled onto the platform and into the station, where an enormous oil painting of Vladimir Lenin would keep watch over me for the next few hours as I dozed waiting for the bus to arrive.

The sun was just beginning to peek out over the rooftops of Galich when the bus at last pulled up. According to my directions, I would need to travel for about an hour and a half to reach the village of Fyodorovskoye, from where I would then need to walk a couple of kilometers to reach Petya's house. I asked the driver to let me know when we had reached Fyodorovskoye, then folded the map and stuck it deep into my duffel bag.

When the bus driver barked, "Dyevushka!" I climbed off the bus and found myself facing a forest on my right and a single road stretching far off to my left. I set off down the road. Fyodorovskoye lay directly ahead of me, while off to the right, barely visible in the distance, there glimmered a single shining speck -- a tin roof in Gavriilovskoye. I eventually took a muddy fork in the road and began the long walk to the village.

Petya did not know I was coming. He and his mother had already left Moscow for the village before I decided to go, and as there are no telephones in Gavriilovskoye, there was no way to contact him in advance. As I trudged along the muddy path, accompanied only by the sound of the wind blowing through the grass, I hoped it wouldn't seem too presumptuous of me just to show up.

An hour later I arrived at a cluster of about 10 wooden houses, three of which were in a state of partial or total collapse and two of which were brand new. There was neither sound nor sign of life, except for one house that had a single electric bulb glowing on the corner of its roof. I wasn't sure which house was Petya's, so I began knocking randomly on doors.

It wasn't long before I began to believe that I was the only person in the village. Windows were shuttered on most of the houses, and heavy padlocks hung on the front doors. Only one house looked to be not only habitable but unlocked, but repeated pounding on the front door produced no response. Tired and frustrated, I sat down on a woodpile and pondered what to do next.

Growing chilly in the autumn wind, I decided to walk back toward Fyodorovskoye. It was then that I noticed one last house that I had forgotten to try. The front door was cracked open, and when I pushed my way in, I heard someone shuffling around behind a second door. "Hello!" I called, hoping that it would be Petya who poked his face out in response. Instead, an enormous, red-faced man with a bushy beard opened the door and clomped out to see what the noise was about.

"What do you want?" he said, sizing me up from a distance.

That was how I met Alexei.

I'm looking for Petya," I said, unsure of whether to inch my way further into the warmth of the house.

"Petya doesn't live here," he responded. "Go knock on his door."

"I tried all the doors; you're the only one who answered," I said. "In fact, I'm not even sure which house is Petya's."

"Maybe he's gone to Fyodorovskoye," the man said, and went back into his room, shutting the door behind him and leaving me standing on his doorstep. I stood for a moment, unwilling either to return to the cold or to call again to the man. At last he returned, in search of something in the hallway.

"Do you mind if I sit for a while and wait for him?" I ventured. The man nodded in assent, and showed me into a beautifully restored living room, where I sat gratefully and introduced myself.

The niceties did not last for long. Once Alexei found out that I was American, the conversation took a decidedly confrontational turn. My being a journalist only exacerbated the problem. "Journalism and prostitution are the world's oldest professions," he declared. "And they are based on the same principles."

His anger at America, the Jews, Boris Yeltsin and all capitalists was epic. He described injustice in figures: "Eighty percent of the world's resources are in the hands of the Jews!" he thundered, and "Americans are only 6 percent of the population, but they use 40 percent of the world's resources. America owes money to every country on this planet!" He had become an Orthodox Christian three years earlier, after the October 1993 events at the White House in Moscow. "There were 1,500 corpses there at the White House," he fumed. "I was there. I know. But of course, nobody reported the truth. Nobody could make money on the truth."

No American who has ever traveled abroad can be surprised by angry accusations and hostility toward the United States; it happens far too frequently to be unexpected. All the same, it is rare in my experience to leap to hostilities so quickly after meeting someone. I was relieved when, a couple of hours and many diatribes later, Alexei went out to check Petya's house, found him at home, and brought him over.

"Hello," said Petya, a shy smile creeping across his features as he entered the room. "We expected you earlier." I looked at him in confusion. "It's a joke," he said, and looked down at the floor, embarrassed. "Let's go to my house. You can meet my mother."

We took our leave of Alexei and headed across the mud to Petya's house. "Mama and I have been home all day," he said, "but we slept until two and just didn't hear you knocking." We entered the house and climbed to the second floor, where Petya's mother, Lyudmila, was putting the kettle on in the tiny kitchen. Over tea and cookies, I finally began to relax, especially when Lyudmila and Petya invited me to stay as long as I liked, or as long as I could bear what they called the "village conditions."

The conditions were actually not bad at all: A giant Russian oven heated the house by routing smoke through the brick walls, which then fairly glowed with warmth; a nearby spring was the source of drinking water, and rain water was used for handwashing; the toilet was indoors, a tin pail over which had been fashioned a seat of sorts. And on the banks of the nearby Boyarka River stood a small banya that Alexei had just rebuilt.

That evening, I happily slurped down a bowl of borshch, bathed in the banya (which was a lucky treat, as Alexei only fired it up once every few weeks), and chatted with Lyudmila and Petya as the night grew black. "There's a birthday party tomorrow," said Petya. "Oleg, who is the only other person in Gavriilovskoye besides us and Alexei, is having a birthday party. There may even be some people from other villages there." Pleased at my luck, I lay down next to the heated brick wall and fell almost immediately asleep.

The next morning, we all awoke late. The slate-gray, overcast sky and complete absence of city noises produced a somewhat disorienting effect; with no clear indicators of when the day was to start, it was impossible to guess what time it was.

Petya and I spent the afternoon wandering among the houses in Gavriilovskoye. "There were once 30 houses in the village," he told me, "but now it is almost totally abandoned." After he bought his house in the village six years ago, he began telling friends back in Moscow about it. Before too long several acquaintances decided to come out and have a look, and a few, like Oleg, decided to stay or buy houses even further out in the woods. Alexei was also a Muscovite, although Petya had met him not in Moscow, but at the Orthodox church near Fyodorovskoye. Though they were neighbors in a tiny village, they hadn't really gotten to know each other yet.

"There are a lot of people who are leaving the cities for places like this," said Petya. "They don't want a dacha just outside the city. They want a place far from everything, and they want to live there permanently if they can." Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this migration, he noted, is that it is the people who have never lived in the countryside who are settling in tiny villages, rather than those who may have moved to the city years ago and now wish to return to their roots.

We walked to Oleg's house to ask about the birthday party. Stooping to enter the front door, we emerged into a busy, almost festive scene: Oleg and Viktor, an older man from a neighboring village, were working to prepare a dozen different dishes for the evening's gathering. A cat stretched lazily on the couch, and in the corner of the room an antique gramophone played.

"Look," said Petya, moving to the gramophone. "It's from the '30s. See? You wind it with this crank." Oleg encouraged me to wind the machine up for the next song, and Petya shuffled through the stack of old 78 RPM records, calling out titles of the symphonies he knew.

The party started early, around 5 p.m. In all, there were six of us -- Oleg and Viktor, Petya and his mother, Alexei and me. The table was laden with food and drink: baked whole fish, sliced beef, boiled eggs, cabbage salad, salted herring, sliced pork fat, boiled potatoes, and an enormous bottle of klyukvenny samogon -- homemade cranberry liquor. We took our seats, and Oleg poured the first round of drinks.

Alexei had just returned from a trip to town to pick up his hunting license, and he seemed ready for a bit of merry-making. He and Viktor drank their liquor from full-size glasses, all in one gulp as though they were drinking shots. Toast followed on toast in rapid succession, and very soon half the liquor was gone. As he leaned heavily on the table, his beefy hands clenched into fists, Alexei began to speak of his mother, of God and Russia, of deception and hatred and lies. Viktor sat to his right, mumbling curses in increasingly slurred syllables and picking at his potatoes. All continued to eat, and to drink.

The more Alexei drank, the more agitated he grew. His mother hated him, he declared: Why couldn't she accept him the way he was? Why didn't she care about him? "And I suppose it's all my fault," he said miserably. "Once again, it's always my fault." His self-pity quickly turned to aggression, though, as he turned to Petya and sneered, "And why are you still living with your mother? How come you don't have a girlfriend, or a wife? Or are you two nice and comfortable over there in your little house?" Petya looked down at his plate as Lyudmila declared, "I've told him to find himself a girlfriend. I've told him to."

In between more rounds of drinking, Alexei picked up a guitar and began to strum. He began to sing, first in a soft growl, then in a booming, strong voice. Eyes screwed shut, he belted out a love song, his face reddening with the effort and veins standing out like cords on his thick neck. But suddenly he tossed the guitar away in disgust, its strings twanging as it hit the floor. Viktor began cursing at him, spewing a litany of foul words, and Alexei ran his calloused fingers through his hair, trying unsuccessfully to remain calm.

In odd contrast to the scene playing out on Alexei's side of the table, Oleg continued to munch contentedly on his dinner as Lyudmila carefully picked bones out of her fish on the other side. Petya, sitting next to Alexei and below two old calendar portraits of Josef Stalin, was still staring down at his plate.

As the evening wore on, Alexei again turned his attention to me. "There is only one American that I admire," he said, "and that is Ronald Reagan." He then launched again into extended and bitter condemnation of America, spitting his words out with mounting anger until he fairly shouted, "Americans have no idea what friendship is. Nobody cares about anybody else there."

Suddenly, Petya leapt up from the bench and jerked it violently upward, nearly toppling Alexei and Viktor. The bench came crashing down again under the weight of Alexei, who gripped the table for balance, a look of bewilderment on his face. A moment of silence ensued as all turned to stare dully at Petya, when suddenly he seized the bench again and wrenched it skyward with all his strength, his face twisted with fury.

This time, he was successful. Alexei fell hard into the table, spilling drinks and rattling the dishes. Viktor tumbled to the side, falling onto a shelf with books, papers and Oleg's beloved records, all of which came crashing to the floor with a shattering thud. There was a moment of choking silence; no one dared breathe. Then all at once, Petya came to himself and realized what he had done. He burst into tears. As Alexei struggled back up to the bench, Petya threw his arms around him and moaned, "Forgive me. Forgive me." All sat in silence as Alexei gently stroked Petya's back until he stopped crying.

I sat stunned, not sure what I had just witnessed. Oddest of all was the reaction of Lyudmila, who continued calmly to pick tiny bones out of her fish. Oleg, too, seemed remarkably nonchalant and poured another round of drinks for all. His antique records were in pieces on the floor, but he seemed not to notice. Petya, on the other hand, picked them up and stared at them in shock, unable to believe what he had done.

The party, such as it was, continued. For the rest of the evening, Petya sat silently or paced in the kitchen, fighting to keep the tears from spilling out of his eyes. Lyudmila began sketching small portraits of everyone on scraps of paper, Viktor got his second wind and started berating and insulting Alexei with renewed vigor, and Oleg brought out the second course: an enormous roast, into which Alexei would eventually stub out one of his cigarettes. Lyudmila, with her otherworldly calm, would notice this and pluck it daintily out, observing to no one in particular, "There's something in the meat."

Several hours later, Lyudmila and Petya decided it was time to leave. Alexei and Viktor had long before crossed the threshold into staggering drunkenness, and Oleg had finally, mercifully, served tea -- the official signal that one could now politely take one's leave. We walked back to Petya's house under a black, starry sky, talking little. Once there, Lyudmila put the kettle on, but I excused myself, apologizing for my rudeness, and went into the back room to go to sleep. As I drifted off, I heard Alexei and Viktor come clomping into the kitchen, asking why we all had left so early. The last thing I heard was Petya talking in a quiet voice, and their footsteps as they all left to walk back to Oleg's.

I left Gavriilovskoye the next day, having seen both more and less than I wanted to. The only comment on the events of the previous night came when I mentioned offhandedly to Petya, "I guess Alexei and Victor got pretty drunk last night, hm?"

"Were they?" responded Petya, and shrugged his shoulders. "I didn't notice."

We walked together down the long path toward the road, with only the sound of our boots squishing in the mud to break the silence. When at last we got to the bus shelter, we sat on the knobby bench to wait, Petya digging his hands into his pockets. "Are you cold?" I asked.

"I didn't put on my heavy coat for some reason," he answered. "I don't know why."

As the snow began to fall in big, fluffy flakes, I looked as far down the road as I could, willing the bus to come. Petya sat shivering beside me. n