Romantics and Pragmatists: What does life look like with just food and shelter?

© Dimmushu | - Traditional russian village in wintertime during sunset


This section is part of chapter one, which is entitled "What do you have that we don't". Excerpts of this chapter have been published over the last year and can be found below. In this section I have taken an in-depth look at life in a Russian village by citing extensively from an anthropological study entitled Solovyovo by Margret Paxson. This is the continuation of a split post (part 1 here) due to the length and fascinating subject matter. I am greatly indebted to Paxson for her work.

Part II: What does life look like with just food and shelter – what is generally called poverty in our contemporary neobaroque age?

...Most people would call this poverty. Paxson, perhaps intentionally, avoids this word and hardly discusses monetary or economic matters in terms of numbers. Naturally, her focus on memory, particularly social memory and how the identity  of residents in a Russian village has been molded, allows her to circumvent the typical mention of numbers that the affluent cannot understand.[1] Above all, however, the figures that would indicate poverty are almost totally irrelevant in a self-sufficient community:

“In general, it can be said that the household is a primary – although not singular – agricultural, economic, and social unit in post-Soviet Solovyovo, as is the case with post-Soviet rural Russia in general. This is an interesting matter. In 1925, Chaianov published a detailed analysis of the economics of farming in rural Russia, in which he concluded that it was the family farm – dependent fully on the labor of family members for its survival – that was the most important economic unit in the village…Collectivization eventually succeeded, but the tiny private plots eventually granted by the state to families were far more productive than the kolkhoz plots. The dvor, and the social circle that coincides with its outlines, has continued to be a crucial center of life-sustaining activities in the village, in spite of policies of collectivization in the 1930s, which sought to entirely wrest the economy into the hands of the collective farm.” (Paxson 58)

What does this life of self-sustaining production look like throughout the year?

“Winter…is about waiting. Its days are short and nearly without light; it is long and cold and isolated and isolating. One dark day merges into the next, and the people pass the time waiting for spring, when life will snap into ordered motion. It was after having passed through this cold and lonely period that villagers began to smile softly and warmly at me when passing me on a pathway or greeting me at the store.

The only big jobs in the winter – besides waiting – are the regular tasks of caring for one’s own barn and home. Once the lake freezes over, the horse and sleigh can easily get to the distant fields where huge haystacks produced in the summer lie waiting to be carried back to the village. Manure is hauled out of the barn and off to the potato patches. Lesser jobs are preparatory ones: tools are repaired, and clothes are knit and sewn. The duties of fire building, cooking, washing, and cleaning – all of which are time consuming and, in their own way arduous – never cease.

Starting in February, seedlings are planted in small containers in the house. They will be transferred to the house garden when the soil is ready. Certain days are singled out as ‘blessed’ for the planting of given plants. Villagers would watch the calendar with a degree of attention, but did not hesitate to replant on other (not specially blessed) days if something went wrong with the seedlings. February, March, and April are months where preparations for spring accumulate. In May, seed potatoes are chosen and laid out on the floor of the izba as the day of the potato plant approaches. Some time in May, the waiting ends and the large agricultural tasks begin, ones that are absolutely essential for farmers’ survival, and ones that anchor later discussions of calendrical orientations.

Potato planting begins when the earth finally warms after winter. This is the only job that I saw done ‘collectively’ with the village per se – and not the extended family – as the work unit. Because of this, there were negotiations about when to begin the task, and more weight was given to trusted elders in the community. The collective nature of the potato planting seems to arise from the rather narrow range of weather conditions that are appropriate for the plant. It must be done quickly, and speed requires maximizing the labor of the three horses that Solovyovo, Vershina, and Maksimovo collectively inherited when the kolkhoz was partially dissolved. If families do the job alone, the horses stand idle for long periods. This is not only inefficient, but can cause the time of the ideal weather conditions to pass before the potato plots of everyone in the village are done. In order for the horses to be used with maximum efficiency, the work was done family plot by family plot and organized as a brigade: the horse plows, the potato is thrown in by one line of people, a mixture of hay and manure is placed over the potatoes by another line of people, and the horse makes a final pass with the plow to cover the seed potatoes… It must be said that this job is the easiest of the large, cyclical efforts, and is marked by a spirit of playfulness and joking. The weather is warm; the job is easy (except for the horses and the man behind the plow); the mood is light.

The senokos (hay cutting) is the defining labor of the villager in the months of June and July. In order to maximize output and minimize waste, daily work on the senokos is marked by a series of close calculations as to the degree of sun and wind and chance of rain; all of these factors have an impact on what work will be possible. In the home where I lived, every morning was spent discussing if it would be better to cut new hay or to dry and stack hay that had already been cut. Stacking at the wrong time can cause a whole day of labor to be wasted. Of course, this is not the sort of labor that one wants to waste – hours of hauling huge loads of hay over one’s head under the burning sun. When weather conditions have been bad (too much rain for long stretches or not enough), tension fills the air during the morning negotiations and voices can be raised in panic. Villagers watch each other for progress, and fear also comes when one’s family is falling behind…

When the senokos work ends, there is a brief period of relative rest. Favorite mushrooms and berries begin to appear in the forests in August, which will be preserved and eaten all winter long. Mushroom gathering, in particular, is a joy for all. It is a simple, sweet, forest joy that is indulged at this time of year.

Regardless of the fact that individual families have their own potato plots, the decision to begin the potato harvest in late August or early September amounts to a collective one. Potatoes feed both people and animals. They can be stored and given away. They are the most important crop of all, and if they are harvested too early, they can be small; if harvested too late, they can rot from excess rain or frost. Deciding when to harvest them is a complex guessing game that involves constant negotiations with unpredictable forces, and no one wants to guess alone. One family begins – often a family with a respected elder – and the others follow suit. The rows of potato plants (which had been scythed down a couple of weeks earlier) are plowed. With the help of a wooden lapatka (which looks something like a short, thin canoe oar), villagers then hack away at the rows of potatoes with the considerable force of their arms and backs. The potatoes surface, and a next row of people dig them out of the softer earth and sort them into different piles. The job lasts for a few days, only, but in those days the village is empty. Everyone is out in the potato patches, which lie right on the edge of the village, past the clubhouse, one right next to the other. Everyone is together. The work itself is exhausting, but more bearable than the grueling work of the senokos when the sky is black with biting flies and bees.

When the potatoes are dug up, the bulk of the summer work is over, except for the regular garden work, which keeps people busy every single day. The next large concern is the preparations for winter, including the very substantial work of preparing firewood… They use gas-powered saws, but the trees are felled deep in the forest and must still be moved and piled by hand. This work is done before the first major frost, and only after that frost (when there is ice and snow) can the logs be easily transported from the forest to the village…

While waiting for the conditions to be right, villagers maximize the secondary jobs that are always present: work in the garden, work in the barn, fixing a broken fence or saw, and food preparation and storage.” (Paxson 273-5)

At an earlier point, Paxson describes the communal dynamics of the extended household in pre-revolutionary times and in the present:

“In pre-Revolutionary, and then Soviet times, village households (dvory) like the ones in Solovyovo were inhabited by extended families, where a patriarchal family head (khoziain), his wife (khoziaika), his children (deti), and as time went by, his sons’ wives and their children, all lived together under one roof. When these extended families became too large and unwieldy through the natural process or reproduction, the residential group would split. At the same time, a son would establish a new home for himself and his wife and children, usually in the same village.” (Paxson 54)

In this communal life of self-sufficiency there is not just work and community, however. Such a framework with little change and minor events allows the mind to be active and the people to enjoy the process of life:   

“While I lived in Solovyovo, days were counted in a limited range of contexts. The mail truck would come three times a week, as would the bus from Belozersk when the roads were dry enough or frozen enough to carry travelers. Bread would arrive twice a week and people from Solovyovo, Vershina, and Maksimovo would line up in the local store on the appointed days to be sure and get their share. Pensions came once a month, as did the salaries of the kolkhoz workers, post office worker, culture worker, and librarian. Another line would form at the post office on these days, and it could take an hour or so to buy an envelope or a stamp or a telephone coupon then because of the postal worker’s slow manner and bad temper. People counted these days and set them aside as important. In small but significant ways, they oriented their time through them. 

In my own efforts at self-orientation while living in Solovyovo, I often found myself falling into the question, “What will happen tomorrow?” The response was nearly always the same: “One mustn’t guess what tomorrow will be.” Tomorrow, I learned, is, at its base, a day that will depend on a  million smaller factors, including combinations of wind, sun, heat, and dryness, and, of course, larger, unseen/unforeseen things such as illness, accident, or death. It finally struck me that perhaps farmers are not at all the conservative beings that city dwellers take them for. Perhaps these farmers who rely on the forces of the weather and the strength of their hands are the most flexible of beings. ‘One mustn’t guess’ means that all tomorrows are fluid and all actions aimed at that day must be defined by creative approaches to larger problems: when to plant, when to harvest, when to slaughter.” (Paxson 267, underlining added)

And then there are celebrations, gulianki (see Paxson 293), chastushki (Paxson 301): “In Solovyovo, Il’in Den’ is the most festive day of the year… people dressed in their finest clothes and danced the night away, momentarily transported from the seat and dirt of the senokos.” (Paxson 292) “In the summer of 1996, there was no doubting that the Zh– family’s haystacks were bigger than the Belov’s. When I visited them one day on the strip of land where they were working, their haystacks could have towered over the ones that we had completed earlier in the afternoon. Ivan Nikolaevich, in his sixties, stood atop the enormous stack and directed operations. His grandson was lifting the hay with a pitchfork three times his height; daughters, working in their bikinis, were hauling hay from smaller stacks toward the larger ones; granddaughters raked loose hay into small piles, making sure none was lost. As they labored in the hot sun, the children and grandchildren goofed around with their patriarch; teased him as he bragged to me from atop the haystack that they had finished all their work already (‘And you mean you haven’t?’ ‘He’s deceiving you! Ivan Nikolaevich! We’re going to leave you up there if you don’t start behaving!’).

It was no surprise that their stacks were bigger and better than ours. Ivan Nikolaevich Zh- and his wife Anna Alekseevna had many guests with them that summer. Sixteen people were sleeping under their roof – some in the dark, breezy attic area, and many others on the floor. As Ivan Nikolaevich said to me one day as he drove me home from the senokos on his wagon, ‘The house is filled with my daughters and my grandchildren. They came to help us with the senokos. Here, there is enough meat and milk and vegetables for everyone. You can’t say the same in the city.’

According to Konstantin Andreevich [villager], Il’in Den’ is supposed to mark the end of the period of the senokos… Depending on how the senokos is going that year, the day will be more relaxed than a regular day. In the first year I celebrated with the village, the senokos was going rather well and the day was nearly free of farm work. Seven people were staying with us. Men fished and took it easy, and women cooked and gossiped. The next year was a much worse one overall, and we spent nearly the whole day in the fields. 

In the early evening of this holiday, after the cow is milked and all the animals fed and watered, the table is set with the finest foods the farmer has. Iuliia and I would often speculate on menus for days before working out the exact content of the Il’in Den’ feast; I remember that the fate of one kohlrabi plant was determined months in advance of one particular Il’in Den’. Traditional salads of fresh vegetables, fresh fish, cheese, pies and cakes, cold soups, and the jars of jam are brought to the table, as well as berry drinks, and vodka and other spirits. The visitors – friends and relatives – gather around the table in their nicest clothes and are seated. The dinner beings with toasts to the company, the hostess, and any poetic theme anyone can come up with. People drink and then eat; drink and eat. An hour or two is spent this way. 

At some point, music begins wafting into the house from outdoors. This marks the next phase in the celebration, where individual families start drifting outside into their yards. It is from within the boundaries of individual family yards that music is first created. Someone starts playing the accordion or balalaika, and people chime in with chastushki. Later in the evening, people will head over to the clubhouse, but in fresh early evening air, the celebration is under way in family yards.
The village of Solovyovo is very small. In the early evening of the Il’in Den’, it rings with these pockets of music. Screeching accordions, feminine whoops, song howls, and laughter. Soon, these private celebrations expand into collective ones.

Indeed, in the next phase of the evening people walk from yard to yard, visiting each other. After dinner on my first year there (1995), Ivan Nikolaevich was sitting on a bench in front of his house with all of his daughters. The daughters are all city women and were wearing urban style dresses and heels. Despite this level of sophistication, they all knew the chastushki and would sing them out, inviting me to sit with them and chew on semechki (sunflower seeds) and join in the laughter…There was also singing in front of other yards. At this phase of the celebrations, crowds form. Larger movement begins.

The trajectory of the holiday celebration thus begins in the family home and goes to the outside yard. People linger there with their songs and then begin movement from house to house. The next phase brings them all together in collective space. Eventually, it is time to go to the club and families head in that direction…
Once in the clubhouse, people begin their celebrations shyly. In the first few Il’in Den’ holidays that I spent in the village, Mikhail Alekseevich would set up chairs around the periphery of the large room in the clubhouse where there is a stage, and where he and his wife used to put together plays that demonstrated the virtues of atheism. People would come and sit in chairs, family by family. Accordion music would begin, but it always seemed to take a while to stir things up. As things slowly would get going, one woman at a time would go before the crowd, pulling out her finest chastushki from girlhood… Chastuski contests begin and the dancing grows more expressive and wild…

In short, the festivities continued all night long. There is movement in and out of the clubhouse for the entire evening. The movement reaches a certain pitch and frenzy. When the sun finally sets around 11 p.m., people go home, to each other’s homes to continue drinking and conversation, down to the river to make a bonfire, or down to the stables in pairs to find love, perhaps.” (Paxson 311-4)

And what does this mentality prompt? – Solovyovo suggests heightened spirituality and shared modesty: “Acts of generosity are also acts of redistribution. Earlier, there was discussion of how an explicit morality of generosity contributes to social leveling in the village, and that generous people are awarded social status… As generosity marks a certain moral superiority, poverty, as well, particularly when shared, lends a group a heightened morality. Poverty has already been mentioned and implied in several of the passages, as it is linked to happiness. Mikhail Alekseevich [villager] made this dynamic between poverty and heightened morality clear when he said, ‘Poverty united people. Then there wasn’t jealousy. There was one level. You will never see how people worked so well together after the war. We had nothing.’ And, further, he pointed out that there is a hidden spirituality in the lack of money and the lack of greed: ‘We are living now worse on a spiritual level, as well. From the pocket, from the pocket. Even before, when there was no God [in the Soviet period] we lived better spiritually. Now people only think about money’.” (Paxson 94-5)

Further reading:

Paxson, Margaret. Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press: 2005.

Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists: Chapter 3 - Part 3 - So?! (excerpt). November 2016
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists: Chapter 3 - Part 2 - So?! (excerpt). November 2016.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists: Chapter 3 - Part 1 - So?! (excerpt). February 2016.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists: Chapter 7 - Part 6 - The transposition of presidents (excerpt). September 2016.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists: Chapter 7 - Part 5 - The transposition of presidents (excerpt). August 2016.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists: Chapter 7 - Part 4 - The transposition of presidents (excerpt). July 2016.
Smirnov. Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists: Chapter 7 - Part 3 - The transposition of presidents (excerpt). July 2016.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists: Chapter 7 - Part 2 - The transposition of presidents. Part 2 (excerpt). July 2016.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists: Chapter 7 - the transposition of presidents. Part 1 (excerpt). June 2016.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists: Chapter 8 - the exalted place Russian can occupy in the future world order. Part 4. April 2016.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists: The exalted place that Russia can occupy in the future world order. Part 3. March 2016.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists: What does life look like with just food and shelter (part two)? February 2016.
Smirnov. Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists: What does life look like with just food and shelter? (excerpt). January 2016.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists: What happens when you do not sacrifice the mind to the body Excerpt. November 2015.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists. Feb. 2015.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists: Chapter 1 - What Do You Have That We Don't? (excerpt). Mar. 2015.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists: Chapter 6 - Are We Really That Different? - Security (excerpt). Mar. 2015.
Smirnov, Yuri: Romantics and Pragmatists: Chapter 2 - What's The Point of Living? (excerpt) Apr. 2015.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists: Chapter 1 - What Do you Have That We Don't (excerpt)? May 2015.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists - The issue of balance. June 2015.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists - Chapter 2 - What's the point of living (excerpt). June 2015.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists - Chapter 5 - What if America is the best? (excerpt). July 2015.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists - Chapter 8 - The exalted place Russia can occupy in the future world order (excerpt). August 2015.
Smirnov, Yuri. Romantics and Pragmatists - Chapter 8 - The exalted place Russia can occupy in the future world order (excerpt). August 2015.

[1] A good illustration of this can be found in Hugo Portisch’s account of life in Siberia. The book entitled So sah ich Sibirien (How I saw Siberia) cites the average monthly salary in 1967 as being between RUB 100 and 150. In Western ears that does not sound like much money, even if you adjusted for 50 years of inflation. This figure only becomes informative when it is viewed in the context of the cost of living. What did it cost to live in Siberia around 1967? Rent, gas and electricity cost RUB 8-10 per month (that is not a typo), buses and trams cost only 5 kopeks (equivalent of cents). Kindergarden and schools cost between RUB 8 and 12 per month; clothing, however, was quite expensive: RUB 30-60 for a dress, RUB 60-180 for a women’s coat; RUB 20-40 for women’s and men’s shoes. He does not cite the average cost of food per month. (Portisch 196) When rent and utilities account for only 5% of salary in a two-income-earning household (25-30% is considered good in the West), then the nominal amount of your salary is not important. In Solovyovo, for example, rent is zero.
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