Like the others we've seen along the road, one village here is indistinguishable from the next, each nothing more than a collection of weather-beaten wooden houses and crumbling barns. No longer slaves to tsars or totalitarian soviets, rural Russians remain numbingly poor. In the village of Maximtsevo, the collective farm is too poor even to go bankrupt; no one wants to bid on it.
A dairy worker is roused from a drunken stupor. All that's left here are a few cows, the feeble and the elderly. Eighty-six year-old Anastasia sits on a bench, warming herself in the early spring sun.
Life was never good here, but now she says it's even worse. This collective farm is nothing but a rusted heap. Tractors and harvesters decay in the muddy barnyarduntended and useless without spare parts. The surrounding fields lie fallow.
Anastastia's neat house and vegetable garden are a stark contrast, a testimony perhaps to pride and private property. Delighted to have some company, Anastasia grabs her stick and hobbles up the steps to show off her humble, cozy, three-room home.
A central wood-burning stove provides warmth as well as the oven where she dries mushrooms she collects in the nearby forest. But she's running short of fuel. She hasn't been able to afford meat in two years, and,with a pension of only $30-a-month, she worries about how she will get through next winter.
Anastastia clings to us as we say good-bye; it is an emotional farewell. We find the head of the farm waiting for us outside. Sixty-one-year-old Victor Hippolitovich says prospects for Maximtsevo are bad.
Anastastia outside her home. Click to enlarge
Photo: Rob Rand
"The equipment is out of date," he tells us. "There aren't enough trained people left. The young people just don't want to live here."
He says the farm was never profitablenot even with Soviet-era subsidies. In those days, the authorities just wrote off the losses every year, and no one had to accept any responsibility. Not a bad life, he jokes bitterly.
This legacy and the absence of investment now spell the end. While the communist system had its problems, Hippolitovich says the present government has simply posed new ones.
"Freedom means different things to different people," he explains. "Out here, freedom of the press doesn't mean anything. We were never concerned with political freedom. We were just concerned with raising our children and sending them to school. We had certain guarantees and those have now gone. In the early '90s, we thought we had a chance to improve our lives, but then the government screwed us."
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