There are two things that make Russian trains superior to all others:

1. The samovars
2. The conductor actually wakes you up when your stop comes, no matter what.

The train to Voronezh was noticeably less nice than the trains I’ve been on so far; don’t know whether this was a coincidence, or the rail company just doesn’t love Voronezh. The lumpy bedrolls were fine–the only problem turned out to be a BIG one: there was no samovar. I had brought Ramen for supper. I had not drunk anything but coffee. The trains, like all interiors in Russia, are overheated. This was compounded by the fact that I had a bad bad cold, which had caused me to spend my day in Moscow not exploring, but sitting in cafes drinking overpriced coffees and teas, feeling quite sorry for myself, indeed. The night was no better.

Fortunately, it ended early; at 6:15 AM I leaped off the train and bought the first bottle of water I saw. While sitting in the train station and trying to stop myself from drinking the whole liter at once, I noticed that Voronezh is a lot more ethnically diverse than Cherepovets, but otherwise seemed the same. Russians don’t really travel, and I think it’s due in large part to the fact that Russians figure that once you’ve seen a provincial city, you’ve seen them all. They all have beautiful churches, they all have bad roads, they all have prefab buildings and a brightly-colored train station. On the way home I got to explore the city in the daylight, and it’s actually very nice. No idea what Lonely Planet was talking about. Then again, I might be confusing “nice city” with “sunny day.” Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

On the bus to Voronezh, we stopped in a village named Anna  for a 20-minute break. There were lots of home-made shacks that people had erected out of which to sell fresh shashlyk. Now, you know I love shashlyk. But it, like most things in Cherepovets, is bland, often with no seasoning at all except the bit of scallion and garlic that goes into the ketchup. Well. This  was not the case with this, the most juicy, tangy, spicy, heart-clogging stick o’ critter I ever had the joy to hold between my teeth. It’s strange how food always seems to get more delicious the further south you go. Since I worried that I might go hungry in the village, I was thrilled to have one last delicious meal before descending into the culinary abyss.

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I don’t know what I was smoking, but if I ever find out, I can sell it for a small fortune: village life turned out to be an endless cycle of eating (dessert, by the way, after every meal including breakfast) and sitting on my patootey. Potato soup, cooked in the pechka (a cooking style similar to the dutch oven: add all ingredients, put in fire, forget about it until you’re hungry), goose, wonderful tangy home-made sourdough, home-made apricot “pies” (more like filled rolls), pickled vegetables, and the ever-present chocolates constituted almost every meal. Once there was rice kasha (boo hiss, that’s no main dish!), and once I was forced to eat raw garlic cloves to cure my cold–or, I think, to keep it from spreading to my now not-so-near roommates. An effective form of disease control, but probably not for the reasons my hosts were thinking. Anyway, it was more pleasant than gargling baking soda or drinking tea with vodka in it, which were among the more tame of the suggested remedies. Long story short–I was grateful to my hosts for their hospitality, but also glad to regain my gastronomic autonomy upon leaving.

Before each meal, we chanted the Lord’s Prayer. After each meal, we would either say a very long prayer of thanks (if the patriarch was there), or we’d say the Lord’s Prayer again. The doom and gloom that I was warned of  by anonymous users of the Internet is nowhere to be found. You couldn’t call the Fedorovtsys jolly (although they have their moments), but there’s a quiet contentedness in their way of life. At night, the men sit around and debate theology until bedtime. At that point, we turn off the lights, they kneel on mats and pray, bowing and crossing themselves frequently, towards the beautiful corner, while I stand with my head covered and try not to be distracting.

There’s the Russia that we think of: the one that celebrates a great artistic tradition and numerous contributions to science and technology, the one that complains about the propaganda machine that is NefTV, yet watches it every night, the one that will someday say that sliced bread is the best thing since cell phones. And then there’s Fiddler on the Roof. And somehow, magically, I found myself last week in (a Christian version of) the latter.

The family I’m staying with lives in a complex of sorts, with many small individual buildings separated from the neighbors’ collections of buildings by a high, hand-built fence. There’s a kitchen with a small pechka and hand-milled boards on the floor, which have been re-fastened and repaired with sheet metal again and again over the years; there’s a building with a thatched roof, one wall precariously bowed out, that houses Ljudmila’s ailing and immobile grandmother. The outhouse, thankfully, is far away, though not as far as the banya and what probably once served as a barn, but is now miscellaneous storage. But the first building you come to after latching the gate is home to me, and was once the home to a family of 8. On the door are faded characters, the reminder of paint long worn away: ХВ, it says. Христос Воскрес: The Lord is Risen.

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The view from my window. On the left is the grandmother’s room; on the right is the kitchen.

I sleep in the front room’s only bed. Go back, and you’ll pass the beautiful corner, handwashing station, and pechka before coming into the room where Ljudmila and the patriarch sleep, and the patriarch has a study with its own beautiful corner and piles of old books written in Old Church Slavic. It’s dark: although there are two overhead lamps (they even have lamp shades on them, a decoration that Russians rarely bother with), to turn either of them on before nightfall, or to turn both on at once at any time, is unthinkable–or perhaps un-thought-of. Ryzhik, the affectionate orange cat, sleeps on an old chair, waking only at mealtime.

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The pechka in my room.

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The beautiful corner is something I haven’t mentioned yet, because only in Tishanka have I encountered it. Until rather recently, every house had one: a table is placed in the eastern-facing corner of the house (there’s a remarkable amount of fudging in deciding which corner is east) and filled up with icons, candles, holy water, and curtains. You pray to it before and after meals and before bed.

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There’s no Internet in the village, and the Fedorovtsys shun almost all media, since exposure to mainstream culture is distracting and only exposes them to the sinful leftovers of the second coming. Although it’s less a matter of principle than a matter of money/desire, there is no plumbing or refrigeration here. Food is preserved by canning or fermentation and stored under the floor. Once it is opened or cooked, it sits in the pechka or on the kitchen table until it’s eaten. Even if it’s meat. Even if it’s mayonnaise. Even if it’s a really gross salad that takes us 4 days to choke down.

I foolishly asked the patriarch whether he’s always lived in Tishanka, forgetting that the TOC didn’t come there until the late 60s. He grew up in a village a few hours from here, which probably no longer exists. After serving 2 years in prison camp, he helped found the Fedorovtsy community here. They chose Tishanka because of its numerous abandoned houses. At that point, the village was 2.5 times larger than it is now.

Due to the close relationship between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church, I expected that the Fedorovtsys would be critical of the current government. On the contrary, they are thrilled with Putin. This is the first time in history that they have been able to practice their religion without persecution. Before him, government was nothing but a chain of threats and broken promises.

Ljudmila is far younger than I expected at 33 years old. Her mother lives there too, but, being elderly, sleeps next to the pechka in the kitchen rather than in the drafty bedroom with us. Her job is to take care of her grandmothers. Two of them recently passed away–I didn’t realize that my arrival coincided with the last week of the 40-day mourning period–so now she has some time for herself. She plans to take up quilting. She used to have a brother, but he died 5 years ago. I don’t know who her father is; since everyone else I ask about turns out to have died, I don’t intend to bring it up. Also, the question of parenthood in a hypothetically-celibate society might open a can of worms I’m not capable of closing.

With the exception of the few lightbulbs and terrifying but awesome exposed-element water boilers, this must be what pre-Revolution life was like–at least after the abolishment of serfdom, which allowed subsistence farmers to finally subsist on their farming.

In the 19th century, an anthropologist went to Pskov in northwestern Russia and came back with a fascinating solution to the age-old problem, “How on earth do Russians survive in that climate!?” They hibernate, he said. All summer and fall, they put up food for the winter, and then when winter comes, they all sleep, taking turns to bake bread and tend the fire. His study was later denounced as worse than pseudoscience (although really, wasn’t all anthropology until quite recently??), but I think it’s worth revisiting. A typical day in the village consists of waking up, eating, doing chores, eating, sleeping, eating, doing chores or relaxing, eating, then going to bed. If there are no chores (and there often aren’t, since all the animals have already been slaughtered, and the potato fields are frozen), then chores are replaced with visiting with friends or, more often, sleeping. If this isn’t hibernation, then it’s a mere semantic technicality away.

Russians wrote the book on set-and-forget foods long before Crockpots came into existence. Nevertheless, I did luck into one exciting cooking lesson, the only time that no one thought it was weird that I wanted to help out. So now I know how to make lapsha, Russian noodles. Not the most exciting of dishes, but nevertheless Russian. And, incidentally, not that common. You roll the dough out into very thin rounds and then leave it on the newspaper-lined pechka to dry out. Then you cut it into strips about 1.5 inches wide and 14 inches across, and then you cut short noodles out of each of those. Also, if you don’t make them very very even, Ljudmila’s mom will fuss at you. Once the lapsha is made, you put it back on the stove to dry completely, and then I guess you store it. We didn’t eat them while I was there.

I get scolded a lot for not eating enough bread. It’s a tricky thing, eating in the villages. You eat the soup that you’re given at the start of the meal, but you hardly get the spoon to your mouth  before someone insists that you take bread: “The soup doesn’t taste good without bread!” So you take the smallest piece of bread, because you’re already having potatoes, after all, and everyone notices. “Take more bread! Why aren’t you eating? Don’t you like our food?” And all this time you’re gazing mournfully at the bowls of vegetables and homemade pickles and blessed roasted pumpkin that you can’t get into your sourdough-stuffed mouth. Finally you eat enough bread to appease the locals, so you heap up your bowl with vegetables. “Eat more meat! Eat it before it gets cold!” By the time you get back to your vegetables, you don’t even want them. They are your enemy. You swallow them half-heartedly, wishing you’d practiced saying “no” into a mirror. We finally finish, and after I put my bowl away, I turn around to find it replaced with a huge mug of wild herb tea and an assortment of apricot pies, sweets, and shortbread cookies. The pies are homemade, so you can’t refuse one without offending the cook. Also, if you refuse any of it, you’re likely to be told that “Bread is what humans are made of, and if you don’t eat more of it you won’t have the strength to get home.”

In the evenings, Ljudmila and I would go visiting. Twice we went to a friend who has no teeth that aren’t gold, and we watched old recorded movies, ate fruit, and I got my butt soundly kicked in chess. He also pulled out a stack of pre-Revolution religious texts, and Ljudmila helped me read a bit of them. The most interesting one was called the “Chisoslov”, the book of prayers that used to be the primary schoolbook for children. It contains all the rites and prayers they’re expected to memorize or be familiar with. All the books were written not in Russian, but in Old Church Slavic, which you can see here.

One other night, we went to visit a young family with three kids: boys ages 9ish and 7ish, and a human dogwhistle of a toddler, Polina. They have a pechka that they built themselves, a cow from whose milk they make their own cheese, and copious amounts of honey that they eat  by the spoonful. I talked more with the dad, Sergej, who is a high school Russian teacher. It was nice to talk to someone whose life I understood a bit. Ljudmila is wonderful, but it’s hard to come up with things to talk about. She’s never traveled, never finished high school, she has no hobbies or job because she spends all of her time taking care of elderly relatives, and she, along with the rest of the house, decided that it was easier to do the chores themselves than to explain them to me.

I told you before that these guys believe that Fjodor someoneorother was the second coming of Christ. Finally on my last day, the patriarch sat me down and told me all about him, and I got an idea of how the New Testament might have sounded if it had been written by Russians. Understandably, it troubles the Fedorovtsys deeply that so few people know about Fjodor’s existence. It is, of course, because of this ignorance that we have the natural disasters and violence that we do. The beginning of this cycle, allegedly, was in 1921, when a great famine hit Russia. There was no rain for years, when you walked down the streets you would see your neighbors falling over dead or almost dead from hunger.

Here are some of Fjodor’s miracles:

1. When talking with some friends in a boat on the Don River, he climbed out, pushed them off, and then walked across the river behind them.

2. When he walked in the snow, he left no footprints.

3. The above was only sometimes true; when he did leave footprints, flowers grew through the snow.

4. When you’re sent to prison camp, the first place they send you is the banya. He went to the banya, and the guards, wishing to kill him, made the banya as hot as they could, well above the boiling point, and full of steam. They sent him in and waited. Two hours later, they figured he must have died in there, either too stubborn or too incapacitated by the heat to escape. They opened the door and were so overwhelmed by the heat that they couldn’t go in. They called to him, and he came out, apparently fine.

5. Also at the prison camp, he was made to walk on a lit pechka and hold a red-hot poker. After crossing himself and the objects in question, he was able to fulfill these tasks without injury.

At the end of this, we somehow digressed into the evils of processed foods (the food in Khruschev’s  time was better; the food just after the war was better still), after which the patriarch made a request: “When you go back to America, tell them we’re believers. Tell them how we live and what you saw here, and tell them that we believe.” I promised I would, and now I have.

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