Baba Sasha has lived most of her 82 years in a hilly lakeside village that never got big enough to merit a dot on the map.
Now it never will.
The last neighbor left 10 years ago, leaving Baba Sasha and her invalid son, Tolya, alone in their rickety wooden house. The rutted roads, lined with birch and yellowing winter weeds, are emptier than ever.
When Baba Sasha and her son die, the hamlet of Rechka will die with them, joining the more than 140,000 Russian villages that have been abandoned over the last three decades.
Among the most difficult legacies that Soviet leaders must face as they try to feed the country is the prolonged rural flight that has stripped many areas of up to half their population, leaving only a scattering of ghost towns across parts of the Russian heartland.
“We Bolsheviks have wrought such havoc with the peasant and his agrarian world that much of it will never return,” said Vyacheslav I. Bragin, a lawmaker and former Communist Party official from the region near Rechka, a swampy corner about 300 miles northwest of Moscow.
“If we don’t restore these Russian traditions, we’ll lose ourselves as a people,” Bragin said. “The Russian character, the Russian nature, has always been based in the village, on the muzhik ,” the hardy male peasant.
Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel literature laureate, warned in a prescription for Russia’s salvation last summer that the broken bond between displaced peasant and land “poses a great danger to the national psyche.”
“At present, the peasant sensibility is so downtrodden and eradicated among our people that it may not be possible to revive it,” he wrote. “It is late, much too late.”
The decline of the countryside has spawned an entire school of writers extolling Russia’s roots in the peasantry, who lived in harmony with nature and God before the onset of brutal technological progress fueled by Communist ideology. They are known as the derevenshchiki, from derevnya, the word for village.
“We tried to impose a scheme out of books on real people” and succeeded mainly in crushing much of what was good in the Russian peasantry, acknowledged Bragin, once the party chief of a rural district.
Baba Sasha--her real name is Alexandra Golubtsova but she is known to all as Baba, or Grandma, Sasha--remembers the first major blow to small farmers under the Soviet regime. The “dekulakization” that began in the late 1920s sought to liquidate the class of kulaks, or rich peasants, by deporting them to Siberia or killing them.
“They took away the cows and horses, they took everything from the kulaks,” she said. “The kulaks were the ones who worked day and night. Then they were ‘dekulakized’ and only idiots were left.”
Dictator Josef Stalin’s regime killed millions of peasants through hunger or repression to forcibly collectivize small farms. But it was the manipulation of later leaders seeking greater farming efficiency that sealed the fate of villages like Rechka, once a community of 11 homesteads.
Beginning in the 1960s, authorities who sought to funnel peasants from some of the country’s 700,000 villages into centralized “agro-cities” surrounded by giant collective farms pronounced tens of thousands of villages “unpromising” and stopped providing them with services.
Stores, clinics, schools and social clubs were closed, road construction stopped and the doomed villages were left to wither, Bragin recalled. Young people left in droves.
“Simple people lived here, many from the Ukraine,” Baba Sasha said. “I was used to them. Now there’s no one to go see, no place to visit.” Only foundations are left of the old farmsteads nearby.
In Sofievka, a hamlet of two dozen wooden houses down the road from Rechka, the old schoolhouse is a rotting mass of collapsed timbers and Alexei Susurnov, a farm worker of 43, is considered the village’s youth.
Susurnov does not plan to stay.
“There’s nothing to do here,” he said, gazing shyly at the wood floor of the house he shares with his aged mother, a steel-toothed babushka in a white kerchief. “A lot has changed. It’s gotten unpeopled. This is a dying village.”
The government of the Russian Federation, committed to President Boris N. Yeltsin’s pledge to “resurrect Russia,” promulgated a broad program this month to improve life in the countryside and encourage city dwellers to move there. The program promises special credits and better supplies of consumer goods to country folk and calls for investment in rural areas to take priority over that in the cities.
Alexander Kushnarev, chairman of the Moldino collective farm in the Tverskaya region, said attempts to repopulate the countryside were crucial to getting more land under cultivation because “the people left and were not replaced by machines.”
Plots of land totaling millions of acres have simply gone out of cultivation because their masters left, officials say. Now, instead of feeding the Russian people with their bounty, the abandoned fields and meadows are disappearing under scrubby forests of birch and gray alder.
Kushnarev and other members of the Russian Federation’s Parliament welcomed the government’s plan, but were skeptical about its promises.
“Where will they get the money from?” he asked. “And what farmer will go to a Godforsaken village if there’s nothing there?”
Statistics about Russian rural living show highly primitive conditions, with the vast majority of villages lacking plumbing and many still without gas, electricity and telephones.
A lawmaker from the central Kostroma region told the Russian Parliament earlier this month that conditions where he lived were so harsh that only 9% of the men reached retirement age. Nearly 80% of the Russian Federation’s road network consists essentially of dirt tracks unsuitable for passenger cars, and two-thirds of Soviet agricultural work is done by hand.
The country folk have their own perspective on why their neighbors have left and what will bring them back.
“They wanted an easy life in the city,” Baba Sasha said. “In the country, you have to work.”
She grows potatoes, cabbages, beets and carrots and still tends her chickens and sheep, goes haying in the summer, gathers berries and mushrooms, launders, cleans the house and heats it by feeding logs into the massive stone oven, on which she sleeps at night.
“We have everything, except there’s no light. I guess we haven’t earned it,” she said with a chuckle.
Baba Sasha said she expected people to stream back to the villages when food supplies got so bad they had no choice.
“Instead of standing in line for nothing, they’ll come back here,” she said, indicating that in the villages, at least, people can grow their own food.
At this point, however, the only city dwellers who have come back to the Rechka area are summer people who can pick up an abandoned izba , as the traditional Russian wooden houses are known, for the ruble equivalent of a couple of hundred dollars and fix it up for rare visits.
“The future of Sofievka is vacation cottages,” said Ivan I. Mamayev, who was born in the village 75 years ago and still lives there. “We had 22 cows and now there are only six. And so much has grown over with weeds.”
He added: “You cannot revive the village. You cannot raise up the old people. They’re stuck in rotten holes.”
Many Russian politicians say they are counting on land reform to give the countryside new life. The Russian Parliament recently passed a law allowing private ownership of land in the Soviet Union’s largest republic.
But the peasants themselves appear to be unreceptive toward private land ownership, afraid the land will be bought out from under them by the rich.
Victor Mamayev, a city dweller who was visiting his mother, Zina, in Sofievka one recent weekend, scoffed at the idea that people like her would be able to buy the land.
“What can she buy it with when all she has is 1,000 rubles she has saved for her burial?” he asked.
Although less than four months’ wages for an average factory worker, 1,000 rubles is more than his mother receives in a year for her old age pension. It amounts to about $600 at the commercial rate of exchange.
Bragin said he doubts that private land ownership will catch on, not because Russian peasants lack money but because they lack ambition and tend to think they have all they need.
“A peasant’s life plans don’t include remodeling the house, seeing the world. He says he’d just like some cigarettes and a hat,” Bragin said.
Sofievka lies half an hour of bone-shaking ruts from a paved highway and has no plumbing, no sewage system, no social club and only one telephone for the entire village. Yet--when asked how they lived--it was striking how many people said with a smile, “We have everything.”
In the virtual absence of attention from the government, aside from twice-weekly bread deliveries and $42-a-month pensions, the residents of Sofievka and Rechka, like those in hundreds of thousands of other villages, lead self-sufficient lives.
They fish in nearby Lake Shlino, slaughter their own animals, make valenki --the thick, classically Russian felt boots--from the wool of their own sheep and preserve their own fruits, berries and vegetables.
They also build their own wooden bathhouses.
“Everyone who’s not lazy or a drunkard has his own banya, " Baba Sasha said.
In a special, almost holy ritual on Saturdays, the residents of Sofievka heat their shed-sized, lakeside banyas for three or four hours, then let out most of the smoke and clamber into the hot, hickory-scented darkness for a thorough cleaning.
With only the light of the lantern to give the smoke a ghostly glow, they splash themselves with lake water from tubs, scrub with cloth and soap to get the week’s dirt out of every pore and whip themselves lightly with branches to stimulate the circulation.
As villages die, Bragin said, it is traditions like this one that die with it.
“The best in the countryside is being exterminated,” he said. “Everything is withering and dying.”