I’ve been away from Moscow for a long time now. When I look outside, I see snow falling; when I left, it was still summer. I guess I owe an explanation for why my trip took a little longer than anticipated. It all started the day I arrived in the village of Kachalovka.
A horse carriage was bringing me from the last railway stop to Kachalovka. We had been going for several hours, and now the track was going through woods strewn over hills, the sun shining through the leaves. The road was bumpy, and reading was impossible, not to speak of writing, so my documents and papers were neatly stuffed away in the leather briefcase I had bought at Yenkovski’s back in Moscow.
Instead, I was thinking of how the villagers would welcome me and how I would thank them for welcoming me so graciously. Then I would call an assembly and the village elders would sit in the village hall. Their eyes would open wide with astonishment at the presentation I had prepared: How electrisation would benefit them, how a tractor would make it so much easier for them to work much larger fields, how they would be able to afford and accomplish all of this simply by asking for a government-mandated loan from the nearby estate. They would thank me for my wisdom, I would thank them for listening to me, and I would be on my way the very next day. No need for much luggage: What little I had was also in the briefcase.
Oh, how foolish I was.
I grabbed my briefcase and jumped out of the carriage as soon as it finally rolled into the assembly of huts that formed the whole village. A few peasants had already emerged out of their huts and suspiciously mustered me. No word was spoken until one of them, with a magnificent grey beard and a queer-looking right eye, finally turned around to face the others, proclaimed “So here we have our very own Young Narodnik”, giggled, shook his head and walked away. The faces of the others, which had so far shown at least indifferent interest, now went numb again – if I hadn’t known better, some even looked hostile, strange as it may sound – and they too started to walk away.
Of course, I was very surprised by this development. First of all, I had sent a letter announcing my arrival. Had it been censored beyond all recognition? Lost? Arrived in another village, where a confused village elder scolded the other peasants right now, asking why the announced agitator in economic and instructor in agricultural matters from Moscow hadn’t arrived yet? That was still understandable. But that title – “Young Narodnik”? As the reader knows, the Narodniks were a small – very small – “movement” of students in the last century. They moved out of the cities and tried to live with the peasants and to provoke a general revolt, with which they obviously failed because they were Socialists and the peasants were true to the Tsar! But I wasn’t a Socialist – I was just in Kachalovka to make the peasants accept economic modernisation. That was a vital difference! How could the peasants not notice this? Surely, they weren’t that backwards?
Those or similar were my thoughts while I was standing there, left to gather dust by the peasants. The carriage was still standing behind me, the driver waiting to be allowed to go back. If I simply got back in, sat back down, we would roll back through those woods, we would probably still catch the evening train and I would have breakfast in a Moscow café at noon. I would write an editorial for this very paper demanding a new approach to the peasant problem – and yes, I knew a policy change quite similar to this one had been demanded before, but this time it was the will of the people of Russia and therefore serious business, so shut up, Ivanov, I was right – and we all would have been able to continue our merry little debate without any change whatsoever.
However, in some strange impulse probably connected to my wounded pride, I decided to order the driver away and stay. Where, I didn’t know. But I did know that those peasants would take their loan and would buy that tractor, whatever it would take.
But as it turned out, the normal answer to barging into a peasant’s hut to inform them about the benefits of modern agricultural theory was getting raked in the stomach, so I had to change my approach. I managed to find out that the old man with the queer-looking eye went by the name of Filiminov and was the village eldest. I approached him and stated my request for a village meeting, where I hoped I would be able to bring my point across more easily in a more formal setting, and as the sun had already set and the air was growing cooler, I connected this with an attempt at finding accommodation in his hut. After a short mustering from his eyes, sunken deep into the browned skin, he allowed me to sleep on his oven – in exchange for me working his farm the next day.
The day became weeks. As I was working together with Filiminov in the fields under the scorching summer sun, he kept delaying my request. “Everyone’s been busy today, you will only have bad listeners if you make them sit today.” “Let’s tend to the cows first, or there won’t be any breakfast tomorrow.” My attire soon turned into a dirt-crusted net of rags, but I did not accept his offering me some of his clothes. I was not here to become a peasant, I was here to tell them how to better themselves.
So, I kept working. I sent a letter to you all with the weekly cart going to the town market, announcing I would be staying longer. That letter did get lost on the way to Moscow, I hear, while I soon found out that the letter I had sent ahead to Kachalovka had in fact arrived: I used it as tinder for Filiminov’s oven one evening.
When I had stuffed down my dinner – we had been up from before dawn, and it was now a few hours after dusk – I asked him about why they hadn’t greeted me on my arrival if they had gotten the letter after all. He laughed me in the face and asked me why I was even here:
“What do you aim to accomplish? What is it that brought you all the way from Moscow?”
“Well, we students at the Russian State Agrarian University believe that it’s our duty to bring the methods of agricultural production we research to you, the peasants. We don’t only want to do our job for the estate owners who can afford to electrify their farming. Electricity is democratic, and so should be electrisation!”
Filiminov looked at me, his face lit by the timbers glowing in the oven, his eyes small glimmering dots.
“That is really what you think?”
I nodded, my face still hot from delivering a little of the tirade that I had stowed away for some time now.
He stood up and grabbed his coat.
“Come with me. I wish to show you something.”
We stepped out of the hut. In pitch darkness, he threw his cart’s yoke over his complaining oxen and made me sit down on the cart, on top of the stack of hay that we had brought in today and would be stowing away tomorrow. We slowly made our way through the village and along the road when Filiminov started speaking.
“You know, my Great-grandfather already lived in Kalachovka. He was still a serf, obviously, not better than a slave. All the ground still belonged to the lord back then.”
“And then serfdom was abolished, which was a great step forwards – “
“Yes, but my grandfather still needed to ask the lord for permission to leave the village. And the land was now owned by the villages, which were accountable to the lord, and each year he got assigned his share and had to work that.”
My eyes had now gotten used to the darkness, and I saw the stars shining on the sea of grain that we were passing through. I could hear it moving in the cool wind.
“Progress isn’t instant.”
“And then my father finally got his land, but it was still owned by the lord and he worked his back until it broke to pay off the debt. Now it belongs to me.”
We left the fields and were now moving through forested hills. Filiminov brought the oxen to a halt and showed me to follow him on foot. Without any idea what the whole adventure was good for, I obliged, and we trotted to the top of the hill.
We could look down in the grassy valley beyond, and there were – lights. An impressive estate was fully lit, in a brightness that only electric light could have accomplished. We could see several people sitting on the front porch. Behind an opened barn door, there were several tractors lined up in an orderly row. The sound of glasses and laughing came up to the hilltop, where we were standing in cold darkness.
“Well I’ll be damned, they’re having a party again. There you go. This is the former lord’s estate of Kalachovka. You see those tractors? Guess where we’re supposed to be buying ours from. Guess who we’re supposed to take our loans from. It’s all just added steps.”
I could feel him staring at me now.
“For you, young gentleman, those tractors just mean progress. God help you, are you far off the mark. You may think you know what you’re talking about, but out here you damn as well might know nothing. But you think you know what’s going on, eh? We’re just someone to convince of your new methods.
Oh, shut up. I know that in the Duma, you people like to claim to talk for us. Oh yes, there are actual peasants in the self-government institutions that bring the word of what’s going on. It takes time, but we know what’s happening in Moscow and Petersburg. And let me tell you: We don’t care. We don’t live in the same Russia.”
He spat at my feet.
“You know why I’m the eldest in Kalachovka? Because my father died in the war against the Germans. He was called into service, he left the village and he never came back. As did everyone else his age. Or then they died in the war against the Reds, either by bullet or by hunger. I guess you people in Moscow will care for a war in my lifetime, and I’ll leave and fight and die too.”
I could hear him walking back down the hill now, through the brush, towards his cart.
“You can come with me or you can go down there. It doesn’t make any difference to me – I’ll probably never hear of you again. It’s all yours to decide.”