March 14, 2007 / 2:00 AM / 11 years ago

Vodka and isolation: welcome to rural Russia

<p>Sergei Kopylov (L) shares a drink with his father Pyotr at their house in the village of Zimnitsy, about 400 kilometres (249 miles) northwest of the capital Moscow, February 24, 2007. Russian villages are undergoing a process of depopulation, with most young people leaving for cities to find lucrative employment and leaving the elderly behind in largely impoverished settlements. Picture taken February 24, 2007. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor</p>

ZIMNITSY, Russia (Reuters) - Friday is when the action happens in this isolated Russian village, six hours’ drive north from Moscow along icy roads, past smoggy industrial towns and through vast pine forests.

That’s the day the mobile shop makes its weekly visit selling life’s little luxuries to Zimnitsy’s 10 inhabitants.

“I’ve bought bread, frozen fish, cigarettes and vodka,” said 53-year-old Vitaly as he bent over to load his tattered rucksack. “What more can a Russian want?”

Village life in Russia seems to have been dragged unwillingly into the 21st century.

Zimnitsy once was three or four times bigger and boasted its own full-time shop, but the crumbling wooden houses now bear silent witness to a population movement away from Russia’s countryside into the cities.

Alcoholism, devout religious faith and a sense of scratching a living on the fringes of civilization -- the hallmarks of the Russian countryside down the ages -- linger, sometimes just below the surface.

Vitaly looked up and grinned from beneath his ragged fur hat and grubby, thick-rimmed glasses. He wasn’t finished yet: “I know English,” he said and stood up straight. “To be or not to be, that is the question!” he bellowed, evidence that Shakespeare has penetrated even rural Russia.

The four people in the queue for the green goods truck in the center of the village took no notice, concentrating instead on keeping their positions in the line.

They stamped their felt boots to keep warm. Temperatures of around 20 degrees Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit) below zero froze their breath.

SICKLY AFTER-TASTE

Some, though, have chosen to move here. In one house, Sergei Kopylov was philosophizing: “It’s better to be first here than second in St Petersburg,” he said.

He reached for a large clear bottle and poured another glass of samogon -- the Russian word for homebrewed alcohol.

Kopylov is 50 years old. But his long unkempt beard, unwashed hair, gaunt features and heavily lined face made him look 20 or 30 years older.

“To Russia,” he said and slugged the clear samogon down his throat. Fermented from cow’s milk, it is stronger than vodka and leaves a sickly after-taste.

<p>Fishermen ride a horse-drawn sled across the ice of Seliger lake in front of the village of Priozernaya, about 420 kilometres (261 miles) northwest of the capital Moscow, February 28, 2007. Russian villages are undergoing a process of depopulation, with most young people leaving for cities to find lucrative employment and leaving the elderly behind in largely impoverished settlements. Picture taken February 28, 2007. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor</p>

Kopylov’s cracked, dirty fingers lifted a fork full of iced cabbage to his mouth which he swallowed to wash away the taste.

It was midday and Kopylov was in fine mood. Five shots of samogon had jollied him and he had stocked up on sausages and fish from the mobile shop.

He shares his house with four cats, three dogs, his speechless father and his girlfriend, Tatyana. He used to live in cramped communal accommodation in St Petersburg but gave it up for a quieter life in the countryside.

Dirt coated the wooden interior walls of the house and a wood fire kept the place warm.

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An energy-saving electric light bulb dangling by a single wire from the ceiling, a digital clock flickering in the corner and a mobile phone hanging by its cord from a nail in the wall were the only modern intrusions into the 19th-century scene.

Further down the lane an old woman lives alone in a Spartan wooden shack, Kopylov said. She spends her days praying, collecting fire wood or drawing water from a well.

DACHNIKI AS SAVIOURS

Russia is growing rich on from its minerals and energy resources. Moscow’s streets are jammed with the latest Western cars and European chefs cook up fancy dishes in the restaurants.

Along the shores of Lake Seliger, just six km (four miles) through the woods from Zimnitsy, the Dacha or holiday home is returning. Muscovites and others -- known as Dachniki -- are either buying old houses or building new ones.

After a post-Soviet Union slump, the villages around popular beauty spots are returning to life.

“The Dachniki have been our saviour,” said Viktor Vinogradov, who has lived in Priozyornaya on the lake all his life. He fishes and builds houses for the Dachniki. “They come here with their money and spend it.”

Back in Zimnitsy, Kopylov had been showing off by thrashing his sleigh, pulled by a ragged-looking horse, through the snow.

He marched into his house primed for another shot of samogon.

“You can’t just understand Russia with your head,” he said. “You have to understand it with your heart.”

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