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American author explains why rural Russia is home

MOSCOW (Reuters Life!) - By her own admission Laura Williams was a university educated, city-reared American who just wanted to explore the world.

So the story of how she came to live in the isolated southern Russian village of Chukhrai and raise two sons has inspired her to write a book about the first year of her life in one of the most remote corners of Europe.

“It’s not the life I would ever have imagined for myself,” Williams told Reuters. “But now I can’t imagine another one.”

She dipped another tortilla chip into a bowl of chili con carne in an American-style diner in central Moscow and popped it into her mouth. Her curly auburn hair fell loosely over her shoulders and the music whirled in the background.

“Russians talk about fate and I think that’s what it was.”

A few hours after talking to Reuters, Williams, 39, was due to catch the overnight train to a station just a few hours drive along dirt tracks to Chukhrai, where she lives with her husband, the photographer Igor Shpilenok, and their two sons, aged seven and four.

In 1997 Williams, who had left the U.S. five years earlier with degrees from Cornell and Yale Universities, had been working in Moscow at the environmental group World Wildlife Fund, now WWF.

She visited a project set up by Shpilenok near Chukhrai when he asked her if she wanted to work on a conservation park. Although Williams said she had noticed Shpilenok, they were not in a relationship and she said no.

But on the journey back from Chukhrai, Williams helped a young woman give birth in a train.

“The next day I got back to Moscow and thought this was kind of a sign,” she said.

“I felt like I’d lived in Russia long enough to pay attention to such signs and I decided there and then to quit my job in Moscow and go and live on the nature reserve.”

The home she moved to in 1997 was a two-room cabin, had no running water and the nearest shop was 60 km away (37 miles).

“In Europe, I don’t think you can find anything more remote,” she said.

Williams’s parents, a doctor and a lawyer, have been supportive, she said, but her brother, Hollywood movie producer Mark Williams, does not understand.

“Him and I are very different. He always called me a tree-hugger and I called him a star-kisser,” she explained.

There were 15 other, mainly elderly people, in Williams’s tumbling wooden village, communities in Russia where alcoholism and religion are often entwined.

And a handful of poachers.

“The reason we bought the house was that it was back-to-back with the house of a notorious poacher,” Williams said. “He had threatened to burn our house down but couldn’t do so if they were joined.”

Williams and Shpilenok have since built a bigger house in the same village with running water, the Internet and a telephone line but the isolation remains and she intends to educate her oldest son from home.

And what she can’t buy, Williams has learned to make -- including peanut butter and bagels.

“I do miss good coffee, though,” she said.

Williams, who has also worked for WWF in Russia’s Far East, describes the first year of her life in Chukhrai in her book “The Storks’ Nest”.

“I’m happy watching the storks nest in our backyard,” she said. “Every year the storks come and build a nest. We have also built a home and a family.”

Editing by Paul Casciato