By TOM BELL
KRASNY YAR, Russia.
Spring has come to Krasny Yar. You can smell it in the sawdust. Listen to the whine of the chainsaws and the scattered thuds of falling axes. Every family is cutting and splitting wood for next winter. It’s strange, in the sunlight of spring, to see people preparing for winter. But early spring is the best time for such tasks. The wood is frozen and easy to split, and the men are home. All winter they’ve been away in the forest hunting and trapping.
“Spring is the busiest time of the year,” said my friend Radion Sulyandziga, who began digging a new well after he finished splitting a year’s supply of wood. Unlike in February, the last time I was here, he had no time to play chess with me.
Most of the people in the village are Udegeh. Before the communists came to power, the Udegeh were nomadic and lived in clans along the banks of rivers.
“Springtime is hungry time,” the village elders say. In the old days, the Udegeh didn’t hunt animals that were pregnant or had offspring. Today, the Udegeh stop hunting in spring for the same reason.
Before the Soviet power had reached their mountains 70 years ago, the Udegeh hunted mostly for food. Now they hunt for fur, which they sell to the state cooperative for cash. Most of their food now comes from kitchen gardens or the village store.
The reason I came to Krasny Yar was to see my friend Svetlana, who manages that store. “Springtime is a time of problems,” she told me.
Indeed. While she was at work, I discovered the storage space under her kitchen floor was filled with water from melting snow. She had stored several hundred pounds of potatoes from her garden there — enough to feed herself and her two daughters for six months. When she came home, she climbed into the waist-deep water to save her potatoes, piling them into a bucket, which I emptied into a corner of the kitchen. She stood in frigid water for more than an hour, refusing to let me take her place. She was exhausted and shaking when she climbed out.
In a few days the potatoes — now piled three-feet high on the kitchen floor — dried without any sign of rot.
The morning I left Krasny Yar, a tractor left 13 logs in front of Svetlana’s house. The largest were two-feet thick. After I leave, she’ll split the wood herself, she said. We walked across the river that flows alongside the village. The river separates Krasny Yar from the road system, and now the ice was too thin for vehicles to cross. Soon it will be open water. Groceries for her store will have to be ferried by boat across the river.
As I rode the bus home to Khabarovsk, I thought about the foreign businessmen I meet in Khabarovsk. They invariably complain there’s no work ethic in Russia. They should come to Krasny Yar in springtime.