Our friend Vasily – early contacts

Vasily and family

Vasily and family

In one of my very first posts on this blog called Planting Orchards in Belarus I mentioned our friend, Vasily, and promised that I would write more about him in a separate post. Well, two years on, I thought it was time to follow through on that promise.

In that earlier post, I chronicled our relationship with Belarus and the eventual disillusion that set in for my wife and me when our sustainable livelihoods initiative there foundered. Well, at least our attempts to set up large-scale community orchards.

One positive thing that came out of that experience is that we met Vasily. So I want to write about him and how we got to know him, and then in couple of posts I’ll talk about what happened next.

In 2005 we were invited by the local authorities to work in the town of Narovlya which is right down in the south of Belarus, near the border with Ukraine. So my wife went there to discuss potential projects. He was introduced to her as someone who put all his efforts into doing something: “If Vasily grows potatoes, they’ll be the tastiest. If he grows plums, they’ll be the biggest.” He was young, bright-eyed and smart. Although he spoke no English, he mercifully spoke Russian slowly so he was easy to understand.

Vasily had trained as an electrician and at the time we first met him he worked in a school, in charge of facilities rather than on the teaching staff. Although he lived in a block of flats with his wife and two children, he had been brought up in the countryside and was a country boy at heart. He had decided that he wanted to do something practical outside of his work and similar to what he had done in the village where he had been born. So he bought a little wooden dacha on the edge of town with about 3 hectares of land, grew his own potatoes and cereal, even kept a pig or two.

Vasily's dacha

Vasily’s dacha

Vasily's garden

Vasily’s garden

Vasily was 16 when the Chernobyl accident happened in 1986. He was born in a village about 12 kms south of Narovlya, closer to the border with Ukraine and Chernobyl. He told us: “At the time of the accident, people in the village were potato picking. Rumours went around that the Chernobyl nuclear power station had exploded. No one knew what that meant, and whether it was good or bad. A typical reaction was ‘If it’s blown up, then build it again.’ They didn’t know what radiation was.”

In the following days children still carried on going to school and then at the end of April the children were evacuated to camps. Over the next few weeks they were moved several times to ‘clean’ areas, but they still were not told what was happening. Two months later, he returned to his village and his parents were still living there.

It wasn’t until September/October that they were evacuated from the village and told to take only essentials as they would be coming back in 3 days time. So people just took essential papers, money and some clothes. In fact, they were never allowed back and soon after the village, with its houses and everyone’s possessions, was razed to the ground and buried in a pit. The village is now in part of the Chernobyl exclusion zone and people are still only allowed back one a year to visit family graves and lay flowers.

Vasily’s favourite hobby now was beekeeping which he had been doing now for about 10 years. After Chernobyl there had been many wild bees around and he first became interested in bees when he found a wild nest and took honey from it, even though he got stung. He did this a couple of times and when he went back a third time there was none left. From this simple beginning he taught himself beekeeping from books, as there was no one to help him do it.

Beehives in Vasily's garden

Beehives in Vasily’s garden

Vasily is absolutely fascinated by bees and their behaviour and I learnt an enormous amount about them just from talking to him. When we first met him he had about 30 hives at his dacha.

The queen lives for 5 years, but the first 3 years are best for honey production. Each hive has about 30,000 bees and in Summer a bee lives for c.30 days before it dies of overwork and worn out wings. In its short lifetime a bee collects about one teaspoonful and to produce 1 kg of honey they need to visit 12,000 flowers. The hives have bee guards at the entrance to stop bees from other hives from stealing their honey and they can recognise them by their smell.

What surprises him about bees? “They are hardworking, they don’t get tired and they gather so much honey.”

Bees don’t sleep. In Winter they slow down and clump together in the hive for warmth – they don’t hibernate – and eat about 10kg of honey. Belarus is very cold in Winter with temperatures going down to -20 degrees C, so Vasily keeps the hive warm with padding inside the top of the hive itself.  He has a mixture of types of hive, some factory made, some bought secondhand and some he has made himself. The Belarusian hives are also made of thicker wood to keep the bees warm in the Winter.

Hive with winter padding in the cover

Hive with winter padding in the cover

Vasily hardly needs to look at the hives in Winter, only occasionally tapping on the side of the hives and diagnosing from the resulting noise whether there is a problem with the hive. Normal hives make a buzzing noise which quickly dies down. Hives where there is a problem make a sort of continuous swishing noise. Lots of bees die at this time of year, so he needs to build up their strength after Winter.

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The bees stay in the hive from October through to the April. At the end of the Winter, the bees need to be cleaned, so if it’s still snowy he sprinkles sand on the ground for them to come out and fly around and do their ablutions. If he didn’t do this they would get snow-blind, fall to the ground and freeze to death.

One of his biggest problems is selling the honey. He does not have the time to sell at retail prices, so his only real option is to sell to a pan regional beekeeping association in Soligorsk, but the price they offer him fluctuates and they won’t always buy from him. He also produces wax but it would not be sufficiently profitable to sell it on its own – besides, he doesn’t produce enough of it.

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One of the key things about Vasily is that he is really enterprising. He works long hours at the dacha in the evenings, even in the Winter, making bits of equipment and tools that he cannot buy or afford. I asked him once whether it doesn’t get too cold to work at the dacha in Winter and he told me: “It’s fine – until it gets down to minus 10 degrees and then I go home.”

Mobile apiary?

Mobile apiary?

During one of our early visits he showed us an old railway wagon that he wanted to turn into a mobile apiary, so that he could take hives round to fields flowering at different times of year. It struck me, as I looked at the rusting hulk, that this was a bit of a pipe dream, but then again I didn’t know Vasily.

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Fire and Ice: the Orlov Revolt

 

From the top of the Venetian fortress in Koroni

From the top of the Venetian fortress in Koroni

It’s some while since I last did a post on the links between Greece and Russia, so I am going to pick up the theme again with this post about the Orlov Revolt in the 1770s. This was an attempt by Greek exiles in Russia, supported by Catherine the Great, to foment an overthrow of Ottoman rule in Greece.

One of the interesting aspects of this episode in Greek history is that some of its key scenes took place in Messinia, an area of the Peloponnese that I know a little, and specifically the harbours of Koroni, Methoni and Pylos.

It’s hard to find good material about the Orlov Revolt, so I am indebted to David Brewer’s book, Greece, the Hidden Centuries (2010) for the main lines of what happened.

The idea of a revolt against Ottoman rule was first raised in Russia in 1762 by Giorgos Papazolis, an artillery officer. Given leave of absence from the army, he went first to Venice and then on to Greece in 1766 to canvas support for the idea of an uprising, promising that the Turks would be overthrown and the Byzantine empire re-established.

Papazolis involved two brothers in the scheme, Aleksei and Fyodor Orlov. Aleksei had distinguished himself in the service of Catherine the Great by deposing and then murdering Catherine’s husband, Tsar Peter III. Fyodor was a distinguished general. It may be that their involvement with the Greek cause came as a result of the views of a third Orlov brother, Grigory, who advocated Greek Christian freedom from Ottoman rule.

Since the seventeenth century Russia had three key objectives to its foreign policy: to gain access to the Baltic (achieved through Peter the Great’s founding of St Petersburg); to acquire land to its western border as a buffer; and to gain access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Curiously it was the second of these, rather than the third which sparked conflict with the Ottoman Empire. In 1768 Catherine managed to have her favourite, Stanislav Poniatovsky elected to the crown of Poland, to the outrage of the Polish nobility who appealed to France and the Ottomans for help. When Russia ignored an ultimatum to withdraw, the Ottomans declared war.

It was at this point that the Orlov brothers, Aleksei and Fyodor went to Venice to raise money and volunteers for a Greek revolt. In 1769 Catherine the Great made Aleksei Orlov Commander-in-Chief of the Russian forces involved in the rebellion. Whilst he was still in Livorno on a separate mission for Catherine, his brother, Fyodor, arrived with the first Russian fleet of 9 ships and 60 men at the harbour of Itilo in the Mani (having for various reasons already lost 10 of the ships with which he had left the Baltic).

Fyodor established two armies under Russian command, called the Eastern and Western Legions. The Eastern Legion besieged Mystras in March 1770 until it surrendered after nine days, leading to the slaughter of 1,000 Turks and the capture of a further 1,000. One of its main achievements was also to set up a provisional government under Antonios Psaros.

The Western Legion’s main task was to join up with the Russian ships that were besieging the port of Koroni which the Russians wanted as a base for their fleet. Koroni was defended by a large fortress built by the Venetians which, following the fall of Byzantium in 1453, had enabled to hold out against the Turks until 1500. The Russian siege of Koroni, led by Fyodor Orlov, lasted for six weeks and achieved nothing.

Koroni harbour and fortress

Koroni harbour and fortress

Some other parts of Greece joined in the revolt, mainly Corinth, Patras, Nauplio, Monemvasia, Kiparisia and Crete. In the meantime Orlov was sending reports back to the Russian court claiming to be in control of the whole of the Peloponnese. 

However, at this point, as the Ottomans were being pressed by the Russians on other fronts outside of Greece they resorted to using Albanian mercenaries to relieve the sieges in Corinth, Patras and Tripolis. The Albanian mercenaries managed to raise the siege of Tripolis but then turned on the Greeks, slaughtering 3,000.

The Russians succeeded in capturing Navarino Bay, a great natural, sheltered harbour at Pylos.

Navarino Bay - looking towards the entrance

Navarino Bay – looking towards the entrance

At last in April 1770 Aleksei Orlov arrived in the Peloponnese and attempted to rally the Greek leaders by addressing them “all Orthodox Christian Greeks who are subject to the tyranny of the Turks”, promising them the Russians wanted the Greeks “to remain always under her care and protection”. But it was too little, to late. In May Aleksei Orlov attempted and failed to capture the fortress at Methoni.

Methone fortress

Methone fortress

The bourtzi [prison] at Methone

The bourtzi [prison] at Methone

The  Albanian mercenary forces started moving south from Tripolis to restore order, and the game was up. Many people in Messinia fled towards the Russian fleet at anchor in Navarino Bay seeking escape on the Russian ships, until Aleksei Orlov, closed the gates. He had by then decided to withdraw from Greece and abandon the Revolt, and on 6 June the Russian fleet set sail, leaving behind many thousands of Greek refugees to face the consequences.

For the next nine years the Albanian mercenaries devastated the Peloponnese, claiming they had not been paid. It is estimated that c.20,000 Greeks were seized and sold as slaves and a further 50,000 Greeks (about one sixth of the pre-Revolt population of the Peloponnese) fled to the Ionian Islands, Italy, other parts of Europe and to Russia (especially Crimea and Odessa). It was not until 1779 that the Ottomans were able to restore order in the Peloponnese.

The Russo-Turkish war was eventually brought to an end with the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774. The war had inflicted serious setbacks for the Ottoman Empire on land and sea and the peace treaty brought Russia significant land gains in the Southern Ukraine, the Crimea and North Caucasus. In addition it gave Russia status as official protector of Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire.

The outcome for Greece was a disaster: large parts of the Peloponnese were devastated, thousands of Greeks, Turks and Albanians were killed and a large proportion of the Greek population forced into exile. However, there were two key learnings that came out of it that were applied fifty years later in 1821 during the Greek War of Independence.

The first is that in order for independence to be achieved, there had to be a political structure in the form of a provisional government, to provide direction, consensus and cohesion amongst the rebel forces. Second, it provided a clear warning of the dangers of allowing foreign powers to interfere in Greek affairs. During the Orlov Revolt it became clear to the Greeks that they were at risk of swapping Ottoman rule for Russian overlords and this bred a distrust of the intentions of other countries’ support for Greek independence.