Before I go on with my next blog post about our friend, Vasily (see here for the first instalment), I want to share a little story of an unusual encounter that happened when I was with Vasily in Belarus.
For some reason which I could never fathom, the local authorities in Narovlya introduced me to Sergey, the broad-shouldered man in the centre of the photograph. He had what sounded to me like a grandiose plan for a development around a natural lake which he wanted to turn into a centre for hunting, shooting and fishing, with houses, a restaurant and a small hotel. His aim was to offer rest and relaxation for visitors from Minsk and Gomel (the regional capital) and possibly for foreigners.
The local authorities were not interested in helping him and he felt it was because: “Businesses are looked down on in Belarus. There are a lot of old Communists in the government who are used to living at someone else’s expense and not earning their own living”.
He took me to see the lake which was right out in the back of beyond. With no sign of human beings, it was just a wild, reed-fringed lake with birch forests beyond in their brilliant gold Autumn colours against a deep blue sky. The lake had carp and pike in it, as well as swans, ducks and herons; and Sergey claimed there were deer and wild boar in the forest.
He wanted to top up the water in the lake from a nearby canal and start clearing out the reeds which were encroaching into the lake by introducing a type of carp (it sounded something like a ‘barb-mouthed carp’) that would keep the vegetation down.
It was mind-silencingly beautiful and I could not understand why anyone would want to spoil it by bringing loads of people there and turning it into a tourist centre. Sergey, however, could not seem to grasp that this would spoil the place.
Anyway, he seemed to be involved in several businesses, one of which was a saw mill which is where we went next. But it was a saw mill with a difference. It has only been going for a year and employed 10 people, all of whom had lost their jobs, mainly due to drink. Vasily told me later that Sergey had told him that he was an ex-drinker.
Alcoholism is a terrible blight on Belarusian society (as it is in Russia too). I had seen it close up when I had stayed in remote Belarusian villages and been treated to amazing feasts punctuated by frequent toasts. With nothing to do, living lives of often hard physical labour through harsh winters and with no hope that things would ever improve, people turned to drink as the fastest way out of town. Even though distilling your own vodka was illegal, many people did it, hiding their gear out in the forests. I can assure you from my experience that their samogon (home-made vodka) was lethal.
I wondered how Sergey kept them in order. He had a couple of foremen who made sure they worked and if they came to work drunk they got fined. It was a very dangerous place for people to stagger around having had a drink or two, as there were a couple of vicious looking electric saws with no guards on them. My friend Vasily was horrified at the lack of basic safety precautions.
Sergey provided them with accommodation too and was adamant that many of them came right in the end. If they asked him to help them stop drinking, he paid to send them to a doctor and after 1-2 sessions they usually gave up. I was curious as to what sort of doctor this might be that could perform miracle cures of alcoholism in such a short time, but did not get any clear answers.
Sergey got the contracts to supply timber, usually for companies in Minsk, and then sourced and bought the timber for finishing at the sawmill. In addition to the saws, he had a couple of tractors, an old lorry and a drying house which he wanted to use to cure the wood and install a lathe to add value to the raw timber by making shaped wood (tongue and groove, etc).
The workers got paid c.$100 per month, which is the same as what forestry workers received. Whilst we were there, some of the lads were loading up the lorry to take palleted rough timber up to Minsk which it has taken them about a month to prepare.
I was curious about his background. He used to be a tractor driver before working in forestry. Then he started buying spare parts in Minsk, taking them over the border to Ukraine and selling them, which at the time was against the law. He saw that this was not going to lead anywhere and a friend lent him some money to set up his own business in the village. He looked around, rented some land next to his parents home and set up the sawmill there. The sawmill had a good strong wooden fence round it which he said was there ‘to keep out the old Communists’.
To my friend Vasily’s huge amusement, Sergey called the sawmill the Pilorama (Saw-o-rama). As we were leaving the sawmill one of the workers came up to Sergey and asked him for a drink, and Sergey gave him a quick shot from a clear plastic bottle in his car.
Neither Vasily nor I could really understand what this was all about and why he thought that I might be able to help him. Our projects were all about sustainable livelihoods and using small amounts of money to try to make a big difference in people’s lives, not supporting businesses. But I often wonder whether the lake project ever got off the ground and what happened to the lads at the sawmill.