Autumn melancholy in Esenin

Autumn birch trees in Belarus

Esenin, though not well-known in the west, is a very popular poet in Russia. Active in the early 20th century, he is the poet of the countryside and of nostalgia for the beauty of nature. Having achieved early success, he was lionised in St Petersburg society and literary circles. But success brought its own curse and a year after this poem was written, he hanged himself in a room at the Hotel Angleterre in the capital.

The poem seems to express the anguish or conflict he felt in the contrast between his current way of life in the big city and the beauty and simplicity of the countryside.

In Russian the poem has a particular rhythm and also rhymes, this musicality contributing to its distinctive melancholy tone and atmosphere. I have been trying to find a way of rendering this poem into English while maintaining both rhyme and rhythm, but all my attempts overcomplicate it and pack out the lines simply to make the metre work. Here’s one attempt at the first stanza:

The birch wood all in golden autumn dressed
Beguiles me into staying with its song,
And mournful cranes now flying home to rest
Show not a shred of pity for the throng.

So, I’l go with this for now:

The golden trees, speaking
In their own bright birch tongue, dissuaded me,
And sad cranes flying overhead
No longer feel sorry for anyone.

Who should they feel sorry for? For еvery wanderer in the world
Will pass by, call in and then leave home again.
The hemp field dreams of all those who have gone
While the broad moon shines over the blue pond.

Standing alone amid the bare plain,
While the wind carries the cranes off into the distance,
My head is full of thoughts of my happy youth,
But I don’t regret a thing about my past.

No regrets for the years wasted in vain,
No regrets for my soul’s lilac hue.
In the garden the fire of a red rowan burns,
But it can’t consume anyone.

The rowanberry clusters are not burnt,
The grass will not disappear from its yellowness.
As a tree silently drops its leaves,
I let fall sad words.

And if time, scattering them in the wind,
Rakes them all into into one useless heap,
Say this…that the golden trees
In their sweet tongue, dissuaded me.

. [1924]

Belarus and the impact of Chernobyl on its struggle for freedom

Here’s an article I wrote about Belarus that has recently been published here, based on my experiences of visiting the country over many years,

‘CIA! CIA!’ the man wobbling towards me on his bike shouted as I tried to take his photograph. It was a shock. My embarrassed companions moved me on. We were standing in the main road through a small village deep in southern Belarus in the early 1990s where foreigners were a rare sight indeed, probably ‘spies’. My companions were a 12-year-old girl, Tanya, who my wife and I had hosted the previous year for a month’s recuperation in the UK, and her mother.

This was the first of many visits to this little-known country, independent of the Soviet Union since 1991, and much fought over across the centuries by invading armies from east and west. When the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened in 1986, Belarus was suddenly no longer just a name on a map. Heavily contaminated by the fallout, its children were some of the worst affected with a high incidence of radiation-induced cancers.

Tanya’s visit and first stay with us, arranged by a charity in Wells, drew us into a close connection with the country and its people. Over the years, the charity has invited over 400 children to stay with local families. Charities like ours sprang up all over the UK and Europe, inviting children for recuperative holidays with families, offering a warm welcome, healthy food, medical treatment and all sorts of entertainments. They enabled hundreds of thousands of Belarusian children to spend time abroad, forging links with families and communities, experiencing a different way of life and seeing different possibilities for themselves and ultimately, perhaps, for their own country.  It was driven by a spontaneous humanitarian impulse and had nothing to do with international power politics.

Belarus is a country of contrasts: the north and west more catholic and developed, the south more orthodox and conservative; nostalgic for the stability of Soviet power but fascinated by the west. A peasant society, it has urbanised fast – three quarters of its 9.5m plus population now live in towns and cities. Many of the rural families whose children came to stay in Wells seemed very passive and reluctant to discuss politics. It was as if it was something remote and unconnected with how they lived their lives. They were also some of the warmest, kindest and most welcoming people I have ever met.

Alexander Lukashenko, the so-called ‘last dictator in Europe’, currently struggling to hold on to power, was elected President in 1994. Then, slowly, after that first flush of independence in 1991, things began to close down again. Even the radical, free thinking people I knew were less keen to talk about the régime. Denis, a professor of English in Minsk, told me that a country gets the government it deserves and was contemptuous of the mass of the people who had voted Lukashenko into office. But beyond that, silence.

Natasha, a teacher in Svetlogorsk, who cooperated with us on sustainable livelihood projects, told me she was frequently called in for interviews by the local KGB after our visits ‘to find out what the foreigners were doing’. We supported another friend Dmitry in developing beekeeping and orchard growing in a small town called Narovlya, near the Ukrainian border. He told a similar story about the KGB.

Belarusian TV, always on in the background when visiting people’s homes, broadcast news with a political slant. This came home to me really strongly when I visited the country in 1998 during the war in Kosovo. Wherever I went, I was buttonholed by good friends, as well as people I had just met, asking me why NATO was bombing ‘our brother Slavs’. Their view was coloured by the selective presentation of the conflict on state TV. How could I expect people to have a sense of the conflict as a whole and of the Serbian war crimes?

By the early noughties, my wife and I had moved on from hosting children to supporting community initiatives in Belarus, such as growing vegetables in polytunnels, encouraging microfinance schemes and orchard growing. Local officials, initially keen to support our projects, gradually cooled off. As happened in Russia, for example, where Oxfam ran some very successful microfinance projects, foreign aid became seen as a way for funding to be channelled to political opponents and was officially discouraged. It became increasingly difficult for us to operate. From meetings at the local council offices in Narovlya, we were reduced to having our last meeting out in the forest, where our official contact could plausibly claim to her superiors that she had bumped into us by accident. Our project funding was modest and community focused: they wanted us to set up a meat processing plant.

Amid the gathering gloom there were bright spots. Wherever we went in Belarus, we came across families whose children had been abroad, the memories and the friendships made still cherished. Often the children were spurred on to learn their host families’ languages, work harder at school, do better for themselves.

We enjoyed some success in our own modest projects; our friend Dmitry, for example, was keen to make the transition from school maintenance man to self-employed smallholder. We encouraged and financed his venture for several years until he was able to become more self-sufficient

Then we met Alexey – a remarkable man from the north of Belarus, introduced to us by the British Embassy in Minsk. He was bright and very positive. Until Lukashenko came to power, he had been a member of the Belarusian parliament, but he quickly saw the way that things were going under the new president and gave up politics completely to return to his native village.

Alexey’s view was that the country could only be transformed from the grassroots up, not through national politics, so he devoted himself to setting up projects in his native village to encourage self-reliance and resilience in the local population. These included a bakery that employed local people; green energy projects; creating a business-incubator to provide seed-corn funding to local small business start-ups; and founding a credit union. All very forward thinking.

Alexey invited President Lukashenko for a visit and after that things got more difficult with unannounced tax and other inspections, withdrawal of support from local officials and harassment for receiving funding from German project investors. The good news is, he’s still going strong because he refuses to be put off by these clumsy interventions.

We’re still in touch now and again with Tanya, the girl who first came to stay with us nearly 30 years ago. She lives and works in St Petersburg these days. I thought of her again recently, when reading about Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (they’re about the same age) who stood against Lukashenko in the presidential elections two weeks ago. She is claiming she won, alleging that the ‘official’ outcome showing an 80 per cent vote in favour of Lukashenko was rigged. Forced to flee for her life, she is now in exile in Lithuania, from where she is leading the peaceful and widely-supported struggle in Belarus to overthrow the existing regime.

Of course, the fact that a once passive people has found its voice is down to many factors, not least the power of social media to connect, facilitate the exchange of ideas and mobilise people. I would like to think, however, that all those personal connections hundreds of thousands of Belarusian children made with families in other European countries also had an impact on changing the national mentality and, in some measure, their country’s future. I do not think it’s a coincidence that , as a child,Tikhanovskaya  was invited to Ireland on recuperative visits and subsequently became an English teacher. If I’m right then it would be a really positive, if totally unexpected, legacy of Chernobyl.

Fire and Ice: sorcery and superstition

One evening a few years ago we were having dinner with a friend in a tiny village in northern Belarus, not far from the border with Lithuania. Our visit was in connection with setting up community development projects that we might work on together and our conversation ranged widely. Towards the end of the evening I asked our host, an educated man with liberal values and a practising Catholic if he knew anything about znakhari (healers, though my dictionary translates it as ‘sorcerers’) in the local villages.

He then gave me an example from his experience of a znakhar curing a horse that appeared to be sickening and close to death due to some unidentified ailment. I would have liked to find out much more about what they did and actually meet one but, as is often the way, the conversation moved on and the following day we had to leave.

I was prompted to ask the question from reading a fascinating book called Solovyovo – the story of memory in a Russian village by an American anthropologist called Margaret Paxson. She lived with a family in a village some 300 miles north of Moscow to study their lives and particularly their attitudes to time, memory, beliefs and rituals.

One of the people she writes about is a healer called Mikhail Alekseevich Belov who learnt his skills from his father, who in turn had learnt them from a nun. People came from all around to seek his help with everything from cancer and alcoholism to family problems and hauntings. His method of treatment was to have a conversation with the person seeking a cure to find out what their problem was. He would then fill a bottle with ordinary water and, beneath the icons in the icon corner of the bedroom, whisper prayers over the water and then give it to the person seeking a cure to take away and drink.

Ms Paxson explains that Mikhail Alekseevich is an example of what are called in Russian those who know (tye, kto znayet). In other words, people who through a form of sorcery use incantations, prayers and spells to effect cures. This is quite different from a znakhar who uses food, plants and herbs to cure people.

It is interesting that these folk beliefs still exist (the book was published only in 2005) alongside, and often in harmony with, more recent Orthodox beliefs and practices.

She also records the belief in the evil eye (sglaz) which she puts down to envy of improved social or personal circumstances.

Of course, belief in the evil eye is prevalent in Greece too, as you can see from the number and variety of blue eye talismans throughout the country. When I first came across it, in my ignorance I thought it went back to the time of the Frankish occupation after the Fourth Crusade when the country was overrun by fair-haired and blue-eyed northern Europeans. How much more unlucky can you get than to be invaded? But the belief is certainly much older than that and goes back to at least Ancient Greece.

In my first Greek class, I remember one of my fellow pupils recalling an incident when she was staying in Greece. She did not feel particularly well, but couldn’t work out what was wrong. The friends she was staying with suggested that they do the test for the evil eye (kako mati) to find out whether she was a victim of it. The test involved putting a drop of olive oil in a glass of water: normally it should float, but if it sinks this indicates that the eye has been cast. In her instance, it sank. So her concerned friends took her off to the Sunday liturgy to see the priest after the service. He asked her some questions, said some prayers over her and suddenly, as she described it she ‘felt something leave her’. She was soon back to her old self.

The Orthodox Church recognises the evil eye (which it calls vaskania) as ‘simply a phenomenon that was accepted by primitive people as fact. They believed that certain people have such powerful feelings of jealousy and envy, that when they looked on some beautiful object or individual it brought destruction. Vaskania is recognized by the Church as the jealousy and envy of some people for things they do not possess, such as beauty, youth, courage or any other blessing…The prayers of the Church to avert the evil eye are, however, a silent recognition of this phenomenon as a morbid feeling of envy.’

It even has a specific prayer for its removal:

Let us pray to the Lord…Lord have mercy… we pray you and beseech you: Remove, drive away and banish every diabolical activity, every satanic attack and every plot, evil curiosity and injury, and the evil eye of mischievous and wicked men from your servant (Name); and whether it was brought about by beauty, or bravery, or happiness, or jealousy and envy, or evil eye, do you yourself, O Lord who love mankind, stretch out your mighty hand and your powerful and lofty arm, look down on this your creature and watch over him(her), and send him(her) an angel of peace, a mighty guardian of soul and body, who will rebuke and banish from him (her) every wicked intention, every spell and evil eye of destructive and envious men; so that, guarded by your, your supplicant may sing to you with thanksgiving … 

Yes, Lord, our God, spare your creature and save your servant (Name) from every injury and brought about by the evil eye, and keep him (her) safe above every ill. For your are our King and all things are possible to Thee, O Lord. Therefore, we ascribe glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Living in a Protestant northern European country imbued with Enlightenment ideas of rationalism and the dismissal of the supernatural, it’s easy to look down on such beliefs. But you only need to scratch the surface to find that similar superstitions were part of everyday country life until comparatively recently.

My father was brought up in a little village in Shropshire in the 1910s and 1920s and I remember him telling me that there was an old lady in the village who among other things was able to cure warts. The ‘cure’ consisted of rubbing the wart with a piece of raw meat, reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards three times over it and then burying the meat in the ground.

My parents were full of old superstitions and it has taken me years to be able to rid myself of them: don’t walk under ladders; don’t cut your nails on a Friday; if you spill salt throw some over your left shoulder to get rid of the devil; if you break a mirror, it’s 13 years bad luck. I’ve done quite well, but the salt thing I still used to do until about 10 years ago. As for mirrors, I’ve never quite got past my fear of that one…




Our friend Vasily moves into self-employment

In two earlier posts I talked about how we came to know a young Belarusian man (Our friend Vasily –  early contacts) and then how we brought him to England for a week (Adventures of a Belarusian beekeeper in England). Now I would like to bring the story up to date.



He transformed the old railway wagon, that we had first seen as a rusting hulk, into a superb beehive transporter, with an almost luxurious interior:



This has enabled him to move his bees round the countryside in the short season in Belarus to maximise pollen gathering opportunities. He also invested in a motorised centrifuge which means he can handle more efficiently the honey extraction from his increased number of hives.



Wax production from the hives has also increased and he was able to get hold of better quality wax foundation to use in the hive frames:





But there was an even bigger spin-off from his involvement in our projects which at the time we hadn’t foreseen. Vasily came with us to buy sapling fruit trees for the community orchard we tried to establish in the nearby village of Golovchitsy. I wrote about that frustrating experience too in a very early post on this blog (see Planting orchards in Belarus).

The grower we bought our saplings from was based in the town of Kalinkovichi and Vasily’s visits there with us and subsequent discussions with the owner led him to take an interest in orchards and growing fruit trees. As a result of doing a lot of research on the internet, he taught himself how to do his own grafting and the care and maintenance of fruit trees. Starting small on the land at his dacha, he decided to produce his own saplings from grafts, but quickly realised that if he were to do this on a commercial scale, it would require more land.

It was this realisation which determined him to move from his job in a state enterprise to working for himself. It was an enormous step for a young man with family responsibilities and in a country with few models of entrepreneurial activity. Indeed where the very word businessman has negative connotations and implies something between spiv and con man

He spent a long time negotiating with the local council to obtain a suitable plot of land that he could use for his fruit tree nursery, as the Belarusian government is not in favour of private ownership of land. Eventually he succeeded in getting the piece of land he wanted and he planned to plant it with saplings in the spring.

After a snowy winter (we are now in 2013), the nearby river Pripyat flooded and his dacha was inundated, so everything had to be dug out.


After that he started to set up fence posts to enclose his new plot of land with a chain link fence. But spring set in early and suddenly he found that everything was beginning to shoot and he had to stop the fence work in order to plant the saplings. Then back to finishing the fence, and by now the first dry periods were starting so that the saplings need watering. Fortunately there is water nearby, but he still has to use his tractor to fill a big water-trailer. It’s a never-ending job throughout the spring and summer.


In total he managed to plant 600 trees: there were more but he had entrusted them to a friend, only to find that sweet-toothed hares had been gnawing their barks and they had died. He told us that he didn’t sleep for three nights after finding out about that.

Once it got warmer the bees became active once again. So he moved backwards and forwards between his new plot of land and his dacha, looking after the trees and doing all his beekeeping work as well, checking the hives, catching swarms, centrifuging the honey. Last year was an exceptional one for honey: his bees produced over two and a half tonnes, a record amount. It was so much that he ran out of containers to store it in and had to borrow containers from beekeeping friends.

Then there was the plot of land at the dacha to look after, potatoes and vegetables to plant, and his tractor and other equipment to maintain. After long hours of work he was dropping with tiredness at the end of the day.

It is a privilege to be his friend and we are really proud to see how he has grown since we first met him. We look forward to seeing how his small business develops in the coming years. His success has been some consolation for some of the other sustainable livelihood projects that we attempted unsuccessfully to get off the ground in Belarus.


Our friend Vasily – adventures of a Belarusian beekeeper in England

In an earlier post (Our friend Vasily – early contacts) I wrote about how we got to know a very enterprising young man and his family in Belarus, as part of our sustainable development project. So in this post I will describe what we did next to help him develop his own business.

My wife and I thought hard about how best to support him. Eventually, it struck us that because he was so adept at learning new skills and absorbing information, exposure to beekeeping in this country might stimulate new ideas and encourage him in his business venture.

He was very receptive to the idea, so we put together a programme of visits and activities to make sure that he got the most out of his trip. Probably the most difficult aspect was persuading the British Embassy in Minsk to give him a visa. However, after the usual bureaucratic nightmare which surrounds anything to do with visas (whatever the country), dates were agreed, the visa obtained and his flight booked.

Vasily stayed with us for a week and it was like we were seeing our own country through fresh eyes. I will never forget the look of astonishment on his face when we passed Stonehenge. His curiosity was endless, he never stopped asking questions. Why are the roads so twisty? Why can’t you walk anywhere you like in the countryside? Why don’t we grow vegetables in our garden? One of the big trips we planned involved meeting up with a beekeeper, who was very involved in beekeeping circles at county level. So we visited his apiary one day:

Vasily & Ken

Vasily & Ken

Vasily was interested in everything and spent a long time looking at all aspects of his hives, down to how the wooden frames were jointed and the size and structure of the wax foundation sheets. They shared their concerns about the damage done to hives by the Varoa mite which came to Belarus via Russia some years before it hit the UK. Their conversation certainly stretched my Russian technical vocabulary, as Vasily spoke no English.

On another day we went with Ken to visit Buckfast Abbey, home of one of Vasily’s beekeeper heroes, the Benedictine monk Brother Adam, a world authority on bees and bee breeding. Unfortunately, the Abbey’s beekeeper was out on the day we went down there, but we saw some of the hives at the Abbey. Then from Ken’s local knowledge we were also able to visit one particular apiary out on Dartmoor which involved a tricky manoeuvre on a gated bridge over a fast flowing stream.

Buckfast Abbey apiary

Buckfast Abbey apiary

On the way back we stopped off at a large beekeeping supplier’s: it was like an Aladdin’s cave for Vasily, containing many things which he had seen on the internet and in magazines, but not been able to get in Belarus. We also visited a honey producer who in his 70s was still singlehandedly looking after over 300 hives. To get the volume of honey he produced he had to manhandle these hives onto a truck which he placed at key places on Dartmoor that were best for heather honey. Vasily was very impressed at his energy and vitality.

On another occasion we took Vasily to visit our friends who run a dairy farm and he was fascinated to see the amount of equipment that Paul used and particularly the milking parlour:




Vasily was like a sponge taking in everything he saw, including things we just take for granted, such as a bird feeder:


and a metal bench next to a favourite beauty spot (which he was very keen to try to make when he got back home):


Seeing him holding a piece of Old Man’s Beard in the shot reminds me that he also took an enormous interest in our trees and plants, many of which he had not come across before.

I had told him about our friends who make cider the traditional way using an old- fashioned cider press. I had documented the process in photographs from a cider pressing day a month or so earlier and then took him to see what the press looked like:

IMG_0682Of course, we had to take him to see our local carnival:


and, finally, the day before he left we went down to Lyme Regis where he told us that this was the first time he had ever seen the sea:


The sawmill crew

The saw mill crew

The saw mill crew

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.

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.



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.


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.


A snowy track in Belarus

Our friend, Vasily, who lives in a town in southern Belarus near the border with Ukraine, sent us this seasonal photograph.

A beekeeper, orchard grower and skilled craftsman, he is a remarkable man and I will do a post on him and how we came across him sometime soon. The picture shows the track leading towards his small plot of land under a couple of feet of snow.

Planting orchards in Belarus

It’s quarter to four on a bitterly cold afternoon in early November 2007, the sun is low on the horizon and my wife and I are standing on the frozen, snow-specked earth of a fledgling orchard in the village of Golovchitsy, southern Belarus. In the slanting rays of the setting sun, we walk round the orchard talking to our local partner, Vladimir Nikolayevich Khlopok (pictured right), who manages it. As we do so, I struggle to take some photographs.with my frozen fingers. ‘What on earth am I doing here?’ I wonder, not for the first time on this trip, as the cold eats into my bones.

Belarus is an independent country of some 10 million people between Russia and Poland, created by the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Governed by Aleksandr Lukashenko, an old Communist-style authoritarian leader, it is marooned in a Soviet past with a central planned economy and torn between a close affinity to its Slav brother to the east and the attractions of EU membership. On top of this, it has had to cope with the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster that occurred in April 1986 that has contaminated land and affected the health of its population – a legacy that will live on for many years to come.

Our link with Belarus goes back 17 years and, like many things in life, happened purely by chance. Eleven year old Tatiana came into our lives in September 1991. She was one of a group of 30 children from the Chernobyl-affected area of Belarus invited to Somerset for a month’s recuperation, fresh air and uncontaminated food. Over the years we kept in touch with her and her family, we invited her back to stay with us and we visited the family home.

Something about that very first connection ignited an abiding interest in this part of the world. Many of the host families from that first visit became the core of a registered charity, focused on children’s recuperative visits and provision of basic medical aid to hospitals in the areas the children come from.

After several years’ involvement, we felt that it was like applying a sticking plaster: providing temporary relief, but not tackling the root causes. So we started to look at more sustainable projects that could have a more far-reaching impact on villages and communities. Initially, we encouraged families to grow vegetables in polytunnels and sell their excess produce in local markets.

Then we were invited to work with the local council in the small town of Narovlya, on the edge of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, less than 40 miles from the site of the nuclear reactor. Just outside the town in a small village called Golovchitsy there is a co-operative based on an old estate that once belonged to an absentee Polish landowner. Could we help the village to regenerate its orchard?

The park, with its impressive gates and wide entrance alley, still stands and is remarkable for the variety of trees found there, unusual in a landscape dominated by graceful birches, solid firs and pine trees.

The estate house dating back to 1820 is still there too (another unusual feature as many were burnt down during the Revolution) and now used as the local hospital. But it is the scale of the old orchards that impresses. The Polish landowner planted 8,000 fruit trees, partly to provide pectin to the sweet factory in Narovlya. Now the trees stand barren and gently decaying, a constant reminder of more productive and congenial time.

This project was intended to be self-sustaining within 5 years. They have an old fruit storage building which was in need of repair and we hoped that they would be able to do this for themselves from the income they generated from the sale of fruit. In addition they were interested in exploring the production of added value products (eg juices and jams).

I’d like to report that it was a great sucess, but unfortunately it all went wrong. In spite of our input, they didn’t take care of the trees properly; people from the village stole some of them to sell for drink; frustratingly, our requests for pictures and updates went unanswered. Who are we to judge? We don’t have to live the harsh lives these people are forced to live. Would we be any different?