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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

At the sign of “The Blue Light”: shopping and the exotic in Russia

Two sayings often spring to mind when I think of the time I have spent in Russia. The first is “Anything can happen in Russia”, often said with a mixture of exasperation and secret admiration. The other is question a friend once asked me “Kak vam nravitsa nasha ekzotika?” (“How do you like our exotic way of life?). It struck me at the time as a bit of an exaggeration. Most countries like to think they’re a bit special, a bit out of the ordinary and the Russians are no exception. But the more I see of them, the more true these sayings seem to be.

It’s my last evening in Tula. My host Yekaterina is an excellent cook and excels herself with dinner: chicken esalopes, golubtsy (cabbage leaves stuffed with rice) in a tomato sauce, smoked salmon rice, tomatoes with garlic and mayonnaise. Wine and fruit juice to drink. Vanilla and chocolate jelly for pudding.

I finish packing (we leave for Moscow tomorrow) and have a short lie down after this feast. The family say they would like to show me where Yekaterina works as an accountant. Now, I know that she works for a supermarket called The Blue Light, as I have seen it on the business card she gave me. So I grab my camera, thinking that I could get some shots of the family and perhaps that I ought to take some shots of the shop, and off all five of us go: Yekaterina, her husband, Iosif and their two twenty something daughters.

It’s a very well stocked, average size supermarket, full of western European brands. Curiously there aren’t many shoppers around. Try as I might I can’t find anything to photograph: one supermarket looks pretty much like any other. We have a good look around and then they suggest that we go upstairs.

At the bottom of the winding stairs stands some sort of security guard who eyes me and my camera with suspicion. It’s only as we climb the stairs that I realise why as we pass a succession of posters advertising a casino, billiard hall, bar restaurant, cafe and Erotic Shows. God, what have they brought me to?

Just a few people are playing billiards (it’s about 9.30pm) and on the way through the family ask if I’d like to see the striptease. I politely decline. So we carry on through to the restaurant. It’s very comfortable: plush sofas and chairs, nice carpets, beautifully laid tables. We go and sit in the corner at the back, passing a small stage where a man and woman are singing Russian pop at a volume that’s beyond bearable.

My host has mysteriously disappeared to the older daughter’s flat which also happens to be in this part of Tula to do some repairs. The area is called Proletarsky and consists of loads of blocks of flats built to house the 280,000 workers at the Arms Factory (Tula used to be a closed town before Perestroika).

By now we four have sat down at a table. Despite my protestations that I am still full from dinner (eaten less than an hour and a half ago), Yekaterina insists that I have some sturgeon in a creamy sauce with some red caviare, lettuce and a glass of white wine. The girls order some ice cream and Yekaterina, I note, eats nothing.

At the other end of the restaurant there’s along table with a company outing, according to Yekaterina. I ask her what sort of people come here and she says “The rich.’

I think of my friends in Belarus and even some of the people I’ve met here in Tula and the contrast between their subsistence existence and this luxury. This is one face of the new Russia: what a gulf there is between ordinary people and the wealthy.

Next ice cream is pressed upon me and it’s just as I start to eat it that the lights go down. Suddenly a completely naked girl appears on the stage and starts to gyrate around a chrome pole. I look at Yekaterina and her daughters: they are completely unfazed and actually look quite interested in the proceedings. I’m the one who’s embarrassed. Over the next half an hour a succession of girls appear and do their stuff. At one point, Yekaterina signals to one of the girls and she shimmies over to our table to give us our own personal performance. My female companions are smiling and enjoying it. This uptight Englishman  is blushing to the roots of his thinning hair by this stage.

After our meal and the floor show we go and play billiards, at which we are all as useless as each other and then home to bed.

I would love to have been a fly on the wall at the meeting where the business model for this enterprise was first broached:

– “So we’re agreed then. We’re going with the supermarket.”

– “Yes, but we need to differentiate ourselves, Find a USP.”

– “OK, but we are going to stock it with goods from western Europe that you can’t buy in other shops. Isn’t that enough?”

– “No, we need something bolder, more radical….Got it! Why don’t we put a billiard hall and pole dancing club on the first floor. You know how that’s just the sort of place you want to go after you’ve been shopping!”  

– “Are you mad or on drugs?”

– ” No, but I am the boss, so that’s what we are doing!”

Thus great business ideas are born as, no doubt, Steve Jobs would confirm, were he still with us.