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:


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?