Friday, November 11, 2011

Notes from the Faraway

It's June here, folks. The girl, not the month.

My folks haven't mentioned it, but I'm not really around the farm anymore. In fact, I'm an ocean and a couple of continents away, in St. Petersburg, Russia, where it looks like this.

What on earth could I possibly say about homesteading? After all, I'm in the middle of a huge city. Well, there just happens to be a wealth of agricultural riches in the Ethnographic Museum here. I took a few pictures just for mom and dad, and they were so enamored that they asked me to show them to you guys!

First, let's meet our hero, the Russian serf. He looked like this:


He lived in a wooden house that was covered in carvings he did himself.


He spent most of his life squeezing a living out of the unforgiving earth of Russia. His greatest helper (besides his wife, who almost never gets mentioned except when she has babies) was a horse, who pulled a plow while wearing these lovely collars.


When he wanted to eat something besides wild berries, rye, and maybe a little milk, he turned to honey from the bees he kept in a stump hive.


He harvested the honey with hand-carved wooden tools.


Farming is dirty, dirty work, and I doubt that little-mentioned wife would be very happy if everyone tromped into the house with ridiculously filthy hands. A nasty bucket of dirty water is not the nicest way to wash your hands, so the ingenious serfs came up with this solution:


No, those aren't teapots. They're handwashers. The genius of them is that you can just hang them up and then tip out water to wash your hands, without having to get muck all over everything or use water that the rest of the household has already scrubbed in. I have a feeling they probably hung them up somewhere warm, as well, though I can't actually prove that.

The most interesting part of the tour was this guy.


The astute among you will notice several things about this guy. First off- and dad noticed this right away, which I'm very proud of him for- he's wearing leather boots. If you remember from the first photo, Mr. Average Serf wore shoes he wove himself out of birchbark. They had to be replaced every couple of weeks and stuffed with rags in the winter. Leather, for a family which usually had one cow if they were lucky, would have been an unbelievable luxury. Also, he's wearing a brass belt with little charms all around it that jingle as he walks, and he carries a tool bag with a little detailed scene on it.

I know it's not super visible in the photo, but that little scene is a horse with a man riding it, a man leading it, and a man watching it. The bag and belt are the signs of his profession: he's a horse healer.

He was just a normal serf, but with special talents for driving away demons, appeasing the local gods, and satisfying the wants of your domestic goblins, all of which were very necessary for the healing of your beloved horse and cow, on which the life of Mr. Serf and all his loved ones depended. After harvest every year he would suit up and travel from village to village, trying to smoke, bleed, or chant away the illnesses that were ruining families.

He had one other duty, too. A very serious one. He was a roaming butcher.

It seems that even the toughest, manliest, bravest serf couldn't always bear to slaughter livestock that he had raised. Those pigs, cows, and horses could be like family, and taking a knife to them was unthinkable. Just as unthinkable, however, was forcing your family to starve through the winter. So, for a small fee, this detached stranger would come and do the deed for you.

I found this very interesting. It seems like today there's stigma in not being able to butcher your own livestock, even though it's not fiscally or morally harmful to pay someone else to do it. My parents use a butcher down the way for their chickens, who is both affordable and humane, and saves them a long, bloody, feathery day. But surely, if they were real farmers, they'd do it themselves?

It seems not. Hundreds of years ago, farmers were still making the mistake of naming their pigs Betsy and scratching their backs. And hundreds of years ago, the manliest of men traveled around, making sure that life could go on- at least for the farmers.


  1. Great update! The view of the city brings back memories. I hope we can see more of your year in Russia.

  2. That is fascinating. It makes me very thankful that my life is not that hard.

  3. ..wow, neat! I have always wanted to go to Russia..now though, not when those serfs lived...I am not going to lie to you serfdom sounded horrible..Pictures like these help to show how good we have it these days..a good reminder. that beehive is neat! If you see Ivan Denisovich say hello for me! hehe


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