Traditional Agriculture in an Old Believer’s Village in Siberia
by Effie Elfer of Vermont
Note: Any words in italic are Russian words spelled phonetically in the Latin alphabet.
Russia is a vast country. The northern city of St. Petersburg sits some 7000 miles from the Green Mountains of Vermont, where I grew up on a small subsistence farm. From St. Petersburg to the city of Irkutsk is an eight-hour flight, like flying across the United States. In Irkutsk, a train skirts the southern tip of Lake Baikal, the “Jewel of Siberia,” bringing one into the Autonomous Republic of Buryatia, stopping in its capital, Ulan Ude. Someone must meet you at the station, because since the fall of the Soviet Union, the bus runs only three times a week. An hour-long car ride brings you 43 miles east, from the city of Ulan Ude, through rolling hills of steppe, by way of once thriving villages, past a Buddhist Datsan, to the Old Believer’s village of Ynegetai.
Ynegetai is a Buryiat word meaning “place of the fox.” The village itself was settled in a wide river valley bordered on the east and west by mountains and rolling steppe. Today about 2,300 people populate the village. The seasons of this region, though at a similar latitude as Montreal, Quebec, are marked by long winters and short, hot summers.
Though the daytime temperature in May rises well above 77 degrees F, nights are well below freezing — a pattern driven by the effect of clear skies. During the day the sun warms the earth, but once the sun sets, the temperature plummets. The lack of radiant solar heat, combined with meager amounts of rather dry winter snows, make the land of this region cold well into spring. Without insulating snow, frost penetrates deep into the soil. Most people’s land remains unworkable until late April.
Russian Old Believers settled in Ynegetai at the beginning of the 17th century. The Old Believers are populations of Russians who did not accept reforms made in the Russian Orthodox Church in the 15th century. These reforms split the church. Those choosing to keep the old traditions took the name “Old Believer,” in Russian, “Cemeskee,” and were subsequently heavily persecuted. Large numbers of Old Believers were exiled to Poland, Belarus and the Ukraine almost 300 years ago.
Old Believers have a strong cultural heritage to agriculture and working the land. During the 18th century, Catherine the Great came to rule Russia, and her policies toward the Old Believers were less harsh than those of former tsars. Knowing of the agricultural heritage of the Old Believers and their reputation as hard workers, she asked them to return from exile and settle in Siberia to grow grain for western Russia.
Large numbers of Old Believers resettled in Siberia, bringing their seeds and agricultural knowledge from the west. They had to adapt their agricultural system to a new landscape and to a colder climate and shorter growing season.
Many aspects of Russia’s traditional agricultural system have been preserved in the Old Believer villages of Siberia, particularly in Ynegetai. For 200 years, the people have changed little in the way they work their land and structure their daily lives around agricultural activities. Few villages in Siberia were untouched by Soviet collectivization, and during the past century, the people of Ynegetai witnessed rapid change and development under the Soviet system. The village became restructured, land was taken and redistributed, state farms were built and run with incredible inefficiency. Yet through such transformation, the Old Believers maintained one thread of stability in their lives: that is their personal homesteads, their hozyastva.
The agricultural system of the Old Believers in Ynegetai encompasses two areas: work with dairy cows, and with their agarod, or kitchen gardens/ potato fields. Both areas depend on one another, and aspects of both allow the Old Believers’ agricultural cycle to regenerate itself every year.
The Old Believers of Ynegetai have an incredible relationship with their animals, in particular their cows, which are respected and treated with kindness. In return the cows give plenty of milk and are happy to come home every evening after being turned out to graze for the day. The Old Believers of Ynegetai know and understand that without their cows they could not survive in Siberia.