Saturday, 13 August 2011

Volgograd voyage- Day 5- Uryupinsk

Rural Russia has its own beauty as the sun rises over it, a kind of vast, relaxed embrace. Even at the roadside shacks selling shashlik (kebabs on a skewer), honey and snacks there was a practical, unglamorous friendliness that is hard to find elsewhere. Uryupinsk is the town we were heading for. In Russian it’s spelt Урю́пинск, but I’ve spelt it close to the sound of the word which is pronounced rather like this, Uriyu(the ‘u’ in both places is pronounced like you would say the double ‘o’ in ‘book’)pinsk.

If you ask a Russian about Uryupinsk they will probably laugh and say, in their own charming way, that it’s ‘in the ass’. This is the way Russians say it’s a s**thole. Russia has its fair share of those, but Uryupinsk has become the symbol for all things and places backward and rural. It’s populated in these stereotypes with idiot bumpkins. One local related to me an apocryphal but entertaining tale of an Uryupinsk school child who was asked by his teacher who the photograph of the famous socialist thinker was. The boy thought for a while, then said that sorry, he couldn’t tell because the man had too much beard on his face. Any guesses? Answer at the bottom if you’re like the child.*

But having been there, I would say the Russians are rather harsh on poor Uryupinsk and it’s people. It’s a poor place and looks very ex-soviet but that makes it alike most other Russian towns. A small café served us nothing very much at all except some greasy chips and tea. Then we went to see the lady we had come here to meet. She is without doubt a remarkable woman, and you will without doubt not have heard of her.

Pelegea keeps about ten goats, a flock a chickens, a gaggle of around ten noisy geese, some cats and a noisy dog. Every day she tends to them and feeds them. She collects the eggs from the chickens and sells them. She combs the soft haired goats and spins their wool by hand on a rickety wheel. She then makes shawls and clothes from the wool and sells them too. She does all this herself. Pelegea is ninety years old.

Her husband died when he was fifty. Even all these years later Pelegea says she feels lonely without him. She strikes up a song as she spins her wool. The tune warbles and dances along with her weathered voice. Her song doesn’t sound sad, but Pelegea informs us after that it’s a lament for him. Having said that Pelegea isn’t a melancholy woman. Lively and motivated, she keeps a vegetable garden on the outskirts of town as well. She says she just can’t sit down. As I see her wrestling with them I’m afraid that some of more delinquent goats may knock her over as they struggle to avoid a combing. But she always stays up with the help of her stick, which she affectionately refers to as her ‘grandfather’.

Actually Pelegea’s goat keeping isn’t that unique round here. Although Uryupinsk may be famous to most Russians as the back of beyond, any of the residents will proudly point you to their goat statue, their wool spinner’s statue or their goat museum. Yes, Uryupinsk prides itself on its goats.

And life goes on in Uryupinsk just as it does anywhere else. Pelegea isn’t just the proud head of her livestock. She had three grandchildren, though as she tells us one was killed in a car crash many years ago. She has five grandchildren and now seven great grandchildren. Some of their pictures adorn the walls, smiling from somewhere in the countryside, or standing proudly in their army uniform.

If they have a spirit as tough as Pelegea, they’ll do Uryupinsk proud.

* Karl Marx

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