Dacha, Life in the Country

The Bus Ride from Kiev
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The open air bus station abuzz with activity, swelters in the low, hot late afternoon summer sun.  The very young and very old mull about, clamoring for a seat on the sparse benches.  Here the elderly move right along with everyone else, plugged into the same life style and challenges.   Grandmas and Grandpas who in the US are enjoying care from their extended families or in assisted living, having meals presented to them at nicely set tables, going to exercise classes and church on Sundays; these same elders in the Ukraine are slowly ambling up bus stairs burdened with bags, bouncing into their seats, moving forward in the bus aisles as empty seats become available, slipping up to the door to exit in a timely fashion.  They know that if they arrive at the station late they get to stand in the aisle for the 3 hour ride to their village.

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You must get to the bus station hours early to get one of the limited seats.  As the bus arrives, a crowd presses against the door as those royal few with ticketed seats move to the front as the crowd parts as if for rock stars. Then a pause at the bus door till the royal few are seated then the crowd presses into the aisles, “like sardines” I mused to my hosts.  It…is…HOT!

This bus is only for the villages, it goes nowhere else.  At the end of the line the route just kind of dies away, then the bus turns around to start the circle again. The numbers of people on the bus dwindle as does civilization the further into the night our bus lumbers, into the lightless villages and homes, the only illumination from the bus headlights or few cars slowly maneuvering the rutted roads.  In 3 hours the bus covered no more than 80 miles.  To describe the roads as rutted patches on patches wouldn’t cover it.   It’s more like giants had drizzled massive globs of wax along a ribbon of a toy road for their amusement.  Floes of tar and mud, thick asphalt and stones, rubble and ruts that would break any car’s axle make the going more like an amusement park ride than a conveyance.

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This is the village road and a slice of their way of life.  Anyone that’s ridden these kind of busses world-wide knows that for some crazy reason the locals hate fresh air so the windows get closed as soon as the bus moves, making our rolling tin can, a furnace!  It…is…HOT!  It’s a trip back into history, lumbering down the road through time and space.  Oh, did I mention the fare from Kiev to our village?  $2.90!  A cheap amusement park ride really by any measure!

Our village, Zghurivka, an unpronounceable jumble of consonants where every letter IS pronounced, lies to the east of Kiev in the flat farm country of central Ukraine.  Much like western Ohio or Indiana, the farms show the vestiges of Stalin’s Farm Collectivization.  Fields sans any buildings of any sort stretch to the horizon as far as you can see, broken only by tufts of trees floating in the middle of the sea of corn or wheat or sunflowers.
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The farmers live in the sparse villages in the distance, using huge lumbering farm machinery some of it from the 1960’s.  All this the result of Stalin’s push to form collectives out of surf held mini-farms in the late 1930’s.  In the months leading up to WWII the Peasant’s Revolt against Collectivization inspired Stalin to double down and cut all food to the eastern region of Ukraine causing millions to starve in the streets in such cities as Kharkov and Donetsk, a city made famous today for yet other atrocities.

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In the middle of these seas of grain and stalks, in the thick darkness, suddenly looms a series of 6 and 8 story Corbusian Soviet housing blocks, maybe 4, then 6, no…8 of them, rising out of the seas of grain like rock cliffs, surrounded only by some small mobile home type shops dragged there from some factory in the city and plopped down to serve the stacks of apartments.  These are the farm workers, representing vestiges of the Soviet economy still in place.  The dark streets are full of locals strolling in the night with kids playing and riding bikes in the complete darkness, the shops the only source of light in the entire place.

Our bus, the only vehicle on the road, belches blue acrid smoke, loudly breaking the silence dropping its cargo.  A tiny girl held by her brother and sister one on each hand, stands expectantly on the road’s edge across the street, bouncing on her toes, dancing as the bus rolls up in a blue cloud of smoke.  She runs to the far side of the bus as her mom slips out the door and greeted to huge screams of joy!  I can see the little girl her through the grimy window, wildly clinging to mom’s neck and showering her with kisses.

The bus pitches and yaws its way back out onto the main road and into the dark night.  After another hour in the darkness, we pass a half a dozen public buildings of a small farming village, lurching and pitching along at maybe 20 mph.  Then our stop.  As the bus door creaks open, we’re dumped in the silent darkness in middle of nowhere on a pitch black dirt lane capped by an iridescent star filled sky.  The Milky Way seemingly glows through the slit of the sky framed by the lane’s overhanging trees.
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My hosts jokingly exclaim, welcome to Jurie Gragarian Lane, yep the famous cosmonaut from the late 1950’s in competition with Alan Shepherd and John Glen for the most daring trip into outer space.  At the height of the Soviet rebuilding and in the middle of our post WWII Cold War, our two worlds diverged on two disparate paths.  We Americans were building suburban tracts and highways from sea to shining sea while the Soviets, built Corbusian high rise apartments and elaborate Metros in the cities and these farming villages with brick huts on the edges of the huge collective fields to feed them.

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These are dachas for some, vacation huts, a get away from the hot city, a respite from the usual, a form of camping.  They are also full time homes to 40% of the country’s population, the rural poor of Ukraine, most living on dollars per day.  Living a life that existed in the US before the Civil War or in maybe some Eco-tourism communes in places like California or Montana today!  Lined up on Jurie Gragarian Lane, are 600 sq. ft. white plastered shoebox houses with concrete tile roofs, rickety wooden framed windows, wooden plank floors and plaster over mud brick inside and out.  The kitchens improvised to spill outside in the summers, morphs into tight quarters around the huge brick oven in the winter.  Cold storage in pantries and in ground vaults serves to preserve the food grown all summer long.  A central oven heats in the winter and bakes year round, the bathroom an outhouse with a wooden plank seat and door, the running water a pump in the back yard and the shower a bucket on the roof of a wooden shack.  You yank the chord and out comes whatever slightly luke-warm water was left over from yesterday’s solar gain. It inspires what we call Navy showers…spontaneously!  Yeah, refreshing!

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With the house comes maybe an acre or two that extends out into the collective fields for homestead farming.  Fruit and nut trees provide most of the shade around the village homes, forming shaded edges to the wide expanses of the collective fields, with mom and the kid’s subsistence farming those modest tracts of land behind the shaded backyards.

Prepping, canning, drying, preserving, and selling the surplus displayed on upright crates along the mostly empty country roads become the daily activities with endless work from sun up to sun down.  Maybe 4, 5 or 6 people live in these one bedroom houses with many of these “dachas” occupied by full time residents, families eking out a living on the land by subsistence farming in local villages across the country.  An Eco-tourism bonanza, a trip back in time, or a way of life for millions in the X Soviet Union, you choose the label.

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Huge unbroken fields surround the village in all directions with monoculture corps much like in the US except sans any farm houses, barns or structures of any kind.  Large agribusinesses cultivate the fields with massive machinery slowly sailing past the village workers in their small homestead plots.  Some of these villagers are the workers of the massive farming operations, but these mega-farms remain highly mechanized and so light on the use of unskilled labor.

People ask me why I am so interested in Ukraine.  These scenes are the reason.  Russia post Perestroika has rebuilt, spent their oil and gas money modernizing much of their world.  Many of their famously beautiful cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow are wonderfully modernized and restored, even as much of rural Russia still exists in the hunter/gather tradition.  But it’s Ukraine that marks time in history, spending very little on anything since the days of Khrushchev.  The cities are beautiful, and old, and run down, and original, and traditional, and untouched, and historical, and friendly, and sustainable.

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Yes, sustainability means many things to different people.   I define sustainability as a principle, a concept which directs us, all of us, individually and collectively to consider more than ourselves and the present.   It’s a principle defined and developed by our past experiences and decisions.

As architects, planners, urban designers, the more we consider the effects of today’s work on the future, the greater its sustainable potential.  Today’s work, based on sustainable principles and experience will define the future resiliency of any project developed today.   Clearly stated, sustainable principles define a city’s future resiliency.

These self-sufficient places, harkening back to the days of living light on the planet, where everything is connected.  The average US citizen lives a life that if everyone lived would consume the resources of somewhere between 5 – 7 planets.  Check out this test, and see how many worlds your life style requires.  Here’s a fun interactive one: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/calculators/  or for the more serious: http://footprint.wwf.org.uk/

In the US, we architects and designers have attempted to close the barn door after the horse  got out using LEED and other metric based strategies to prevent us Americans that occupy 5 % of the world’s population from consuming any more than the quarter of all resources we already do.  Truly a pitiful solution, such a very thin strategy.  The point is not to live like some of those Eco-tourist communes of California or Montana or West by God Virginia with Mother Earth News style collectives doing organic farming.  Nope been there, done that in the 1960’s! We must open our perceptions to a broader understanding and expression of what resiliency is created by designing sustainable projects and cities today.  We must move far beyond building LEED buildings and calling it good enough.  It becomes not a matter of opinion or I believe or I don’t, it becomes a social and moral imperative where we simply cannot continue to design our cities, highways, suburbs, shopping districts, schools or even parking, walkways, plazas and parks the way we have, either horizontally or vertically.

If architects, planners, urban designers are the ones that help define the future of regions, cultures, cities and societies through their projects, then we certainly must reconsider our definitions of successful projects based on sustainable principles, creating resilient futures.   We will not be returning to a life of a century or two ago any time soon.  That’s absurd.  But what can we learn from the vast number on our planet that live a truly sustainable life, causing us all to stop and wonder where our priorities lie.

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