December 01, 2019

From Tvorog to Protests


From Tvorog to Protests

Dedushka – a grandfather or old man – walking along a path, with snow up to his shoulders. Building a snowman in front of the neighbor's house. Babushka collapsing into her chair in front of the TV with Swanlake on: "but we haven't got any winter clothes. There's going to be war, what will we eat?".

These are some of Natalia's earliest memories. It was 1991, she was 3, her parents had brought her to her grandparents' village in May, to spend the summer there. In August the coup attempt happened, and Natalia stayed in the village until winter, for there was fear of war. Her memories got a bit mixed up, but her love for the village remains, and now she shares it with the world (but more on that later).

This village, on the border with Belarus, is where Natalia’s maternal grandmother and great grandmother came from. Her great grandmother remembers living under a pomeschik (land owner), and remembers those as better times compared to the Soviet period, when she was forced to give everything she had to the state. Even when her cow didn’t give any milk, she had to go to the shop to buy butter, which she could then give to the authorities – they didn’t seem to understand that a cow doesn’t give milk all the time. 

Natalia in her grandparents' village house
Natalia at work, watched over by her ancestors...

Natalia’s great grandfather was the only one in his family to have received an education (in villages a family would often send just one kid to study), and was therefore elected the head of a kolkhoz. He narrowly avoided getting arrested, however, just like his father avoided being labeled a kulak and losing everything by distributing his possessions among his children so that he could say he only owned one cow.

It was the food from that village that sustained Natalia’s family in the 1990s, when there was almost no food available in St. Petersburg. They would bring to the city apples in homemade wooden boxes, jars of salted meat, home-made tvorog, cheese and butter, as well as pickles. Natalia’s dad still salts and dries meat, and Natalia would still be making tvorog herself, like her grandmother taught her, if only there was real milk available in Saint Petersburg.

Having grown up between central St. Petersburg and the village, where she spent her summers, Natalia knows Russia better than many St. Petersburgers or Muscovites. She traveled across Russia building sports centers with a charity organization, and saw what life is like for people all across the country, something not many get to see or learn.  She also lived abroad – in Egypt and the UAE, where she met lots of people who seemed to have very little understanding of what Russia is.

“I had no idea we had such tresh (trash has long been used in Russian to describe something horrible) going on in Russia” - a friend told Natalia after seeing her Instagram posts.

“I want to show the real Russia," Natalia says, "it’s not all wonderful or all horrible. It’s a little bit of both.”

Girl by Russian stove
Still Life: Natalya and pechka.

She shared her memories of rye and wheat bread, turnips, porridge, and potatoes cooked in a real Russian pechka (wood-fired oven in the center of a village house), and apples eaten off a tree. In her blog, she also shows things like an abandoned railroad line that used to connect Russia to Belarus, where Natalia’s ancestors came from, closed schools, and the disappearing forest. Her love for Russia and her heartache for its problems are both clearly evident.

When we were speaking, Natalia was in her kitchen in St. Petersburg. She was a bit tired after a sleepless night – her daughter had just lost a baby tooth, and also from having attended protests in support of Navalny and freedom, where she had to flee from the police. Like her ancestors, she narrowly avoided getting arrested, and is here to tell the story (and so she continues her family tradition of feeding others tvorog and outsmarting the government).

Natalia can be found on Instagram at @natashasrussia and also on YouTube.
 

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