Passport Dinner travels to Northern Russia


Needlepoint of a traditional Russian onion dome structure.

Passport Dinner travels to northern Russia
by Greg Davis, Editor

WILTON – Natasha Erb is a native of Mutni-Matarik, a small rural village in the Komi Republic of northern Russia, located close to the Arctic Circle and 800 miles northeast of Moscow. She attended the University of Maine at Farmington and now lives in Farmington.

Erb was a special guest of Wilson Grange last Friday night and shared information on the traditions and culture of her former village life following the monthly Passport Dinner, for which the February offering served a menu of authentic Russian dishes, including borscht, stroganoff, Russian carrot salad, Russian tea cakes and black tea.

She had come to UMF at age 21 as an exchange student. The Russian exchange program has since been shut down, and she has now lived in the U.S. for 17 years.

Erb shared some general information on Russia as a whole, including the fact the country covers two continents. She grew up in the European portion of the country. Erb noted the Trans-Siberian Railway stretches 5,800 miles and it takes at least seven days (not counting stops) to cross the entire distance through different time zones and its many multi-cultural differences. Russia has the ninth largest population in the world and is the world’s largest country in terms of land mass. Russia’s population is 143 million, compared to the U.S. population of 318 million.

Russians use the Cyrillic alphabet, which contains 33 letters.

The Komi Republic has 2 million inhabitants, and for a comparison is three times the size of the state of Georgia. Some 65 percent of the population is ethnic Russian and 24 percent Komi (Finnish migrants). Religion has been resurging since the break up of the former Soviet Union, with the largest group the Russian Orthodox Church. The Soviet state did not recognize religions but today churches are being rebuilt. Some 41 percent of the population is “spiritual but not attached to an organized religion,” Erb said. The Russian Orthodox services take some dedication, because of their long lengths, she said.

Major natural resources in the Komi Republic include coal, oil, natural gas, gold, diamonds and timber, most of which is exported. The real growth in population came in the 1920’s when political prisoners began to be sent to Gulags and labor camps and supporting villages sprung up. Prisoners built most of the infrastructure of today’s republic. It’s capital is Sykyvkar, founded in 1780, and which today is a city of some 200,000 residents.

The climate averages 1-40 degrees in winter and 52-59 degrees in summer. Tundra conditions do not allow growing much more than root vegetables such as potatoes and turnips.

Asked how Russians stay warm in this climate, Erb replied, “Fur and vodka!”

“Our house was not well insulated, so you would feel a draft and 1-2 inches of ice would build up on the windows,” Erb said. Wood heat is used. Village children walk to school for about a half hour in temperatures that can be -20 degrees or colder at times, and must deal with an 8-9 month winter. Snow doesn’t melt until June. The shortest day – Dec. 21 – features only five hours of daylight.

“In summer – June and July – the sun will not set at all and we experience white nights,” Erb said.

Her village of Mutni-Matarik has a population of 2,000 and is located along the 1,124-mile long Pechora River, and is only 80 miles from the Arctic Circle. A major industry was the collective farm Severny (translates as northern), spanning some seven villages, which was active until the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Reindeer herding is still a strong industry, with a herd of 12,000 maintained, as well as some 4,500 cows providing milk and buttermilk and 400 workhorses. Agriculture is potatoes, turnips, hay and feed for livestock, with little mechanical farm equipment available.

Most home are made of logs and the village’s “mud season” puts Maine to shame, with its muddy roads. The village is very isolated, accessed by boats in the summer with limited commercial transportation available. A passenger boat stops by the village 2-3 times per week.

Some basic medical services are provided by the state, “not always reliable or the best that you can get,” Erb said. The village has a clinic but major medical concerns require transport by helicopter to a regional hospital. Normal travel takes eight hours to reach the nearest city. The hard life means an average life expectancy of 64.

When the Soviet economy collapsed, this area largely became a cashless economy, with bartering with milk and reindeer meat common. The lean reindeer meat is in demand today in Europe and hides are used for clothing items.

Vilage life is primitive, Erb said. Most homes have electricity and water from a well or the nearby river. Cooking is done on wood stoves or electric stoves, with a lot of manual labor needed to accomplish anything. Hunting, fishing, gardening, raising livestock and collecting berries and mushrooms are still means of making ends meet. The fruits include cloudberries, cranberries and cowberries, along with a lot of wild blueberries. Families have personal plots where they grow potatoes, since it is too cold for anything else. Horses are used for cultivating and harvesting. Villager meals include reindeer meat, potatoes, bread, butter, fish and lots of starches, Erb said.

Northern Russia is known for its use of banyas (saunas). In the village they may utilize a storeroom and have 2-3 rooms. Water is heated and poured on rocks for a 200-degree steam and sauna users “wear felt hats so their brains don’t fry,” Erb said. To cool off in the winter after sauna use, users may roll in the snow. The banya is a social event, and the whole family may participate.

The reindeer herding seasons mean parents follow the herd and school-age children stay with relatives or a state-run boarding school, Erb said. Every part of the reindeer is utilized – the lean meat for food consumption, live animals for winter transportation, hides for boots and coats; and antlers for medicine. Reindeer tongue is considered a delicacy. The reindeer boots that are worn are colorfully decorated and different styles will reflect the region from which the boots originate. It takes eight hides to make a pair of boots, which have felt soles. A reindeer fur coat is very heavy but very warm.

Erb noted Babushka (grandmothers) do a lot of the babysitting and child raising while parents work. Extended families often live together for 2-3 generations in one household.

The national drink is tea, not vodka, Erb stressed, although the Russian per capita consumption of vodka is 3.7 gallons. The U.S. per capita is .5 gallons for a comparison. Some 82 percent of Russians drink the traditional back tea, which was first imported from China in the 1600s. A Samovar may be used to boil water to make a strong tea that is then further diluted with water.

Erb noted there is no Russian word for privacy. “If one has nothing to hide, one does not need privacy” is a saying. “This is a collective society” with warm social ties, she said. Friends often walk hand in hand and kissing is seen as an expression of friendship.

In Maine, Erb said she has been impressed by the amount of freedom citizens enjoy. “Over there it is is very bureaucratic. Here you say what you want,” she added.

What she said she misses about Russian life is its degree of social interaction. “Russians get together a lot. There is not a lot of money but we celebrate with social gatherings. People will just show up,” she said. “It is not as social here,” she added.


Natasha Erb
Greg Davis/Franklin Journal

Natasha Erb is a native of a small northern Russian village who now lives in Farmington.
Greg Davis/Franklin Journal

A Samovar, nesting dolls and other traditional Russian crafts were displayed at the Passport Supper.
Greg Davis/Franklin Journal

Needlepoint of a traditional Russian onion dome structure.
Greg Davis/Franklin Journal

A nesting doll illustration at the Passport Dinner.


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