I don’t think there’s anyone who still believes that it’s possible to earn a decent living in a small village N. in Poltava region. It was not that long ago—in the 1990s, actually—that the local ex-Soviet collective farm renamed, in a haste, to a collective agricultural enterprise, built small cottages with extensions there—come here, they seemed to say, work hard and you’ll be rewarded. The rewards didn’t last for long, though. They also connected the village to a gas supply, soon, which was probably their last accomplishment. The community center was shut down, its building dismantled brick after brick in the 1990s. The grocery store closed back in the early 2000s. Having a job is now out of the question—there’s not a single workplace in the village. A school is in a town two miles away. A few children commute there daily by bus. Men give up more easily—getting together at the bus stop, they puff at their cigarettes, the lights flickering, and knock back a drink to forget about their wretched lives for a while. Women can’t really forget about it, as they have to take care of their children, the household, the vegetable gardens, the poultry and the cattle—that’s all their lot. They don’t have much time to ponder over their hopeless existence. They don’t believe, of course, that you could earn a decent living in a small village. Yet, they know something very important—what’s the world’s backbone.
Halyna (79) inherited that bitter knowledge from her mother who’d served a prison sentence under the notorious Law of Three Spikelets and then slaved away at the collective farm till the end of her life, leaving behind a thatched roof house and some meagre savings. Her mother didn’t know any different, didn’t understand what other paths could be there, and didn’t even want to hear anything about it. When Halyna finished the eight-year school, her mother didn’t let her go to the accounting college or enroll in Hadiach Cultural and Educational School. A young woman should get married, she told her. Better look for a fiancé, than waste your time on schooling. Work as hard as you can. That’s the only way you can live. And even if there’re other ways, you’re not cut out for them. Two of Halyna’s friends did move to the town, though. They got married to lieutenants and only seldom visited their parents in the village. “They used hand cream,” Halyna says. “Their hands were so well-groomed, so white, that I felt dizzy.” “Did you envy them?” I ask her. “I don’t know,” she says. “No, I didn’t envy them. I felt pity for myself.” “Did you break flax? Embroider towels by the moonlight?” I ask. “Flax was already a thing of the past at that time,” she says, “but I did embroider my wedding rushnyk, oh yes, for three months. I bought the ready-made cloth, though, because women stopped spinning and weaving by hand and put away their spinning wheels in the attic.” Halyna got married early. Her embroidered rushnyk didn’t bring her any happiness, though. Her husband worked at the factory, making concrete well rings. He got a leg injury and became disabled when he was still young, and for the rest of his life he just boozed, dragging his leg along. “I’d come back home from work—I worked at the grocery store, yes, we still had one back then—and look for him in every nook and cranny, where’s he? And then I’d go inside and check all the places where I hid my money—did he find it? Did he drink it away?” Halyna tries to give me a weak smile, wiping away a tear with the end of her headscarf. “And then we also had two children,” she adds. “So you had to feed them, do their laundry, check their homework, make sure they didn’t get sick or come late to school. Light up the stove, check how much firewood you still got, and rake your brains where to get more, if there’s too little. Then you had to make hay for the cattle…” “Did you cut grass by yourself?” I ask. “Of course, I did. Who else would do that? Even three years ago, I still cut it myself until I sold the cow.” “Why did you sell it?” I ask. “I can’t take care of it myself any longer. And who needs it anyway? My daughter has grandkids of her own and visits me only from time to time. Both of my granddaughters got married and live in town.” “Are they better off in town than you’d had it here, in the village?” I wonder. “But of course. They’ve got nice clothes, nice perfumes, cars. They can drive here anytime they want. Oksanka knows how to drive. They always bring me gifts, but they don’t visit me often, though. They have a good life, thanks God.” “Do you still sing in the church choir?” I wonder. “I do,” Halyna says. “I’ve got a strong voice, so I have to sing—to give back to the people. The only thing is that I can’t get my leg over the bike anymore, so the priest sends his car to pick me up. That’s a chance for me to be among other people and to earn some money, not much, but still… Last year, the price of gas went up, so one day I’d heat the house with gas, and the next—with firewood. I’d light up the stove in the summer kitchen, wrap myself up in a blanket, and just wait like that until morning.” “Do you bake bread?” I ask. “No, I just buy it at the store. My arms hurt, I can’t knead it properly any longer, and who needs it anyway? Make dough just for myself? No, those times are over.” “What’s the meaning of life, grandma Halyna?” I ask, cautiously. She answers right away, without much thinking—hard work. “I wake up early in the morning,” she says, “feed my chicken, geese, and ducks, then tend the vegetable garden in the summer or cut logs for firewood together with my neighbor in the fall or lug dry logs from the river bank in the winter, and that’s what I do all day long, we didn’t know any different, no one showed us other paths in life, we were too late, and we won’t live to see it.”
Valentyna (56) knew a different life. Coming from a family of intellectuals, she graduated from the university and worked as a teacher for a while. Then she got married to a villager, and, after moving together with him from town to town for around ten years, she accepted his offer to settle down in his native village where his mother was living. By that time, the collective agricultural enterprise had also built its cottages there. “Did you agree to that right away?” I ask. “No,” she says. “I often cried at night. I had no idea how I would live here. It was like a desert to me. I didn’t know how to pull weeds or milk a cow. All my previous experience was irrelevant. It was hard for me to get used to a new way of life. How can you compare watching late-night movies at the movie theater and pulling onion in the garden? These things are as different as day and night. But then I got used to it. I learned to speak Ukrainian, too. Now I can easily whitewash the house or kill chickens. My children grew up in a village. They could do anything from an early age.” “You went abroad for some seasonal work, too, didn’t you?” I change the subject. “I did,” she says. “Not because I wanted but because I had to. It turned out I had a tumor. I don’t even want to talk about it. So, I had to borrow money from my cousin. So much money that I would’ve never paid it back to her holding a job as a social worker, as I did at that time. So I went to Poland. My children were grown-up by that time. My granddaughter was just born. Kids were okay with that, but my husband was angry. Every time I came back, he yelled he wouldn’t let me go there again. I didn’t want to do it either, you know, it was not an easy time, far from it. But staying a month or two in a village, I saw that we just wouldn’t make it otherwise. We sold our cow long time ago—we had to sell milk to the dairy plant and got paid peanuts in return. So, my husband and I talked about it, made some calculations, and, shocked by what we’d got, decided to sell the cow. We were spending more than we earned. The only way out was to sell milk at the farmers’ market, but you also need to have your regulars there, and the competition is fierce. Not everybody can do that. So, I am working in Poland, taking care of an old lady. They don’t pay me much, but it’s more than enough for a Ukrainian village. We grow our own vegetables and keep chickens. We make pickles. And in winter, we still heat the house with gas, not with firewood, even though it’s more expensive. We have to live a normal life—at least try to. My husband is angry, but I just have to go and earn money. My elder daughter is also working abroad. Her husband is taking care of their child. My son and my younger daughter are living in Kyiv, but I don’t think they’ll stay there for long. They’ve got obsolete jobs. They’ll come back here, I’m sure.” “What will they do here?” I ask. “Well,” she makes a pause and then continues. “It looks scary here if you think about tomorrow, but today…today we’re having a good life! We grow vegetables, keep chickens, can afford some good sausage and pastry, the house is large and warm, we all get on well with each other—what else do we need? The government is good for nothing, but we can make a living without its support, as long as we’re in good shape.” “Will people ever move back to the village?” I ask. She shakes her head. “No, never. It’s easier to live in town now, especially if you’ve got some skills. What kind of life can you expect here? The streets are pitch dark in the evening.” “But what about you?” I ask. “Well, we’ve already gotten used to it. In my age, it’s too late to change my life. And children should think for themselves. They have lives of their own.” “What’s the meaning of life?” I ask. “Children,” she asks. There’s no doubt in her voice.
Iryna (35) lives in a town, in a shabby apartment with all amenities. She’s been married for 17 years and has two children. Her husband has long stopped taking interest in anything but TV. Coming home from work, he plops down on the couch and watches TV until he falls asleep. The couch has a butt dent. The wallpaper peeled off in several places. The windows won’t close tight. But he no longer cares about it. He’s sick and tired of family life. Iryna often goes to the village in a half mile away from the town. After her grandpa died, she started to take care of his household. She built a coop for chickens and a small pool for ducks from an old water trough. Roses and gladioli grow under the windows, raspberry and red currents—along the fence. A peach tree is her biggest source of pride. This year, it bore fruit twice. She and her husband used to have a small business, buying and selling things, but after the crisis, their business slumped. “We barely paid our debts back,” Iryna says. “I felt such a pull toward this place! I never enjoyed this garden or these chickens, but now I’m so happy when I plant something or harvest it in the fall. That’s mine! That’s something I did.” Iryna keeps a breed of chicken that lays a lot of eggs. She’s already got regular clients—a grocery, a café, dozens of people who buy eggs. “I’m not making a fortune on that, but it helps me to break even,” she says. However, last year, someone stole seventeen chickens at night. “Do you know who did that?” I wonder. “I do, but what can I prove if I didn’t catch them red-handed? So I just bought another batch of eggs. Soon, new chickens hatched. Now I’ve got two locks on the coop and bars on the window” Iryna tells me that she’s going to get a divorce. She’s already talked about it with her husband, and they came to an agreement. “What’s the point of staying together, if he doesn’t care about a thing?” she sighs. “Whenever I come here, there’s a ton of work to be done: to water the garden, to pull weeds, to pick tomatoes, to feed chickens, to sweep the yard, to do this and that. But he couldn’t care less.” “Does he have a job?” I ask. “He does,” she says, “the salary is low, but he won’t look for anything better. So, I do it all—get children ready for school, pay utility bills, fix things in the house. I work at a grocery store—one week in twelve-hour shifts, one week off. So, I’m trying to juggle my day job and my work in the village. It’s not easy, but I also tried living in town and figured that it’s not my thing. I was restless there. Here, I’m at peace with myself. My children are older now and can help me out. If I can’t make it, my son comes here by himself and does whatever is necessary. He knows everything.” “Would you like your children to live in the village like you?” I wonder. “It doesn’t matter where they will live as long as they are happy.” “What is the meaning of life?” I ask. “Oh, no one ever asked me about it,” she says. “But now that I think about it… To live, to see the results of your work, to know that you didn’t waste your life, to be satisfied with the way you live—that’s the meaning of life, I guess. I’m satisfied with my life. I do what I love. It took me a long time to get there. At first I didn’t realize it, but now I know—all these things hold together, because I do what I love.
I could’ve asked them about many other things. About steep prices. About unprofitability of their work. About a seeming lack of perspectives. I could’ve told them that 76% of the poorest people in the world live in the countryside. Or that rural women are responsible for the lion’s share of food stock on our planet. But it seems they do realize it how valuable their work is. They know that the results of their work cannot be measured by money. They know that their work is the world’s backbone.
None of these women heard about the International Day of Rural Women observed on October 15. They should’ve been celebrated and honored, though. And not only these three women—all of them.