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From Russia with Love

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By Andrew Jones

(Nov/Dec 2009)

Kovcheg ecovillagers.
In March, 2009, I attended a workshop in Woodstock, New York led by Dr. Leonid Sharashkin (or Dr. Leo as he's more informally known). Dr. Leo publishes English-language books about Anastasia, a Russian woman with remarkable abilities and insights. The author of these books is Russian entrepreneur Vladimir Megre, who describes his meetings with Anastasia in the Siberian taiga. Megre’s nine books about Anastasia and her message of hope to the world, collectively known as the Ringing Cedar Series, inspired the Anastasia Ecovillage Movement in Russia.

The workshop in Woodstock was about Dr. Sharashkin’s insights into some of the information contained within the Anastasia books, ideas on practical application of her key concepts, and his own experiences as co-leader and resident of Rodnoye, an Anastasia-inspired ecovillage in Russia.

Dr. Leo (left, standing) leading his workshop.
In the years since the first Anastasia book was published in Russia, there has been a significant growth in interest in the core ideas expressed in the books. One of these is the role of the fully developed human being (referred to in the books as “Man,” with a capital “M”) working with nature to create a harmonious and abundant life. The cultural roots of this vision lie in what the books describe as the Vedic traditions of Russia, which are characterized as deep and old, and informing the Russian landscape and people before the ascendance of princes and priests who marginalized and replaced this heritage with a society characterized by Christianity and a top-down hierarchy.

A core element of the vision expressed in the books is that true democracy, abundance, and ecological resilience becomes possible as people return to the structure of what Anastasia calls a “Family Domain” — one hectare of land (2.5 acres) with woods, fruit trees, a vegetable garden, and a small pond — owned outright by a family and passed down through the generations. This hectare becomes a diverse garden – providing unique nourishment to those who live within its energetic boundaries, continuity and connection through the generations, and a base from which true security can be experienced. Further, a “Space of Love,” as the books assert, is created within such a one-hectare plot, and is part of the energy that helps to return people to right relationship with one another and with the natural world.

Author Vladimir Megre.
This vision clearly has ramifications for the way in which the Anastasia-inspired ecovillages have been conceived and structured with respect to land ownership. While ecovillage members individually own their one-hectare Family Domains, these are linked by common infrastructure, and people share resources such as community space and schools. In the workshop Dr. Leo described two examples, Kovcheg Ecovillage and Rodnoye Ecovillage, both within 100 miles of Moscow.

Land laws in Russia vary from region to region, but a common experience for ecovillage founders is that the process of having land re-zoned appropriately, even where such zoning officially exists on the books, can be time-consuming and expensive. Apparently corruption is rife and bribes are often levied for the land-registration process. In response, there are two basic ways to proceed: (1) follow the letter of the law and meet all the official requirements and costs, or (2) move ahead unofficially, risking eventual land seizure or confiscation. The history of Russia since the fall of the Tsars a little less than 100 years ago is that land has been repeatedly confiscated from rural landowners and sold back by the system. People therefore have some suspicion about official approaches to land ownership and registration. It is only since the late 1970s that Russian peasants (that is, people who live in rural villages) received rights of citizenship. Unfortunately, this led to destruction and abandonment of thousands of villages all over Russia as people moved to cities seeking a better life.

An artist’s conception of Anastasia and her son, from the Ringing Cedars book series.
At this point, hundreds of Anastasia-inspired ecovillage projects are in the planning stages in Russia, and some are already established.

Kovcheg Ecovillage was founded in 2001 when 4 families leased — under a 49-year government lease, and at no charge — about 297 acres (120 hectares) of former agricultural land 87 miles (140 km) southwest of Moscow, in the Kaluga region. As Anastasia advised, people built their homes on individual one-hectare (2.5 acre) plots. In their first 8 years they built more than 100 homes, though not all are finished and heated for winter use. They built the houses mostly by themselves, and at the rate of between 12 and 20 a year. Most are built with lumber milled onsite, and insulated from the winter cold with clay-straw walls. The group shares common infrastructure: roads, bucket-drawn wells, a community building, a sauna, a school, a sustainability video library, and heavy equipment such as a tractor, excavator, grader, and large truck. Together they care for their forest, cleaning up slash and planting new trees, stopping illegal woodcutting by others, and operating their own sawmill and a woodworking shop.

People live on 1-hectare (2.5-acre) homesites at Kovcheg.
Like most ecovillages Kovcheg offers sustainability education for others, and conducts educational seminars, on their eco-community experience, on natural building, and on sustainable bee-keeping (using no drugs, sugar water, or human intervention). In 2005 they produced an instructional video, “How to Build a Warm Winter Home with Light Clay-Straw.” They have hosted 3 ecovillage gatherings since 2005; in their February, 2009 gathering they welcomed 60 visitors from 25 other ecovillage projects in Russia and other former USSR countries for 4 days of workshops and networking.

Now, with 40 families (about 120 people) year-round, 80 families (about 200 people) in the summer, and 15 people born on the land,Kovcheg is considered in Russia to be a successful Anastasia-style ecovillage. Fifteen-thousand people a month visit their website, which now has an English version.

Kovcheg members have built more than 100 homes in their first 8 years.
One of Kovcheg’s founders is a former successful businessman who moved from the city to the country for the sake of his child, and now works as a beekeeper and gardener. Other residents include a former wrestler, a former German fashion model, a former parliamentary hopeful, and a former opera singer. Common themes underlying reasons to move to Kovcheg include the ability to devote more time to one’s family, a desire to leave the expense and money-orientation of city life, an opportunity to be one’s own boss, and the desire to live in a community with people one loves, as well as to live with cleaner air, cleaner water, and a better sense of safety and security.

Kovcheg members created a set of clear guidelines that appear to have helped considerably in their development, including agreements for creating meeting agendas and running meetings efficiently. They hold whole-group meetings four or five times per year, using a 75% super-majority vote for significant decisions and a majority-rule vote for simpler items and manage the ecovillage the rest of the year through specific committees.

Kovcheg members dancing around their new community building.
Kovcheg member Fedor Lazutin summarizes the following key insights people have learned as they developed the ecovillage:

Vision and Principles. The first priority is to identify the vision and principles which will serve as the foundation for the community. Gradual growth. Begin with a small group of people who create the vision and principles, then gradually attract like-minded people who agree to them.
Full transparency in the use of common funds. A formal detailed accounting is provided for all money matters. (“Trust and check” is an old Russian proverb.) Shared responsibility among all members, rather than a single leader. If you don’t like the way a job is being done, show a better way through how you contribute to the solution. Agree up front how to manage conflict within community through an amicable conflict-resolution process.

Kovcheg has a two-year provisional membership period, and requires new residents to move to their plot during this time. Community members can leave the community and sell their plot, however anyone they sell to must be approved by the community. Requirements for membership include: (1) within two years they must live at Kovcheg full-time, (2) garden organically (using no pesticides or herbicides), and ideally, design with permaculture principles, (3) no smoking or drinking onsite, (4) no raising livestock for meat, and (5) no erecting walls or fences between plots. The key question regarding prospective new members is: “Do you want to see this family as your neighbor?” They approve new members with a 75 percent super-majority vote. If a member violates the group’s agreements, depending on the severity or consistency of the violations, the group may decide to exclude that member from using the common facilities such as roads, effectively rendering them unable to access their plot. So far this provision has not been used by the community.

Inside Kovcheg’s community building members celebrate in traditional Russian dress.
Another Anastasia ecovillage described during Dr. Leo’s workshop is Rodnoye, founded in 2001, and with land purchased in 2003, about 93 miles (150 kilometers) from Moscow. Rodnoye had a less well-defined structure at its inception and experienced serious problems as a result. First, there was some initial conflict over different interpretations the vision and agreements, as these were not written down. People remembered things differently, which lead to a significant amount of energy spent trying to resolve things. Also, some of the early residents shared their understanding of Anastasia’s vision for community with nearby villagers and local officials in ways that seemed confrontational. This led to an initial suspicion in the area about the Rodnoye project that would not have happened if they had had a clear communication policy for those chosen to speak on behalf of the community.

Rodnoye also had no provision requiring members to move onto the land, so some members brought shares for plots on behalf of their grandchildren, with no intention to immediately develop their sites. Having some members who didn’t live onsite became a challenge, especially during the early days when the people who had moved to the site needed all the help they could get in building the physical infrastructure of the community.

Kovcheg members build homes even in the Russian winter!
Early on, several apparently trustworthy members with a great deal of financial responsibility absconded with a significant amount of the group’s money — highlighting the need for checks and balances and transparent accounting processes like Kovcheg has. An even more serious challenge is that for Rodnoye to be legal under local zoning regulations, the land requires a change of zoning status. This process, which is relatively expensive and time-consuming, hasn’t yet been undertaken, so the community is vulnerable to possibly being evicted at short notice anytime.

Most Rodnoye members live there only during the summer months (60 families during the summer; 20 remaining during the winter). This creates difficultly for the winter families because the work of clearing common roads of snow and other winter tasks fall more heavily on a smaller group.

Following Anastasia’s advice, Kovcheg members highly value Siberian cedar trees.
Many of the Anastasia-inspired ecovillages in Russia are not located on prime agricultural land, and some ecovillage land is even degraded by past land-use practices, just as with the dacha plots people cultivate. It commonly takes four years to restore soil fertility in such damaged sites, in part due to the short growing season at Russian latitudes (typically 121 days).

Part of the focus of the Anastasia books — and Megre’s initial interest in Siberia — is related to the Siberian cedar trees and the value of the cedar nuts for oil and food. The oil is both medicinal and nutritive. Siberian cedars take 20 years to bear and are a key species for inclusion in northern Russian polycultures. Dr. Leo has written about this in “The Secrets of Cedar Products,” downloadable from the Ringing Cedars website.

I believe the experiences of people in Russia and other former-USSR countries creating Anastasia-inspired ecovillage models contribute valuable lessons and insights all ecovillage pioneers can learn from. Hopefully their stories will become more widely known in the West.

Author Andrew Jones.
'Andrew Jones is a permaculture teacher and designer, a wellness coach, and ecopreneur with a mission to learn to live and promote regenerative culture. He lives at Baja BioSana, in Southern Baja, Mexico. Email: ajventure@gmail.com

Andrew thanks Dr. Leonid Sharashkin for permission to use some of his copyrighted workshop materials in this article. For more information on The Ringing Cedar Series and associated materials, workshops and events see the Ringing Cedars website.

Special thanks also to Dmitriy Vatolin of Kovcheg Ecovillage for additional information about Kovcheg.

Dacha Gardens in Russia

In the workshop I learned that Dr. Leo wrote his doctoral dissertation on the spiritual, cultural, and economic significance of the Russian dacha gardening movement. (A dacha is a small cottage in the country.) I believe his work at the University of Missouri at Columbia has an urgent relevance to the US as debates rage over the ability of people to evolve sustainable “foodsheds.” Agribusiness interests propose that broad-scale industrial agriculture is the only model that can provide reliable, inexpensive food and that the toxicity of inputs, soil depletion and energy inefficiency of the system is acceptable due to a lack of alternatives. Thus far, this view has been backed solidly by the USDA to the tune of billions in agricultural subsidies that underpin this model — financing the destruction of America's soil and food quality, and rewarding industrial agribusiness as the model to succeed.

But millions of home gardeners in Russia disprove all these ideas and offer a model in which people regain central control of their food system in a very direct way, by growing the majority of their food themselves. In a country with corporate farms using 83 percent of the agricultural land, some 35 million families produce more than 50 percent of the country’s food, growing on small plots which are typically some 25 x 35 yards in size. While these plots are not the best agricultural land, they are tended by people who care about the quality of produce, who improve the quality of their soils, and who eat and share what they grow. These dachnik gardeners, as they are called, collectively produce 92 percent of the potatoes grown in Russia, 77 percent of the vegetables, 87 percent of the berries and fruit, 60 percent of the meat, and 49 percent of the milk. —A.J.</div>

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Coming in Future Issues:
  • Anastasia Ecovillages in Russia (Andrew Jones)
  • Konohana Family Farm in Japan (Hildur Jackson)
  • First Philippines Ecovillage Design Education Course (Diana Leafe Christian)
  • Pintig Ecovillage Partners with a Local Green Business (Diana Leafe Christian)
  • Our Whirlwind Aussie Road Trip, Part II (Russell Austerberry)
  • Svanholm in Denmark Becomes Carbon Neutral (Christina Adler Jensen)
  • Ecovillage Conference Tokyo 2009 (Hildur Jackson)
  • ‘Glue’ or ‘Shrapnel’ in Your Ecovillage (Diana Leafe Christian)

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