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Pictures of life in a Russian Village & comments

I've been looking at information related to the Arkhangelsk region Franz has been writing about:

And so I have also been looking at information about Russian villages. Here are some pictures about one :
"This is one day from the random Russian village. The school, the household routine and the fun of some random Russian countrymen."

There are a mixture of various comments about it that may be interesting for people here to look at. I don't know exactly where that village is, but one comment suggested Tverská oblast.

You might want to look at those pictures first and have your own ideas about them before reading the rest of this.


My opinions from those pictures, roughly in four areas: general life, education, energy, and automation:

The buildings look old and poor, but still it is not the paint on the walls that is the major determination of a child's happiness. Actually, in our somewhat post-and-beam home, we have very little paint on the walls at all. :-) It seems not that different from the rural area where we live in the Adirondack Park in some ways (not all ways though -- we are 45 minutes away from "big box" store shopping, which is a huge difference, and our winters rarely go below -20C usually, so we're a bit warmer probably, and almost all homes here have indoor plumbing). There are certainly a few homes around where I am that are not too different from that one in looks (though they may have better telephone and road infrastructure, including broadband now). I grew up in a suburb on Long Island, but my wife grew up in rural Pennsylvania in a place somewhat like that, and she has fond memories of it (though her siblings were not so fond of it in some ways, preferring town life more).

It's hard to know what is most important sometimes in raising children. Related:
"Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" by Richard Louv

But I can see the schooling scenes photographed may be limiting because it appears to follow the standard US and Prussian model for a big chunk of the day that may focus narrowly on conventional academics. But that may not be as crippling in such a rich setting for whole life learning, compared to more urban settings or where TV or video games or computers are a bigger draw the rest of the time. From John Taylor Gatto:
"After an adult lifetime spent teaching school I believe the method of mass-schooling is the only real content it has, don't be fooled into thinking that good curriculum or good equipment or good teachers are the critical determinants of your son and daughter's schooltime. All the pathologies we've considered come about in large measure because the lessons of school prevent children from keeping important appointments with themselves and with their families, to learn lessons in self-motivation, perseverance, self-reliance, courage, dignity and love and lessons in service to others, which are among the key lessons of home life. Thirty years ago these things could still be learned in the time left after school. But television has eaten up most of that time, and a combination of television and the stresses peculiar to two-income or single-parent families have swallowed up most of what used to be family time. Our kids have no time left to grow up fully human, and only thin-soil wastelands to do it in."

Still, here are some alternative ideas about education:
"In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids' Inner Wildness" by Chris Mercogliano

And other educators who created alternatives:

But, it is hard from a few pictures to get a full sense of what the school room is like. It might be OK. But, coupled with a TV at home as shown in a picture, it could spell trouble, even with lots of outdoor activities. So, that village may be too conventionally urbanized already for its own good. :-)

I liked the efficient masonry stove, which is one of the most efficient ways to heat:

On the other hand, the current gold standard for heating is *no* furnace:
"No Furnaces but Heat Aplenty in ‘Passive Houses"

Looks like deforestation in that area is pretty complete. :-(

It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem -- if you spend all your time cutting wood and going further and further to get it from deforestation, then you don't have time and energy to make cellulose insulation from the trees you have left and make or buy multi-paned glass so you don't have to chop so much wood. My wife spent her childhood chopping wood and carrying ashes, so we don't have a fireplace we rely on for heat. :-) Anyway, that's one place an investment in villages might pay off quickly -- energy efficiency for heating by better insulation and better windows, as long as it was done well enough to not have mold problems (like using air-to-air heat exchangers). That is probably worth evaluating as a first development idea, to evaluate how much time goes into cutting wood and tending the fireplaces and dealing with wood cutting injuries. But in practice, new construction might just be easier than retrofits. Houses do get obsolete. I'd suggest most of the housing stock in the USA is obsolete as well in that sense too.

That seems like a private farm. Collective farms for some industries, like dairy, were actually a pretty good idea (then you can have a day shift and a night shift to milk animals, and people can go on vacations or take sick days, and farmers don't end up so isolated -- private farming is especially tough on farm wives). They seemed to have a few goats though, who only need to be milked once a day generally, so that may not be much of an issue -- they might be more pets than anything. But they have at least one cow. Maybe just one cow isn't such a big deal, but that's not much of a commercial venture then.

But anyway, set up some prefab no-furnace green energy efficient buildings, create a collective venture for dairy farming, disband the school or make it into a public library where anyone can go to learn anything or borrow or use tools, replace the TV with the internet, and maybe the charm of it all goes away?

Some people also really like the rhythms of agricultural life, including the twice-a-day milking part. But many do not, as much of the labor can be hard and repetitive and poorly paid (essentially, factory work in the outdoors), and they vote with their feet going to the cities in hopes of something else (even if they may often not find an easier life in the city, or may find it, but get more that they bargained for in other negative ways).

The fields reminded me some of life in Iowa, which is basically a factory-like lunar surface wasteland, sadly, where they use soil mainly just to prop up the plants (as opposed to organic methods or permaculture).

People seemed to be smiling more in the pictures when fishing. No surprise. Human skeletons actually were shorter from the advent of agriculture until only reaching hunter-gatherer stature about this century. From:
"For instance, the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture approximately 10,000 years ago has commonly been seen as a major advancement in the course of human evolution. However, as Larsen provocatively shows, this change may not have been so positive. Compared to their hunter-gatherer ancestors, many early farmers suffered more disease, had to work harder, and endured a poorer quality of life due to poorer diets and more marginal living conditions. Moreover, the past 10,000 years have seen dramatic changes in the human physiognomy as a result of alterations in our diet and lifestyle. Some modern health problems, including obesity and chronic disease, may also have their roots in these earlier changes."

So, agriculture done without modern technology may not be as much fun or as healthy or as easy as hunting and gathering in an area with low population density. Their unconscious minds know which is better, so they smile.

And is that part of the reason people look to the cities for a return of some hunter/gatherer aspects of their lives, instead of endless toil?

Again though, replace the picture of kids digging with kids ordering around agricultural robots or having the villages semi-autonomous tractor come by for a day, and maybe it does not seem so bucolic and idyllic? It just becomes a city supply region then, not a semi-independent somewhat self-reliant outpost. I guess we could hope for village networks making the agricultural robots... :-)

I'm not kidding about the robots, by the way:
"The Autonomous Grape-Vine Pruner"
"A robot with a sophisticated vision system and sophisticated arms is able to prune grape vines on a twig-by-twig basis."

Another ten or twenty years, and old fashioned farming, which is often marginal financially now (thus the poor houses), may not be feasible at all. That's another aspect of technology in the countryside, beyond the internet. The question is becoming not, can robots do it, but are they cheaper? And we know, if you look at that video on grape vine pruning, ultimately, robots will be cheaper. It's only a question of when.

Compare that robot grape-vine pruner with this picture of "Cucumber Pickers of Belarus" where ten people are laying in the equipment a tractor pulls. There are reasons farming is one of the most dangerous occupations. Those people don't look too happy. It is ironic both the robot video and the cucumber picker video end with a bunch of men standing around admiring the technology. :-) But in the first one, the robots do the work; in the other, mainly women do the work it seems.

Here is a GPS driven tractor a village could share for plowing and harvesting (although sharing equipment in agriculture is problematical since usually everyone needs it at the same time for the same seasonal reasons):
Discussed here:
"Farming Robot - with great news and information about the evolution of farms to now include intelligent machines taking over much of the "grunt work". Don't believe us? Just have a look at our first of alternating videos..."

Still, robots allow other social arrangements. For example, dairy milking robots have been around for a while, and they allow one family to potentially run a large herd by themselves without as much early/late scheduling for milking.
"VMS robotic milking" (There are other vendors of such systems; that's just a great video.)

More on milking robot systems here:

Supposedly the cows like the robot milking better. They can get milked whenever they want and the machinery is easier on the udders. Record keeping is better too.

Here is a robot barn cleaner:

We have long supported Heifer International, but of course, there are ethical issues related to raising lots of farm animals, including humane treatment, external costs including pollution and health issues, and the fact that you can generally feed a lot more people directly than through feeding animals. Still, it is a complex issue, and there are also some lands (sloped, arid, etc.) that are perhaps only well suited for raising animals, and life in the wild can be pretty rough on animals too.

Those special purpose systems seem to be working well, but more general purpose robots in the field are still under development, so there still remains a lot to do in that area of agricultural robotics:
"Field Robot Event 2008"
But that's the exciting kind of thing that could be worked on around existing villages, perhaps in new village-oriented research centers in rural areas. Although, it still means the end of a certain way of life, as it transforms into something new. In general, continually improving automation and new materials and new designs (often resulting from collaboration through the internet) means a lot of our economic and social assumptions will need to be revisited, and not just in rural areas.

There are a million results for this Google search on russian robotics:
Though only 771 results for this search with the words in quotes:
But clearly, there are a lot of factors that will drive continuing development of robotics and other automation in all countries across the globe.

So, maybe we need to stop organizing our communities around classical (soon to be outdated) economics, and organize them around the smiles on young kids faces, like in some of those pictures? :-) As well as the smiles of their parents and grandparents, too? :-)

Still, if the villagers are mostly smiling now, and enjoying their lifestyle choice to live in villages that are materially poor but rich in other things, as a form of voluntary simplicity, then maybe those villagers are better off with things as they are, unless they actively want change? A personal comfortable with goats and cows may not want to learn to manage robots and computers. Sadly though, at the rate technology and robotics are advancing, as you can see by those videos above, a simple rural life as is shown in those pictures may only be a hobby for the rich soon enough as "hobby farms" (like when agricultural markets are saturated by cheap products from more automated farms) or for those who are very poor and live off subsistence farming or unrelated retirement income (closer to what many villagers may be doing now). Let us hope that the villagers who have already given so much of their lives towards various social ideals will be remembered in the future in government policy.

Anyway, there are at least two ways forward, as far as technical support. One is to support the villagers in their current life, with minimal interventions, to make a sort of voluntary simplicity work better in a "Small is Beautiful" way, like Gleb Tyurin outlines here in this inspirational story:

Even as I can wonder how many "Veterans Homes" one can imagine in rural areas to provide jobs. :-) Obviously the general idea is to get people in villages doing things that work for their own situation, which makes a lot of sense, but without larger changes across the social network of villages and cities, that may just lead to competition and another race to the bottom (as in, "Our village's Veterans Home is cheaper per veteran to run than theirs", same as happens when rural farmers compete over offering low grain prices). Still, there is nothing wrong, IMHO, for rural areas to make arrangements with cities to be the places joyful young people are raised or where old people go to have a happy retirement. That is in a way a rethinking of the notion of "suburb" in a more sustainable way, as an exchange between cities and the countryside, each doing what it does best.

The other way, using automation and robotics like outlined above, is a very different path, requiring substantial investments of money and technology that would either be flowing out of cities as investments and would have its own expectations as to short-term returns, or would be flowing out of charities and governments with longer-term expectations or to honor long term social obligations. But a heavily automated countryside might look very different than those pictures of rural life. And it would need environmental regulation to keep from getting out of balance with intensive livestock operations or soil erosion from heavy farming and so on, or otherwise a general environmental consciousness resulting in a preference for sustainable organic agriculture and permaculture. It might be an exciting countryside to live in for many technically inclined young people though. Though issues of inequity may remain, perhaps requiring something like a basic income.

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Comment by Franz Nahrada on July 13, 2009 at 9:10am
Paul, this "either - or" may not be the ultimate perspective. Its a long post and we must engage in deeper dicussion. Just for the moment I like to thank you for the post!


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