Romashki or a Life Less Ordinary, part 1

Thomas Macintyre is a MSc student enrolled in the Master International Development Studies. For his MSc thesis research he spent 3 months in an ecovillage in the Ukraine, to study everyday village life. Thomas’ post is the first of a series in which he shares his experiences of the “life less ordinary” he has lived for 3 months.

Imagine if you can a little village surrounded by forests beside a little lake. Squirrels play in trees amongst the woodpeckers, frogs play hide and seek with the cranes in the lake, and when the sun has set, the wild pigs come out to sniff and dig around the fields and gardens in the village, curious as ever as to see what is new. 

This is a very old village – nobody knows how old – but was given the name Romashki after a Cossack named Romashko in the 17th century, who was hiding in this area from Queen Katherine of Russia whose army was invading the country. With rolling hills and forest, this area was beautiful and remote from the political intrigues of the capital.

However, one cannot stay in isolation forever. Later this area, and the country it is now part of, was to become part of the Soviet Union. Collective farms were created, the state owned the land, and the people became clogs in a great communist machine. Once considered the most productive land in the Soviet Union, forced collectivization and a campaign by the ruler of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, to stamp out nationalism in this country resulted in an engineered famine which killed over 6 million people.

Every empire comes to an end. The Berlin wall fell, and so did the Soviet empire. The country of our village saw independence, and a painful move to a market based economy. Lack of capital saw agricultural production decrease, the mainstay of a country with a rural population of 50%. People moved to the city in search of work; the countryside began to die.

Now there are not many villagers left in Romashki. A few years ago one could only see a few old ‘babuskas’ with crumbled backs tending to their fields, while their children and their neighbours have moved to the city to find fortune, or at least a means to survive; because, as they say, ‘what life is there in the village?’ The signpost on the main road saying “Pомашки” (Romashki) had lost some of its letters, and a village which was on few maps, was on the road to die a sad and forgotten death.

But then something strange and out of the ordinary happened! As is generally the case in a good story, the heroes emerge at a time of crisis, and it must be said, now is a time of crisis. Two disillusioned souls from the depths of a modernist world broke free from their shackles of servitude, and dared to think different than a system based on conformity and repression. With backpacks carrying clothes and supplies, and with pots, pans and spades jingling from the straps outside the bags, our heroes took a boat down the Dniepro river, and disembarking, walked the final kilometers to the Village of Romashki.

Having arrived alone this couple from the city began to create a life less ordinary than most. They arrived to a run down mud and wood house they had bought for $300, and a garden of around 2 hectares covered in weeds and old sheds and pig sties. Using nothing but their bare hands and simple hand tools, they set about clearing the land, planting fruit trees and vegetables, and renovating the house with clay, sand, straw and water, and planting a garden of Eden: in their own words to each other, they were creating a “space of love” for themselves and the life around them.

The couple listened to what the earth and plants had to say, and they followed the rhythms of nature. They got up at sunrise, and went to bed at sunset. Planting and building was carried out in tact with the phase of the moon. Washing was done in the little lakes with mud substituting shampoo, toothpaste and soap. Water was collected from a well, and the electricity was cut. Dead wood was collected from the surrounding forests to make fire to cook their food and warm up their house when temperatures could reach as low as -30 during winter. Who could imagine that these people just a little while ago had been educated people in the city, with opportunities as a doctor and a lawyer to live a good respected life? Now they were almost alone in the village, following a dream to live a life at one with each other and natural world.

After a few months a squirrel which was climbing a walnut tree happened to look in through the window. She saw a woman lying on a bed of straw and a man with a long beard kneeling beside her. The woman face was tense and she was breathing hard but she did not seem scared. The man had an intense look of concentration. No one else was in the house. Then slowly, out of the woman into the arms of the man the squirrel saw a little person emerge. The little person did not cry, but was rocked slowly back and forth by the mother. It was only later in the evening, hours later, when the cord coming from the little person was cut, and the squirrel saw the man come out and bury the placenta under a plum tree in the garden. The first baby in Romashki for a long time had been born. Over time more people with these ‘alternative’ ideas came and moved to Romashki, and new life was born into the once dying village.

Four years later a young man traveling the vast expanses of the ex-Soviet Union met a guy who knew a girl who knew a guy, and through a serendipitous chain of events, ended up in the village of Romashki. There he stayed for 9 days with this couple and their daughter; a time which was to change his life. He swam naked in the lake, brushed his teeth with mud, ate the vegan food from the garden, and slept on a bed of straw. Then it was time to leave. – Maybe you will come back and write your thesis here, the woman said when the young man was about to leave. The young man hoisted his backpack onto his back and smiling to the woman (and himself) said – Da, yes, anything is possible. He was off to the Netherlands to study economic development and molecular nutrition and doubted Romashki he would have the opportunity to come back to write a thesis on this life. Happy and excited over what he had experienced and the new adventures which lay before him, the young man walked back the tree lined path to the bus stop, where the marshutka, mini bus, would take him back to civilization.

But as you well know, my dear reader, life has a funny habit of turning things on their head. The young man did not go on to study Nutrition or Economics. He changed his study to Rural Sociology. Through the study of the land and the actants who gave it meaning, the young man developed a passion for the rural. But through his classes dealing with the dynamics of rural and regional development processes in Europe, and other classes focusing on rural development in developing countries, he began to feel like something was missing. “Where is the beauty and romance of the countryside?” he thought to himself. “Where are the stories of people with agency and courage who dare to challenge the system and are living a happy life at peace with themselves and nature? Where are the stories which are supposed to inspire us and give us hope for the future? And as these thoughts developed in his mind, another image began to take form. This was an image of a village with a family doing exactly that; creating their own alternative rurality; simple, beautiful and based on a respect for the community of life around them; daring to do something different.  “I want to write an account of what it means to live such a life”, the young man thought to himself”.

Remembering the parting words from the woman before he left the village, he wrote the family a letter and mailed it. A few weeks later a letter came back: “….You are welcome to stay in our house as long as you like. You may describe everything you see and feel. We are happy to share our experience with people…” After preparing what needed to be prepared, the young man with bubbles in his stomach jumped on a train and heading due east towards the land of borsh, Chernoble, and inexplicably, a village called Romashki in Ukraine.

To be continued…

20 thoughts on “Romashki or a Life Less Ordinary, part 1

  1. What a wonderful and important topic to be researching about! It is in these reflections of a life less than ordinary where the key to solutions for the environmental and social crisis can be found! The first step is to think that something else is possible and that the future lies in our own hands, it is not just the government’s or scientist’s responsibility. It is time to think to where are we developing?

  2. Dear Miss Chaves,
    Thank you very much for you comment. I think you understand well what I was trying to accomplish in Romashki. It is, indeed, these less than ordinary experiences and reflections which hold important insights into possible future trajectories for mankind which are sustainable. This is because if we dare to think the imaginable, the less than ordinary, we are already half way there. It has been said that thought is action, and even if one does not agree with this, then one at least one has to agree that there is no action without thought. The future is what we think it to be – it is in our own hands. Its time to create folks! Put on your knickers, roll up your sleeves, and lets get to work.

  3. Indeed- what opportune and fascinating research! I look forward to part two of a ‘life less ordinary’!

  4. Indeed Thomas! Let’s get to work! I also look forward to part two and three and four of this project or any new future research! We need to start generating a change, or at least start thinking seriously about it!
    Thank you.

  5. Fasinating to read about this young man who through travel and an adventurous spirit found a young couple who so profoundly believed in the possibility of creating a different and better world that they gave up the security of jobs and income and started to live off the land. I look forward to the next part. This is indeed a “different” approach to research.

  6. Mr Macintyre, thank you for sharing the beginning of this story. While raising issues about the reality in which many people live, especially the ultrafast urban rat race in which so many people compete, and some intriguing aspects of the alternative rurality created by this small family in Romashki, you’ve simultaneously managed to write in a style that is accessible to the reader. You have conveyed a number of important ideas in your brief piece, but it is also an interesting read because of the quality of the prose itself. I very much look forward to reading the installments to come.

  7. To Mr Macintyre,

    I join the previous contributors in saying thank you for sharing the start of your journey to Romashki and into the lives of these three people. Though your story telling and portrayal of their lives, I am sure we will all be encouraged to look introspectively at our own ways of living, evaluating our own lives, customs and values, critically challenging why we live our lives in the way we do.

    Reading this passage made me think of a feeling I often have that I think many other people can relate to. That is the feeling of freedom we have when spending time in nature, whether it be hiking, biking, cross country skiing or swimming, during which we think “I should really do this more often”, but then we sigh and revert back to ‘reality’ and the comfort of our ordered urban lives. I thus look forward to reading how two people could so totally recreate their way of life in their new rural reality, living their every day in the freedom of nature and sacrificing so much of that comfort we have so easily become dependent on today.

    It will also be interesting to hear how ,as a researcher, your perspectives on ‘development’ have been challenged through doing this research into rurality and living in Romashki. So often development today is defined by access, communication, financial prosperity… But is this right? Have these people through their isolation and hard work created an equilibrium with the environment and a social context in which they feel happy?

    As Miss Chavez mentioned, we face a social and environmental crisis and we must rethink how we define development, prosperity and progress by looking at examples of how people have imagined what so many would say is impossible and then chosen ” life less ordinary”.

    I also agree wholeheartedly with Mr Andersons comments as to the readability of your prose. I look forward to the next stage of your journey in Romashki. I certainly hope we can meet the squirrel again too.

  8. Tom as I call you, I am very glad that the topical issue of rurality has found some hearts to dwell in. You have encouraged the thought actions of connoirseurs of development to re-think and consider the entire definitions of what should be developed and what should actually serve as de basis of ‘ a developed or developing society’. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. Looking back at what I am working on in a technographic way, I can say that even though our focuses have been from different worlds apart, we all share the common vision of Rurality.
    it was good to meet you briefly after ‘Romashki 1’ and hopefully we can share some thoughts when both thesis have been defended by summer.
    Keep the good work and cheers

  9. Hi – I am looking forward to reading more. I was a big fan of THorea (Walden Pool) and the back to the land movement he inspired in the 60s and 70s. (There’s a song by Jackson Browne called After the Deluge which seems to capture the spirits, hopes and frustrations of those times). Societies ssem to go through these phases when there is a mood to get back to nature – the people I know who where involved in that movement thirty years ago in Britain (which is where I know best) have become commercially astute organic entrepreneurs, cheesemakers or crafts people. The others couldn’t survive the difficult times or the temptations of ‘Babylon’. That’s not to discredit the dream or the very powerful effect it has on all thsoe who live it for a short or long period of their lives.

  10. Yes, more! This type of academic study is what the world needs. We are faced with unparalleled problems with overpopulation, ecological devastation, human intolerance, mega-corporations run wild, and more. The survival of our species is now in question.

    Alternative ways of life such as this must become the norm for many. What is strange or unusual now must become regular and every-day.

    Thomas Macintyre’s research and conclusions could be of much importance. By informing and thus inspiring even a few many grand events could follow. Great things begin with one person doing something, a few picking it up, and then more, and more….

    What makes this even better is that Mr. Macintyre is a gifted writer who makes his research and findings enjoyable to read. I look forward to reading more parts in his very informative and important blog.

  11. Dear Ida,
    Thank you for your reply. Yes it is a ‘different’ approach to research, but it is through this alternative approach that i hope to represent the possibilities that this family have created for their life. Please refer to part 2 for a further exploration into this (fairytale) approach.

  12. Dear Mr Anderson,
    Thank you for you comments. Yes, an important element I hope to bring to the research table is stylistically to engage with the reader to convey the experiences and impressions I want to share. In the part two of this installment which is now posted you can see a further discussion on this: How the words and images of fairytale ethnography best (re)present the life of a family in a village called Romahski in Ukraine. Thank you for your engagement, and i hope for further valuable comments.

  13. Dear Miss Macintyre,
    Thank you for your comments and engagement. You raise many interesting points.

    The freedom of nature you refer to is indeed fascinating. It strikes me that we leave our urban reality to enter nature, before leaving to go home, implying it is not somewhere we live, but instead spend time in, then leave, back to our home away from nature. In this sense it is interesting when people like the Raevskis become part of what is called the ‘back-to-nature” movement, implying that they are returning to some pre-ordained condition of man to be part of the land. (refer to Nick Parrot’s comment below). Oh how far we have digressed from what may once have been a ‘reality’ for all mankind. This extent of this digression was felt by me in my own discomforts of living closer to the land. Being cold, uncomfortable and confused, the first two at least not part of the modern world I came from.

    As for development, it has changed much of what I thought development was. Many of the current issues of development, for example, environmental concerns were pertinent in the Raevski family lifestyle (their very low carbon footprint), the way they lived off the land etc, but whats more, they believed in personal development, the harmony of man and nature, and the development of the relationship between people as the most important aspects of their lives. These are issues not often raised in the academic discourse on development.

    But I hope to raise them!

    Thank you and enjoy part two of fairytale.

  14. Mr connoirseur of development (aka Mr connoirseur of words),

    Thank you for your comments. I am glad we can share the same vision from different standpoints. They are after all just different doors into a beautiful world. And we both like to use many words to act as the door into this fairytale. I would be delighted if you read part 2 of this installment and leave a comment on your views as to this ‘door’.

    Cheers, alex

  15. Dear Nick,
    Thank you for your reply. It is interesting you refer to Thoreau (a notoriously difficult word to spell I agree) and Walden. Should you read my thesis, you will see how it was an important source of inspiration for me. I spent many a night reading by candlelight the adventures into nature and his imagination inspired by it. A great man. (ironically dying because of pneumonia because he got too cold on one of his walks).

    It is interesting your mention of the back to the land movement of the 60s and 70s and the people who were part of it and what they ended up as. Do you believe that mood is creeping back into society? And how can these movements be sustained instead of being ‘corrupted’ by the pressures and temptations of the modern world? These were unfortunately questions beyond my research, as I concentrated on how one family constructed and lived this back to the land life, but they are questions which are equally important.

    Cheers Nick


  16. Dear Mark,
    Thank you for your Comments. I agree with what you say about how great things by some people can create momentum attracting other people. Then one day what was alternative will be termed normal. I wonder then what alternative will have morphed into? In the above point, it is then fascinating how the Raevskis, in a way, pioneered this life for others to follow. As my research shows, they followed ideas of other people, but were courageous enough to make the first steps physically alone. Others have followed, and I suspect more will too!

    Thanks Mark

  17. Dear Miss Oxley (is that English?)
    Thank you for your most opportune comments. You will be overjoyed to know part two is out. I hope you enjoy and leave some more constructive comments.

    Cheers Becs

  18. Hello Thomas,
    I found out about your Thesis project from Pieter and Olha. I meet them a few weeks ago at Rossi eco-village, where I was doing natural building. I read your narrative, and it fits the Pieter and Olha’s personality perfectly. They are an incredible couple with a beautiful way of life. I am planning to visit them again in a few weeks, during winter to help preserving and drying foods.
    I am going to keep an I on the blog and look forward to hearing the next installment of your story.
    Kind Regards,

  19. Dear Jacob,
    Thank you for the comment. The Raevskis are indeed a most amazing couple. And very cool that you will go there during winter to help them. I hope you enjoy cold water! Hey, there are two more installments already posted which you can search for (same title) and the third one also has a link to my thesis. Please tell Pietro and Olga that I really really miss them, and look forward to seeing them again one day. Also tell them that the special copy of the thesis is being sent to them now.
    Has Andrey in Rossi finished his house yet?
    Cheers, Thomas

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