Professional JournalistsBeginner JournalistsFinalists 2013

Ewa Zwierzyńska

Ewa Zwierzy?ska originates from the Belarusian minority living in the Eastern Poland. Her main passions are photography and travelling, and she has been interested in the problems of the Polish-Belarusian borderland and Belarus for many years. She lived permanently in Belarus in Grodno in 1992-1993. Her interests focus on cultural, social and political problems in Belarus. For several years, she has been committed to the cultural life of the Belarusian minority in Podlasie. She has written about Podlasie for “Kurier Poranny” and “Dolina Bugu”, and won a competition for the National Geographic Traveler’s coverage of the Ukrainian Polessye. 

Us from the Kolkhoz

After crossing the Poland-Belarus border, the landscape changes dramatically. The place of shredded fields and overgrowing meadows is taken by enormous fields and thousands of hectares of rye, beets, barley and corn. Between them, there are pastures on which herds of cows walk around. There are no wastelands in Belarus. Each centimetre of soil is put to use. Belarus is a typical agricultural country.

Svetlana, Olga and Tamara work together on the same shift. They take care of one thousand calves. I see Tamara scattering hay with a pitchfork, Olga carrying buckets full of grain and putting it into a feeder. Women are kind, open and unusually happy. They are willing to talk to me. We are sitting down on the grass beside the stable. Behind our backs, there are small compartments for three-week old calves that need to be fed milk from bottles.

Do they like their work? - We had to take a liking to it. There is no other choice, although the work is very hard in Kolkhoz. But we have to work to earn a living.

All of them live in the same village. They started families, have children and grandchildren. Beside working in the Kolkhoz, they also run their own farms. Like most of the inhabitants of the village, they own cows, pigs and gardens.

- We get up at five o’ clock in the morning - says Svetlana, who works in the Kolkhoz as a shift manager, and first, we have to take care of our own farms, milk cows, feed pigs and send off children to school. We start our work at eight o’ clock in the morning. We are taken to work by a special company car. We work in the Kolkhoz until one p.m. We do everything around calves - clean, feed, water and litter them with straw. Then the company car takes us home for dinner and we go back to work at 14 o’ clock. We work until 17 o’ clock. When we return home, we take care of our own farms, cook, clean and weed our gardens. Life without a cow or a garden would be rather difficult and this way, we have our own milk, eggs, vegetables and potatoes. And somehow we are able to survive. Usually we go to bed at midnight.

America killed us

- We don’t want to complain about our lives. People tend to complain too much. Our mothers and grandmothers had much more difficult lives and we can’t compare with them. Nowadays, everyone has a washing machine and access to warm water, bathroom and a toilet. Life has changed in recent years. It is more comfortable, but people are sadder. We used to be like one big family. Especially in the times of USSR and that was a wonderful life! Everything was provided for us and we didn’t have to worry about anything. Kolkhoz provided entertainment for us all the time - dancing parties, meetings and fests. We had an amazing organizer of cultural life. She had many interesting ideas: harvest festivals, fancy-dress parties, excursions and contests. In the contest one could win an ironing board, a colander or even a washing machine. Crowds were coming there and there were always so many people that you couldn’t turn around. Young people didn’t want to leave the club and go home, and now? People need nothing from one another, they became indifferent, and neighbours won’t even say "good morning" to each other. Young people don’t want to go anywhere. The word "homeland" doesn’t mean much. Years ago, this word was giving everyone creeps and if the war broke now, no one would fight for the country. The West destroyed us. America always wanted to kill us and they did - they killed as mentally and spiritually.

We got used to it, it’s fine.

- In Belarus, we don’t earn much but our life here is good - says Svetlana and she doesn’t stop smiling. - People here are placid, good and gentle. There are no thieves or assaults here, we don’t even lock the doors at night. We are pleased with our lives because when one sees all the misfortune around - diseases, wars, disasters, he knows that his life is really good. We are healthy, we have jobs, what else could we ask for? One has to be an optimist and enjoy what he has. We are not paid much for our work, but we work without complaining. People, especially the local ones, usually work in Kolkhoz because there is no alternative. There are no industries or companies in the area, only fields, meadows and forests. The fortune made us work in Kolkhoz as well, but we got used to it and that’s the way it goes.

Here, in Belarus, we had been devoid of rights for our own soil for couple of generations. We are not accustomed to having it. We don’t know how to work on our own lands anymore. I wouldn’t even want to. It’s better to come to work, spend eight hours here and then go back home. When you have your own farm, you have to think and bother about it incessantly. After the fall of USSR, some people tried to be farmers. They sew, planted and tried, but the country buys crops dirt-cheap. And everyone gave up.

Come on, paint my world

Do they have any dreams? Tamara would like to go to the seaside. She has never seen sea, but only heard people speaking about it. She dreams about holidays by the Black Sea, in Ukraine. She would like to lay down on the beach, sunbathe and swim. It seems a simple dream but it is very hard to realize. There is always not enough money.

Olga doesn’t have any dreams. She only wants her children to be good people and to be healthy. - I don’t want anything for me. I have everything I need.

Would she change anything if she could turn back the time? She considers it for a long time. Yes, she would change something. She would go to art school and she would become an artist. She would like to paint pictures.

- Olga is really talented - add her colleagues - she draws beautifully and when she needs to decorate something in her house, she does it so perfectly that it takes your breath away.

Olga considers this only theoretically. - I haven’t had an opportunity in my life to realize this dream . When you live in the village, being an artist is impossible because how can you find time for drawing when you work from dawn to dusk? But I found a different passion for myself - embroidering. I love embroidering doilies, wall hangings and pictures. I do it mainly in winter when there isn’t much to do in the garden. I rest this way.

Working off a debt

I visited Alesya in the company apartment. It’s an efficiency apartment in the old block of flats. Only people working in Kolkhoz live here. A young and attractive girl opens the door. Alesya is a typical representative of a big-city jungle. She had nothing in common with a village or agriculture before. Here, in Omelianiets, she saw a cow for the first time. There is one shop, a post office, community centre and a library in the city. And a lake. There are no other kinds of entertainment. How did an educated girl with ambitions end up in a sunken village?

- Like each young person in Belarus, I received an appointment for work together with my diploma. The country allowed me to get free education so now I am obligated to pay the debt and work in the designated place for two years. It’s not always in accordance with your education or skills. At first, I was working in a magazine as a manual labourer. I was carrying bags and boxes. After a month, they offered me a new job - a post became available in the office in a Kolkhoz. I was crazy with happiness. I cannot say that I was happy about the perspective of working in a village, but I was to work in my profession. I am an economist. I am responsible for the finances of Kolkhoz but when it’s necessary, I get into a lorry and go on a round.

She was caught into the world of this village like a rat in a trap. Difficult living conditions and hard work. Lack of gas-fittings and central heating system. She learned how to light the stove and she carries firewood herself. The previous resident left her a cat that keeps her company. She started getting used to it. New friends appeared and, at last, He. He used to live in a nearby village and also worked in the Kolkhoz.

I will surrender my cat to a good person

- I work six days a week - continues Alesya pouring milk into cat’s bowl - but if it’s necessary, I also work on Sundays and during holidays. And it happens quite often. I spend three hours at work in the morning, five in the afternoon, with a couple-hour break for dinner. In the summer, I finish work at 21. I come back home at night and I have to light the oven, cook and clean. Working all the time, without any day off is taxing for nerves and health. I can’t wait until my internship finishes, I’m counting days as if I were in prison. There is only one month left. Then I’ll pack my suitcase and go to Brze?cie. I will surrender the cat to the next resident.

The girl is doing managerial studies. She dreams about working in a big company as a manager. She would like her job to be interesting. She wants to make presentations, organise conferences and go on business trips abroad. But most of all, she wants to have a normal working day from 8 to 16 o’clock and the weekends off. - It’s the most important when you are thinking about starting a family - she summarizes.

Alesya sees a slow decline of Kolkhoz in Belarus. It happens this way because young people move out from villages. Despite the encouragement of the country, not many people decide to stay permanently in Kolkhoz, especially when it comes to the educated ones. Most frequently, they come and go, like Alesya. Manual labourers or people who have family bonds in here usually stay permanently. Young people from villages don’t see perspectives for themselves. They get stuck in apathy, poverty and they lose the will to change anything. Most of them start drinking alcohol. Not much happens here, beside the weekly disco. There is no gymnasium at school and young people don’t have anywhere to go. They can’t even play volleyball. Alesya was lucky to attend school in the city. She was one of the best volleyball players in the school team. When she came to Omelianiets, she decided to teach the youth how to play volleyball. She bought a net and she put it on the field. She explained the rules and taught people how to serve and pass the ball. A spark of enthusiasm appeared in them, they became interested and wanted to do something more than smoking and drinking alcohol. Alesya is not sure if volleyball games will still take place when she leaves.

The oldest inhabitants still remember the times when the Kolkhozes were placed in their village. At first, people were against collectivisation, they didn’t want to get rid of their soil that had belonged to their families for generations. Only those, who had nothing, were willing to join agricultural cooperative. The Soviet authorities organised gatherings everyday and tried to explain to peasants what it’s worth and why they should give away their soil for cooperative use. The meetings were always taking place in the evening, when people came home after whole day of work on the field. They took all night long. Representatives tried to show their vision of heaven on earth, they were convincing and encouraging us and then started threatening. And this happened each night. Some people began to understand faster and some later, that they cannot win with authorities and the Kolkhoz will be created either way and they will have to work there peacefully or under compulsion. The ones who resisted were threatened with deportation to Siberia and the more well-off ones were subject to dekulakization. Everything was taken away from them: horses, cows, farming tools and grain for sowing. Even if they wanted to work on their own fields, they didn’t have means to do so. Tired of agitation and by lack of belief in their victory, they subdued to everything.

They destroyed my house

Maria objected to all of this. She had an opportunity to work as a shop assistant in a local town. She wanted a better life for her children and herself. Her husband worked in Kolkhoz as a tractor driver. The authorities wouldn’t let Maria leave. They were afraid that after some time her husband would quit his job. They threatened to destroy the house that the couple started building unless Maria worked in Kolkhoz. One day, a bulldozer entered the construction site and they levelled it with the ground. All building materials were confiscated. The building permit was cancelled. Maria was defeated. At first, she worked as a dairymaid. She milked 12 cows every day and then 18 and 60. She got used to it. At last, they build their house and brought up their daughter. She was saving all the money for their daughter. She wanted to secure a better life for her and decided to buy a flat in the town for her. During all these years of work in Kolkhoz, she managed to save 40 thousand rubbles from her salary. Everything was lost in the 90’ as a result of inflation. Money became a pile of worthless pieces of paper.

A mark for a man-day

Ludmila is slouched and her fingers are crooked. It’s the result of hard work. Like most of women here, she is open and kind. She is very happy when someone visits her as it brakes the monotony and softens her loneliness. She uses a well sweep and takes out a bucket full of water from it. Then she invites me to sit on a bench beside a pigsty. On the grass, there is a basin with laundry, melted soap is visible in it and beside the basin lays a washboard. ?uk is a dog that keeps her company because like most of the women from Belarusian villages, she is a widow.

- You cannot describe or say what the life looks like in Kolkhoz. I did everything there: weeded corn, raked hay, dug up potatoes and I did everything by hand, there weren’t any special devices that would help. We had to cut the crops with a sickle. It was hot and sweat ran down our backs but we had to work on the field all day. We didn’t work for money but for marks that the supervisor put in the notebooks. One mark meant one man-day. We got couple of decagrams of cereals for each mark. During a year one earned about 200 marks and then we were given our salary. It was usually a sack of rye. We started stealing, God help us, as we were sinners. We were digging potatoes out and putting them into pockets or to a bag that was hidden under the jacket. We did the same with cereal, vegetables and everything. You could go to jail for stealing, but we had no choice. We had to walk to Wysokie to buy bread. We were poor but we were cheerful. We had such a zest for life! Everyone from the village was walking together and singing. When we were going back from the field in the evening, we were also singing - kids and adults. Now people have changed. They have so much but they are not able to enjoy it. When I was in Brze?cie, I saw young people walking and staring at the ground. They are so sad and people hold their bags tight as if they were afraid that someone can snatch it from them. No one sings anymore, they smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol and there is no joy in them.

I am rich now

Ludmila invites us to her house. In the place where in a Belarusian house is usually a "sacred corner", Ludmila has many icons decorated with traditional embroidered towels. There is a Gospel on the kitchen table. Ludmila bustles and lays the table. - You are in my house for the first time so I have to feed you. Don’t refuse, it’s a tradition. And due to this tradition, there is always enough bread in my house - Luda treats us with fried fish and a bun baked by her. - I endured everything in my life. I was in water, under water and a thunder stroke me, I suffered from various diseases, even from cancer. I coped with everything, because I am not alone. The God is with me. I get up in the morning and pray. Dear God, thank You for this holly night and please, give me a good day today and in the evening:Dear God thank You for this holly night, please, give me a good night. I go to the Orthodox Church each Sunday. And He listens to me. Please, treat yourselves, girls. What’s mine is yours. I am healthy and I am still able to cook something, clean the house and weed the garden. I have everything I need, I live like a queen. I collect my pension in the post office. I am even able to pay my neighbour to chop wood and remove snow from my backyard. I am rich now.