WILLIAM GREEN travels to the heart of Russia, where the people, deprived of their churches and priests, have returned to pagan ritual, witches and spells

 "Our brief was to question the women, your and old, about local belifs"

  Watching the cows come home in the Russian village of Manino is an experience not to be missed. In the sunset hour, a cracked bugle call stirs old men and their dogs from the warm outdoor benches where they have dozed out the long afternoon. Women emerge from their kitchens and potato-patch gardens, and prop open the farmstead gateways. Then the dairy herd appears, winding down a broad, grassy thoroughfare flanked by a mile-long line of wooden houses, picket fences and bucket wells. Far behind the cows come the herdsmen, with their battered bugle, and two small boys who take turns at cracking a bullwhip. They all halt to refresh themselves at the first house, taking occupation of a vacant bench by the porch. The village dogs sigh and go back to sleep.

So far, so ordinary. But watch carefully. Unattended, the cattle continue on down the hill. At the gateways, the animals begin to peel off in pairs, one to the right and one to the left, each into its home farmyard. The steadily shrinking herd ambles to the bottom of the village, disbanding entirely when the last two milkers plod resignedly through the last two gates to find their owners. This impressive ballet is accomplished nightly, without any human orchestration, and is repeated at dawn, only in reverse. I always made time to catch the evening show, and was often joined on the bench by my co-worker Lydia. The performance reminded her of home – a dormitory suburb of Seattle. “In my part of the world, the commuters carry briefcases,” she said. “Here, they’ve got udders.”

Lydia and I were part of a task force of half-a-dozen volunteers, under the direction of Moscow ethnologists. Elena and Sergei Minyonok, gathered in Manino village to record aspects of the local folklore. We joined the Minyonok komanda, both as working students and as sponsors to their work, under the team contribution system pioneered by the charity Earthwatch. This team’s main project was to observe the summer rite of Apple Jesus Christ – Yablochnyi Spas – a festival held to celebrate the coming harvest. But our scientific credentials were a wonderful excuse for entering – as politely as possible – into the houses and lives of our hosts, begging them to sing songs, and asking impertinent questions about their ways and beliefs.

Manino is a village of old women. It lies 200 miles south of Moscow in a remote and thickly forested region of Kaluga province. Nothing much from the outside world has ever affected Manino, except for Orthodox Christianity (circa 988) and the Great Patriotic war (1941-1945). The local people have not forgotten either episode, and especially not the one they lived through. Manino was on the front line for nearly three years, and when the Wehrmacht, the Red Army and the partizans had finished capturing and recapturing it, hardly a building was left standing. The church was gone, along with every animal and every able-bodied man. The women survivors lived in cattle sheds and rebuilt the farmhouses, plank by plank, with their own hands. The communist authorities in nearby Kirov would not let them erect another church.

Today, there is still no church. A few men wander about, in sham employment at the broken-down sovkhoz collective farm at the village edge, but the women are not shy of categorising them as good-for-nothing drunks. In summer, the broad green between the houses becomes a playground for children – or, rather, grandchildren – sent out from the cities for a month or two of clean air and fresh milk. But the life of the village, and its collective wisdom, is in the wrinkled hands of its sharp-tongued, flint-eyed babushkas, survivors of a life of unremitting hardship.

It was a privilege to sit with some of these old women and admire their sense of humour and philosophy. On being introduced to a foreigner, they might begin with the charitable thought that, “Never mind, we all serve under one God” – and then aver slyly that God invented the name of Russia long before he thought of giving one to America. Decades of selfreliance have accustomed the villagers to forthright speech. My own redoubtable hostess, Ekaterina Nahumovna, was not shy about scolding my clumsiness with a water bucket, or giving me good advice about marriage. “Of course, a hard-working girl is always better than a good-looking one. But, then again, if you must share your pillow, you may as well choose a pretty face for it.” I especially enjoyed her gloss of communism. Western scientists invented and exported it, she thought, as part of a secret plan to ruin Russia – just like the Colorado beetles that have been plaguing her potato crops for the past 25 years.

Our brief was to question the women, young and old, about the local beliefs and traditions regarding witches and wood-goblins – but it was hard to keep them to the subject at hand. Many have met no other foreigners since the Germans were driven out of town 50 years ago, and we became objects of immense curiosity, rumour and suspicion. Elena Minyonok told us about a nearby community she had visited with another team earlier in the summer. A story began to run around that the “Americans” had come to buy up the village – all of it. In no time, it became the only subject of discussion, as the locals divided between those who thought this an excellent plan and those who vowed to defend their threatened homes with pitchforks and kitchen knives. For days, nobody could be brought to understand that the foreigners had not the least intention of either paying or staying.

Village superstition, we found, was of the most practical kind. House-spirits and wood nymphs are not creatures evoked in fireplace tales for the wonderment of children. They are the reason why your cow stops giving milk, or your washing won’t dry. One sensible woman told us that she had no time for nonsense about witches, and then showed us the bunches of dried leaves she had tied to all her door lintels. A rival had wished her bad luck, she said, and this was the surest method of warding it off. Old Ekaterina was the same, blaming the arthritis in her hands on the evil eye of a jealous neighbour. And villagers would cheerfully ascribe life’s drawbacks to the malefaction of agents well beyond the traditional broomstick clan. The Manino climate, we learnt from a babushka washing her laundry in the stream, has definitely changed for the worse. The cause? German bombs, jet planes and cosmonauts.

I met no German bombs in Manino (although the woods around are pitted with old craters), but I did have the luck to encounter a witch. Like many other features of the village – the Jack and Jill wells, the Little Boy Blue herdsmen and the Dickory Dock house interiors – our old crone came straight from the pages of a child’s storybook. She was ancient, bent double and knew how to cackle. She had but a single tooth, and was known to be a “healer” – one with the power to make people sick as well as to make them well. We sat with her on her porch and asked, what did she use for medicine? “I keep all my magic in a very special place,” she replied. The special place turned out, after lengthy prompting, to be a plastic bag under my feet. In it was an old bark-woven peasant shoe containing a cross, an old gold ring, a candle and a wrapped bundle of grave-cloth rags. I looked in vain for a toe of frog or a shiny red apple.

Apples of any kind, in fact, were hard to find in the village. A late frost had done for most of the year’s crop, and this boded ill for the Prazdnik, or festival, that we had come so far to see. The old women busied themselves with the customary preparations – washing windows and curtains and their homespun rag rugs, and repainting floorboards – but dark rumours were abroad, according to our leader, Elena. People were about – perhaps from the government, perhaps from the church – who were trying to get the festival cancelled. One reason cited was the presence of foreigners who might get a wrong or “black” impression of the goings-on.

For Elena, the Yablochnyi Spas at Manino is a textbook example of “hedgerow orthodoxy”. The devout country people, deprived of churches and priests for decades, continued to keep the faith by holding informal, open-air ceremonies that, over time, began to revert to the pagan rituals from which they had perhaps once sprung. In the new Russia of today, a revitalised church is acting to stamp out this dangerous activity. Elena and her husband, Sergei, have resolved to record and film such festivals before they disappear to build a “video encyclopedia” of dying or nearly forgotten customs.

In the event, the festival was sanctioned – with the proviso that a priest should officiate, rather than the trio of old babushkas who, for many years, had animated, sustained and led the prayers. We gathered on a sunlit meadow outside the nearby hamlet of Pogost, 200-300 people on the banks of the Bolva river. People queued to fill jars of “holy water” from a spring, and carry them to a shrine where other offerings of bread, flowers and fruit were already laid out. Two or three miserable apples had been found somewhere. A woman twice my size grabbed me by the shoulders, puffed up her cheeks and sprayed my face with water. “You have been paid a great compliment, and now you will live a hundred years,” noted Sergei, as he set up his video camera. We framed a knot of old women, who stood or sat at the centre of the little covered shrine, wearing their best and brightest headcloths. “We are in church here!” scolded one, as she chased away a dog.

It was an event as moving as it was farcical. The priest was late, so the women began without him, chanting and singing from an old scrapbook of prayers and hymns. An officious woman in a red dress kept interrupting to shame them into silence. After a long, anguished pause, they would start again. An endless discussion bubbled on about the propriety of leaving eggs on the altar – they were endlessly taken off and replaced. Little pieces of scribbled paper were gathered, with money offerings from supplicants. The service began in earnest, led by the oldest women. Then a bus came bumping over the hill and a terrific shushing brought a renewed, guilty silence. The priest had arrived. The eggs disappeared for good as he strode into view. He wasted no time. Within 15 minutes, he had run through the service, pocketed the money, thanked the people and was on his way again.

The crowd dispersed, some to visit their departed relations in the cemetery, the rest to watch a costume “folklore” troupe perform in a nearby field and get thoroughly drunk. One old woman waded out into the Bolva to swim, as was the custom in years past, and harangued her “cowardly” sisters on the bank. The oldest ladies sat stunned and miserable. We packed up our cameras and tapes, not at all sure what to make of what we had witnessed.

The service was over, but the party had only just begun. There was drinking (and fighting) and a great deal of singing. We recorded Ekaterina and two old friends as they led chorus after chorus of old ballads. One went: “Don’t judge us too harshly! One day you will have children of your own.” A motorbike roared by, with Ekaterina’s granddaughter riding pillion. She was yodelling a Russian pop song at the top of her voice.

By evening, Manino had returned to something like its usual state, and the setting sun shone peacefully on the blues and greens of the houses. The cattle returned from the fields and began their stately homecoming. They passed by our house as usual, but I was startled when, 15 minutes later, several cows came lumbering back up the hill, lowing pitifully and poking their heads into unfamiliar gardens. “They look like they got off at the wrong stop,” said Lydia. Indeed. Some of the Manino residents had celebrated too freely with the flowing vodka and had neglected to open their gates. The cows wandered up and down until three children, sharing a single bicycle, appeared, ready to guide the lost souls home to bed.