LONDON AND LIPNYAGOVA VIA FACEBOOK—It was an early snowy morning in the tiny Siberian village of Lipnyagova, just north of the Russian-Kazakh border and Olga Lyebedeva-Skachkova, 36, was off to milk her cow Zor’ka. After 30 minutes of milking, Ms. Lyebedeva-Skachkova, a mother of five, finally had enough milk for her large family. Village life didn’t come naturally to this city girl; she was raised in Tyumen’, Russia’s oil and gas capital with a population of over 600,000. But this summer she will celebrate two years of living in this remote village, where she moved with her family in search of a simpler, cheaper and better life. And after living in a house with an old-fashioned Russian wood-burning stove, no running water or hob–and a great number of bruises left by Zor’ka’s mighty hooves—Ms. Lyebedeva-Skachkova, currently pregnant with her sixth child, is proud to have survived the harsh conditions of the Russian backwoods.
Ms. Lyebedeva-Skachkova, who along with her husband chronicle their life on Facebook to over 3,000 followers, homeschool all her children–Ivan (12), Maria (10), Daniil (6), Denis (4) and Stepan (21 months)—from their two-acre plot that has two old houses overlooking a lake and is surrounded by woods and meadows. Olga’s husband, Igor Skachkov, 50, is a Russian version of the gentleman farmer. He’s an artist by profession and his plans for the farm are ambitious and include beekeeping, raising geese and rabbits, making and selling pottery and even firing his own bricks. She, meanwhile, studied philology at university, worked as a journalist and copywriter and taught English as a foreign language. Married for 15 years, neither one planned to live in such a remote place; it’s an unusual set-up for a middle-class Russian family. The trend has always been for people to migrate to big cities, driven out of the countryside by the lack of rural jobs and comforts. Ms. Lyebedeva-Skachkova, who spoke with she-files over Facebook exchanges, and her family—like a small minority of Russian intelligentsia united by common values of clean family living and connected to each other by social media— decided to take the road less travelled. EXCERPTS:
CALLAND: Why did you move a remote village?
LYEBEDEVA-SKACHKOVA: Village life gives us freedom, it’s cleaner and cheaper. City life is hectic. Here our children do not go to school. Life close to nature gives them ample opportunity to discover and develop naturally. They watch their parents [and] learn how to look after animals; they breathe fresh air and can go foraging in the woods. We have a large kitchen garden and an orchard. [Also], we decided to move to a village because we didn’t have any other option financially. We were looking for a large house with enough land to grow our own food [when we] saw an advert in a newspaper. People were looking for a family to move to their grandfather’s house to look after it and take care of the land. They didn’t need us to pay them a rent. So, we moved.
What were your impressions after the initial excitement?
I was rather terrified by the living conditions. No running water – we had to use an outdoor pump instead. No sewage, so we had to take all the used water out ourselves. We only had a very cold outdoor toilet. We had to heat the house by burning wood in a large stove. But we had no other option then. [And] our family is rather adventurous. A few months later we were able to buy our current house and land – just across the street from our rent-free accommodation.
At first, the older kids didn’t like it. One said we moved to the Baba Yaga house [a creature of Russian folklore, a witch, who lives in the woods in a house, which sits on chicken legs]. But the nature around us and the freedom have had [a positive] effect. The older children now write their own books. Our son, Ivan, writes “Chronicles of a Village Life,” while our daughter Maria writes a book “A Little Family in a Little Village.” She is also writing a screenplay for a film about our life here.
What is your family life like?
We are together every day. My husband does the building work, carpentry and works on the farm. [Apart from all the housework] I have my own job: an online project called “Slimming marathon for real mums.” I have a number of Facebook groups where I consult people on healthy living, home fitness and give support for struggling mothers. The children learn from us. Our older son became skilled in making origami. He reads a lot, invents lots of things, loves chemistry and dreams of having a home chemistry lab. Our daughter loves living away from civilization. She enjoys cooking on the huge Russian stove. She looks up recipes online. She also likes teaching her younger brothers, creating theatrical performances, giving everyone roles to play and directing them.
How does homeschooling work for you?
We teach our kids at home, but we are officially on the books of our local school. Twice a year, in the winter and in spring, the children take exams at the school. At first, the school was a bit amused by us–we are not your typical family. But now they are used to it and treat us with respect.
It all depends. Sometimes all the kids sit at the table, sometimes they lie on their tummies on the floor. Masha likes to sit on the Russian stove. That’s her den. She often reads and studies her textbooks there. I rarely get involved, only if there is a problem. They do school work three to four times a week. But as the tests time gets closer, I spend more time with the kids, helping them revise. We do it individually or at the big table. We are not too focused on the knowledge or the grades. At the primary school, they used to be almost all A students. Now they can get a C sometimes. I am not too upset by it. I know that each of our children can learn anything they would need to learn if they get interested in it or if there is a need. Instead, they grow in [an] atmosphere of intellectual and creative freedom.
And yet, both you and your husband occasionally find it so hard that you write on your Facebook pages that you want to leave it all and go back [to civilization] or that you want to send your kids back to school, as their exam results are not that great…
Yes, our daily life is far from easy. We try to make it better, but we are novices. We are not very good at many things, including at making money. So sometimes we despair. We fight, like all humans. But then we bounce back. And we start again. We know where we are heading and we keep moving in that direction.
Marina Calland is a former journalist, who wrote for a number of Ukrainian and international publications including ELLE Ukraine, What’s On Kyiv, Newsweek and worked as a local fixer for the BBC World Service, TVE and Italian RAI 2. She now works at the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London.
Photos courtesy Olga Lyebedeva-Skachkova