Putins amid dire poverty

Villagers: The people who share the president-elect's name retain traditions of hospitality and a little hope.


SAGUTYEVO, Russia -- At 7 on a Sunday morning, a dark, troubled sky is bearing down on the earth. The village below, rooted in the rhythms of rural life, awakens, indifferent to the day, the weather, the century.

Roosters are crowing. Water is standing in every rutted path. And behind the tall worn wooden fences that line the muddy lanes, Putins are rising.

This is a village like so many others -- except this one is filled with Putins, bearing the same name as Russia's president-elect, Vladimir V. Putin.

There's a Putin, milking her cow. Walk up the street. One person is out this early. A Putin! Stop to talk, and the woman across the street opens her gate, full of curiosity at the sight of a stranger. Of course she was born a Putin.

No one knows how many Putins live in this village of 500 souls 300 miles southwest of Moscow. No one ever cared. Generations of Putins have been born here, to work the fields, remarkable only to their family, their friends, their neighbors.

But they are part of eternal Russia, the peasants who have always worked the land, and now their Russia is dying. Here, in Sagutyevo, the villagers hope their name will save them -- whether or not it turns out the Putin in Moscow is one of them.

"I voted for Putin," says Yevdokia Isayenkovo, 61, "so he would give us more money. Life is bad here. The village is hungry."

Isayenkovo, who lives in the first house on First of May Street, was busy milking her cow Ryabinka. She almost forgot she was a Putin too before her marriage, born Yevdokia Putina -- the feminine version of the name. "It's been so long I forget my previous name," she says. "But there have always been Putins here. God only knows who brought them."

Nina Frolenkovo, also age 61, lives up the street, in a similar small wood-frame house with a high worn fence surrounding it. She wears a vivid orange wool scarf and an ancient quilted cotton jacket.

"Putin must have come from here originally," she says, speculating that his forebears were kulaks -- peasants wealthy enough to have a cow -- and were driven out of the village after the Revolution. "There were three Putin brothers on this street. My father ... was reported missing in the war. The other two were killed."

The village's World War II monument lists 14 Putins killed in the war. When the Germans arrived, the villagers fled to the forest, the women digging holes for shelter for them and their children, the men fighting.

Yevdokia Tsybina, 57, has come out of her house, across the perilously muddy road, to tell how she was born a Putina in the nearby forest, during the war. "They spread a bed of branches on the ground for my mother," she says, "and that's where I was born."

Tsybina says half the village voted for Putin "because he's a Putin and we're Putins" -- and the other half for the communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov.

"We're expecting him to help us," Tsybina says. "There's so much need here."

Once, the entire village worked for the collective farm named after Karl Marx. The village, on good farmland near the Belarus and Ukraine borders, is all but dead now, its fields empty, its tractors idled for lack of spare parts. Only a few homes have gas, and most of the old people haul wood for heating and cooking. They carry water from pipes on the street. They all use outhouses. None of the roads are paved, and at this time of year, the melting snow traps the village in mud.

"Sometimes there is so much mud," Tsybina says, "that if a person dies we can't get him out of the village."

Nina Frolenkovo's mother, Vera Putina, age 91, lives down the street in a house without gas or water. She sleeps on a pile of rags on her pechka, the huge clay stove that traditionally occupies a large corner of a peasant home. Her clothes are little more than rags.

"Our youth was very bad," she says, "and our old age is the same."

Yevdokia Tysbina wants to write the president a letter about this, telling him about the old people without gas or water, about the ruined farm, about the miserable life for Putins and so many others.

President-elect Putin appears oblivious to the existence of the Putins of Sagutyevo. The presidential Putin grew up a city boy, far to the north in imperial St. Petersburg. His father, apparently, grew up there too. But nothing is publicly known about his grandparents, or where they came from. The villagers here, however, have little doubt that they are related to him.

"If he knew," Tsybina says, "he would do something."

Russians have held on to this conviction across the centuries, through serfdom and freedom, through divine rule of the monarch and dictatorship of the proletariat. If only the czar (or party secretary) in the distant capital knew how bitter life was for the poor peasant, he would soon make it right. If only there was a way to tell him.

"If he has a conscience, he must help this village," Tsybina says.

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