There are moments in travel when you find yourself in positions where there are no answers, moments where you question how you managed to get into such a position from such an innocent chain of events. From the puzzled expressions on the four rugged peasant faces in front of me, eagerly awaiting answers to a genuine question I realised that one such moment had arrived.
I had been in the Urals just over a week. It was February, minus thirty and all I had was a raincoat and a fake Russian hat, but I was comfortable enough in my new home, a room on the fifth floor of the former Communist Party headquarters, with the office at the end of the corridor. I had signed contract for six months to work for a humanitarian aid agency, working as a field monitor on a project distributing milk powder to needy groups.
There was a definite shortage of fresh milk in the area, due both to the economic crisis in early 1993, as well as the terrible environmental and health cost on the population in the Russian industrial heartland. An estimated 70% of women were unable to lactate, according to local health officials. In its efforts to support the fledgling democracy in the post-Soviet era, the American government had initiated various food aid distribution projects, of which this distribution of milk powder was one of the more successful.
Its success did not mean that there were not occasional exceptions, as the looks on the four faces in front of me demonstrated.
One of the accusations levelled against aid is the lack of accountability, where aid is given almost blindly and some of it stolen or not controlled. Having run a project in Rwanda in 1995, where I became the grateful recipient of a consignment of vegetable seeds (a tax write-off for a major US firm), all 1.5 million sachets of them, I can confirm that accountability is high on the agencies' agenda; having received the consignment, I eagerly opened the waybill to find out what we had been sent, only to find a one line entry:
Packets of seed. Quantity 1.5 million.
I can personally attest to the accountability of the project, having to hire 15 non-English speaking casual labourers for almost three weeks to play match the picture, as tomatoes were sorted from sprouts and so on. It was only when I came across white and orange carrots in the same box post-sorting that I realised we weren't going to get a perfect result - I guess it wasn't obvious to someone without English that there were some parsnips in there.
But we got there finally. Quite how much use 8,000 sachets of catnip seed and an untold amount of ornamental gourd seed actually was in the reconstruction effort was open to debate, but the Thai wife of my boss was delighted to get a few sachets of pak choi on the house.
I digress. With accountability all-important and pressure on the social welfare administration due to the collapse of pensions and benefits, the local political gain to be won by diverting some of this lucrative American aid was significant. It was decided that the milk powder would be targeted to three groups: pregnant women, large families (three children minimum) and children under three.
The responsibility for compiling the lists lay with the overworked local social welfare office. Databases with this information simply did not exist and so most of it had to be compiled from scratch, which was clearly open to abuse. As a safeguard, the agency employed people to, amongst other tasks, do random pre-checks of 2% of the lists to establish their accuracy. If there were several errors, the lists were returned and redone (and then rechecked), with the town excluded from the programme if the lists were not forthcoming.
The last time I was a Milk Monitor was at prep school I reflected, as we headed West, crossing into Europe for the day (the official Asia-Europe border is about 40km West of Yekaterinburg, and there is a sign to mark the border. It was cold in the Lada, but not as savage as the great outdoors - I really would have to get a coat.
The sea of white was enchanting though and I sat back and relaxed as my driver Mansur smoked his way to our first stop, some village where I was assured no foreigner had ever ventured. After an hour we reach our destination, a single dirt (frozen mud) track with pretty low-level wooden houses on either side, perhaps fifteen in all, a colourful array of pinks, blues and yellows to offset the ubiquitous white.
Our destination was the pink house of Mikhail Ivanovic Bludov, supposedly inhabited by one of the two large families in the village. Mansur opened the outer gate to reveal a filthy courtyard with five cows milling around, cows obviously belonging to the Bludov family. Hmmm.
We knocked, and a one-toothed older man opened, showing remarkably little surprise at a bearded foreigner at his door and bade us come in before he had asked what we wanted. I got as far as explaining in Russian that I was a British representative of an American aid organisation and...
"You are American? Wonderful! We must have some vodka! I want to hear all about Dallas." And before I could attempt a refusal three healthy tumblers were being poured. His wife entered and was immediately sent into the kitchen to prepare a healthy plate of rabbit pelmeni, a Russian dumpling akin to ravioli. A couple of neighbours were rounded up for the entertainment, as I was quizzed on how many cars and ex-wives I had.
There were fascinated by all things American and my protestations of my Britishness cut no ice. I was as American as the winter was long. It was all one-way traffic and by bottle number three I was beginning to wonder if I would get out alive, still struggling to find a hook on which to anchor a strategy of escape. One of the neighbours had been a little quieter than the rest, suspicious of this foreign intrusion and the reasons behind it.
"This is all very interesting, but why are you actually here?" Finally a chance to explain! I told them all about the aid agency, the American help, the health problems, the lack of milk in the region. They nodded in agreement, it was all true, and this aid project sounded a great thing. I still hadn't answered his question though.
"And Mikhail Ivanovich, according to this list, you have three children, is that correct?" It was and he showed me pictures. "And so, technically you qualify to receive milk powder on the project. My purpose in visiting was to make sure you really did have a large family and that the list was correct."
The atmosphere changed in an instant, most notably in their attitudes to me. Prior to uttering this sentence, I was held somewhat in awe with my wealth of worldly knowledge, after it, the looks of pity betrayed what they were thinking. I was taken to the door to see something outside.
"These, my American friend, are my five cows. They give me milk every day. You must take some home with you today. I don't understand," and he was speaking with genuine peasant confusion, "what is wrong with your American cows and why they don't give milk, but our Russian cows give very good milk. What would I do with your milk powder? Probably feed it to my cows!"
I can only imagine what legends have developed in the area on the basis of the strange American and his milk powder offer. Far from denigrate the project, which did valuable work and had a very successful targeted distribution, this was an extreme example of things not quite working, inevitable in situations where accurate data does not exist and broad solutions are required. I did hear of one example where a similar large family with cows ended up feeding their cows the milk powder, but there were thousands of contented beneficiaries reached though the dairies, kindergartens and distribution points.
While the milk project was successful, the same cannot be true of some of the other projects, whose US military cast offs included brownie mix, chocolate icing, depilatory cream and my favourite, a box within a box within a box which finally opened to reveal two x-ray clip-holders. From 1957. Something for a later blog perhaps...