Citizen Diplomats in the Garden: Biointensive for Russia from the 1980s to the Present

Carol Vesecky

Back in the day, as a homemaker and mother in Palo Alto, I volunteered at church and in community organizations, and fundraised for UNICEF. I managed our home for my husband and two wonderful children and played tennis twice a week. Having lived in India, France, and England, I naturally joined Neighbors Abroad, our sister cities support group. (None of the sister cities were in countries where the languages I had studied — Russian, French, and German — were spoken, so I limited my commitment there.) I also worked for pay part-time doing home-based translating and multilingual secretarial services, to help support my family’s European travel expenses. It was a good life.

Everything changed for me — for a different kind of good life — in November 1986, when a historic youth exchange took place and my family and I hosted two Soviet teenagers and their adult chaperone for a week in our home. My friend who brought me into this, Joan Spannagel, was an active member of the Earthstewards Network, a New Age group based on Bainbridge Island/WA and led by Danaan Parry, a conflict resolution psychologist, whose wellsprings were heart-centered compassion, ecological restoration, and the sacredness of all life. Network projects included bringing US and Vietnamese war veterans together, and the planting of trees by youth from opposite sides of social divides, for example in Northern Ireland, Israel, and even crime-ridden Washington DC.

The Kids to Kids exchange followed Danaan’s ground-breaking work making contacts in Moscow in the early 1980s and brought Russian and Americans youth and adults together with the goal of ending the Cold War. It had been postponed from August due to the Soviet leaders’ need to focus on the “liquidation” measures following the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Along with nine other families, we showed our 30 guests Bay Area sights, visited computer-equipped high schools, planted trees together in Golden Gate Park, and chatted with youth at a computer club in Moscow via an electronic “space bridge.” (For the San Francisco venue, see this article) We were doing our best to show friendship and help break down the tragic “image of enemy” between our countries.

Here’s a quote from a talk I gave in 1988:

“Citizen diplomacy was becoming known by that name by this time and that’s what we knew we [and others in the movement] were doing: building bridges for peace by learning from each other’s cultures before meeting face-to-face, making friends, engaging in common projects such as planting peace gardens and learning about computers, singing songs, dancing, putting on concerts and climbing mountains together. It was the first time Soviet teenagers had been allowed by their government to stay in American homes, so we felt we were part of a historic event.”

I concluded that my Russian language skills were essential to the new citizen diplomacy movement; therefore, I started improving my speaking ability by joining a weekly language exchange with Russian speakers of varying fluency levels. A couple of years later, I began teaching conversational Russian in the Palo Alto Adult School. Also, as a member of the local chapter of the American Association of University Women, I led a study section with monthly sessions on Russian and East European History and Culture.  I also attended many events organized by Sharon Tennison and the Center for Citizen Initiatives at the 3220 Gallery in San Francisco and supported their exchanges by hosting Soviet, then Russian, visitors.

Oh yes, and I did travel to the USSR three times as a citizen diplomat! In 1987 I joined Women’s Journey for Peace, to Leningrad, Vilnius, Minsk, and Moscow, led by Earthstewards leader Diana Glasgow. The National Council of Churches gathered over 600 of us to help Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate a millennium of Christianity in 1988; I was part of the Pastor Don Mason’s July contingent that visited Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev. And in 1989, I led my own small tour group — including my son to Moscow, Leningrad, and Novosibirsk, for a delightful visit with the “Kids” who had visited us in 1986 and their families (see our picnic at the Ob Sea below). We compiled group journals of all three tours.

Picnic at the Ob Sea
© Carol Vesecky

Years earlier I had become involved with Ecology Action, an organization in Palo Alto directed by John Jeavons. They were testing, further developing, and promoting to family gardeners the Biodynamic/French Intensive method that Alan Chadwick taught while founding the Agroecology Program at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1960s. The goal is to grow more food on less land more sustainably, so soil-building is a priority. 

The method had been developed by Chadwick over a lifetime of horticulture practice and study in England, Europe, South Africa, and the US. An early influence was Rudolf Steiner, whose mother followed him as an anthroposophist and who hosted him at their aristocratic family home in England. Steiner taught his Biodynamic farming methods to Alan, who was already an avid gardener in his teens. After a career in acting, Alan also studied with the French Intensive gardeners who grew vegetables for the urban market and had refined their techniques over centuries. The result was Chadwick’s synthesis which he taught to apprentices at UC and several other California and Virginia gardens. For more information see here.

As practiced by Jeavons and others who had learned from Chadwick, the method eventually became known as biointensive. Eventually Jeavons trademarked it as GROW BIOINTENSIVE® Sustainable Mini-farming for when all eight components are practiced. The best-known of these is growing-bed preparation by double-digging, where the soil is loosened to a two-foot depth, and aerated to improve nutrient uptake from deeper levels. Composting, intensive planting in wide beds, companion planting, and open-pollinated seeds are other features. For more details, see How to Feed the World in a Pandemic and VGFP Growing Guide, and for the full story, see Ecology Action’s website.

Back to the Kids-to-Kids visit in November 1986: Novosibirsk’s Novosti Press Agency bureau chief Viktor Yukechev was one of the chaperones, and chatting with him, I learned he was a veggie gardener. As the group was preparing to board their plane homeward, I presented Viktor with a copy in English of the fourth edition of John Jeavons’ primer and classic reference book on the method, How to Grow More Vegetables (it was in fact already known in the USSR). A few weeks later I received a New Year’s card from Viktor offering “huge thanks for the book on gardening” and noting that it was being translated by agronomists. I was thrilled!!! and envisioned an edition in Russian within a year or two. Not so fast, of course.

Viktor and I stayed in touch regarding publishing prospects via fax and phone, which wasn’t easy during those years due to the existence of a mere 14 phone lines into the USSR. But in fact it was another seven years before the book was published in 1993 in Moscow by another publisher with citizen diplomacy connections. We received funding from the US Peace Corps, which paid my excellent team for editing, proofreading, and desktop publishing layout to prepare the camera-ready copy. In exchange, the Peace Corps received 400 copies of the book that were distributed to the volunteers sent to Russia to teach English and business methods for the decade ending in 2003.

For next steps, another citizen diplomat and Earthsteward, Liza Loop, aided me in setting up Biointensive for Russia (BfR) as a nonprofit project fiscally supported by LO*OP Center, the 501(c)3 organization she directed. The Moscow publisher’s marketing effort seemed weak, so our initial effort was to give Americans the chance to present a copy to Russians they had befriended during the citizen diplomacy exchanges. We created a brochure and mailed it to prospects throughout the US, requesting $10 and a Russian name and address. I faxed the names we received back to Moscow and they were carried to Valentina Fesenko, who kept a large stock of books at her Moscow apartment. She mailed over 300 of them to addresses from Vilnius to Vladivostok over the subsequent two years. She received many grateful letters, which she eventually gave me and which I treasure to this day.

In 1994, John Jeavons suggested I invite Russian gardeners (those who had willingness to teach) to one of his regular 3-day workshops. Many responded to our invitation sent out via the internet by Elena Kotikova in Moscow, but only one — Larissa Avrorina from Ekodom in Novosibirsk’s Akademgorodok — ultimately succeeded in getting a visa and attending the workshop, along with a one-month internship at Ecology Action’s training farm in Willits, CA. 

Larissa Avrorina with hoophouse
at the family plot in Akademgorodok
© Carol Vesecky

The highly regarded Novosibirsk State University and many institutes of the Academy of Sciences are located in Akademgorodok. The Ekodom organization was composed of scientists interested in testing home-building designs for living autonomously with comfortable living conditions, off the grid, using solar and wind power produced on-site, along with excellent thermal insulation. The concept of growing one’s own vegetables Biointensively using only locally available inputs was enthusiastically supported by the academic community, which included many scientists who — as did a huge proportion of Russians — grew their own vegetables and fruit at their “dachas”.

We had learned of a USAID-funded grant opportunity offered by the Institute for Social Action and Renewal (ISAR), so I traveled to Novosibirsk for a two-week visit to get acquainted with Ekodom’s president Igor Ogorodnikov and director Aleksandr (Sasha) Avrorin and begin the grant-writing process. I returned in time to complete the proposal jointly with Larissa, while hosting her in Palo Alto. By this time BfR had been re-registered as a project fiscally supported by Ecology Action (EA), and (long story short) in due course we were awarded a $25,000 Ekodom/EA cooperative grant.

The grant activities included workshops, a major experiment, and translation and publication of EA booklets, for which a copying machine was purchased. Larissa and Sasha taught a workshop in January 1996 that was attended by 25 local teachers, journalists, and scholars, plus one from Tbilisi, Georgia and an American from Moscow, then working for Rodale. The experiment was ambitious, directed by Larissa with many scholars and others associated with Ekodom participating, growing several different crops on land adjacent to their experimental dwelling. Its report does show higher yields from the double-dug beds; it was published by Ecology Action and is available to this day. Larissa and Sasha continued to teach in Siberia and western Russia, until their renewed careers made it too difficult.

Meantime, I attended the remarkable EcoForum held near Kiev in May 1995 that was organized by ISAR and supported by USAID and brought together 200 NGO activists from the former Soviet Union with 40 from the US. Dr. Ludmila Zhirina of the NGO VIOLA attended the session where I presented GM mini-farming; we met afterwards and have worked together ever since. Fran Macy was there and co-led a session I attended on Deep Ecology/the Work That Reconnects. This followed his visit with wife Joanna Macy to Bryansk and Novozybkov, where they got acquainted with Ludmila and where Joanna originally used the Elm Dance in her grief work; see The Elm Dance – by Joanna Macy. I knew Fran from his lectures at the Center for Citizen Initiatives in San Francisco; in fact he helped support the original publication of How to Grow More Vegetables with courier services. Joanna has supported Ludmila’s work ever since, including via inspiring appeals for funds for dosimeters for VIOLA to share with radiation zone residents for monitoring the ongoing cesium and strontium radiation in the Bryansk oblast.

Funded in various ways, BfR led or co-led five tours from 1997 to 2002 during which US GB teachers conducted workshops in 12 locations in Russia and Uzbekistan (including Nukus, Karakalpakstan, near the Aral Sea), and brought more Russians and Central Asians to EA’s workshops in Willits: three from St. Petersburg, four from Bryansk (near Ukraine’s border and the Chernobyl radiation zone), and one each from Irkutsk, Komsomolsk-na-Amure, Krasnodarsky krai, Zhambyl (Kazakhstan), Chirchik (Uzbekistan), and Novo-Sin’kovo (near Moscow). Nearly all returned home and taught, each in his or her own way and to varying degrees, in their communities.

Albina Kochegina and Natasha Krestiankina each taught middle-school students in the Young Naturalist (Russian: Юные натуралисты) extracurricular program in St. Petersburg, at its large, centrally located garden plot and at a suburban school with large greenhouses. The Bryansk participants, after testing the method in 1997 and 1998 and hosting a workshop with our participation in 1999, continue teaching to this day in two organizations: the NGO VIOLA, led by Dr. Ludmila Zhirina, and the Grassroots Alliance PERESVET, led by Dr. Igor Prokofyev. 

Irina Kim at a workshop in Willits
© Carol Vesecky

Vladimir Loginov returned to southern Russia to present GB in a TV series, and also taught GB (along with other trades) for many years to high school graduates moving on into society from orphanages. Irina Kim, from Chirchik, UZ, taught a two-year program on GB mini-farming and soil science in a high school, and led her student “activists” to several remote villages in nature reserves to teach over a period of ten years. She also taught workshops in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Ivan Antiushin hosted our international workshops three times at the facility he directed near Moscow that was devoted to training teachers from agricultural colleges all over Russia.

All of these activities and our subsequent ecotours (2005 and 2007) are well described in our roughly annual (until 2011) newsletters, which can be read on the net at BfR Newsletters and Travelogues. Commercial publication in 1999 in Novosibirsk of a second Russian edition of How to Grow More Vegetables and distribution of over 1000 copies to our networks enhanced the above teaching efforts, of course. 

A third Russian edition was published print-on-demand in the US in 2016 and subsequently via special printings in Russia and provided to our teaching network. This led to Dr. Ludmila Zhirina’s renewed interest in sharing the method, including in the radiation zone (where she has worked extensively for over 30 years to mitigate the effects of the nuclear accident) and via the Waldorf educational network. Some of these activities in several regions are portrayed at biointensiveforrussia.org. Ludmila recruited Dr. Dmitry Filippenko in Kaliningrad; they are both leaders in the Russian Socioecological Union/Friends of the Earth (see rusecounion.ru/eng/rseu); giving them great scope, including internationally. Here’s Ludmila with Biointensive compost and our book at a school in Moscow:

How to Grow More Vegetables (Russian: Как выращивать больше овощей)
© Carol Vesecky

Ludmila and Dmitry both teach internationally and both have been recruiting more wonderful teachers, especially in the north of Russia and other locations. In 2020, of course, during the COVID-19 pandemic, they teach via webinars. 

BfR is an ongoing project, linking Russians and Americans at the veggie-roots level. We also grow vegetables and fruit for the needy at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, so if you’re anywhere near Ojai, do drop by for a visit, at that garden or in our mulberry orchard nearby. We’re happy to be able via the internet to continue not only to think, but also act globally, while also acting locally. Whether or not you‘re a gardener, if you’re interested and time permits, please write to establish contact, and/or for occasional updates!

Cite this article as: Carol Vesecky, “Citizen Diplomats in the Garden: Biointensive for Russia from the 1980s to the Present”, in New Age in Russia, 21/07/2020, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/4710


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