Story #147: Farmer Immerses In Nature During Uncertain Times

April 29, 2024
Yulia refused urban life to slow down in Ukrainian khutir, where she lives with her cattle and pets while her husband serves in the military.

Self-reliance is the guiding principle of Yulia's life, and one she recommends for everyone else. However, when her husband left for military service, leaving her alone with dozens of cattle, seven cats, and two dogs in a remote settlement, this life principle took on new shades.

Ironically, trying to get through all the khutir responsibilities alone made her learn cooperating and asking for help.

"I am used to solving all problems myself. It mostly worked out that way for me until I got stuck in a swamp with my car."

If you have read Mykola Hohol's all-time classic Evenings in a Khutir Near Dykanka, then you are partly familiar with the image of Ukrainian khutir. In a few words, it is a settlement outside a village that includes only one or two households.

Khutirs gradually emerged through land development and cultivation, activities predominantly carried out by free peasants and Cossacks at the time. As Ukrainians established their households in remote and uninhabited areas, these farms became a symbol of peasant individuality, a legacy that persists today. Soviet authorities sought to eliminate such settlements as they did not align with the collectivization agenda.

Yulia has lived the khutir lifestyle for 6 years already. Although it all began as her and her husband's rural journey, she has so far spent two of these years alone with her animals and garden.The reason for it was, of course, the war.

"It is one thing to live in an apartment and go to work during the war, and quite another to stay on a farm with lots of animals, somewhere outside the village on your own... There are no neighbors across the fence, no parents, or friends nearby. Who will come to help you if needed?

Well, now there are many such cases when a woman has to deal with it all alone... We have a funeral to go to soon, as many men from my husband's unit have unfortunately died."

Three of the seven cats Yulia now takes care of belong to her friend, who also joined the military. It has been two months since she heard from him.

"It is a huge responsibility to care for animals. If any of them fall ill, I need to call a vet or transport them to the city. Both things are possible only in good weather, because you cannot traverse the road otherwise. Oh, I am also responsible for big animals, sheeps and goats, which are about 100 kilograms each."

Yulia's husband prepared everything he could to make her life easier before departing for the army. However, a farm cannot run itself like a finely-tuned machine.

However hard it has been, Yulia has never regretted choosing this life.

First of all, I love how we live now. That is why it is not as hard for me as it could be for other people.

The acute challenges Yulia has faced have mostly been a function of the difference between expectations and reality.

"When the full-scale invasion started, we all thought it would last for 2-3 months. My husband asked me if I could manage everything here for a couple of months, and my reply was, 'Of course I can.'

Spring was coming, and I imagined everything would go smoothly because he would definitely be home by fall, so I felt relaxed. But when I realized that his absence was not just for a month or even three, I grew anxious about the challenges ahead."

Yulia had to feed and clean the cattle and their living area, administer medicine, aid with calving, bring animals to market, collect and sell milk, purchase and transport animal feed, and also run her own small business selling ghee butter online.

Even though the war has brought her all these challenges, they have kept her spirit strong at the same time.

"Last summer, I visited a psychotherapist. The specialist told me that she could provide free therapy for one person and asked if I needed it. It clicked within me. No, I cannot let myself get to a point where I need to rely on free therapy, which should be left for those who have really suffered from the war.

As I find myself in safer conditions than others, living in the West, it is essential that I work, pay taxes, pay for psychotherapy, too, and assist others through donations or however I can."

Only recently was Yulia's husband rotated back into the reserves, and this is the first spring they have welcomed together since he joined the army. Because he remains in the military, Yulia is getting used to the idea that her story may repeat itself.

In such a case, now she knows what to expect.

"When my friend once visited me while I was living alone on the khutir, she told me if she had been in my place, she would have put it all up for sale the first day!"

Although Yulia laughed at this, the thinking was familiar to her, as she had spent much of her life in the comfort of the city. However, there is nothing that would make her want to return there again---at least, not for now.

"The city dictates a lot, imposing fake values and materialistic desires upon you. As you stroll through its streets with your takeaway coffee, you're bombarded with advertisements for the latest collections from some brands, with some new things, new movies in the cinema, and that also goes with popcorn and cola...

Maybe you wouldn't even want to do this, but the city wears you down with its relentless offerings and demands."

This distracted Yulia much from enjoying now, feeling the moment, and making the right priorities, which are your life itself and the lives of those around you, cherishing it. And life here, in khutir, gives it back to Yulia.

I cannot name a single reason why I shouldn't live here. Sometimes there is less work, and sometimes more, but I am absolutely comfortable with that."

Making coffee on her piets, hugging her animals, and sitting under her own trees all in her dreams, including about finishing the hayloft building, makes so much more sense for Yulia than getting caught up in the rush of city life.

Yulia's rural area is populated by other people who share her philosophy on life. Yulia lives a few kilometers away from her closest neighbors, but time has shown that they can rely on each other in difficult times.

One day, her friend Pan Bohdan from the neighboring village helped her mow her grass, chop firewood, and clean her septic tank. One neighbor lent his horses to deliver manure under Yulia's trees, and one more neighbor even borrowed a staircase to go down to the well himself to get Yulia's torn-off bucket from the bottom!

These people showed her that nobody can manage this sort of life entirely on their own.

At the same time, since she is younger than her neighbors, she helps them pay their bills online, buys them groceries and medicine, and can pick them up in the city from time to time.

As daylight grows longer, Yulia and her husband are now busy preparing for spring, from cleaning the stables after winter to trimming their animals' hooves. Many tasks had been put off while her husband served in the military, but as the couple returns to them, they are once again sharing the joy that led them to choose their khutir life.

Lisa Dzhulai
Journalist at UkraineWorld