Reinout van der Heijden
The Curse of Usovo
Een dorpsgeschiedenis van Rusland
A popular history of Russia in the story of a forgotten village
Usovo is a Russian village on the banks of the Moskva, not far from Moscow. In telling the story of this village and its inhabitants, Reinout van der Heijden gives a surprising perspective on the history of the country as a whole, using Usovo as a window to Russia. But Usovo is no ordinary village: for years it functioned as a second capital for the rulers who built their dachas there - from Alexander II and Nicholas II to Lenin, Gorbachov and Yeltsin.
The contradiction between poor and rich, the peasants and the tsars, communist leaders and nouveaux riches lies at the heart of the ‘curse of Usovo’. According to this curse, made by a thirteenth century hermit, a deep gulf will always separate the populace and their rulers. This gulf is more obvious in Usovo than anywhere else and in this sense the village serves as a model for the dichotomy between slaves and masters which has always shaped Russian history.
Van der Heijden uses anecdotes, myths, folk tales, historical facts and public records to show how the village has adapted to historical developments. All the while, both domestic and foreign policy were being decided in Usovo: including the Cuba missile crisis, Khrushchev’s catastrophic agricultural policies and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Van der Heijden was fortunate enough to write his book at the perfect time. Meticulous research only became possible once the records were opened in 1992 and this was virtually the only period when the oldest villagers were willing and able to pass on their memories. The power of his account lies in the way he continually lets the ‘ordinary people’ speak. There is a saying in Usovo: ‘In Russia there are only four factors preventing the development of the country: winter, spring, summer and autumn.’