Rural settlement in Transcarpathia (Zakarpattya) called Nyzhne Selysche would amaze you right away, from the very first moment you arrive. We came here by invitation of Inna Prygara, she is studying the art of cheese-making in France. After few months of interning she is planning to come back carrying new knowledge and skills, which she will try to apply in her work in creamery. Inna invited us to visit her dad who is well-known far outside Zakarpattya. Petro Prygara had started with internship abroad as well, and ended up with opening of “Selyska Creamery” in September 2002. Local milk is turned into highest quality cheese here, made according to a thousand-year tradition of Swiss Alps. Petro, as true enthusiast of his craft, not only checks every step of the whole production process, but also works constantly to master the ecologic aspect of cheese manufacturing.
The appearance of the creamery has changed this place forever. Every morning starts here from people from the village and surrounding ones bringing milk. Children riding bicycles are often sent to deliver jars and churns full of milk. The production of cow’s milk is a possibility of significant additional income for local residents. Also, the creamery itself is a moving force of the cultural development of the village. People do not want to move anymore, there are educational and leisure institutions, anyone can start own business or get inspired by those who has already started.
The story has started from leftist commune called Longo Mai, a network of agricultural cooperatives with an anti-capitalist ideological focus, which was created in 1989 in Zakarpattya. At that time they came from France, entered into an agreement with Ukrainian university, and started to bring French speaking students for internships to Europe. Longo Mai members usually live in a commune, and they were attracted by mostly post Soviet countries. They had managed different internships for about ten years, so Ukrainian students had an opportunity to explore France, to improve their language skills. There was a student named Ivan Prygara, brother of Petro Prygara, in one of those groups. He invited foreigners to Nyzhne Selysche, they came to visit couple of times. Once during the bbq evening the idea to gather youth and to build something in one of the depressing villages of the region came across. In year 1994 five persons came all the way from France to Nyzhne Selysche to decide what was possible to build at home to bring the social project to life and to engage the biggest amount of people.
I remember when the first time I got into Long Mai, there were a lot of peculiar things for me: completely different French culture, I did not know the language well. And nowadays I come to France or Switzerland as I am their friend: there are people that know me, I can stay over their place, can rely on them. Back then I was shocked by their lifestyle, now I am not – I speak the language, have friends. Then not many people traveled to Europe, especially to France.
The commune “Longo Mai” was created in spring 1973 in consequence of the merge two communes – “Spartakus” (Austria) and “Hydra” (Switzerland). First members of the community moved together to a farm in the village Limans within Provence. The most of cooperative farmers commune is located in France.
The biggest one is in Limans near Forcalquier. Pigs, horses, sheeps, goats, and chickens are grown there, old sortes of wheat, also vegetables and fruits are harvested and pickled later, cheese is made and bread is baked there. There is also a little wood recycling workshop, clothes and blankets atelier, and even their own radio station called ZinZine. Apart France there are few farmers communities in Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, Ukraine, and other countries. The furthest one is in Costa Rica.
In some time the commune in Zakarpattya has split, thus, there are officially two Longo Mai communities in Nyzhne Selysche.
Longo Mai was searching for an internship for Petro as far back as 1990s. The first time it happened during summer in 1995th in Alps near Gruyere, in the meadow at altitude of 1400 meters above sea line. There were 44 cows, pastures, milking, cheese was cooked on wooden fire. That farm had no electricity, they had a generator and a copper cauldron to make cheese. This first studying process lasted one and a half months for Petro.
— The hardest part was the owner himself, he was rather stringent. And like every owner of any Swiss farm, he knew all the 44 cows' names by heart. He could recognize each cow 30-40 meters away. And every single one had an assigned place to be tethered. Don't you dare to mess it up.
On the other hand, that cheesemaker had also another tradition: every time when employees made three Gruyere cheeses, 40 kg every, before putting it under pressure, they would go to the basement, take a bottle of white wine, put it into cold water, and after cheese had been under pressure already, employees would uncork the bottle and drink it together. It was such a sign that cheese would come out delicious. And everyday is like that.
In years 1996-1997 Petro was interning in bigger and more complex firms, nevertheless, according to Petro, the best one was in Alps. Next time he was working at creamery in Bellelay. It was a little village with about ten houses, one own restaurant, and a post office, which worked few days in a week. And in that settlement there was a creamery, where 12 tones of milk, brought from nearby villages, were processed. Petro worked there in the basement of the creamery, and also took part in the production process. Later on that particular creamery sold some equipment to Nyzhne Selysche, part of it was gifted. At present time, Petro, when goes to Switzerland, visits that creamery to have a cup of coffee there.
— When I was explaining them what is Ukraine and whether they knew who is Shevchenko, they answered, that everyone knew the football player, and the other Shevchenko is unknown among them. When I was asking why did they invited me, they couldn’t give specific answer. They said that their parents were still scared that Russians would occupy them, and we were considered being Russian. The Cold War had struck their consciousness enormously, especially the older generation. I asked whether they understood what is Ukraine. Sometimes they perceive us as Russians. At that time there was huge negativity, however, I have never had any problems considering the fact that I am Ukrainian. Not from the government, nor from the police side. I was coming with Ukrainian plate (car number plate), and no one has ever asked me what was I doing there. They are very democratic.
— It was completely different culture for me. I was there at the time they were voting in the referendum. Referendums are common in Switzerland. We went to the village council, such a room 5×5. There were forms, voting papers, and there were no one inside. I told my Swiss colleague:” Hey, I’ll watch the doors, and you mark all the forms and throw them to the box”. He replied: “What are you talking about? It’s falsification. Everything must be fair. What are you talking about, Petro? I want exactly my vote being counted”. And how was it in Ukraine till lately? There would be 20 inspectors, 10 members of election commission, and nonetheless, there still would be falsifications. I took my children abroad when they were about 20 years old. Even though I had many opportunities to show them tourist attractions, I wanted them to experience in their adultness how life and work look like in Europe.
— How did we gather milk for the first time? We came up with a list of people living around, population of cattle, how much is needed for a family. Conducted such a research on current situation and understood that for production we need pure drinking water. Explored the spring few kilometers away, realized that we could obtain about 8-10 cubic meters of good quality water, there were no pumps needed. We had enough money back then to provide the central water supply for people in the village, so they wouldn’t need to get it from water wells anymore, but they did not want us to. We were just starting that time, so people did not trust us, nor they believed us. Thus, we laid water supply pipes to the creamery, school, kindergarten, palace of culture, ambulant clinic, and built the well room in the centre of the village.
— You see, the biggest problem is that people just don’t believe that you want to do something good for others at no cost. I drive a lot, stop to pick up people, drop them to needed location not charging them anything, and they don’t trust me that I’m doing that purely for sake of help. Nowadays, there is something changing in Nyzhne Selysche. We don’t have that resistance anymore, resistance from the villagers, they support us now.
People were talking before, that the creamery would cause the horrible smell in the center of the village. Can you smell anything? No, there is no unpleasant smell. Actually, I saw the creamery in Switzerland, that was located near the church in the very center of the village. I thought we could have done the same thing. Villagers got terrified, also the sanitary station was against that idea.
However, we came to an agreement. It was a matter of principle for Petro not to bribe anyone. The whole opening process was rather official and legal.
— Everytime when you do something good for society, something that community organizations care about, for instance, when we were repairing the school and the palace of culture, people began to search why would we do that and what would be our self-interest. Hardly anybody believes that something beneficial can be done just because. A person can spend 2-3 hours per day to volunteer – that is barely believable, because a person should have something in return, either stealing from grants or something else. Bit by bit it is changing in Selysche, but in general, people have become embittered in these 2 years. It is due to economic factors. An index, that social level of life is low, when people bring a lot of milk to the creamery – means that they count every penny, every liter of milk, trying to bring more to the creamery, rather than feed pigs with it or leave some for household.
— Hardly anyone tries to cheat us. Milk that is brought to the creamery is easily checked : aggregate condition, temperature, leftovers. If you add something to milk – it is visible right away. If milk was kept for long and was heated – also noticeable. We caught people who tried to deceive us like that few times. Those were people unsatisfied with their lives. That is a person that has some personal problems and thinks, if he or she adds 200 grams of water, then he/she will win anything. In my opinion, Ukraine should be built by people who reached some significant level in self-realization. They are pure, honest, and work justly. And if a person feels that he or she hasn’t reached the set goal because of some reason, he or she has problems, that person is automatically a bit corrupt. There are older people that add water to milk, and it amazes me completely.
Once I caught one granny, so she wanted to bribe me with money, so I let her bring milk next time. Time passed, I caught her again, warned her, if she cheats one more time, I will not let her bring any milk ever while I work there. She is 80 years old. I said: “Go to church and pray, because it was not the right thing to do, it is stated in Bible, especially cheating with milk given by God”. And I also has a neighbor. He came to the creamery in the evening. Girls were receiving the milk, so one of them called me: “Petro Yosypovych, please come here, because he overdid”. We have a special term for it – “overdo”. He is a neighbor of my mother. I came and saw that his milk was really hot, it is not the natural temperature milk just from the cow. Then I took the thermometer , measured once, then second time. And it dawned upon me, I didn’t want to offend him, at the same time I needed to show that we control everything. Thus, I said:”Listen, you have a serious problem with a cow. You have already milked, transfused, brought here. And your cow produced milk with temperature around 50 degrees. Take away this milk, I simply cannot accept it, but immediately do something with your cow. Or it will die. Go fast and show the cow to the vet”. Of course, he saw that I understood what was the matter. However, thanks to such village diplomacy we avoided the conflict. If I told him the truth, he would have gone and spread the word around the village how bad and rude I was. Humans are being humans.
— Globalization is such a significant problem. Why? Once I went to one farm in Austria. I went outside: there were nice pines forest, green grass, a wooden house, however, there was something missing. I couldn’t understand what was wrong. Finally, I realized that I didn’t hear any sounds, in other words, complete silence. No buzz of bugs, no birds’ twittering. As for me that is the sound of globalization. It is a chemistry that kills everything around. They covered everything in concrete. And another factor is social life. It is paved with asphalt too. The foreigners, that come to visit here, do not get me when I tell them that I can wake up my neighbor at 12 am.
Swiss secretary Fust came here once. They were building embankments here, million dollars, near by Vyshkov. The local authorities needed to hand in the project, so they called me:”Petro, be so kind to come over, we don’t have interpreter.” We got in the car and went. There was cheese during dining, and Mr. Fust asked where we got such an amazing cheese from in Ukraine. We explained him, and he said:”Guys, here is my business card. If ordinary Swiss people help the creamery, then I, being involved in government, am ready to help. Let me invite you to have a cup of coffee together or lunch. However, you will come to me to ask for something, not just for lunch. You must be ready to tell me what you need help with.” Then we managed to come to an agreement about the water-supply project, money was transferred directly from Switzerland for community organization “Association of local development of Zakarpattya”. It was so odd for new people. Mr. Fust came to Zakarpattya very often, and he was constantly criticized, because he was a secretary who helped the whole world, in Ukraine – only Zakarpattya though. He said that Zakarpattya reminded him old good Switzerland. When he was a kid, chickens were stomping around streets, cows were whipped across the street, and nowadays there is nothing like that. He feels nostalgic for his childhood.
Some people say that we are 50 years behind the times, on the other hand, I don’t even know, maybe we live nicely in harmony with nature instead? How is it better? I think, when people are happy – that’s the best. That’s not happiness when you work hard or have a lot of money. You should live in the environment that is comfortable for you.
— I hope projects that we have with Longo Mai, Mr. Orest and Mr. Urgen, and plans that we bring to life influenced the village population stop diminishing. It is needed to awaken patriotism and devotion. The village can be nice, you can live here and create stuff. And the biggest problem of ours is that we do not believe in ourselves. We think that someone else should help us, do something for us.
There are around 350 pupils in school in Nyzhne Selysche. There is complete infrastructure: music school, kindergarten, palace of culture, school. There are bakery and creamery, sausage shop, power saw bench workshop. The village has good word of mouth, it attracts more businesses, thus, improves the economics.
— My daughter wants to live here, in the village, and my son Mikhailo – oppositely, wants to move to the city. Everyone has own path, but I can’’ say that the village it dying out. Ten years ago I went to some villages in Central Ukraine, there were only old people there, no kindergartens, no school, it was obvious that those villages would have been crossed out from the map. Otherwise, there should be new young settlements, or young families should move there, then the rebirth of the village might take place. We don’t face that catastrophe.
— I’ve been asked a lot whether I am a Ruthenian. And how would I know? My grandpa lived during Austria-Hungary times, my grandma – nobody knows where, and I’m sort of native Zakarpattya citizen. Those terms are often used by racists, who wants to bring some disintegration of the country, of people. Zakarpattya is complicated itself, there are Hungarians, Romanians, also minority groups, which detach, it is impossible to mess them up. If we add Ruthenians here, the fightings will be inevitable. In my opinion, it is wrong. I have French friend, he has lived here for 20 years already, and I consider him being more true Zakarpattya local than my brother is, who was born here, but has lived in Germany for 25 years already. French guy drives with me on the same roads, meets the same police, faces same bureaucracy that I do, lives in the same conditions, faces same exact problems. And my brother has completely different interests, problems, and possibilities. Not sure about possibilities though, I might have more than he does. Just because I am a free person, and he works for government.
— I do not want to expand. I want to emphasize the attention on the quality of the products, thus, on what I am doing. Also I would like to raise the quality of milk. Talking about the most important future projects – it is tourism. Why tourism? Because it is the only strong potential point of Zakarpattya, which can help with areal economics, and help Ukrainians feel happy at home. Not going to Turkey, or France, or elsewhere, but here, at home, in Ukraine. It should inspire us, that we can go on vacations at home, see interesting sightseeings, try something new.
— There are also our ideas. My daughter is on her internship in France right now, and I’m waiting for proposals from her. I have my ideas as well, but I want her to grow to that level too. There is one interesting theme – sheep farming. It exists here, but there is no sheep milk cheese production here. They produce some budz (Carpathian recipe of smoked cheese) , but real sheep milk cheese – no, and we need to provide shepherds with some help in this case. I can see how hard is their lives, they live 4-5 months in forests or on fields. Last year we gathered almost all shepherds of Khust region, around 30 of them. However, it is complicated: they do not want to take care of production, they just want to make smoked cheese and that’s it, they don’t see any long-term outlook. We just need to demonstrate them. Maybe, some of them will start making authentic sheep milk cheese. There are many ideas, but I don’t know yet how and where to bring them to life. I am completely satisfied with what Nyzhne Selysche has right now.