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Falling in love with Russia

Charlie Owen
Vail, CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily
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Legally, author Laura Lynne Williams is an American citizen even though she has a residency permit to live in Russia. Despite the fact that she grew up in Denver, she’s married to a Russian man named Igor Shpilenok and has spent the last decade living in a remote Russian village called Chukhrai that had a population of 19 when she first moved there. Williams fancies herself more a citizen of the world than of any one particular country; her work as a nature conservationist just happened to take her to the other side of the world.

Ten years since her first adventures in that small Russian village, Williams penned her memoir of that time in her book “The Storks’ Nest: Life and Love in the Russian Countryside” from which she will read excerpts and answer questions Friday night at the Bookworm in Edwards.

“It’s really a story of me falling in love with Russia, with Russian nature and with my husband, Igor, who is a Russian naturalist and photographer,” Williams said. Many of her husband’s photographs are featured in the book.

The event is sponsored by the Gore Range Natural Science School, an organization created to raise awareness for environmental education, so William’s story dovetails nicely with the school’s goals.

“We use environmental education as a tool for helping people learn more about the natural world … and when opportunities come around for us to help people discover how that works in other parts of the world, it’s always really exciting,” said Carol Busch, director of marketing and communications for the Gore Range Natural Science School.

“The Storks’ Nest” follows Williams’ adventures during her first year in Chukhrai with the story broken down by the four seasons. The village, which has no stores or roads, has afforded Williams the chance to work closely with nature in many forms, be it raising orphaned moose, stopping poachers from invading their land or growing all her own food. She works for a federally protected nature sanctuary near Chukhrai, which is where she met her husband. She has also gotten to know many of her neighbors including wolves, lynx and wild boar. Thankfully, Williams already knew how to speak Russian from her college days, so dealing with the people hasn’t been that difficult.

“It was a whole different pace of life. Coming from this very busy world (with) deadlines and this and that and then moving to a job and a world where I didn’t even have a phone or computer in my office,” Williams said. She recalled having to wait up to half an hour to get patched through during phone calls when she finally made it to a town that actually had a phone.

Williams chose to focus the book on her first year in Chukhrai because of the impact it had on her life. She knew that her transition from city-girl to village-girl and the love she found through it, would make for interesting material.

“There’s a lot of information out there on Russia … but a book strictly about life in a remote village is pretty rare. I just wanted to give people an idea of what we call ‘the real Russia’ is like, you know, beyond the city and in the countryside like so many people still live,” Williams said.

At the end of “The Storks’ Nest” Williams included a cast of characters featuring each of the villagers she writes about with a photo so that readers will be able to relate to the story more closely and to remind people that everything in the book really happened.

So why Russia when there’s plenty of nature conservation to be done in America?

Williams said that her concern for global warming issues and wildlife conservation transcends the borders of counties. She felt she could do more good in a country so large and with so many problems in the field of nature conservation ” Williams’ area of expertise. Russia’s ever-changing political landscape has also opened doors for conservation that were previously sealed shut. Williams said this shifting climate has put protected national parks and wilderness preservation high on the list of government priorities, even more so than in America.

“I think we both can learn from each other,” said Williams of the two countries.

Of course Williams had no idea she would end up living in Russia when she first set foot in the country, but she found much more than she bargained for once she arrived ” namely life and love in the countryside.

High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 970-748-2939 or cowen@vaildaily.com.


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