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Ryan Bell is a writer/photographer exploring "cowboy" cultures around the world. As a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow, he traveled through Russia and Kazakhstan where farmers have been working to rebuild their cattle industries. Back in the U.S., Ryan works freelance and teaches as an adjunct professor of creative nonfiction at The University of Montana.

The Kazakh Women Felters of Zarshiganak

When life gives you wool, make felt. That was the lesson Kalimash Baimuhanova learned in the difficult years following the Soviet Union’s collapse. The village of Zarshiganak sits on the ironing-board flat steppes of northeastern Kazakhstan. During the USSR, it was a thriving community of shepherd families who worked on the Kalinsky Collective Farm. In…

Photo Essay: Dacha Season Kicks Off in the Russian Countryside

The “dacha,” or country cottage, is a cultural institution in Russia. The tradition began during the Soviet Union when dachas were given as rewards to good workers. The communities were organized by profession. In St. Petersburg, my friend Katya took me to her grandparents’ dacha. They worked as city planners during the USSR, and their dacha…

Bellringers of the Russian Orthodox Church Toll for Religious Freedom

After 75 years of religious persecution, under the Soviet regime, the Russian Orthodox Church has experienced a renaissance. In belfry towers across Russia, Orthodox bellringers toll their anthems of freedom.  

The Cowboy Trade Builds a Bridge of Friendship Between a Russian and an American

Yury Rybakov hadn’t ridden a horse before. Nor had he herded cattle or thrown a lariat. But he had the cowboy bug and wanted me to teach him a thing or two. I was spending the week on Angus Shestakovo Ranch, where Yury worked. I agreed to help, but warned that learning the cowboy trade doesn’t happen overnight.…

The First (And Only) Russian Ranch Video Awards

With all the hullabaloo of The Oscars died down, I direct your attention to Russia’s movie industry where Westerns are the rage. Not Westerns of the Clint Eastwood variety, but promotional Western videos about Russia’s ranch industry. The cattle bonanza has created a pool of customers — ranchers — who are eager to show off their accomplishments. Without further…

Russian Cowboys Learn to Ride Western

American cowboy Shane Stotler points out his truck window at a herd of cattle just cresting a hill on the horizon. Normally, he’d be out there riding with the Russian workers he’s been hired to train by Miratorg, Russia’s largest cattle operation. Instead, he’s waited for me at ranch headquarters so we can drive out…

Soviet Sausage Returns to the Menu in Russia

Mr. Demin shakes hands like a snapping turtle bites a carrot. Then he pulls you close and says, with a mixture of sincerity and urgency, how glad he is to meet you. This one-two punch of a first impression is the secret of success for a man who has salvaged a bastion of the Soviet…

“World Spay Day” Aims to Reduce Numbers of Feral Cats and Dogs

If a street dog or cat could read a calendar, it would circle in red the last Tuesday in February. It’s World Spay Day, when volunteers round up stray animals in an effort to humanely control the feral populations. The campaign was started in 1995 by the Doris Day Animal Foundation, with the goal of…

Podcast: Comrade Cowboys, Episode 1

After posting last week’s blog, Steak Story, the idea occurred to me that it would make a cool subject for a podcast. I enjoy listening to Serial as much as the next bloke. So why not give podcasting a try? How hard could it be? Very hard. Sarah Koenig, et al, I tip my hat. Without further ado, here’s…

The MosCowBoy, A Steak Story

The ribeye steak was called the MosCowBoy. When I cut into it, juice squished out onto the ceramic plate. Each tender bite made my taste buds light up with all six of the essential flavors (sour, salty, sweet, bitter, and especially umami and fat). This was five years ago, in June 2011, when I’d just finished…

Apocalypse Paused: Scenes From Soviet-Era “Ghost Farms”

Picture two giant farms: one the size of France; the other the size of Wisconsin. That is how many acres of agricultural land sit fallow in Russia (45 million) and Kazakhstan (35 million).   The 250,000-acre Chilinka Collective Farm, in northern Kazakhstan, was once known as an oasis on the steppes. It was home to 500…

Tazy: Speedy Dog of the Steppes in a Race Against Extinction

“Faster!” Zhylkybai Aga said. The driver increased the truck’s speed to 25 m.p.h. Zhylkybai leaned out the window and whooped at his dog, named Akbakai, who loped alongside the vehicle. The lanky dog was hardly exerting himself. My first impression of Tazy, a Kazakh dog breed, was that it looked like a bag of bones. But now, in…

The (Questionably) Honorable Kazakh Tradition of Livestock Theft

With 2,500 head of livestock, it can be hard to notice when a few go missing. Especially for Dauletgali Zhaitapov, whose business Kaz Horse Mugalzhar LTD operates on 75,000 acres of unfenced rangeland in northern Kazakhstan. During fall roundup, Zhaitapov realized his horse herd was 100 animals short. These weren’t just any horses; they were…

In Kazakhstan, They Eat Horse Meat. Would You?

Kazakhstan is a land where people revere, and eat, horses. Meanwhile, in America (and much of Europe) eating horse meat is taboo. In a blog post for The Plate, I explore these differing attitudes about equus caballus as a protein source.  

Smile For Me, Russia

They hide in plain sight. When shooting street photography in Russia, odds are good you’ll encounter them. Anti-photobombers. They’re everywhere. Let’s play “Where Are the Anti-Photobombers.” In the picture above, can you can find them?