It wasn't the blight or decay, but the silence that floored Anna Troyanovskaya when she returned three years ago to her hometown of Tyubuk, in Russia's Chelyabinsk Oblast.
Life in the Russian countryside is far from romantic, with boredom, alcoholism, and hopelessness in abundance while opportunities and jobs are few and far between.
And Tyubuk is no exception. Most of its roads are unpaved, except for the main drag, Lenin Street. Many of the town's traditional Russian wooden homes, ornate windows into the past, struggle to fend off overgrown gardens. On one potholed path, rows of prefab apartment blocks erected during the Soviet era, when Tyubuk emerged as an agricultural center, have all the charm of an army barracks.
For Troyanovskaya, the silence on the streets screamed of recent hardship.
"There was nothing going on. It was like a vacuum," Troyanovskaya said in a recent interview with the Volga Desk of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service. "There were no activities of any kind. Not even a discotheque, and I thought we needed to do something."
That something soon became clear: an outdoor music festival could fill the void, if only for a day. But three years on it is obvious that the original idea, spawned after Troyanovskaya reunited with a friend who had formed a local rock band called Era Of Revival, has far exceeded expectations.
Following the success of the original festival, band members put their growing influence to good use, branching out into charity work that won over locals and sparked a type of grassroots activism rarely seen in Russia.
Making Noise Together
Troyanovskaya's friend, Vitaly Palkin, had dreamed about forming a band since he was 14. His first attempt never really got off the ground: "It was the end of the 1990s, and no one was really interested."
That band dissolved and Palkin went off to join the army and moved on from there. But eventually he found his way back to Tyubuk and started jamming again with his childhood friend, Kolya.
"We played in his yard and people would gather on the other side of the fence and listen," Palkin says.
Soon, the impromptu jam sessions started attracting bigger and bigger crowds, showing there was a local craving for live rock.
Palkin and Troyanovskaya decided that, if they were going to shatter Tyubuk's silence, they were going to do it in grand fashion.
"We didn't just hold an event; we did something bigger, Troyanovskaya boasts. "For example, we built a huge stage in six days. All of Tyubuk helped us! I made a call: ‘Marat, we need a crane, guys, we need a stage lifter.'"
She says their ability to pull it off impressed locals in Tyubuk.
"The people believed in us, and from that moment we started to gain trust and be listened to, because we did it," she says. "They weren't just empty words, we proved that we could do it," she says.
Emboldened by their success, the band and their supporters decided to branch out into charity work, forming a grassroots organization named Together.
Helping those in need in Tyubuk and the surrounding area is one of Together's tasks.
"We hang up flyers, pick up packages at any hour, sort through the items and then hand them out to families," Troyanovskaya says. "Four or five kids, a mom on her own, a mom unable to physically provide for her children. We can find what they need and deliver."
They've also helped out at a rundown hospice for the elderly.
"We visit them, talk with them, celebrate holidays with them, bring them warm things. This year, we bought a wheelchair for 500 rubles," Troyanovskaya says. "Kolya took the whole thing apart, added new wheels, fixed the frame, and put a new leather covering on. We gave it to the hospital. The elderly don't have any wheelchairs, they simply can't go anywhere."
Together, convinced that they could repeat their successes elsewhere, were soon organizing everything from town cleanups to soccer tournaments.
The charity and community activity has spurred on the local government to pick up its game, says band member Nikolai Ilyin. He recalls that when Era Of Revival first started its impromptu jam sessions, it chose the grounds of the local house of culture, or DK, because it was largely dormant.
"We'd arrive and it would be generally quiet with all the doors closed and the director nowhere to be seen," says Ilyin. "There were even times when they wouldn't turn on the lights; there were unpaid bills. That's why we practiced in the backyard. That's why we started to organize our first concerts independent of the DK."
After the successful organization of the third-annual festival, -- a sport-rock day -- local authorities finally got the message, and are putting the DK to full use.
"Now, there's contests and games there nearly every week. They've started to do more with the kids," Ilyin says. "Earlier, they held activities more or less as a formality. They'd hang up one poster on the doors of the club. You'd see it or not. After us, they started to use social media. They started to learn, and to hang up two or three posters."
Join The Band
Ilyin claims the band has attained nearly rock-god status, with many locals likening them to a Russian pop diva.
"The whole village will turn out and watch with eyes wide open. They compare us with Alla Pugacheva," Ilyin says.
The town's mayor met with members of Together in 2016 and worked out an 18-point plan to improve life in the community.
Troyanovskaya says that initiative didn't work out, but she says they've only had "positive" reactions from the people of Tryubuk.
"People's reactions have only been positive. It gives you a warm feeling inside when everyone tells you how terrific you are," Troyanovskaya says, adding that their work is far from over.
"We're going to tackle even tougher jobs; we will help people. And, I hope more people will join us."