With over 6.5 million square miles of land (10% of the world’s arable supply), it’s hardly a surprise that Chekhov, Pushkin, Yesenin, Levitan and their ilk used nature-heavy themes in their works and that Russians (even in today’s more industrial, technology-driven society) love nature. There are others who have considered the Russian love of nature in a more philosophical sense, but suffice it to say that Russian’s appreciation for nature goes beyond beautiful landscapes; they have a deep and sentimental relationship with the natural world. A few instances that help really drive this home:
Earth- Mushroom Hunting:
My Russian students would often invite me to go “to the nature” (or “in the nature”)- I finally took someone up on the offer to go mushroom hunting ( ). Besides involving a very Russian love of nature, this activity is linked to the country’s history of food shortages (including the devastating блокада Ленинграда; blokada Leningrada; Siege of Leningrad during WWII). Those who couldn’t turn to the stores turned to what they could gather from the ground (hence the prevalence of hardy foods like potatoes and beets in Russian dishes), and mushrooms didn’t even require a garden! I’ve since learned that mushroom hunting is practiced in some places in the US (namely northern California, Oregon, Washington and Appalachia), but I get the sense that it’s much more common in Eastern Europe/Russia. There are dozens and dozens of types of mushrooms, some edible, some deadly, some psychadelic. Of the group of Russians I went with, everyone (from the 50-something engineer to the 8 year old schoolboy) could easily identify the хорошие (khoroshiye; good) from the плохие (plokhiye; bad) mushrooms. I had a hard enough time even finding one, but thanks to the experts, we snagged a few baskets worth. Tara Maginnis gives a good recounting of her experience mushrooming at a Russian dacha here. Besides being able to prevent ignorant Me from being poisoned, the Russians also had an uncanny sense of where the mushrooms would be (many have favorite locations they return to year after year). The effort so many put into drawing sustenance from nature in an ecologically sound way (mushrooming, berry picking, gardening, making other dairy product from unwanted milk) is something I haven’t really seen paralleled in the US.
Air- Leaf Gathering:
Walking around the city (whether Krasnodar or Vladimir) with a Russian friend, particularly in autumn, we would often stop abruptly to pick up a brilliantly colored leaf. And then another. And then another. Many Americans think nothing of picking flowers out of the ground, but leaves? My students would present me stunning golden, maroon, and orange bouquets of leaves that they’d gathered on the way to class. Again, Russians opt against destroying nature (picking a flower) in favor of appreciating what the earth has willingly offered up. I found that leaves that I’d consider relatively unremarkable could be seen as uniquely beautiful.
When someone in America asks if I’d like to go swimming, I can almost taste the sharp sting of pool chlorine in my mouth. But in the months and months I spent in Russia, I’ve only ever been to one “typical” swimming pool (and paid a premium for it). Russians love spending time in/near natural bodies of water- I’d argue that the popularity of vacationing in Sochi or Anapa is not so much due to the pleasant weather as it is to the proximity of the expansive Чёрное море (Chyornoe morye; Black Sea). I spent many summer days (and the occasional summer night) at the nearest lake, seeing children dive in from high ledges, old men paddling around in a T-shirt and jeans (or the unfortunate Speedo), women laying on the grass basking in the sun. No lifeguard, no whistles, no concession stand. Of course, there are lakes and rivers that are dirtier than others (Russians will quickly point out the better ones) and my more environmentalist friends are appalled at what’s happening to the Black Sea. But for a relatively land-dependent country, Russians certainly cherish the water.
Then of course there are some Russians who take it to the extreme, not even letting the frigid Russian winter stop their love.
I prefer the banya approach. 🙂
Fire – Outdoor cooking
While the closest many Americans will get to outdoor cooking (outside of more rustic camping) is grilling on the deck or roasting marshmallows on a bonfire, Russians love a good cook-out in nature. This means loading up groceries (including raw meat and marinade), some basic cooking implements, and friends- then heading off to the nearest forest (unless you’re in Moscow or Petersburg, this usually means a 20-minute bus ride). Some prepare the meat, while others go off to gather sticks, stones, and brush for the fire (how many non-Boy Scouts do you know that can start a fire from scratch?). The meat is cooked, cucumbers and tomatoes are sliced, and the loaf (or two) of white bread is distributed, usually along with a beer or two. Forget health codes and sanitation (yes, ignore the flies buzzing around the jar of pickles) and you might just enjoy the experience of eating in nature.