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Book Review

The Green Greenie
Ian Mitchell

Dacha Idylls: Living Organically in Russia’s Countryside
Melissa Caldwell
University of California
Press £16.95

here are surprisingly few books published about dachas. Last year I reviewed the only historical study in English (Summerfolk, by Stephen Lovell, see PASSPORT May 2010). The book under review, by a Californian anthropologist, deals with dachas as they are today, or at least as they seem to be to an enthusiast for “slow time”, green living and other causes. I suspect a Russian account would be substantially different.

In Britain, we are accustomed to thinking of green ideas as right in principle, but often over-emphasised by faddish suburbanites whose only way of going back to nature is by making informed supermarket purchases, or by sending guilt-money to commercial charities, like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which many people now think are more effective at keeping their staff employed than protecting wildlife. The prevailing attitude in American is not dissimilar and it is that which informs this book, which is of great interest if you want to find out why the West misunderstands Russia in so many ways.

Ms Caldwell calls her research in Russia “fieldwork”, which firmly situates her as an outsider. But this does have its merits. For one thing, she is able to ask a question which troubles many Westerners: Russians maintain that they love nature dearly, and often talk of their native land as “sacred”. If so, why do they dump household rubbish in the nearest forest or pond so regularly? Ms Caldwell’s answer is very interesting.

She argues that Russians see nature as bigger and more powerful than humanity, which is logical in a country where civilisation is represented by smallish islands in a sea of uncultivated nature. In Britain, by contrast, we see ourselves as more powerful than nature since we live in a country where wild places are islands in a sea of cultivation. Russians do not have our sense of stewardship for nature since it is nature which dominates them, rather than the other way round.

In the larger, “global” sense, Russians are right. Nature will be here long after we are gone, even if that nature does not provide an environment that is hospitable to human life.

Where we are right, is to point out that if we want to live successfully in nature, we have to take care of the tiny part of it which surrounds us. This is where the argument gets interesting. It forces us to recognise a distinction between nature and the environment. Nature is what God or the Big Bang gave us 15 billion years ago, whereas “the environment” is the form which nature takes on this planet at this moment in history. To survive, we need to protect that environment only. Nature can look after itself. It is not within our power protect the cosmos. The RSPB cannot even save the corncrake on its own reserves.

In that sense, Russians appear to have confused the two terms. When they throw rubbish in the local forest, they may be acknowledging the primacy of nature over humanity, but they are wrong if they think that nature will look after their environment for them. Nature may be more powerful, but it is completely uncaring as, for example, anyone who has experienced a storm at sea knows, or been confronted by a frightened cobra.

Another thought-provoking aspect of Ms Caldwell’s book is her observation that this kind of almost philosophical discussion takes place naturally in a dacha “environment”, with its complete peace and quiet. There people can address subjects as unmediated yet important as the distinction between nature and the environment.

Perhaps that is why, for all their shortterm carelessness, Russians produce so many deep thinkers. If Ms Caldwell is right—she does not say this explicitly; I am extrapolating from her argument— then the institution of the dacha should be credited with many of the more fundamental insights that Russia has given the world.

One of the greatest insights of modern Russia is the old school-boy one, now totally out of favour in suburban Britain and America, namely that rules are there to be broken. Let me end by quoting what she says on this subject:

“Unlike in rule-bound countries such as the United States and Germany, where regulations and formal plans are imposed everywhere, in Russia there was a sharp distinction between the hyper-ordered reality of planned settings, whether they were cities or villages, and the unregulated spaces of nature…. The insistence that natural spaces feel completely free disguises the fact that these settings are very much subject to formal and informal rules and restrictions. For instance, signs posted at the entrance to Filievsky Park in Moscow inform visitors that they are forbidden from lighting fires, letting their dogs run free, driving cars, camping, picking flowers, and chopping down trees. Along the river, another set of signs forbids swimming. Despite these warnings, however, on any given day the park is filled with people tending campfires, running their dogs, wading, fishing, swimming, and even riding JetSkis… What this creative circumvention and sometimes outright dismissal of rules exposes is the extent to which Russians envision and experience natural spaces as intensely private and personal settings that are outside, and thus immune to, formal order… [Russians] treat nature as their private living space.”

Is that why the forests are full of rubbish?

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