MOSCOW - There was a goat just outside the Moscow metro station, accompanied by a girl who was selling bottles of milk – the goat was obviously there as a live advertisement.

“Look, she has white eyelids,” passersby would say, looking at the alien animal. “Look at the tail!” they said – and these were all adults; women in heels, men with beer, young guys with skateboards – everyone stopped for the goat. “Come on, that’s enough,” one woman said to a man as she pulled his hand, “we’re going to the country soon, we’ll see plenty of goats and chickens there.” 

Vacations in the country – that is what these goat-loving city-dwellers dream about. And there are a lot of them. According to statistics from the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion, last year on 5% of Russians spent their vacations abroad. Most Russians vacationed in the Russian countryside. 

“If you don’t go abroad for summer vacations, then were do you go?” I asked in a small survey in the blogosphere. The first response: “The best place for vacations – the countryside! That’s the only place where I feel happy and relaxed.” Similar responses followed from people who spent all summer in the countryside and who visited the house their grandmother lived in.

Photo: Alexander Lyubavin

Our cities are filled with a whole generation of grown-up children of peasants, who long for homes that have long been boarded up. Perhaps that’s why they prefer the countryside to foreign travels.

Closer to God

Those who dream of the countryside are also making websites, some of which claim to be a place for people who live and work in nature to meet. But most of the registered users are people who inherited, bought or are planning to buy a home in the countryside. City-dwellers post questions about when they should plant and announcements for livestock pens for sale.

Others post thoughts about how the sound of birds singing and scents of flowers blooming is like the world opening up its secrets. “The less conveniences we have, the closer we are to God.”
Of course, not everyone thinks that inconvenience is heavenly. But they are willing to come to terms with the realities of country living for the birds, flowering apple trees and the family that lives in the village. Moving to the deep country, or even just spending summer there, is a major accomplishment for many. And they don’t hesitate to encourage others to make the same transition.

Those who dream of the countryside aren’t happy to read quietly – they register for forums, discuss the advantages and drawbacks of different villages and haggle over animal pens. Sometimes people do this for years. That’s because many of them don’t really have any intention of moving anywhere – you have to remember what life is actually like in the Russian countryside: there are no jobs, no stores, and getting to the nearest hospital in the rainy season is essentially impossible.

Feeling trapped in the city

Three years ago Igor Rasteryaev, an actor who lives in St. Petersburg, was out in the country with a friend and had the friend take a video of him singing a song about the countryside. They later uploaded the cell-phone video to YouTube on a lark. It made Rasteryaev into an Internet sensation – it has now been viewed more than 15 million times. The comments on YouTube are filled with stories of people who grew up in the countryside or who spent their summers there and now feel trapped in the city. Rasteryaev has since released a number of follow-up songs that have struck a cord with those who long to spend more time in the country. 

Rasteryaev explains that he has something of a “double citizenship,” both urban and rural. Although he grew up in St. Petersburg and lives there now, he spent his childhood summers in a small village with relatives and his grandmother. Now, he says, he tries to spend a couple months there every year. Rasteryaev even says his accent changes depending on where he is and who he is talking with. When asked “Why do you love the countryside?” Rasteryaev, who was born in the big city, shrugs his shoulders and says, “because it’s my hometown.” 

Now there is a whole generation of people who think like he does. These young people, raised by rural grandmothers, think of the countryside, not concrete, nine-story apartment buildings, as their home. They know that home is where you step from the porch to the ground, not into the elevator. That’s why when Rasteryaev sings about tractors and why it’s better to stroll and sunbath at home then abroad, whole offices start crying.

Photo: Pavel Grabalov

That’s why he is now singing at nightclubs in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and these children and grandchildren of peasants raise their iPhones and iPads to take photos.

Provisional city slickers

Russia’s rural communities make up only 26% of the country’s population, although it made up more than 50% of the population until the middle of the 1960s, and every year more and more people moved to the city. Are these migrants and their children really city slickers now? According to sociologists, it takes three generations for rural migrants to really absorb city culture. According to Natalia Zubarevich, a geographer and economist, third-generation city dwellers make up less than 20% of Russia’s population. Russia is built on the habits and values of peasants, and even the capital city is often called a big village.

But it’s unlikely that there will ever be a mass exodus towards rural Russia. People are afraid of alcoholism, poverty and ruin, even though many complain that they don’t get enough air and freedom in the city. They trudge along, neither here nor there. The look at rural houses for sale on the Internet even though they will be paying off the mortgage on their 52-square-meter apartment for the next 25 years.

They cry to accordion music and grab their mobile phones for a photo when they see a goat outside a metro station. They go visit their aunt in the countryside for vacation, and then complain, “Couldn’t they provide gas to this darn place? What kind of country is this?” They boil water in the evening to give their kids a bath, and swear that they will never come back to the countryside, that it is better to go to Italy, or at least somewhere with a sewer system and regular bread deliveries. But then every year, as soon as the buds are sprouting in the countryside, they say, “Soon we are going to the countryside. Home.”