On a train from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok in the Far East, conversations with my travelling companions turned to the endless wilderness around us. One young woman from a small town in the area said that she had seen a tiger once as it was crossing the street. However, for most of us, the closest we will ever get to Russia’s famous wildlife are fun stories about bears. (Admittedly, we contribute to a lot of them).
Setting ambitions lower than tigers and bears (oh my), perhaps we can settle for Russia’s best-known trees: pine and birch. Birch trees hold a special place in our hearts for being the most common beating branches used at the banya, and also for being the host of one of Russia’s most commonly gathered mushrooms, the aptly named подберезовики (literally, “beneath the birch”).
But how about getting beyond stereotypes entirely? Here are 14 members of Russia’s natural community that, while not as famous as birches or bears, are familiar to anyone who has spent a bit of summer in Russia.
Every June, it seems like someone burst an enormous pillow over the entire country. The white fluffy “pukh” blowing through the air and collecting all over the sidewalks are the seeds of female poplar trees. The fast-growing trees were mass-planted in many Soviet cities after World War II, to add greenery to the rapidly developing neighborhoods. Much to the chagrin of those with seasonal allergies, the recommendation to plant only the non-fluff producing male trees was not always followed.
The former Soviet Union has a strange tradition of whitewashing the bottoms of trees each spring. The reasoning behind this practice ranges from “that’s just how it is done” aesthetics of looking nice and neat – like inverting the white top black bottom of good young communists, according to one site – to the health of the trees, protecting them from sunburns and harmful critters; to letting drivers know where the edges of roads are without street lights at night. Critics say that it is at best a colossal waste of time and at worst harmful to the trees; it is now illegal in Moscow and some other cities.
An unassuming weed growing throughout the world on the sides of roads was elevated to the status of official name for the St. Petersburg metro card. The Russian word for them, подорожник, literally means “by the road,” so it sort of makes sense.
Anyone who has visited Moscow’s Gorky Park in May or June likely has a strong olfactory memory. Dozens of blooming lilac bushes fill the air with a smell of relaxation, mystery, and beauty. Actually, that goes for most of Moscow, and cities throughout Russia for that matter.
You may actually know them better by their Russian names of смородина and черника, because these small, round berries gathered from the forests and sold on street corners are far more common in Russia than North America.
Speaking of things gathered in Russian forests, these golden, frilly cup-shaped mushrooms don’t even have a non-Latin name in English, but they are part of the chanterelle family.
This is a mushroom you might run into less frequently at the market than подберезовики or лисички – just because, you know, of its tendency to give people hallucinations – but no less iconic. Fly agaric, or мухоморы in Russian, is native to Russia and was used for thousands of years by Siberian shamans in ceremonies. (Which may actually be an origin story for Santa Claus… they grow under pine trees, and reindeer like them too.) More recently, they play a key role in Victor Pelevin’s modern classic Generation P, and they even made the cut to join the Grand Maket in St. Petersburg, a giant train model of Russia.
Speaking of things that are red and spotted, if you have lived in Russia during the summer you have probably squashed hundreds of these. The солдатики (“little soldiers” in Russian) do not defend themselves well from feet.
Carcasses of translucent “Lady Butterflies” are unfortunately also a common sight in Russia (especially along Siberian roadsides on hot summer days), but ,when alive, the butterflies are a photographer’s bread and butter.
That is, pigeons. Let it sink in for a moment that you have been discriminating against the same bird just because of the color of their feathers. If you feel guilty about it, you can move to Russia, where the word for both pigeons and doves is the same – голубь – and where people actually seem to like the birds, frequently feeding and even housing them.
Many flocks of pigeons have a couple of grey crows, native to Eastern Europe, hanging around as well.
Once upon a 1990s, packs of stray dogs in Russia could command their territory just as well as packs of people, i.e. gangs. The difference was that the dogs would mostly mind their own business. Now you see less of both of them in major cities.
Russia certainly does not have a unique claim on stray chickens crossing the road, but Russians sure do put an unusually high amount of faith in their animals to make it to the other side, and back home again, all by themselves.
The item on this list most likely to be a myth. I’ve never seen one, but a lot of people are convinced they exist.
Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567