October 03, 2021

Lessons From the Russian Village

Lessons From the Russian Village
A Russian village might not be the most glamourous vacation destination, but it's hard not to find some beauty in ordinary pastoral scenes like this.  Photo by Alexandra Curtis

During the Summer of 2018, I was lucky enough to participate in a folklore expedition with the Partnership for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Folklore. We traveled all the way from Moscow to the Irkutsk region to collect folklore samples from tiny villages within that area. It was a life-changing experience for me in a multitude of ways, and I learned more than a few shareable bits of wisdom. 

A table full of fresh vegetables, salads, and soups,
Fresh veggies and solyanka soup! | Photo by Alexandra Curtis

1. Food Is Meant to Be Shared

The first lesson I learned in the village is that food is always a communal experience. Of course, the women who were kind enough to welcome me into their homes were also kind enough to welcome me to their kitchen tables, but it was more than that.

The kitchen tables were set up much differently at mealtime than I had been accustomed to in America. Everything was always served “family-style,” so the plates were just there on the table for everyone to help themselves. In some cases, individual serving plates were missing all together, and everyone just ate out of the same dish using their own serving spoon.

For someone who has always had a pretty large aversion to sharing drinks or bites of meals with friends, this definitely didn’t sit right with me at first, but one must survive, so I ate. I really do owe this experience to helping me become a more flexible and versatile person.  

Shot glasses and a bottle of vodka sit on a table.
The party is on. | Photo by Alexandra Curtis​​​​​

2. Beware the Samogon

Another thing at the table that was shared in great amounts was the alcohol. For the uninitiated, “samogon” is the Russian word for homemade vodka. Almost every home we stayed at had a bottle of this spirit brewing somewhere in the cabinet.

The tricky thing about samogon is that because it is self-made, it’s impossible to say exactly how much alcohol you are consuming while drinking it. But it’s a pretty safe bet to assume that it will be a lot. The stuff tends to be very strong. The other difficulty is that, due to Russian drinking customs, if you ever leave your glass empty, it will be instantly refilled by your gracious host. The moral of the story: pace yourself. 

3. You’ve Never Had Real Sour Cream

One thing Russians really complain about when they come to America is that our sour cream  really sucks. And that’s a fact. This is because sour cream in America is made with more regular milk, while Russian “smetana is made with a higher concentration of actual cream. This not only gives it a thicker texture and a higher fat content, but also a much superior flavor.

Yet even the Russian smetana I had tried in Moscow did nothing to prepare me for what village smetana would taste like. Our host had made it fresh from the milk of her own cow by placing it in a jar and just letting the sun convert the milk cream into deliciousness. The end product was cream so thick and smooth it almost resembled butter. To this day, it is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. 

Cow looks into a bread truck.
Even the cow knew that the bread truck was the best way to get goodies. | Photo by Alexandra Curtis

4. Cows Are Smarter Than You Think

And because they supply the products necessary for smetana, cows play a really big role in village life (or at least in the village I visited). Our host owned just a few cows, but every morning she had to wake up very early so that she could milk them enough times throughout the day.

The thing about the cows that amazed me the most is that, during the day, the cows would go wherever they pleased. There were no fenced-in pastures in the village; the cows all simply intermingled and wandered about the vast countryside. Some would walk along the street, others were smart enough to try and get some snacks from humans, but most just minded their own business. But at the end of the day, the cows always knew to return home. Even if they had wandered way off with some other cow comrades, they would always end up back at their respective residence. 

5. Anything You Can Do Sitting, You Can Also Do Squatting

As you get farther from Moscow, a lot of things get harder to find, but one thing I missed, in particular, was toilet seats. In the village, they were pretty much unheard of. This meant that, during the time that I lived there, leg day was pretty much every day. While there were some outhouses, usually these just consisted of a nice deep hole in the ground (and a little bit of toilet paper, if you were lucky). It took some getting used to, but it wasn’t really all that bad. 

6. Indoor Plumbing Isn’t All That

Most Americans imagine that only the poorest of the poor could live a life without running water. While that might be true in major cities, in the villages I was amazed by just how well the people around me seemed to get by without it. Sure, it made life a bit more difficult, but when that’s all you are used to, what difference does it make?

Large tubs of rainwater work just as well as any other water source for washing dishes. Many homes also had little sinks that worked by gravity rather than water pressure, with a tub of water that rested on top of the faucet. As for the showers? Nothing beats a hot steam in the banya after a long day to cleanse and relax. 

A girl sits on top of a white stove with a woman hugging her.
That's me sitting on top of the stove with one of my village hostesses. | Photo via Alexandra Curtis 

7. The Best Place in the House Is by the Stove

A traditional Russian stove is not like the stove you and I have in our homes. Rather, it is an enormous stone furnace usually situated directly in the middle of the home (or, more correctly, the home is built around the stove) to provide heat to the entire residence. It is traditionally also used for cooking, although today most village homes also have their own electric stoves for convenience. To sleep up against the walls of the stove on a cool summer evening was a treat. While in the winter the walls might have been too hot to snuggle up to, in the summer, they were just warm to the touch, and it was delightfully cozy. 

8. But You’d Better Ask the Domovoi First

Of course, the main purpose of my trip was not to get cozy by the stove, but to learn about folklore, and that I did! The stove is a very important place to the domovoi (or house spirit), whom all villagers I spoke to seemed to be in touch with.

Each individual house has its own individual domovoi, and to appease him, many would leave little bits of food or candy out for him on top of the stove. I was particularly amazed by how many people we spoke to who not only believed in these creatures but claimed to have seen them or interacted with them as well. Were the stories real or made up? To this day, I still wonder. Even still, I'd rather take the side of caution, so if I’m ever in a situation that requires it, I always remember to respect the domovoi.

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