This and that

Oh, those Russian birch trees! Or a bit about Russians and Russian nature

What is a cherry orchard? The vast majority of people will tell you it’s a garden where cherries grow. But for Russians, a cherry orchard is much more than that. For Russians, a cherry orchard is Russia itself.

Anton Chekhov famously compared Russia to a cherry orchard in the play “Cherry Orchard,” which he wrote in the beginning of the 20th century. The play still runs in Moscow, St. Petersburg, London, Paris, New York, and other major cities. The most important quote from the whole play comes from a student named Petya Trofimov, who says: “All of Russia is our orchard”...

Comparing Russia with a cherry orchard is no accident. Nature has always played a huge role in the lives of Russian people, which was of course reflected in Russian literature. It’s hard to find writers who describe the connection between people and nature in a way that Russian authors do. This was done well, for example, by Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev, Fedor Tutchev, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Prishvin, Sergey Esenin, Konstantin Pustovskiy, Leonid Leonov and many others. Leonid Leonov even titled his most important work “Russian Forest.” The book is about the need to preserve nature, the environment, and our surroundings in general. “For me, ‘Russian Forest’ is a reflection about the past, present and future of my motherland and my people,” the author said.

Of course, there can be no future unless we start thinking about nature. In order to figure out what Russians think about the environment, the Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge conducted a public opinion survey in the country. Survey data showed that the majority of our compatriots are interested in the state of the environment (78%). Over half (61%) marked some kind of environmental problem (pollution, climate change, drinking water quality) as the number one global challenge for humanity.

It’s unclear exactly what kinds of words people used when filling out this survey. But we do know that Ivan Turgenev saw the link between Russian language and Russian nature. He believed that the imagery of Russian language is closely related to Russian nature - the flow of springs, the screaming of cranes, the smoke rising from a fireplace somewhere in the distance… According to the historian Georgiy Vernadsky, “all civilizations are to some extent the result of geographic factors. But history doesn’t provide a better example of geography’s influence on culture than the historical development of the Russian people.”

Writer Vasily Belov, one well-known representative of Russian “village prose,” also had an explanation. In his book of essays on folk aesthetics, called “Lad,” he showed that the work rhythm, the nuances of everyday life, behavior, traditions, and rituals of Russian people, which for centuries were mostly village residents, have always been defined by the cyclical nature of seasons. “People always felt they were one with nature,” Vasily Belov concluded. In unison with nature, Russian people people created themselves and the beauty of their souls, reflected in the work culture, the art, the attitude toward the world and humanity in general.

And then there is the canonical image of the Russian birch tree, the most prominent
symbol of Russia. Some even think that Russian people suffer when they’re far from
these trees, that we can’t live without them. In any case, Russian immigrants from the
20th century definitely recalled these trees fondly, with a hint of sadness. After all,
Russian birch trees are associated with the best things in Russia. “Birch trees,
Russian birch trees, you remind me of my fate,” one popular song goes.
No wonder there is no other tree that has so many beautiful
epithets in Russian. People call these trees wide, generous,
clean, doe-eyed, crystal, modest, proud, gentle,
powerful, and even holy...

This kind of sentimental attitude of Russian people toward
nature is cultivated from childhood. Russian folk tales have
a lot to do with this. Forest imagery, for example,
is present in all folk tales. “For Russian people, the forest had
symbolic significance associated both with the cruelty of
nature and home,” reads an article about the relationship
between people and nature from the “Young Scientist”
journal, “The forest appears in Russian folk tales and
legends. it is a constant presence in the lives of Russian
fairy tale heroes, serving different functions: to test their
strength, or to be an empathetic character, for example.
It fulfills the everyday needs of fairytale inhabitants,
providing them with firewood, different animals to hunt,
and mushrooms or berries to pick.”

However, fairytale characters aren’t the only ones picking
berries and mushrooms in forests. Picking mushrooms
and berries is a favorite national pastime in Russia, from
April to October. If you live in Russia and have never
done this, definitely make plans to go as soon as possible.
When you find yourself in a Russian forest, you’ll discover
not only the unique wonders of Russian nature, but will
better understand the mysteries of the Russian soul.

 

Pictures by Anastasia Saifulina

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