The Russian Forest


Forest, Near the Bay of Finland, Russian Federation, 2008

European Russian is a geographically divided country. In the south stretches the grassy steppe, the territory of ancient Rus and the birthplace of the Russian state. In the north stretches great forests, the place of refuge for the Slavs from the invasion into the steppe by the Golden Horde in the 13th century. In these forests later arose the princedoms of the Golden Ring, Muscovy, and finally modern Russia.

Even today in busy Moscow the forest is seemingly ubiquitous.  Not only in the parks, monastery grounds, and pedestrian walkways, but also along the city streets and in the residential areas. When one sees the great trees stretching up to the sky between the narrow spaces between apartment blocks, one gets the sense that it is the forest that is lasting, and that the stone and concrete buildings of the modern city are no more permanent than the old wooden izbas of yesteryear. In the end, one feels, the forest is biding its time to prevail.

I think recognizing the importance of the forest is essential to understanding Russians. I like the following passage from The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture by James H. Billington.

It is probably not too much to say that the wooded plain shaped the life of Christian Muscovy as profoundly as the desert plain that of Moslem Arabia. In both areas food and friendship were often hard to find, and the Slavic like the Semitic peoples developed warm compensating traditions of hospitality. At the lowest level, peasants presented the ritual bread and salt to all arrivals; at the highest level, princes welcomed visitors with the elaborate banquets and toasts that have remained characteristic of official Russian hospitality.

If life in the scorching desert was built around the dwelling in the oasis and its source of water, life in the frozen forest was built around the dwelling in the clearing and its source of heat. From the many words used for “dwelling place” in Kievan Russia, only izba, meaning “heated building,” came into general use in Muscovy. Being permitted to sit on or over the earthenware stove in a Russian dwelling was the ultimate in peasant hospitality–the equivalent of giving a man something to drink in the desert. The hot communal bath had a semi-religious significance, still evident today in some Russian public baths and Finnish saunas and analogous in some ways to the ritual ablutions of desert regions.

Unlike the desert nomad, however, the typical Muscovite was sedentary, for he was surrounded not by barren sand by by rich woods. From the forest he could extract not only logs for his hut but wax for his candles, bark for his shoes and primitive records, fur for his clothing, moss for his floors, and pine boughs for his bed. For those who knew its secret hiding places, the forest could also provide meat, mushrooms, wild berries, and–as its greatest culinary prize–sweet honey.


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