Rural Russia differs from Moscow and St.Petersburg just as New York differs from most of USA. Here in the countryside between St Petersburg and Moscow you will find the essence of Russia. In some ways it's like taking a huge leap back in time - or like visiting an open-air living museum.
If you consider going beyond the tourist sites and staying for few days in rural Russia I invite you to make the journey to a village somewhere between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Here in this village I have got my summer house (dacha) and a chain of friends and relatives.
Here is a the report from my friend, Ken Taft (USA) about his experience in rural Russia
So we left on a Friday morning in early July, heading out from the center of the city, five full grown adults in a car that seats four comfortably. Our passenger roster consisted of Tatiana, her brother Misha (driver) and his wife Julia, and Tatiana's husband Sergey. In the trunk we had too many clothes and too much food. It was going to be about a five hour trip in total with occasional stops to stretch legs and eat some roadside fare. I took my place in the backseat, happy to have a window seat to avoid any car sickness. Russian roads are notoriously bad with potholes that could swallow Mini Coopers in one bite. The mudflaps of the car scraped the ground at every bump because of all the weight. There are lines painted on the pavement marking out the lanes, but no one really pays any attention to them. It's a free for all, NASCAR style, with cars dodging in and out of lanes, driving on the shoulder and fearlessly crossing over the center line to pass and play chicken with oncoming semi's. I then realized the deeper meaning of Misha making the sign of the cross while passing St. George Cathedral during our exit from the city. It was a white knuckle ride on the main highway from St. Petersburg to Moscow that needed some divine intervention to protect us. The Russian interstate can go from a modern, freshly paved autobahn style highway to a two lane, pot-holed, country back road almost instantly. Semi's outnumber cars 2:1. I would hold my breath and look out the window as Misha prepared to pull out, cross the center line and try to pass a line of slower moving semi's before the train of other semi's coming from the other direction would crush us like a beer can. Hopefully an oncoming car didn't have the same ideas about passing and would have us playing a complex game of chicken where there would be no winners. Occasionally we would see a gas station along the side of the road, but no official rest stops with toilets and running water, and of course no McDonalds, Wendy's, Cracker Barrel, etc. (Note to self: use the toilet before getting in the car).
Our first stop to rest seemed completely random but "au contraire" it was all part of the plan. Dispersed along the roadside at completely random points, away from any nearby city, were solitary people selling cucumbers, potatoes and blueberries out of buckets and wicker baskets. It puzzled me why they chose these particular spots to sell their goods. It seemed to be such an unlikely spot to sell produce. But Hey! WE stopped! And WE bought!
Our second stop was for pirozhkeys and tea at the "open-air" convenience store. The woman sporting the great tan sells tea which is brewed in the metal contraption (samovar). I'm not exactly sure how it works, but burning wood keeps it hot and it's definitely a Russian cultural icon. The pirozhkeys were delicious little gut bombs of deep fried dough with apple, potato or cabbage filling. I'll take one of these over a Big Mac any day. The sign on the small building in the background says "Bistro" 24 hours.
Five hours after leaving we arrived at the dacha, somewhere closer to Moscow than to St. Petersburg near a beautiful chain of lakes. Tatiana's mother came out, then Julia's two boys ran out happy to see their mama and eager to practice their English on me. The main house was made almost entirely of wood, very cozy inside with a brick fireplace and a large brick oven. Yes, it had running water, indoor toilets, a stove, refrigerator and an upstairs still under construction. It all sloped down to the edge of the lake where there was an old row boat and an area to go swimming. Their land was more like a compound than just a country cottage. There was a tall metal fence surrounding the entire property and various other buildings besides the main house. There was a house I call the "bachelor pad". It had a well stocked garage of tools and other implements, a table overlooking the lake for cleaning fish or fixing nets, lots of gear hanging on the walls, a functioning sink and hotplate and a small cot for sleeping. I think it's where Tatiana's father would spend a great deal of time when he just needed to do some "man things". I stayed in an auxiliary house made of pine boards with lots of windows overlooking the lake. Also in the compound was a greenhouse with an abundance of cucumbers, tomatoes and dill, and the unforgettable banya where I was initiated into the world of Russian men. I was given a complete tour of the compound by Tatiana's non-English speaker father, Yuri. Of course, like most people, he believed I would understand him better if he spoke louder in Russian. I knew when to nod my head at the appropriate times to feign comprehension as he explained the intricate workings of the plumbing system. The rest of the day was spent rowing the boat, placing nets in the lake, napping, eating lots of food and playing Russian card games that I just couldn't get the hang of.
That evening I was invited to go mushroom picking the next morning with Yuri. It is an activity I heard many stories about from a number of people, but didn't think I'd actually get to do it. I thought: "It's much easier to just buy them in a store, but maybe picking them in the forest will be interesting." Promptly at 6:30am he came to my window to wake me up. "Early bird gets the mushroom." So after a quick breakfast of instant coffee, I donned my pair of waist high rubber boots to keep dry in the tall wet grasses of the forest. Very unfortunately, I forgot to douse myself with mosquito repellent. "How bad can they be anyway, right? It's just a warm, humid, swampy forest next to a lake. No problem." So before setting off in the boat, Yuri equipped me with the necessary tools for a mushroom safari: knife + big wicker basket (How many mushrooms are we going to pick?!). We headed out across the lake with hand signals pointing me in the direction I was supposed to row. The mosquitoes had sent out scouts along the shoreline to watch for possible prey and they moved in for an attack. Now I was really starting to wish for mosquito repellent as they swarmed to the exposed skin of my hands and face. With both hands rowing I was powerless to stop them. We made our landing and quickly headed into the forest. I was instructed to stay within view of each other because it's easy to get lost in this forest and also because there is safety in numbers when it comes to bears. He showed me his very long knife he was going to use on any overly curious bear. One minute from shore we came across a large area of flattened grass and a small excavated pit where a bear was recently digging for something. This find quickly rid me of my doubts about there actually being any bears around.
We started walking along the edge of the tree line where Yuri started finding mushrooms... Big ones, about 6 inches tall with caps about 6 inches in diameter. I was expecting to see some little trolls or gnomes with pointy shoes, funny hats and white beards darting trough the underbrush. I started finding mushrooms also, but only the real colorful types that tend to make you wish you never ate them. A light rain started and for the next two hours we made our way through dense foliage, open meadows carpeted with wild strawberries and stands of endless birch. I started to develop a good eye for the elusive Belie (white) mushroom in addition to other varieties. Somehow we filled the basket with about 12 pounds of mushrooms. I was ready to get out of the rain into some dry clothes and put a big breakfast in my stomach... But we weren't done. We still had to pull up the nets from last night to see if we caught any fish. So back into the boat for another hour of rowing in circles. Yes, we caught fish, many little ones and one big one very similar to America's Northern Pike. I thought that it wasn't the most sporting way to catch a fish, but when we had fresh fried fish and mushroom soup that evening, I really didn't care how they were caught.
This one of a series of letters from Russia written by my American friend during his first year