In search of Arcadia: why Muscovites are swapping city life for the country

In search of Arcadia: why Muscovites are swapping city life for the country
Tver region where former Muscovite Nikita Korneyev now lives. Photograph: Roman Lykov

A growing number of Muscovites are escaping the urban sprawl for a slower, healthier life in the country. For some it is the lure of clear air and open spaces, for others it is the "call of the soul"

11 March 2014
Text Marina Lykova

A Moscow driver is likely to spend 127 hours a year stuck in traffic. That’s according to GPS manufacturer TomTom. For former Muscovite Nikita Korneyev, it feels more like four times that. “A person living in Moscow will spend about a quarter of his life in confinement,” he says. “And that’s a choice they make.” Korneyev, who now lives in a dacha in Tver region, an area of lakes and historic towns just 150km from Moscow, writes a blog extolling the virtues of country life for anyone thinking of making the move. “When I lived in Moscow it felt like everything was okay, sometimes even perfect,” says Korneyev. “But after a few years, I began to think increasingly often: what’s the point of all of this vanity?” Ignoring these thoughts was useless, he says, as the question continued to gnaw at him.

Korneyev is just one of a wave of Moscow dwellers to have swapped the hustle and bustle of city living for a more leisurely pace in rural Russia. Some of those who move are looking for more salubrious environments to raise their children in. For others, it is the lure of clean air, wide-open spaces and the opportunity to tend to one’s very own vegetable patch. In his search for an explanation for the growing number of Muscovites leaving the capital for the country, writing on his blog, Korneyev cites Germany psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. In his seminal book To Have or To Be?, Fromm expounds on two modes of existence: “having”, which focuses on material possessions and power, and “being”, which is based on love, the pleasure of sharing and productive activity. For Korneyev, “Conversion from the mode of ‘having’ to the mode of ‘being’, comes about organically in a village environment” — an idea that can be traced back to Leo Tolstoy, one of Russia’s earliest advocates for simple, almost ascetic, living.

Valeria Yurova moved from Moscow to the depths of the Russian countryside

Virtually all those chasing pastoral bliss are able to philosophise at length about this mode of “being”, although it is usually described as the “call of the soul”. Valeria Yurova is one such person. As a child, she spent her summers and weekends and her family dacha in Novovoronezh in southern Russia, all the while, plotting her escape to Moscow. When she finally made the move, metropolitan life didn’t quite measure up to her expectations. Despite qualifying as a lawyer and owning her own apartment, she was overcome by a sense of dissatisfaction. One day, she was walking near a market selling fowl when a familiar smell wafted over. “I couldn’t recognise it at first but then I saw the rows of hens nearby which transported me back to my childhood and the chicken coop we had,” she says. “It’s the best smell in the world.” Yurova sold her flat and now lives in the depths of the Russian countryside near Novovoronezh with her husband and two children.

For Yevgeny Yartsev, a former sales manager from Moscow, the call of nature experienced by the likes of Yurova and Korneyev is anchored in their genetic memory. He sees his own decision to move to Lozovoye, a village 600km from Moscow, as somehow being embedded in his DNA. “The thoughts of a move used to come to my mind in the early hours of the morning as I was drifting out of sleep,” he says. “Some kind of inner force would emerge every now and then, compelling me to make a change. I felt suffocated in the city and couldn’t stay confined in my office or apartment for very long. I began to question the purpose of life, looking to literature for answers.”

“When I lived in Moscow it felt like everything was okay, sometimes even perfect. But after a few years, I began to think, what’s the point of all of this vanity?”

Yartsev’s existential crisis coincided with the death of his grandfather, after which he returned to Lozovoye to care for his grandmother. He stresses that his new life, though tranquil compared to Moscow, is by no means plain sailing. “When you work in an office you become less energetic and lazy,” he says. “In the country, you have to work physically hard every day. It’s still the main barrier for me.” After deciding to stay in the village, Yartsev began work at a relative’s pastry business before taking up a job as director of the local cultural centre.

Pressed to expand on his genetic memory theory, Yartsev explains that he considers consumer culture a western ill that has invaded Russia. Conversely, the process of returning to live off the land has invoked in him a spiritual awakening that he traces back to his ancestors who lived in tribal communities where the common good took precedence over individualism. “There is nothing wrong for a person who works hard, earns money and satisfies his desires,” he says. “But it’s important to prioritise. Sometimes a person lives only for himself and doesn’t understand that he can move up the evolutionary ladder by helping others.”