Alternative to Urbanization: Life after the City
Are people eternally destined to live in cities? Are jungles made of concrete, metal and glass the only environment in which they deserve to exist – even in the remote future? Today, these important questions coexist with various correlations and consequences in multiple areas of life and expertise. Historically, mankind emerged from rural environments, which have an inherent closeness to natural wildness, and endlessly strived for life in the city. This used to be the process and, until recently, it seemed to be unidirectional. However, people currently live in a period of radical change. Recovering the ancestral reunion with Nature is not only a matter of personal choice; it is becoming an imperative, a “Hobson’s choice,” indeed. This trend stands true for many societies in the contemporary world, including Russia.
Uprooting Nature in Modern Times
The concept of Nature, which has been central to the common comprehension of life throughout Russia’s ancient history, has never been epistemologically neutral (Williams, 2007). It was clearly embedded in paganism and its underlying values and canons. What is significant is that paganism’s essential understanding of Nature as divine has been radically retailored to achieve very divergent ends. The interpretation of Nature began to reflect the beliefs not of the culture as a whole but of the few who deemed themselves responsible to institute a more advanced culture in place of the existing one. In particular, the process of man’s abstraction from Nature has been taking place through concrete historical events. Although Russian history identifies multiple harmful instances of deliberate oppression and segregation of rural communities from the ruling class, historians characterize the Soviet period as delivering the severest blow to the remaining weak connections between man and Nature and, thus, as being the most devastating for rural communities (Rivkina, 2005; Steinberg, 2007; Steinberg & Bakhturina, 1999; Velikij, Elutina; Wegren & O’Brien, 2002). This period, although portrayed as a radical denial of the modern West’s central principles expressed through the East-West dichotomy, stands for the disguised but fully-powered propagation of modernity and its destructive values.
During post-communist land reform, millions of hectares of land transferred from state to private ownership, much of it almost for free. Signs of active modernization were reflected in the urbanization process, which was seen as a necessary for development of a modern nation-state. From the Russian leadership perspective, modern rejuvenation of rural settlements was a natural process – a development path vital for the fundamental restructuring of the whole system. These bold actions have led to establishment of a new “refined” structure of rural settlements, thereby affecting the density of communities by making them highly localized and marginalized.
In addition, these actions are replacing the traditionally rural lifestyle by encouraging a shift in aspirations towards urban values (Nikulin & Danilov, 2002). Overall, the typical simplification process took place in the following manner: In the country’s progressive western region, traditional villages were completely eliminated because no objective necessity existed for their continued existence while the majority of eastern rural settlements were neglected and forgotten. The new modern economy based on crude oil and natural gas export, development of advanced manufacturing techniques, creation of multiple distribution channels, fortification and perpetuation of the trade, as well as the encouragement of a personal interest in profit represented the government’s primary focus.
In 2012, the state of affairs is not considerably different. Today, Russian villages and other rural communities, especially in the “Near North” of Russia’s European part, continue to be severely dispensed with, abandoned, alienated and minimized. For the agrarian sector, the intensity of the past’s unaccountable mistakes has surpassed the most pessimistic forecasts. Rural communities in Russia persist in experiencing an inexorable deterioration of quality of life as a consequence of the Soviet regime followed by transition to the market economy. The outcome of the oppressive times was the immense alienation of man from Nature and the results of his hard labor, thus turning him into a mere executor of the commands from above. Rural inhabitants throughout the country have been experiencing a complete annihilation of their lifestyles together with the spiritual and moral values intrinsic in their community. The tyrannical uprootedness of man from the land could be considered one of the most harrowing elements of the communist legacy. The untouchable qualities as well as the seemingly unavoidable omnipresence of the hegemonic discourse appear to have taken precedence over centuries of knowledge, memories and experience generated by peasant communities in relation to Nature. The utopian idea of a better future in modernity has been presented as a justification for the destruction of ecology and human life.
Consequently, for many city inhabitants, urban life has resulted in a state of continuous uncertainty and anxiety. For a careful observer, it becomes evident “that modernity’s ability to provide solutions to modern problems has been increasingly compromised” (Escobar, 2004, 208) and that life in a city brings with it innumerable social, economic and psychological limitations and hazards. However, notwithstanding modern corollaries of industrialization, advancements of technological progress and market economy, the connection between man and rural environment has not been completely lost. A growing number of urban dwellers aspire to re-establish the essential link with Nature by returning to the long-disregarded rural lifestyle. The countryside of modern Russia could be recognized as a substantive ground of social and ecological reproduction of the ancestral ways of life complemented by the existing contemporary knowledge and experiences of its inhabitants. By looking at the past, urban residents begin transforming elements of urban life that have naturalized man’s present alienated stance towards the natural environment. They begin recovering the traditional relations that have been destroyed in the name of global progress, and they introduce an alternative ideological vantage point that draws attention to the bonds and linkages between individual and Nature.
Rural Remodeling of the Urban Lifestyle
Approximately 10 years ago, keeping these ideas and approaches in mind, a group of leading social scientists representing the National Research University “Higher School of Economics” and Moscow State University launched an extensive sociological survey of the effects of modernization and globalization on a rural region typical of “Russia’s heartland.” The aim was to investigate the trajectories of the forthcoming fate of that place. The Russian region of Kostroma is similar in size to West Virginia and has a dispersed population of 800,000 people. Its main agricultural products are dairy, flax, rye and timber (70 percent of its territory is virgin forest). The Soviet era chemical plant in the town of Manturovo on the Unzha River, the tributary of the Volga River, has gone out of business leaving the natural environment in the area the region’s main asset.
Despite the Kostroma’s seeming isolation from the currents of the global trading system, a process of “cellular globalization” (Pokrovsky, 2005) is subtly but inexorably changing the region’s character. Specifically, cellular globalization refers to the emergence of internalized changes within the individual attributable to the effects of globalization. Almost every family in the region’s rural areas has relatives in major cities, such as the regional capital of Kostroma, Moscow or St. Petersburg. These extended networks, at times stretching to 600 kilometers, are carrying with them the influences of globalization back to the Russian heartland. This process is slowly changing traditional rural attitudes towards wealth, with more rural residents placing greater importance on wealth than in the past. Other consequences of cellular globalization are erosion of social mores and respect for law, reduction in accepted cultural demands that limit individual behavior, increased moral relativism, and the lack of respect for history and tradition. An overall marked rise in consumerism and interest in the virtual world of celebrity and mass media exists at the expense of traditional social values. The era of diverse, small-scale agricultural supporting networks of rural villages is over. Likewise, the Soviet era of densely concentrated infrastructure is in the past. Instead, new urban-rural interrelations have been steadily developing to support each other in the formation of new communities. The economic basis of these communities will include niche agriculture (such as agricultural tourism and organic agriculture), regulated hunting and fishing resorts, and local handicrafts.
Against this social background, a new migration trend takes place. The residents of big metropolitan capitals, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg who represent relatively wealthy middle class professionals, begin to acquire local property in the remote rural sites of the Kostroma Region. This includes traditional log houses and barns, which are turned them into so-called “dachas” or summer houses. Nowadays, this process is actively getting into gear. Moreover, the newcomers exceedingly extend their presence in the summer houses, turning them into their main residential family places, densely packed with all modern commodities and info-communications. The latter allow the reinvented rural dwellers to continue their professional work in the mode of a distant office. In this context, the quality and benefits of the natural environment of Kostroma become critically important in the urban residents’ decision to substitute their city life with rural existence.
As such, the notion of “natural capital” (Costanza, 1997), which refers not only to the physical characteristics of fresh water and atmosphere but also to the condition of the surrounding virgin woods and the general aesthetics of landscapes, both natural (e.g. woods, rivers, lakes, meadows) and hand-made (e.g. villages and roads), becomes central in the radical remodeling of one’s life. All these previously obliterated and disregarded components of the natural world begin to constitute the combination of living conditions so intensely desired by the new country dwellers. However, newcomers are not inclined to settle down in the villages permanently for the rest of their lives and, hence, to destroy all ties with a city. On the contrary, their state of mind is something that one may describe as “liquid migration” (Nikita Pokrovsky, 2011). Specifically, while they might continuously reside in their new country residencies, they are ready to take-off and return to Moscow or St. Petersburg overnight, if necessary, and immediately go to any other destination either on business or for recreation. As such, mobility potential and possibility of being “on the move” are principally important to them. Nevertheless, they are more inclined to have their berth in the countryside rather than in a megapolis.
Overall, this new migration trend raises a number of significant issues. First, and foremost, is this migration tendency episodic and temporary? Or, does it represent an early warning sign of a significant historical cycle, which would subsequently lead to the decline of a modern globalized city in general and the re-emergence of a new meaning of the countryside in the era of media communications? Second, should local authorities and residents resist the arrival of newcomers in order to protect their traditional identity, or should they welcome the new migration as the only remaining means of preserving local economy and population? And, finally, isn’t now the right moment to stop the endless and essentially utopian programs of amelioration of urban infrastructure and life by breaking the image of a city as the only imaginable place of humanity’s future survival? Instead, don’t people need to radically rethink alternative perspectives of productive and holistically beneficial life in the countryside as the mainstream of tomorrow?
Uncovering Alternative Ways of Life
Comprehending the deadlock modern urban society is facing represents the first considerable step necessary to overcome the framework of modern values and predispositions that propagate progressive individualism and rejection of the “backward” rural lifestyle. Gradually, citizens of megalopolises come to resist the hitherto unquestioned logic of global modernity, which has been spreading and sprouting in all spheres of urban life. It is becoming ever more evident that the mainstream ideology has to be challenged. Notably, to break through the forces of urban modernity one has to recognize that, by returning to the ancestral rural lifestyle, it is possible to uncover alternative ways of life – a path to a healthy, balanced and autonomous existence. Through the return to the countryside one is capable of confronting the discourses of modernity by signifying a non-acceptance of the hectic, environmentally irresponsible and increasingly limited urban lifestyle. Instead, rural life connotes a discovery of the new ways of self-understanding, preservation of ecological sustainability and creation of alternative practices.