Phenomenology of the "Life World" of Urbanites in the Extra-Urban Space in the Russian Near North: Home and Domestication

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Journal Title: Social Sciences

Issue Edition: Vol. 51, No. 1

Author: Nikita Pokrovsky, Uliana Nikolaeva, Julia Demidova

Phenomenology of the "Life World" of Urbanites in the Extra-Urban Space in the Russian Near North: Home and Domestication

Authors: Nikita Pokrovsky, Uliana Nikolaeva, Julia Demidova

Source: Social Sciences, Vol. 51, No. 1, pp. 20-31


Abstract. This article attempts a phenomenological reconstruction of the "life world" of urbanites who buy houses in the countryside for recreation and who then begin to create a different, non-urban model of existence focused on the rural house. The empirical frame is based on the so-called "distant dachas." These are houses bought by urbanites in the villages in the outlying rural areas located more than 500-600 km from the major cities of Moscow or St. Petersburg. This process is accompanied by the formation of a special "life world" (in terms of phenomenology) among urbanites, with associated mental structures such as "home," "hearth," "possession," "historical past," "world of belongings of previous owners," "abandonment in space," "seclusion," "significant other," "archaica," etc. In the Near North of Russia, specifically in the villages of Kostroma Oblast, among the urbanites-summer residents and downshifters-one can observe a special approach to organizing everyday life, involving the individualization of their living space, prioritizing intangible values that fit into the context of preserving the socio-cultural space of what they see as the ideal Russian village.

Keywords: de-urbanization in Russia, reverse migration (megalopolis to rural areas), "dacha" migration, life world of citizens in rural communities, phenomenology of housing, everyday rural life.

N. Pokrovsky, Dr. Sc. (Sociology), professor, National Research University "Higher School of Economics"; senior research fellow, Institute of Sociology, Federal Center of Theoretical and Applied Sociology, Russian Academy of Sciences. E-mail: U. Nikolaeva, Dr. Sc. (Economics), associate professor, senior research fellow, Lomonosov Moscow State University. E-mail: J. Demidova, graduate student, History Department (Ethnology and Anthropology), Lomonosov Moscow State University. E-mail: This article was first published in Russian in the journal Sotsiologich-eskiye issledovaniya (Sociological Studies. 2019. No. 12, pp. 71-80; DOI: 10.31857/S013216250007752-0). The article was written as a part of a study supported by a grant from the Russian Science Foundation, Project No. 19-18-00562.

Present-Day Reality in Rural Russia

In recent years, the future of Russian rural space has loomed large in public discussions. The question discussed at all levels is, "Where do we go from here?" It applies to thousands of rural communities whose prospects of survival hang in the balance because of the loss of the agricultural economy. Studies reveal a steady trend of depopulation of rural areas in the majority of regions of the Russian Federation and rapid contraction of developed space outside megalopolises. This applies particularly to the Near North regions [18; 16; 3].

However, the picture is not all that simple. The opposite trend has been gaining momentum: increasingly, the citizens of Moscow and St. Petersburg spend their time-from several summer months to a whole year-at so-called "distant dachas," which enable them to become immersed in the world of nature and Russian villages. Perhaps we are witnessing signs of completion of the urbanization cycle and a transition to mass redevelopment of extra-urban space at some distance from the megalopolises. Counter-urbanization migration is observed mainly within a radius of 500-600 km around megalopolises and is structured unevenly in the shape of new settlement clusters. They are formed in accordance with certain geographical and social principles. The growing popularity of "distant" dachas in recent decades is a direct consequence of the fact that the dacha development areas close to the cities-"suburbia"-meets recreational needs less and less. In the context of a "liquid modernity" (Zigmunt Bauman), diverse mobilities (John Urry) and universal "McDonaldization" of society with emphasis on super-consumption (George Ritzer), citizens clearly miss contacts with pristine nature, with unobscured historical memory in the shape of rural homes that have been built over the course of centuries.

By becoming immersed in a different world and environment, in rural "archaics," the owners of a village log house often distance themselves from the stereotypes of urban life. The result is a "hybrid" model: urbanites try to combine the achievements of modern civilization with the benefits of life away from the city, most notably a good ecological situation. The availability of the Internet makes it possible to work from a distance using information and communication technology while only making occasional trips to the megalopolis. Owing to its current economic stagnation, contraction of the economy and depopulation, the Near North, paradoxically, attracts urbanites because it offers vacant or abandoned social spaces at low prices for rural housing and land and a relatively favorable environment. This contributes to the formation of clusters of settlements of urbanites [14; 13]. The pessimistic outlook for the Near North is intertwined with an optimistic prospect due to the promise of revitalization in the process of "internal colonization" of the region in the near and more remote future.1

The "Life World" of an Urbanite in the Village as the Focus of Phenomenological Study

In Russia studies of de-urbanization began comparatively recently: the topic was brought to public attention by the joint efforts of sociologists and socio-geographers who have, since the beginning of the 2000s, been conducting studies of outlying rural areas in Russia's Near North as part of the interdisciplinary Ugry Project, under the aegis of the regional non-governmental organization, Community of Professional Sociologists [18; 17; 9; 15]. Along with analysis of economic and demographic statistics, researchers based their conclusions on systematic observation and questionnaire surveys of rural dwellers, expert surveys of representatives of the administration, urban and rural services, and interviews according to the method of qualitative studies of dacha owners and local inhabitants.2

This article introduces a new dimension into the study of the theme by revealing the subjective reasons of de-urbanization decisions of city dwellers, motivations and rationalization of the purchase of village houses; it describes the perception of the village and village home space and reconstructs the peculiar "life world" of urbanites in the village-all the aspects that are in need of phenomenological description and socio-cultural analysis.

One intriguing aspect is mental accommodation of the urban population in the process of "exodus" from the megalopolis to rural space, the study of internal motivation of the people who take a decision that radically alters their former urban life and leads to the emergence of a special "life world" of urbanites in the village. This approach implies a kind of "disenchantment of the world" (Entzauberung der Welt-Max Weber) in the framework of understanding sociology, i.e., identification of value-rational disposition toward social action on the one hand, and the stressing of phenomenological and existential everyday characteristics that inform the concept of the "life world" of new settlers. Simultaneously, the veil of magic mystery is removed from those who act in a seemingly illogical and strange way, setting up permanent spots for life and leisure at a large distance from the urban home.

In phenomenological tradition, true sociality consists not in objectivized and reified forms of interaction among subjects, but in the contact of living worlds at the microlevel, worlds that are at arm's length from each other. Alfred Schütz, developing classical ideas of Edmund Husserl, proposed to use consciousness structures as the basis for social construction of reality that creates its own life world, the day-to-day world and genuine "humanity." The researcher's strategy in this case involves immersion in the world of man filled with concerns not only of a general nature, but also about the minutiae of life, interpretations of daily life, which adds up to an organic symbiosis of the "lofty" and the "low." The phenomenological researcher reveals existentially significant meanings in quotidian life, uncovers the natural orientation toward direct ("face-to-face") attitude to the world, reconstructs inter-subjective superimposition of mutual perspectives and projections of individuals and recreates their life worlds. In modern Russian sociology, Zhan Toshchenko proposed his vision of the phenomenological concept of the "life world" [22].

The "life world" and value orientations of the urban settler in the village is a multilevel mental construction that includes various components. It is the experience of being spatially removed from the megalopolis, an attempt to escape from civilization into a world of seclusion, of being "abandoned" in the world, the search for a better environment, indulgence of the aesthetic feeling that arises at the sight of pristine natural landscapes. Finally, an acquisition of a "home" in every sense of the word, including awakening of the historical memory: reconstruction of local houses, preservation of domestic objects and documents and reproduction of traditional day-to-day practices.

The pivotal role in reverse dacha migration belongs, as studies have shown, not to the skimming of the surface in the context of the trendy "rural/agrotourism", but "striking root," attachment to a particular location, to land, the search for a constant dwelling, a home and a hearth. Village homes used for temporary or more prolonged living acquire an existential meaning of their own. While, initially, urbanites may perceive village homes as mere analogues of country dachas with corresponding behavior patterns, over time new houses "capture" and "enrapture" the new arrivals, making them change their behavior patterns and becoming a kind of a phenomenon of consciousness in its own right [8; 2; 22].3 One can talk about "archaics" as a resource component of the urbanite's picture of life in rural localities which in a certain way sublates, reduces the accretions of the era of consumption and universal digitization, bringing out the intransient truths of being as opposed to the futility and skimming of the surface characteristic of life in large cities.4

"I am sick of living in the city, of family life. The dacha near Moscow was half-built, I was unhappy about it because every plot in the village was fenced off from other plots. I wanted a totally different horizon. I was never a lover of rural life and I am not one now. What attracted me was nature and the opportunity of seclusion. So I bought an abandoned home in a village" (Moscow professor, aged 68).

The Meanings of "Home" in the Broad Sense and Feelings

The concept of "home" gives rise to multiple connotations, including "dwelling," "refuge," "place of rest and repose," "an area of independence," of "privacy and inviolability," etc. "The home is a starting point as well as a terminus," A. Schütz emphasized. "It is the null-point of the system of co-ordinates which we ascribe to the world in order to find our bearings in it ... The symbolic character of the notion 'home' is emotionally evocative and hard to describe" [21, pp. 107-108]. The home, the dwelling, is one of the key universal symbols of culture. "The home" is an existential category, an area of symbolic sensualism, a search for transcendence and an ontological-aesthetic phenomenon. (See the works of Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Lévinas, Alfred Schütz, Martin Buber, Albert Baiburin.) The concept of "home" can be understood phenomenologically not only in a logical-rational way, but through bodily experience and psychological perception. Living in a home, it is important to "experience" and "feel" it physically, sense its texture, its physicality, its smells and sounds. Bodily perceptions are interiorized and combined with phenomenological images of "place" [1; 12].

The range of semantic points of interiorization includes the exterior and interior of the home, including symbolic elements of peasant life that become part of the world perception of the new owners. The process can be called revitalization and domestication of the former peasant log cabins. Running one's hand over a wall made of logs an urbanite experiences a gamut of previously unknown feelings that fill his value world. A symbiotic reaction arises in experience, a combination and interaction of historical layers of memory of the "here and now": memory of the past life of the home connected with the peasantry and symbolized by the surviving material objects, and the modern life as represented by the new owners with their modern city environment.

"I can gaze endlessly at these huge wooden rows of logs, the cut surfaces, these patterns that never repeat themselves, the moss used to fill the chinks. All sorts of images float through my head. The forests, the centuries-old pine trees, nature, and an enormous amount of human labor. All this was made with little more than an axe, without electricity, without chainsaws. Unbelievable. The home is a living thing, it remembers a lot although the people who built it are long since dead. Now we live in this home" (biologist, Moscow, aged 47).

The house as an architectural complex is one of the system-forming categories of the world of objects, its main component. It is an intermediate space, as it were, between man's subjective world and the world of nature. The architecture of the home turns out to be a model of phenomenological contemplation and of investing the space being created with meaning [11; 4; 10].

The exterior look of the houses in the Near North is subjected to gradual restructuring by the new owners. The houses were built of massive logs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The new owners tried to preserve the external and internal setting while adjusting the rural home to themselves and their needs to create a relatively comfortable and cozy space.

Every village home, unlike a standard urban apartment, has its "spirit," its "temper," its own engineering and architectural planning; it was built to suit the needs of the first owners. Thus, revitalization of a complex village home is always an individual project and simultaneously a kind of new text, which is easily read even at first glance.

"After acquiring property there was a surprising surge of energy and motivation. Then the house had to be rebuilt, raised and restored. I had no idea how to go about it. When I was buying the house, I did not know that the logs in the lower part were touched with rot.

"The house is located in a hollow. So the lower level of logs had to be replaced. I decided that I would not blindly copy village habits, village culture or become a kind of ethnographer. While preserving the authentic exterior without building any annexes, I would do everything European-style. Preserve the exterior while changing the interior. This was my concept" (Moscow professor, aged 68).

"Extensions" of the house include the backyard, the garden, the cultivated field, the local landscape, even the layout of the traditional village that fit into the environment as if professional architects and interior decorators and not just peasants were at work here. The category of landscape in turn is linked with a certain topos, or place. The cultural landscape is the life environment of a fairly large (self-sustaining) group of people, but only if this space is at once integral and differentiated, if it has been put to utilitarian use and has been "cultured" (not abandoned) [10].

The landscape complex, in addition to being a source of livelihood, also performs the "protective" function. In this context, there is a notion of "happy" settlement, a kind of "genius of the place," i.e., happy positioning in the natural and social environment. The architecture and layout of rural villages, as a rule, took advantage of being located on radiating slopes so that the prevailing winds were directed across the horizontal lines of the relief [6]. "It's a wonderful place, so high and open... So much sky, air, space, you find nothing like it in the city... the horizon is visible from any spot" (scientific worker, Moscow, aged 49).

It is not by chance that the concept of "home" in historical-philosophical and cultural-anthropological interpretations is a symbol of cosmos and ordered space, a repository of tribal wisdom as the basis of existence, the process of creation and finally a constant in the situation of cultural crisis (Heidegger, Lévinas, Buber, M. Eliade and others). It is the problem of cultural crisis that we encounter when turning to the experience of our respondents. This experience is prompted by the wish of urbanites to find a home not only in the narrow sense (with the exception of isolated cases of downshifting, the owners of distant dachas use them primarily during the summer months). We are looking at a home as a larger category, as a resource thanks to which one can acquire seclusion and a support point in the globalizing world.

The "Second Home" Phenomenon: Distant Dachas as a Way to Overcome the Inner Crisis

With the purchase of a village home, the urbanite's life changes; a new locus, a new material object appears: a new social-psychological space, new practices, new experience, a new range of responsibilities, and a new "life world" come into being. In the existential sense, the decision to own a "second home" in a distant village is an attempt to overcome an inner crisis connected with the city. We are dealing with a case of escapism: a person migrates to a harsher, sometimes uncomfortable environment passing through and experiencing a process of being cleansed from the "overabundance," "self-indulgence" and "filth" of the city.

Studies may interpret the process of owning "a second home" by introducing a concept of "two worlds," "living with two homes," "in two dimensions" [7; 9; 23]. The "second home" gives people what they do not have in ordinary urban life and what superficial tourism also fails to provide. On the one hand, it is communion with nature. "When we could afford it, we also bought a village house. It was very good for the kids' health to be here. The climate is very healthy here and the environment is very clean. They can bathe in the river and go to the woods. One can live here during the whole summer and even the beginning of autumn" (biologist, Moscow, aged 47).

The main effect of the "second home" is a chance to turn over a new leaf, to live a full life opening up perspectives of fulfillment and diversification of life worlds [20; 23].

"I don't know how to put it... Here you come to live a real life. You see the sky, the grass, the woods, inhale the smells, listen to the birds and grasshoppers. Your body feels different. In the city it's a rat race, such that you don't understand whether you are coming or going. You are stressed out all the time. Here it's as if you retrieve yourself. Two or three days is enough for the city to let go of you. Sometimes they try to reach me from my work but-ha, ha, you are far away, they can't reach you... Communication by cell phone is erratic, nobody can reach you" (Moscow professor, aged 72).

The system of values of the urban respondents owning two homes is often (though not always) based on the values that include concern for the state of local rural communities, compassion and a sacrificial attitude combined with the prevalence of spiritual concerns. All of these are traditional traits of the Russian intelligentsia. A city intellectual does not just buy a home in the village, he embarks on the project of "revitalizing" or "reviving" a wooden giant, often perceiving the home as an almost living creature. The city guy has sympathy for the local rural population, often greatly romanticizing it and trying to improve its life5 [14; 17; 15].

Owning a rural home does not bring any tangible pragmatic benefits and is often seen by public opinion as a city guy's leisure activity. "Initially my purchase of a home was seen as a whim, a bit of fooling that put my sanity into question" (university professor, Moscow, aged 68). The action does indeed have an element of an ethical-emotional decision and a manifestation of a kind of escapism. The purchase of a village home in a half-abandoned village can be compared with the de-urbanization practice of building houses in the forest (an example is the initially American and now international project, "Innermost House").6

Domestication and the Meanings of the Village Home Space

The process of rebuilding a home and its domestication can be described as a personal creative project, which involves the process of reconstruction and change of the existential environment: an abandoned peasant cabin turns into living space and is invested with new meanings. It would seem that a village cabin is an existential opposite of the modern ideal of a dwelling. It is old and desolate, a reminder of the distant past and past generations. However, the new owners see deep meaning in the preservation of the home in its pristine shape: the cabin becomes a symbol of eternity and continuity of generations. These are examples of the "eternal present," which is invested with new meaning to accommodate modern needs.

"What is preserved in a village house? The 'red corner' and also our house has icons, although we are not religious, and blinds; the rings on which cradles were suspended also remain. The stove is the main thing that survives. If the home is repaired, everything is built back as it was before. The front is made from one board fixed over another. There is the axial board. Everything connected with the house always remains..." (retiree, a geologist who lived in Moscow and now lives permanently in the village, aged 60).

More often than not the new owners come into possession of the objects that the original owners had for decades: the farming utensils, glass kitchenware and containers, family photos, letters, collective farm membership cards, utility payment receipts, certificates of merit issued by the collective farm management. From these one can reconstruct the past life world of a family, get a glimpse of it and feel the continuity of history. Digging into the bygone family life is a truly exciting, moving and sad experience.

Fundamental external restructuring of a peasant cabin is the exception rather than the rule. The interior may change several times and mainly take the form of removing later accretions and restoring the original state. "With the help of local carpenters, I removed all the screens in the living part of the cabin to clear the living space. Initially, as a rule, the log walls are shaved with a jack plane and filled with moss to keep the cold air out. At this point a big problem arises: the villagers loved to paint the walls with oil paint of the most incredible colors. Sometimes they used wallpaper... This is the moment of truth, all the walls had to be scraped clean because nothing is more beautiful than unpainted wood. I tried to do it with a jack plane, then with sharp metal tools, chisels and pallets. I tried to burn the paint off with building heat guns, which char the paint. The paint wouldn't go away. The best way to get rid of the paint is to use metal brushes mounted on a drill or angle grinder... The local guys curse this work, but they do it. There is no other way. It is also necessary to open and clean all the window panes of which there are usually ten or eleven" (university professor, aged 68).

In rural areas urbanites try to preserve the authentic features of the physical world of the past displaying ingenuity and creativity. "In a village home we left everything as it was before-the benches, the table, though the original one was a bit smaller. The table is from the same home, handmade. We prize it greatly. There are iron beds and that is about all. This wonderful sofa was absolutely battered. It is a sofa from the master's home which was burnt down in its time. The peasants must have looted the furniture. I had a hard time persuading people to restore it, but no one bothered. Then this carpenter from Ugry was doing some repairs; he is a cabinet maker by training and I asked him if he could do at least something. He did a wonderful job of it. It is a pre-revolutionary piece. I also had a Viennese chair, but the back was beyond repair and only a pouf could be made out of it. Otherwise, here was a long chest. Everything is as it was before. We made a minimum of changes, we don't like to make anything new" (biologist, Moscow, aged 47).

When building back a cabin, as a rule the traditional heating system is preserved. There is a Russian stove and a second "cooking" stove, otherwise known as the "Dutch stove." "Heating is by a stove. Every home has a Russian stove and a small heating stove. The Russian stove was initially for cooking food and steaming feeds for the cattle. Using the Russian stove to heat the house is futile. The Russian stove is seldom fired in winter. They use the small heating oven. In a stove, the chimneys must taper towards the top. You can fire the stove in spring and also in the summer when it's cold" (retiree, a geologist who lived in Moscow and now lives permanently in the village, aged 60). The stove and everything connected with it has a symbolic significance in the eyes of the urbanites. Although an electric stove and a gas canister have been bought, the stove is still used. The stove is a symbol of warmth and coziness; the cooking of food, the magic of crackling fire, this is real life. The concept of "comfort" in anthropology is an ethical-aesthetic phenomenon based on juxtaposing the world of order on the one hand and the irrational and unpredictable world on the other. One is keenly aware of it in a village cabin. Fire is a major threat because you can lose your house to it in 20 minutes. There are a lot of such incidents every year. The stove is a phenomenological construction both of life and mortal danger.

In addition to the home, there is also the bath house, a small wooden structure, typically with a low ceiling, an extremely important part of a house property. The toilet in a peasant home was traditionally located in the cowshed on the hayloft, the second level over the cowshed where a hole was made, protected by a guard. Now the urbanites usually build outhouses similar to those that they have at their dachas. Some have toilets inside in a separate compartment. In one of the houses, for example, we saw a toilet with a shower, a full range of urban sanitary-hygienic paraphernalia with the letters WC, a sign of globalization. Some village folk reluctantly and mistrustfully borrow the practice of building a toilet in the warm part of the house.

The concept of living space is closely linked with man's experience of his identity, selfhood. The experience is inseparable from everyday practices and occupations. It is worth noting that many urbanites who have settled in the village take to carpentry and joinery, deriving great pleasure from it, something they never do in the city. At the same time, purely "intellectual" pastimes, such as reading, various creative activities, visiting with neighbors, discussions on "serious topics," and contemplation of nature are common. Most of the urbanites have no television; a very popular occupation is gazing at the starry sky, watching the sun rise and set, noting natural phenomena such as migrating cranes who alight on the edge of the property for the night. Those who are at the dacha in early spring will be impressed by the sounds of the melting snow flowing in streams and the breaking of ice on the river, which drown out all other sounds...

The surrounding natural and material world, along with village practices and customs, form the value content of the concept of a "wooden home," the complex of existential experiences that define the urbanite's de-urbanization choice.

What of the Future?

The modern world is witness to a trend of dehumanization of everyday life, social practices and dwellings, particularly noticeable in a modern megalopolis that sprouts high-rise ghettos in which the personality is leveled out and reduced to a unidimensional and unidirectional managerial function. The Near North region has huge ecological and social-cultural potential. There are still many historical monuments on its territory, and these include northern Russian villages. Along with the process of "desertification" and the dying out of villages, a reverse process of revitalization of rural space is underway. Peasant cabins are bought by city folk to get a second lease on life. The renewed villages naturally form themselves into clusters of those who try models of existence that are an alternative to the city.

The majority of respondents are city dwellers whose life is dominated by an anti-consumerist philosophy, the cult of simplicity. The "architectural feeling" of lovers of archaic village life who seek to bring it into the modern world is based on organizing life in its pristine, authentic, holistic, and reliable shape. Phenomenological analysis makes it possible to reconstruct, understand and feel the inner world of new settlers more deeply and in many dimensions.

The data presented in this article and interpretations may be of practical interest. In the context of the growing process of de-urbanization and dacha migration, "lifting the charm" from the world of urbanites who move far away from the cities gives an insight into their inner world, and reveals their life priorities and values. This is an important step towards discovering untapped factors of sustained development of small regions and rural communities. Dacha migration is a serious matter.


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1 The term "internal colonization" of previously developed Russian territories introduced by Alexander Etkind means economic development of vacant outlying Russian lands [5]. From our point of view, the term is loaded with negative historical associations, which deters its wide use in scholarly literature.

2 The body of data has been collected in sociological expeditions (August 2017, July-August 2018, June-August 2019) in the Manturovsky district, Kostroma Oblast (the villages of Ugory, Vypolzovo, Karkovo, Leontyevo, Usolye, Shilovo, Anosovo, Khlyabishino, Medvedevo), in the Babayevo district, Vologda Oblast (rural settlement of Borisovo-Sudskoye). This article draws on a sample of answers by respondents belonging to the intellectual professions with a high level of reflection, which, in our opinion, best corresponds to the tasks of phenomenological interpretation.

3 The socio-linguistic problem is that in Russian the term "dacha" is associated with something secondary, something strictly recreational, not serious, idle, unconnected with the exigencies of daily life. An adequate term to express the meaning of a remote extra-urban dwelling of an urbanite has yet to be found.

4 It is notable that the American writer and philosopher Henry Thoreau in his time largely formulated this position setting it forth in his classical work Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854).

5 The traditional Russian intelligentsia, having lost its bearings in the modern megalopolis, is the advance party of settlers developing outlying parts of the Near North. This is to some extent escapism, ("Go away, go away from the world! There is no truth in it!"- Aleksey Tolstoy, "Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich"), but it is also the creation of a new life environment that is relatively but tangibly independent of total bureaucratic management in the city [19].

6 See