It really started at the end of last year when I was writing a paper for my Sustainable Development course. I stumbled upon an academic paper with the shocking statistic: 51% of Russia’s food is grown either in home gardens or on small farms. Compared to any other countries in the developed world, that is exceptionally high. Yet I couldn’t find many other studies of it, and I was curious why.
I had been interested in the Russian culture and language since I was a teenager, studying the language on my own for years. However, I had never had the opportunity to go, since it is so far and stereotypes about Russia being dangerous and Russians being anti-American had made me hesitate before.
However, I realized the opportunity to study the question of Russia’s food system was too good to miss. I formulated some research questions and decided to visit the countryside homes, called dachas, where most of the food is being grown. There, I could ask people how and why they were growing so much and write about it for my dissertation.
I arrived in Saint Petersburg early on a June morning. The city is so far North that they have ‘white nights,’ and it was already bright. After a few hours of waiting for my host, I learned my first real lesson – Russian hospitality. We were quickly friends and I went on to visit the garden of his babushka (grandma), where I was treated like a member of the family. Far from being anti-American, everyone I met was keen to meet a foreigner, especially one who spoke their language.
I spent the month meeting new friends, visiting their dachas, and being greeted with open arms. I conducted the interviews in Russian, employing help from my friends, but trying wherever possible to lead the interview without translation. Predictably, my Russian quickly improved.
I went between and around Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Tver’, seeing a mix of the cities (which I found to be very clean and safe) and the countryside. Time and again, I heard about the importance of gardening in the lives of those who practiced it: 80 year old women whose gardens where their lives, young people who associated it with their childhood (for better or worse), and parents who wanted to know their families were eating organic food.
There is still much to be done before I can answer my original questions. But my real learning came from seeing that the people in Russia are kind, helpful, and caring, which helped me to unlearn my stereotypes. Seeing Russia’s sustainable food system, and the culture around it, showed me that there are lesson to be learned in the most unlikely of places, if only we care to look.