It is hard to resist a smile when viewing the photographs and reading the text of Holy Nature; so much of the Sixties comes flooding back: the delicious sense of limitless possibility, the excitement of new and dangerous ideas, and the erotic-tinged sense of danger that emerges from contact with all that had been previously held taboo.  That brief era of American history quickly passed, and in today’s more cynical one, paens to nudity and resurrected ritual such as Holy Nature’s seem almost kitsch  in their “retro” effusiveness, or even high camp in the invocation of quasi-mythic Rus rituals.  “They’re a lot like Burning Man,” a friend commented, referring to the annual post-acid deconstructionist Black Desert dionyssian nudist ritual in Nevada, “only sweeter.”

Sweetness aside, the similarities between the sixties flower children, however they may have aged or been transformed, and the naturists of St. Petersburg quickly dissolve upon closer examination.  If it is true that in liking forward we see the past more clearly, then there is much to be seen in the renaissance of Naturism in Russian.  To begin with, most Americans, and most of the world for that matter, have virtually no comprehension of the depth of terror from which the people of Russia are only now emerging.  The Holocaust is a horror that never leaves the forefront of the modern mind, yet those six million murdered souls pale in comparison to the thirty million murdered by Lenin and Stalin.  The policies of “collectivization” in the ‘20’s and then “dekulakization” in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s write the blackest pages of modern history.  The Gulag and the Siberian work camps maintained witness to the oppression up to the thaw of “Glasnost” and Gorbachev’s “Perestroika.”   Today, after the fall of Communism, and in the midst of a National Funk of mind-boggling proportions, a long-suppressed wave of freedom fighters is emerging, fighters who define freedom in terms of personal choices rather than political violence,  This is something significant and beautiful to behold:  after the seventy years of Communist oppression and before that the centuries of physical serfdom and spiritual subordination, the Self is being reborn in Russia.

Mikhail Rusinov, the author of this book and a founder of the St. Petersburg Free Body Cultural Society, refers often to the Rosiches or Rus, the medieval mix of Slavs and Vikings who gave Russia her name.  Many of the rites, rituals and celebrations attributed to these ancients are incorporated in the holidays and celebrations of the Nturists of which the Eve of Ivana Kupala that takes place on the eve of the summer solstice (see photo essay) is perhaps the most famous.  The Rus worshiped Mother Earth, but their principal deity was Perun, god of the sun, thunder and lightning.  “When perun was impregnating the earth with bolts of lightning during violent storms,” one chronicler reports, “the ancient Russians would strip naked and roll in the wet grass with their horses and cattle in the belief that they would all, humans and animals alike, thus acquire some of nature’s potent vitality.”  This underlying love of the nurturing earth is revitalizing modern Russian Naturists with a code of environmental and philosophical ethics based on the time-honored beliefs of the ancients.   As Mikhail Rusinov observes:

The individual Rosiches depended on the cleanliness of their nature to relate in harmony with their goals.  This harmony was based on three things:  spiritual, physical and environmental cleanliness.  This concept of “purity” was transferred to social, moral and economic practices.  Thus, the process of cleansing the degree of purity or “sacredness” among the participants and consequently to present themselves to their gods.

The Russian Bath, Rusinov explains, is a time-honored “living example” of the Rodiche passion for cleanliness and natural living.

The baths were communal for everyone including children, though washing rooms have always been segregated by sex.  The steam and dressing rooms were also communal.  The Peasant tone of Russian life was very close to mature, and nudity was understood to be a part of it, a simple, social style of behavior.

Reaching back into the past to see the future underlies most renaissance movements, just as folk-music and back-to-the-earth movements guided the sixties renaissance in America.  There is only one historical source that is relatively untainted by foreign domination:  the Rus.  Yet, as seminal as these people were and as ingrained as their rituals and legends became in the “peasant soul” of Russia, all we really know about them comes from the Povest Vremenykh Let (The Tale of Bygone Years) known familiarly as the Primary Chronicle.  Complied between 1037 and 1118 by monks of the Kievan Crypt Monastery, it is a compilation of religious writings, legends, facts and fiction about the Slavic migration eastward out of the forests of Eastern Europe onto the great fertile plains of the Ukranian steppe.  The formidable rivers served as great central corridors and trade routes linking the western Byzantine/Greek culture centered at Constantinople on the Black Sean with the Varangian (Norman) culture of the Vikings who early settled Novgorod (destined to become St. Petersburg) in the north on the Baltic.

The Varangian Rus dominated the river routes and established themselves near Kiev in 860 A.D. Under the leadership of Oleg these fearsome warriors forced a treaty with the Byzantine emperors Leo and Alexander that established peace between the pagan Rus “who swore by their weapons and their god Perun, as well as by Volos, the god of Cattle” and the Christian Byzantines “who swore by their crosses.”  Interestingly, the occasion of this treaty marks the first recorded instance of class distinction between the ruling elite and the Slavic minions, a precedent with enormous consequences to Russia ant to the history of the world: in celebration “Oleg gave orders that silken sails should be made for the Russes and linen ones for the Slavs” though history informs is that the linen sails quickly ripped apart and were replaced with more traditional fabric.

Thus began the reign of the Kievan Rus, and era highlighted by the conversion of Vladimir I to Christianity and who introduced Orthodox Catholicism to Russia.  According to the Chronicle, Vladimir initially considered Islam, “for he was fond of women and indulgence… But circumcision and abstinence from pork and wine were disagreeable to him.  ‘Drinking’, he said, ‘is the joy of the Russes.  We cannot exist without that pleasure.’”  He is also reported to have had an estimated 800 concubines.

The rule of the Kievan Rus lasted until the Mongol conquest in 1237-38 when the “Mongol yoke” was set upon the neck of Russia.  The “Golden Horde”’ led by Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis, and some 200,000horsemen swept into Kiev and killed every man woman and child they could find.  It was a simple, ruthless and complete conquest, and the only successful winter invasion of Russia.  The Mongols were not at all like subsequent rulers; they had no interest in religious or social reform.  They simply wanted money.  In hindsight, the Mongols seem to have rued a lot like Hells Angels on horseback, showing up whenever they felt like it and pillaging the villages that were not already paying tribute.  Thus, burdened by heavy taxation and servitude, but left to govern themselves, the Rus behaved much as the Balkan stated so today ruthlessly and mercilessly attacking one another, burning villages, raping women and girls, murdering men and boys, all in the name of vengeance or expanded fiefdoms.

The Mongol Yoke was supplanted by the czarist muscovites in the north after the Mongol armies fell apart-more or less out of insurmountable internal bickering.  The czarist leadership (“czar” as “Kaiser” from Caesar) formally established the two elements that banished the Rus forever: Orthodox Christianity and serfdom.  After Vladimir I, who was the first to embrace Christianity and to enslave the ever-resistant Ukrainians, the primary unifying Csar was Ivan “The Terrible,” grandson of Ivan I, who legitimized the Boyars as a feudal subset of Csarist rule, granting them vast lands and virtually absolute authority over the peasant inhabitants in return for fealty to himself.  Thusly, an inexorable and inextricable stranglehold was placed around the neck of the peasantry by a small elite.  As Ambrosio Contarini wrote in 1476 during his sojurn as the Venician ambassador to Moscow: “Both the men and the women are handsome, but they are a brutal race.”

The history of peasant suppression in Tussian is integral to the rebirth of Naturism, and of self, in Russia.  As Rusinov points out, “it remains today that, as a rule, the average Russian naturist represents the middle to lower economic classes of Russians.”

Naturism endured as a part of the peasant subculture in Russia, and it was the peasant who carried the Russ-ian traditions from ancient times to the present, often at a huge cost.  In fact, Naturism was illegal from the reign of Katherine (“the Great”) until the arrival of “Reorganization” (Perestroiyka) in 1986.  However, as Rusinov notes:

Interestingly, none of the official registered Russian societies are referred to as “nudist.”  Instead, we have societies named “Healthy Lifestyle,” “Society of Sun Fans,” “Free Body Culture Society,” and various clubs such as “Harmony,” “Sun” and “Aqua.”  Why?  Because “ nudism” is not a Russian word.  Also, the practice of “nudism” was historically connected with illegal behavior from the point of view of Soviet leaders. 

The “illegality” of Naturism reflects a long history of mutual antagonism and even outright warfare between the peasants and the State.  This antagonism is difficult for Westerners to fully fathom without understanding that, from earliest times, over 90% of the Russian people were peasants and all of these peasants were “owned” by either the State or the Church.  The term we use is “serf,’ but the reality was “slave.”  Following Ivan the Terrible’s Consolidation of the Russian State and consequent containment of serf freedoms, Peter the Great further reduced the serfs to permanent residency on the lands owned by the Boyars.  Only the most egregious of crimes by the landowners against the serfs were punishable, but since there were no formal means of protesting such crimes, no courts, no lawyers, no representatives willing to either hear or defend the serfs, the landowners ruled for centuries with little to constrain their appetites of their demands.  The Church was little different, since it too owned serfs and levied taxes on the peasants occupying church lands.  Uneducated, taxed to the utmost for virtually everything they could grow, make or use, the serfs were caught between two masters: the czarist bourgeoise on one hand and the Church officials on the other.  A serf fleeing his master would be simply hounded down and retuned, publically beaten, all his possessions confiscated and his wife and children either sold to another landowner or cast out of the village.

The ferocity of peasant subjugation is exemplified in a revision the Church imposed in the 1680’s: Instead of using two fingers to make the sign of the cross and saying alleluia twice, people were told to use three fingers and recite the alleluia three times.  The consequence for noncompliance?  In 1685 the government chose to “torture the recalcitrants into recognition of the truth, as revised, or else to burn them,” a tough consequence for refusing to adjust from a boyscout salute to a cubscout salute!

The resistance to this “small” change instigated peasant revolts throughout Russia, causing one chronicler to comment:

Was this the conservatism of simple men who clug to every word and letter of the formulae which they believed had served them well; or did this conservatism arise out of a natural distrust of any change sponsored by the class which had been engaged in reducing the village to serfdom; or again, did there linger among the villagers a tradition of a better time, when men, now everywhere in chains, were free and did the peasants cling to everything that was old….because nearly everything was new fallen upon them as a burden?

The “burdens” loaded upon the back of the serfs and the peasants resistance to them charts the course of a bloody history form the earliest of records through to the modern day.  As the dame writer observes:

The 18th century saw a progressive degradation of the peasantry, an intensive and extensive development of the servile system which brought it to a place of vast importance in Russian life.  The peasants had resisted these changes by the only means they knew: they had fled by hundreds of thousands to the open steppe, but after the middle of the century, escape had become more and more difficult, and the frontiers of law and order had caught up with the earlier refugees; they had risen against officialdom and the landlords, in one huge revolt and in a long series of minor disturbances- but violence had been drowned in violence, and the Cossack allies had been beaten or bought off.  Not in the absence of opposition, but in spite of it, about 19.5 millions of persons stood bondaged to the landlords in 1797, while the state peasantry, subject to such burdens as have been described, numbered about 14.5 millions-some 34 millions altogether, in a total population of 36.  The peasant millions were hardly likely to forget the “Golden Age of the Russian Nobility,” but they would perhaps remember it by some other name.

A hundred and some odd years later, yet another “name” appears: Bolshevik.  And yet another writer redacts the peasant’s anger: this from Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago.

The peasants are in revolt, there are ceaseless risings.  You’ll say that they are fighting the Reds or Whites indiscriminately, whoever may be in power, that they are simply against any established authority because they don’t know what they want.  Allow me to differ.  The peasant knows very well what he wants, better than you or I do, but he wants something quite different.  When the revolution came and woke him up, he decided that this was the fulfillment of his dreams, his ancient dream of  living anarchically on his own land by the work of his hands, in complete independence and without owing anything to anyone.  Instead of that, he found he had only exchanged the old oppression of the Czarist state for the new, much harsher yoke of the revolutionary super-state.  Can you wonder that the villages are restless and can’t settle down?

Lenin hated the peasants.  His policy of “collectivization” (a policy of outright seizure without payment of all of the harvested products from the peasant farms) collided head-on with the ancient Rus-ian legacy of land use.  The Rus never sought to “own” the land.  Instead, land use was handled as a communal venture with no single individual in control of any particular property.  The communal spirit extended to the village, which in ancient days was largely a family group or a group of close-knit families.  In these villages individuals maintained their own subsistence gardens and traded with others for the items they needed.  Thus, communal living and a trading-for-profit mentality informed the peasant way of life.  Even during the deepest thrall of Csarist serfdom, the peasant villages maintained much of the traditional style of life that their ancestors had established.  It was this “progressive” latent capitalist independence underlying peasant life that brought Lenin’s vision of “collectivization,” and hence the Revolution almost to ruin,  Faced with huge resistance, he was forced to send students and other urban-raised zealots to the farms to enforce his demands, which they did ruthlessly and brutally.

Peasant resistance to change remained obdurate and unyielding, in spite of Lenin’s oppression, as it had throughout the Csarist millennia.  Even in the face of Stalin’s subsequent policy of “dekulakization” (the systematic murder and/or removal of “kulaks”-a “state fiction: peasant middleman and official “Class Enemy” peasant middleman and official “Class Enemy” supposedly in control of crops and money) completed the process of economic and social degradation of the rural poor.  Many of Russia’s most daunting problems today are the direct consequences of the eradication of inventive, goal-oriented, practical thinking among the rural masses.  Simply to have grown cabbages next to your hut, to own a horse, to own more than three chickens and to have bartered a half-dozen eggs for a quart of milk sufficed to “define” someone as a “kulak.:  Even worse, should a hard-working convert to the collective be rewarded with extra produce or some chickens, he too could now be considered a “kulak,” and kulaks had a bad habit of disappearing.  Moreover, should one of the enforcers be so truthful as to report back that the reality on the farms precluded achieving the arbitrary production goals set by the Committee they would be branded a “kulak sympathizer,” and be summarily condemned to the same fate.

It should surprise no one that the “Holy Russia” that once filled the peasant heart with song had devolved into a defiant curmodgeonliness that remains to this day aggressively antagonistic to “progress.”  Even the great Aleksandr Solzhenitszen, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich opened western eyes to the horrors of the Gulag, seems to have fallen prey to recidivist peasant-style defiance.  Solzhenitszen, who in George Steiner’s words “came of age in a Soviet motherland scarred nearly to extinction by revolutionary violence, civil wars of incalculable barbarism, compelled displacement of millions and the blackening terrors of Leninism-Stalinism,” presently (and vehemently) espouses a “theocratic-agrarian ideology and [a] thirst for a communal, in some ways medieval, Rus under the eye of a vengeful god.”

The Rus gods, unlike the Christian one, were not vengeful; they were exacting.  The vengeful god arrived with Christianity and spread like an overlay of magma upon the earth-loving farmers who populated the great Steppe.  For the Rus of old and the peasant of today, the connection between the rich black earth and God was a direct line that passed through the center of his soul.  The phrase “Holy Russia” embodies this, and was as true during the centuries of Mongol rule as it was during the Csarist era.  As the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Serge Schmemann notes in describing rural life at the tail end of the Romanov reign:

The Concept of “holy Russia” as the heir to Rome and Byzantium, the myth of the Russians as a people imbued with a special spirituality, was central to the culture, and religion permeated every aspect of daily life.”

All the efforts since-of Lenin, Stalin, Beria, the KGB and all the other shackling oppressions of the State-have failed to eradicate this ingrained sense of “special spirituality.”  Like a long-dormant seed waiting for enduring rains, this spirituality is being reborn.  But it is not an easy process, as Schmemann observes:

Also, today’s young priests and believers-along with all the businessmen, politicians, intellectuals, workers and peasants whose development was stunted by the Soviet illusion-must reinvent the wheel before they can roll on.  But they are doing it, and at a remarkable rate,  It may not be pretty but then, healing wounds never are.

If anything, this book, Holy Nature, is exactly a “healing force.”  From under those dark and clouded early skies a revitalized and intelligent movement is taking shape, one that looks toward its roots while looking forward toward its independence.  And who would not wish to share in that?  What could be better than to bask beneath the warm summer sun among friends and neighbors, share a family picnic and watch children at play, the long somber night far behind and the cool, refreshing waves of a crystal clear lake lapping at one’s feet?

We should all be so lucky.

-Paul Jenson

San Diego, California, 1998

Foreward   Holy Nature Manifesto    Introduction
A Day in the Russian Countryside   A Naturist Wedding and Feast    Children's Day Celebration
The Eve of Ivana Kupala   Interview: M. Rusinov    Interview: Alla
Suggested Reading    Purchase the Book  e-mail

Copyright© 1998 by Body & Mind Publications
Design: George Mattingly Design

ISBN 0-9664609-0-1

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