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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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Body & Mind Publications
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