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Downshifting in Russia

Characteristic features of Russian downshifting. Ecovillages and co-communalism.

Russian girl excaping the office work on the beach

Downshifting is becoming not only a popular word, transliterated into Cyrillic, but is already reality of modern Russia. It would be wrong to say that this is a peculiar western concept focused on voluntary simplicity of life instead of career pursuit is new to Russia. Downshifting is just a new form of simple living that hit the industrial societies. The first example that comes to the mind is a one of the world's greatest novelists, Leo Tolstoy who chose simple living for a variety of personal reasons, such as spirituality. At the age of 52 he returned to his family estate Yasnaya Polyana where he lived as a peasant ascetic and wrote his genius novels. He founded thirteen schools for his serfs' children which were the first example of democratic education. Tolstoy finally rejected his inherited and earned wealth, including the renunciation of the copyrights on his earlier works.

Who are the modern Russian downshifters or usheltzy (from the Russian word “уходить” – go away). Why do they decline high -powered jobs and significant income for the sake of family, children and personal goals or hobbies, digging the soil at dacha or emigrate to Goa island or other locations offering warm climate and relaxing life style? Downshifting was introduced in the west in 1990 when the top managers of highly developed countries like United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia tired of work-related worries, gave up their hard-won positions and rushed for low-paid jobs in warm countries. For some while simple living contempt was characteristic of western urban societies. There seemed to be no reason why newly emerged capitalism of post Soviet States would be infected by these ideas.

To manage the free market conditions Russian business borrowed western patterns and models that did not match Russian mentality and national character. The fast growing corporations imposed the western management style. As a result the combination of the Soviet approach and western corporative ethic was the characteristic feature of the newly born Russian capitalism.

Russia and other post Soviet countries has two generations of downshifters. The first generation of modern downshifters is the 40-45 olds. They started their careers as bankers, economists or porogrammers in 1990th when the Russian capitalism emerged as a new form of an economic system in the country. The people survived and adapted to the transitional period from the Soviet ideology which implied the collectiveness and centralized management of both professional and personal life to the reality of liberated market and capitalist society. Some gained success and ran own business, others maintained the jobs that took all their time and maximum efforts to balance financial stability. They did not achieve the freedom they craved so much. Moreover the life turned into the constant rate race. Health, family and identity problems emerged.

The most widely known among the Russian downshifters of today is the millionaire German Sterligov, whose life is shrouded in mystery and surrounded by rumors. In the prime of his business career he suddenly packed in and left to live on a farm in the Moscow Region together with his wife and five children. Sterligov remains a notorious figure who still participates in and tries to affect the country’s political and social life. The number of Russian oligarchs that changed power for the pleasures of simple life is not that significant.

The pattern in Russia is also different from what was established in Europe and America where very successful businessmen, seemingly going right against the grain, decided to leave their city jobs behind and go abroad on the quest for a simpler and stress-free life. Russian downshifters did not necessarily enjoy such a successful career and so decided to do away with the constant fruitless struggle for better professional recognition. Many realize the choice for a good career is limited while the conditions of life remain tough.

Russian girl in the bar on the beach of Bali

The basic reason for downshifting is exhaustion. Managers do not want and can no longer spend long draining hours in a bank or transnational companies and a couple more hours in traffic jams being not able to develop any other sides of own personality or any different interests or just see the family and children. And thus for many job cancellation and move is more like a revolt. They do not wish to be part of private businesses or state companies. Downshifters are the people who have decided to return to their true self, to their hopes and dreams, those who are searching for meaning in their lives. They lease their apartment is Moscow leaving for Goa, Thailand or Egypt. The fast growing population of Moscow city and increasing rent offers a possibility to make good money on leasing which would be sufficient to start a moderate business in some warmer and more relaxing location.

Goa is probably most popular destination for Russian downshifters. According to the research there are about 1500–2000 Russians constantly living in the Indian province. Morjim village has the biggest community of Russians with Russian restaurants like “Bora-Bora ” and “Glavfish”, Russian clubs and bars. A widespread Russian business on Goa is also guesthouses.

Another attractive destination is Thailand. The cost of comfortable life there can be about $800 per month which is the same as the average apartment rent in Moscow. Good and cheap Internet and mobile connection provides the opportunity of freelance or outsourcing.

Malaysia is one more friendly and warm location that lures Russian downshifters. Simple and amicable people, breathtaking nature, especially Borneo island, cheap prices for food and rent, good ecology makes Malaysia a paradise on earth for one seeking a slow and relaxing pace of life.

Indonesian island of Bali with its favorable visa regime, nice and cheap food and service has become not only one of top places of Russian nationals' vacationing but a good choice for downshifters.

Panama and Venezuela also offer low cost quality living, security, careless atmosphere and abundance of water sports and enjoyments.

Russia is a vast country itself with a great number of underpopulated ecologically clean territories, like Karelia, Altai, Kamchatka or small villages in central Russia. Lots of free space, fresh air, quietness, having a detached house, a chance to observe the seasons change and the sunsets not blocked by the sky scrapers, feeling the grass under the bare foot, absence of smog, crowds and negativity are just a few of advantages of simple living in a Russian village.

For Russian downshifters, it is not only about changing the physical location. It is predominantly about changes within, a change in one's attitude to life and a re-evaluation of one's values and priorities. The people decide their financial problems by finding work that does not have the same negative effects as they were doing before. They refuse consumerism, high social status and financial stability for the sake of moral, spiritual and health benefits.

The younger generation of Russian downshifters was born after the Russia’s chaotic transition to a market economy. They did not participate in the struggle for existence of the 1990th and have a different attitude to life and work. Many do not to work at all, others refuse to work for someone else and fit in the requirements the employers sets. Some youngsters undergo ideological change. They discover the pleasures of unpopular activities like volunteering, reviving national cultural heritage and crafts, farming and working in greenhouses.

Ecological situation in overpopulated cities throughout the world is getting worth and Russian is no exception. Young families seek for healthier environment to bring up children. Many are threatened by the global influence mass media has and prefer to protect their children from dependency on TV, computers as manipulations through the information technologies one cannot avoid living in the urban society.

More Russians are no longer satisfied with the system of children's education and choose homeschooling. Russia’s legislation permits home education and thus a necessity to attend school is not longer a restraining factor if the family decides to leave the city.
A young Russian village girl

The main idea of downshifting Russian way is to do what brings enjoyment and lead a more meaningful way life. The key points of downshifting concept Russian way are:
- It’s time to go back to your family and kids otherwise you might loose them soon; Health cannot be purchased for money. The high pressure job you are making is gradually taking your health and life energy away;
- The working person has to be beneficial for the society. Working for businesses you care only about corporate profit and forget about the universal values. Children’s education, charitable activity and volunteering, animals environment care is what the society really needs;
- Stop excessive consumerism. Refuse bank loans. The model when you buy now and pay afterwards makes you a hostage of your work. Check your expenses and learn economy. Do not encourage overproduction. Do not let the advertisement impose the items you do not need on you. Recycling or reusing old items as well as buying quality secondhand goods are a good strategy that helps you balance the budget and reduce consuming.
- Cook at home. Convenience food and fast food will not do you good. Natural home-grown and home cooked products and meals are more caring to your health and pocket.
- Take a break and cut the information flow. Plug out your computer, cell phone and TV. Better read a book or play chess.

The downshifters in Russia and Ukraine go further than just escape the mind-numbing cycle of overwork and overconsumption. They totally change the lifestyle for themselves and the families and exchange apartments in the capital for a piece of land in the Russian village, built houses, start farming and help the newcomers settle down. According to recent polls, some three percent of Muscovites quit the capital for village life every year. Fifteen percent more are seriously considering the option. No wonder that the number of websites and online communities dedicated to building a new life on the greener side is mushrooming. Cleaner and quieter places have their problems, too, of course. In Russia, village life often lacks modern conveniences, good health care and schooling may be hard to find, and options are certainly more limited when it comes to culture and entertainment.

Great opportunity exists for organizing ecovillages, small-scale communities with minimal ecological impact as an alternative. An ecovillage is often composed of like-minded people who have chosen an alternative to centralized electrical, water, and sewage systems with the goal of becoming more socially, economically and ecologically sustainable.

Russian girls drink tea and spun yarn

The dominating forms of children's education in ecovillages are family education and externship. Unschooling is not legally allowed in Russia unlike Canada and the USA.

Most ecovillages impose either form of healthy eating like vegetarianism, veganism or raw foodism. Others do not set limits to the way community members feed.

An ecovillage usually incorporates components of "green" infrastructural capital; autonomous building or clustered housing, to minimize ecological footprint; renewable energy and permaculture.

The general idea of ecovillage is to become a place to learn homesteading and build a sane, earth-based lifestyle with no harm to the environment and prospects to sustainable future. The additional benefit it creates is the possibility for meaningful work, raising healthy children, celebrating life in community with others. The revival of Russian national traditions and spirituality is also a characteristic feature of ecovillages.

One of the oldest in Russia is Grishino ecovillage (17 years), situated in Northern Russia, St.Petersburg region, near Karelia.

Another major Russian ecovillage was given the name "Kovcheg" village and created in Maloyaroslavets subregion Kaluga, 140 km southwest from Moscow region in 2002. The village has a legal village status gained in 2009. It has some rules like the requirement for permanent residence. The lifestyle however is not strictly moderated. Most aspire to simplicity and minimalism: a small warm house made of natural materials like wood and straw; furnace heating, water from a spring or well, composting toilets, etc. Some others have the houses with all the modern amenities. Some inhabitants of Kovcheg continue to work in a previous job (programmers, scientists and musicians), others develop a variety of projects within the ecovillage itself, like growing food for sale, beekeeping, handicrafts and woodworking. These people support progress but are against harming humans and nature. Frugality and ethic consumerism is encouraged. Different people are responsible for different tasks in the community living: education, government relations, operation of machinery, snow removal, ect. Kovcheg has a joint education of children.

According to different sources the total number of ecovillages rangers from 100 to 199 and they are sprouting up in Russia. Their inhabitants usually consider their lifestyle to be an upshifting in comparison with city life.

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