The Soul in the Shed

No trip to understand Russian culture would be complete without a visit to a country shed, or its urban equivalent: the garage. The shed and the garage are a heritage of Soviet culture, which has survived in modern-day Russia.

An interesting social study and explanation of how the shed became such an important part of Russia life comes from the National Research University Higher School of Economics professor and Department Head of the Faculty of Social Sciences  Simon Kordonsky, the academic who introduced the concept of the dispersed way of life. According to this theory, in Soviet times the garage, the shed and even the dacha (or countryside home) took the role of secret storage spaces, places where people could accumulate different supplies to guard themselves against possible government repressions. Sheds and garages also became an entirely sensible insurance against more recent and more sporadic economic calamities, such as the complete collapse of the farming industry at the beginning of the 1990s. In there a provident person will create a pantry, in which the shelves are stacked with pickles and jams and, if proper heating is set up, potatoes are stored over the winter.

Another very important aspect of the “shed culture” comes from the Soviet “non-urban attitude” to material possessions, or the refusal of  mass consumerism (be it by choice, political indoctrination or just the plain unavailability of most goods in Soviet times). Because of economic scarcity, old items are never thrown away or exchanged for new ones. They are stored, just in case, and if necessary, they are remade to fit a new purpose. This culture still endures among the older generation. Until it is discarded completely, an item usually travels a long path. It is first sent to the dacha; if it breaks there — no problem, it can be moved to the shed, it might come in handy one day. For the people who don’t have a dacha, a garage or shed in the city will do the job.

Finally there is a third reason why the shed and the garage represent such an important part of the Russian soul. During Soviet times the need for housing in the cities was “solved” with the kommunalka or communal apartment. Authorities presented them as a product of the “new collective vision of the future”. Between two and seven families typically shared a communal apartment. Each family had its own room, which often served as a living room, dining room, and bedroom for the entire family. All the residents of the entire apartment shared the use of the hallways, kitchen (commonly known as the “communal kitchen”), bathroom and telephone (if any). The communal apartment became the predominant form of housing in the USSR for generations. But the need for some privacy, for a personal space where to escape from it all and where to freely pursue one’s passions is part of the human spirit. And Soviet men found such a space in the shed, a separate, simple wooden building at some distance from the apartment or from the dacha. This turned into a man-cave, a place from which not only society, but also family (namely, the wife) was excluded, over which no one could have jurisdiction or anything to say. Painters could enjoy their hobby without anyone complaining about the smell of paint or solvent, woodworkers needed not worry about wood chips and sawdust littering the floor, and so on.

The shed turned from a repair workshop dedicate solely to the mending of things to a place where Soviet men could express their creativity, create art, produce objects that could then be sold for a small profit or just for the pleasure of making something with one’s own hands.

This post’s feature image represents, to me, a very typical example of a shed. It was taken deep in the countryside outside of Ufa, in a region where people can still get land for free from the government and build their own houses. We visited a retired gentlemen there, who elected to abandon city life when he no longer needed to work and move to the woodlands with his wife. Sticking to traditions, he built himself a comfortable wooden house, a separate banya (the Russian sauna) and, of course, a shed. In his shed he keeps all the things that are no longer wanted in the house (like a large collection of books, scattered all over the place) and everything he needs to create his very own art. That art takes the form of an endless collection of wooden stork statues (you can see some on the left), the occasional woodpecker (center) and even some wooden mushrooms.

As guests, my wife and I were treated to the unmistakable (and unavoidable!) Russian hospitality and we were served tea with sweet and savoury snacks (amongst which the best pickled cabbage I’ve ever had!), But as we could not refuse the hospitality, we most definitely could not refuse the partying gift of a 50 cm tall (almost 2 feet) wooden couple of storks in their nest, which made a most interesting hand luggage to handle on the return flight from Ufa to Moscow!



Would you like to discover the Russia that foreigners rarely, if ever, get to see, with an English (and Italian, Spanish and French) speaking guide (me and my wife) showing you the sights and telling you a bit about Russian history and traditions? If so, do get in touch and we’ll be happy to create an unforgettable, tailor-made experience for you!




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