Natural Marvels, Cultural Misfits

Rachel May

When you picture Moscow in your mind, you probably see Red Square, with fanciful St. Basil's Cathedral, the imposing Kremlin towers, or Lenin's somber mausoleum looming over it. Dense, 200-year-old forest groves and wetlands teeming with waterfowl are probably the last things that come to mind. Yet within the city limits of Moscow you can find a unique national park that covers 118 square kilometers (46 square miles) and extends far to the northeast of the city. Losiny Ostrov, or Moose Island, is sometimes called the Lungs of Moscow. Even on a stifling summer day, all it takes is a short walk into the woods to find fresh, cool air and blessed relief from city noise. People living in neighboring highrise apartment buildings tell of losi (the Russian equivalent of moose that gave the park its name) wandering out onto their urban streets.
Protected under the tsars as a hunting ground, the land became Russia's first national park in 1983, as a site for recreation, education and research and a sanctuary for many locally rare species. You can literally hop off a city bus and strike off into the woods, or take a fifteen-minute commuter train ride to the neighboring town of Mytishchi and walk from there into wetlands, where hundreds of gulls circle overhead and waterfowl of every description are teaching their young to swim all around you. Walk still farther through fragrant stands of pine and spruce and meadows full of Russia's distinctive wildflowers, and you get a picturesque vista of a broad bend in the lazy Yauza River, where moose often come to graze. Even the areas that have not been kept pristine over the years can be charming: a shimmering birch grove has grown up to replace a stand of trees cut down during World War II, and there are remnants of a grand hydrological station and canal system built under Catherine the Great.

This treasure is but one of 32 national parks in Russia, which are designed to protect everything from an ancient monastery town and its surrounding woods and lakes to the shores and watersheds of magnificent Lake Baikal. The parks are the younger cousins of the 93 fabled Zapovedniki, or nature preserves, which have mostly been kept off-limits to all but a few scientists in order to protect endangered species and keep whole ecosystems intact. In the 1970s conservationists began to plan for a national park system on the American model, where nature protection could be blended with recreation, and Losiny Ostrov was one of the first two parks founded in 1983.

Some of the parks arose on sites that were already popular recreational areas. The corner of Losiny Ostrov nearest to central Moscow is called Sokolniki Park, a favorite place for relaxation since the 18th century, with its artificial ponds for fishing and bathing, decorative canals, and network of paths through lush woods. The Pereslavsky Park northeast of Moscow encompasses the town of Pereslavl-Zalessky, whose ancient churches and monasteries are part of the fabled "Golden Ring" of historic architecture around Moscow. An estimated 630,000 tourists visit the area each year. But on the whole, the Russian park system has not yet achieved a high level of public recognition. Few Russians know that such a system exists at all, and most visitors to the popular sites are not even aware that they are in a national park.
To American conservationists worried about overuse of our parks, the low profile of the Russian system may seem attractive. But given the new economic and political realities in post-Soviet Russia, the parks cannot afford to rely for their continued existence on old government decrees and dwindling public largesse. As John Muir tirelessly promoted Yellowstone and Yosemite a hundred years ago, hoping that increased tourism would do more political good than physical harm, so Russian conservationists today are trying to proselytize their parks as widely as possible. They hope that Russia's wealth of wild lands can become a symbol of the country as a whole, a unifying image of the nation and a source of pride for people from all walks of life.

Creating a Russian variant of America the Beautiful in the popular imagination will not be easy. Apart from low public awareness, many factors conspire to make Russia's parks less attractive to the average citizen. Most of them are hard to get to, have few facilities for visitors, and a staff that emphasizes scientific research and nature study over tourism or recreation. And, for now, they do not fill a perceived need in Russian culture.

Americans love their parks in part because they are public property, everyone's and no one's. Ansel Adams spoke of this as giving a spiritual quality to the parks; he felt that even a picture of leaves on water in a national park would have a different quality than a similar picture taken on private land. For Russians, the very concept of private land is unfamiliar, and the idea of government land brings to mind restricted military installations, prisons, and other fearful places. They have long taken for granted their right to wander freely in woods and wetlands, swimming, building bonfires, collecting firewood, fishing, or engaging in the national pastimes of gathering edible mushrooms and wild berries. In the current era of buccaneer capitalism, "private property" signs are sprouting faster than chanterelles, and the day may not be far off when ordinary Russians begin to appreciate the public parklands that have been set aside. But these will always have the drawback of restricting the very activities for which most Russians head into the woods in the first place.

By the same token, Russian park administrators are reluctant to take steps to encourage more people to visit their parks. Russians not only see their woods as primarily a storehouse of delicacies, they are notoriously loth to follow regulations. Maybe this is because in the Soviet era rule-breaking was seen as an act of defiance against a hated regime. Whatever the reason, even educated, relatively conservation-minded Russians of my acquaintance do not hesitate to pick rare flowers, stray from paths in erosion-prone areas, urinate near streams, and otherwise violate what I consider to be common-sense conservation practices.

This may explain why access to most parks is still extremely difficult, though lack of funds and poor coordination with public transportation systems are also to blame. I was warned against visiting one park because it would require a combination of train, bus, and ferry rides with day-long waits in between, and even then I would need to arrange ahead of time for a park staff member to pick me up at the ferry landing and take me the rest of the way. Even for the Moscow park the entrances are fairly obscure. A new guidebook, National Parks of Russia, does not even give directions to the sites. Interpretive personnel in the parks emphasize their roles as educators, scientists, and cultural liaisons. They work closely with school groups and university students, and they organize park-oriented festivals at various holidays. But they speak disparagingly of those who would come "just to enjoy the scenery," and many parks do not permit overnight camping. Although promotional materials tout the parks as existing "to acquaint people with the beauties and sights of nature directly, through recreation," the actual law establishing them refers first to nature preservation, education and research, and only lastly to "regulated tourism." Thus the dilemma of how to combine human use with conservation plays out in a kind of schizophrenia in the Russian parks.

Two organizations in Moscow are working to raise the public profile of the national parks. The Biodiversity Conservation Center is a clearinghouse for research, information, and planning related to parks and preserves. It publishes various guides and bulletins and an English-language journal, Biodiversity Conservation News . In 1996 and 1997 the BCC also organized the Russian counterpart of the "March for Parks," which has brought the parks much-needed attention in the press as well as recruiting volunteers for park cleanup, trail maintenance, and other projects.

The Environmental Education Center "Zapovedniks" focuses on training park personnel in public relations and environmental education. Seminars at the center touch on such issues as how to work with the press, how to create effective displays and nature trails, and how to reach out to local communities and gain their support for the parks. The "Zapovedniks" Center has recently published a brochure in Russian and English with a map of the whole park and preserve system. Both centers are financed in part by the World Wide Fund for Nature and other international organizations.

Russian conservationists dream of producing glossy publications with beautiful photographs of the parks, building elegant visitor centers, detailed interpretive exhibits, and handsome trails through the most scenic areas of their parks. For now, money is too scarce in Russia for them to realize these dreams. And so they are concentrating their energies on creating a cultural niche for the parks in the hearts of Russians. Nearly all the parks have sites of historical interest, and park tours and literature emphasize ancient settlements, traditional architecture, and the customs of local people. Traditional holidays are often celebrated on park grounds, and even new construction includes vernacular woodcarving and familiar images from Russian fairy tales. Researchers have been collecting local lore and legends in order to teach schoolchildren about how earlier generations lived in greater harmony with animals, the land, and the seasons. And they all continue to get out the message that the parks should be a source of national pride. The brochure from the "Zapovedniks" Center begins, "It is characteristic of a man to become attached to his native land, to be true and grateful to it; and he is glad for everything that distinguishes his native country from others. The zapovedniks (nature reserves) must be included among those treasures that Russia possesses and in which we take pride." The same can be said of the fledgling national parks. They hold a natural treasure of worldwide significance, and we should all wish them a long and flourishing future.


If you wish to visit Russian national parks, begin with Losiny Ostrov in Moscow. From the Yaroslavl Station (metro stop Komsomolskaya), take a commuter train north to any of these stops: 1. Malenkovskaya (second stop from Moscow). Exit the station to the west and you can walk straight into the woods, where you will find examples of 18th-century landscape design, from ornamental canals to fishing ponds. 2. Losino-ostrovskaya. Cross to the west side of the tracks and head for the main road, Yaroslavskoye Shoss*ea. Follow the road northeast about two blocks (you can hop on a trolleybus for two stops) and you will find well-travelled paths leading into the woods on your right. 3. Mytishchi (outside the Moscow city limits). Take the main road downhill through town. A ten-minute walk will take you to a path that heads into the wetlands, and from there into woods and meadows. It is best to have a guide for this portion of the park, since the paths are unmarked and difficult to follow.

The research leading to this article was supported in part from funds provided by a Fellowship Grant from The National Council for Soviet and East European Research, under authority of a Title VIII Grant from the U.S. Department of State. Neither the Council nor the U.S. Government is responsible for its findings or contents.