I hear it from people I meet on the train, in places of work or entertainment: Russians, but for a few exceptions, do not engage politically; they make poor citizens. Yet I cannot but be struck with the plastic notion of engagement. When Theodore Roosevelt encouraged the creation of parks in the United States, he saw it as a manifestation of civic stewardship, and I have long admired the tasteful realizations of American park rangers – steps, benches and paths – and their pristine condition. I sense something similar here, but in an urban setting. Russian parks could not be so beautiful but for the willing participation of their many visitors.
As often as I can, I mingle in the Summer Garden, the Tauride Gardens and the Mikhailovsky Gardens with thousand of others: families, old people, and the young. As the first autumn leaves fall they are lovingly gathered in little heaps, before disappearing. Some flowers are cut to the ground, others left to die on the spot. There is not one piece of paper on the ground and countless waste paper baskets tastefully placed in stone urns, not one plastic bottle thrown on the lawn, no loud music. All around me, animated conversations, children running around and playing on slides and in sandboxes, and walkers having a cup of tea make me feel happy and safe. I do not sense fear or constraint. We are on shared space, which elicits respect.
In Russia in Search of Itself, James H. Billington celebrates his “mentor-colleague” Dmitry Likhachev, a leading expert on Moscow’s religious art and an important moral influence on reforming Russian leaders during the 1980s and 1990s (Billington, 2004, 63). Likhachev’s last major work, The Poetry of Gardens, celebrated his own lifelong experience of therapeutic, everyday interaction with the natural world. It was the parks, not the palaces of his beloved St. Petersburg that inspired him, just as the natural beauty of Solovetsky Island had sustained him during his long ordeal in the gulag.
Now if I could sing similar praise for recycling in Russia, this would be paradise…