Ethno-World in Russia
Text by Elena Rubinova
Photos – courtesy of ‘Dialogue of Cultures-United World’ Foundation
A three-hour drive to the southwest of Moscow takes you to an unusual settlement called ‘Ethnomir’ (‘Ethno- World’) that is not on the map of Russia as yet and is difficult to describe using normal cartographic labels. It is not an open-air museum with impressive architectural sites of the past where buildings are heavily protected. It has nothing to do with historical villages that are so typical of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, where tradition and history are preserved in artifacts and crafts. Neither is it a plastic Disney-type ethnic theme park as found in of China or Japan, where official narratives of tradition and history are coded in dances and interactive routines. So what exactly is this habitat, designed in the form of a honey comb pattern and open since the summer 2008?
Officially, ‘Ethnomir’ enjoys the status of a cultural, educational and tourist centre established and run by the ‘Dialogue of Cultures-United World’ international charity foundation. But its global concept is much broader.
I asked Ruslan Bairamov, the President of the Foundation and the driving force behind this project, if the idea takes root in Soviet ethnography or whether he found inspiration elsewhere.
Ruslan readily admitted that he travelled a lot whilst looking for similar projects. He adds that some elements of settlements he was able to find in he Shenzhen theme park ‘Folk Culture Villages’ in Southern China, in the South-Indian ‘Auroville’, in the ‘Park of Europe’ in Belgium, but none of them had it all in one.
“The idea of ‘Ethnomir’”, Bairamov continues, “was to create a unified space for the maximum number of cultures on a territory of about 140 hectares, so that any visitor can live through as many cultures as possible during just a couple of days. It is very important that visitors can see and feel for themselves the cultural diversity of our planet and accept it. The Earth is a small planet and cultures are intertwined and rich in their diversity”.
This messianic message impresses, as will the scale of the project if the ‘Ethnomir’ team manages to complete it as planned. Only 10% has yet been built, but by 2019, a huge field in Kaluzhskaya oblast, some 125 km southwest of Moscow, will host 52 ‘ethno-courts’ representing that many nations and cultures of the world.
Houses located in each ethno-court are designed traditionally, and each has its own keeper who is both a host and guide to the culture he represents. Visitors are introduced to folklore traditions, national applied arts, and myths and tales. National cuisine is cooked and served during mealtimes. The main principle of ‘Ethnomir’ is the equality of cultures.
There are four ways to see ‘Ethnomir’. One is to come for a day trip and wander around the houses, or perhaps attend an ethnic music festival, which are frequently held here. Another option is to take a guided tour, or to come and stay overnight to experience all the nuances of everyday activities. We, a film crew working on a documentary on ‘Ethnomir’, chose a guided tour.
You are met on arrival and accompanied to the main street called Ulitsa Mira (Peace Street). This is a kind of downtown of the settlement with information booths, cafes, service stations, scooter and bicycle rentals. We were taken to see the Russian ethno-court and shown a huge, functioning Russian stove, 11 meters high.
Unlike other theme parks, ‘Ethnomir’ favours a totally interactive approach that makes learning fun and easy. Visitors can take master classes in anything from basic wood carving, to making national toys, to building a mini-yurt in the Siberian ethno-court or baking Belorussian bread.
An old Slavonic village with a typical Russian house called an Izba is part of the Russian compound. We, however had had enough of Russian traditions and rushed to see a more exotic nomadic settlement, namely over 40 ‘Yurts’ from Tibet, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tuva, Chukchi Yarangas (Yurt-type tents), and a row of American Indians tepees are all to be found in the ‘nomadic’ section.
The Yarangas turned out to be the most interesting: they turned out to be spacious and comfortable inside even for a spoiled city dweller. Overnight visitors are served a traditional meal and a cup of herbal tea accompanied by sounds of throat tonal singing. The hospitable Ukrainian ethno section offers beautiful songs and delicious borsch that seem especially timely after a husky dog ride in the snow. ‘Ethnomir’ has its own husky dog breed farm that is very popular with the visitors in all seasons.
Geographical principles are being observed. If one goes eastward on the site you get to Asia, westward will take you to Europe and North America.
Foreign embassies and diplomatic missions are also involved in development of ‘Ethnomir’, but with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Zdenek Pravda, an entrepreneur working in Russia has already started construction of a Slovakian ethno-court: a wooden rural house with a brewery. The Asian section is under construction. A huge Indian house is being built: the centre will include an exhibition centre and yoga hall, an Ayurvedic medicine room, an Indian restaurant and a guest house. Nepal and China have signed agreements with Ethnomir, and will be next.
‘Ethnomir’ has gained entertainment and educational credibility in addition to its ultimate goal which is encouraging tolerance.
“We run a lot of educational programs”, Ruslan Bairamov says. “As the project grows, we hope to turn ’Ethnomir’ into a platform for a multi-national and international cultural dialogue”
‘Ethnomir’ has seen some high-level delegations from Russia’s Education and Science Ministry, and the Ministry of Culture and Mass Communications. In 2007, ‘the centre was recognised by the UNESCO Russian Office. Russian government programs on tolerance have not been very effective to date and the country suffers from excessively high levels of xenophobia. According to statistics gathered by the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights, in 2008, 122 people dies as result xenophobic acts of violence in Russia. Time will tell whether ‘Ethnomir Center’ is to become Russia’s main ethno-cultural crossroads, and whether Russians will visit the centre at all.
At the least, the centre will host colourful festivals, national holidays of different countries and religions, as well as exhibitions, conferences and concerts. These may help foster more tolerance in people’s minds than the thousands of words spoken from political rostrums.
Ethnomir is located in between 2 major highways: Minskoe Shosse ( M1) and Kievskoe Shosse (M3), 7 km away from an ancient Russian city of Borovsk (Kalluzhsky region).
For more information: www.ethnomir.ru (the website is in Russian with some English language pages)