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Retreat from COVID-19

De-urbanisation: Muscovites retreat to the countryside, away from the pandemic


Russia saw a major change in migration trends in 2020. Instead of flocking to big cities, people for the first time were leaving urban areas for the countryside. During the first wave of the pandemic, many Muscovites spent the entire period between early spring and autumn 2020 in their dachas. The countryside with its clean, fresh air and calming landscapes away from crowds and lockdown restrictions promised safety and freedom. Gradually, urbanites were reconnecting with rural life. New research by HSE sociologists offers some insights into this pandemic-related migration trend.

How Dachas Became Dwellings of Choice

'A couple of years ago, we were thinking of selling our dacha, but we changed our minds in the spring of 2020', says graphic designer Ksenia L., aged 34. 'Having a dacha really helped us wait out the Covid-19 outbreak between April and September'. Ksenia's job allowed her to work remotely and only go to the city every now and then on urgent matters. Her dacha is quite far from Moscow, 140 kilometres. 'We insulated our country house and stayed there all winter together with the children, when their school switched to distance learning. But being away from people, with only nature around us, felt unusual', Ksenia observes.

Irina S., a retired woman aged 69, moved to her dacha near Anapa in March 2020. 'I have been living here for almost a year since then. My daughter said, “Mum, why stay in town, spend all you time indoors or risk getting infected if you go out?"' Irina continues, 'I feel safe here. I can go out and I can do some gardening'. She is now considering moving to her dacha for good.

Another woman interviewed by IQ.HSE, Natalia V., aged 43, recalls how she decided to rent a dacha for the first time in April 2020, worried about her family's health. 'We had not needed a dacha before, as we are not interested in gardening and prefer to spend summer vacations travelling. But this pandemic changed everything: our family cafe had to be closed, and the Covid situation was scary. So, we fled to the countryside, together with Mum and the children'. Evgeny S., aged 21, left Moscow in May. 'There was not much to do in the city anyway, and the lockdown and masks were really annoying. I’m not a dacha type of person, but being out in the countryside is way better than staying indoors in Moscow'. 

Anxiety, high COVID-19 rates and frustration at restrictions pushed many Muscovites out of the city. They saw their dachas — be it a cottage, a townhouse or a classic six sotka plot — as an opportunity to enjoy nature, quiet and freedom at a safe distance from the virus. This health-promoting, disease-preventing role of dachas was behind their remarkable rise in popularity during the lockdown period.

According to expert estimates, the mass exodus from Moscow started in mid-March and reached its peak in April 2020, when at least 5-6 million residents moved away from the capital. The scale of their migration is confirmed by data from mobile network operators, road services, ticket booking and real estate agencies, space images, and other sources.

Thus, according to the MTS mobile network company, more than 15% of their subscribers left Moscow between March 25 to April 8, of whom 79% settled in the Moscow region and 21% elsewhere in Russia. A jump in demand for houses and cottages outside of the city was also reported. According to Avito, the number of people seeking to rent suburban real estate in April 2020 increased by between 22% and 213%, depending on the type of property, compared to the same period in the previous year.

As a result, these houses in the country became the main dwelling place for many Muscovites — at least for a while, but sometimes permanently.

Resettlement, According to Science

Nikita Pokrovsky, Head of the Department of General Sociology, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences; Alena Makshanchikova, graduate of the Doctoral School of Sociology, and Egor Nikishin, Visiting Lecturer at the HSE School of Sociology, used qualitative data to examine Muscovites' adaptation to country living during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between April and early May 2020, a number of people who had relocated from Moscow to the countryside were interviewed about their motives for moving home in the first place, related lifestyle changes, what they thought of their current way of life and whether they planned to return to the city after the pandemic subsided. The study sample included urban dwellers aged 19 to 53, of various occupations and social status, who spent the acute phase of the epidemic (between mid-March and April 2020), either individually or with family, in their dachas located at a short (up to 100 km), medium (up to 300 km) or long (up to 800 km) distance from Moscow in villages, cottage settlements or gardening communities. Their new homes included their own property, that of their relatives, or rented estate in the rural regions surrounding Moscow, Vladimir, Kostroma, Vologda and Nizhny Novgorod.

The study found that many city dwellers invested for the first time in making their 'second homes' a place to work, rest and stay safe from the pandemic, adapting them for long-term living even after this public health crisis.

Epidemic of De-urbanisation

The longstanding trend of urbanisation with concurrent depopulation of rural settlements has recently started to be balanced by an onset of de-urbanisation, with people moving out of big cities in search of clean air, proximity to nature and a respite from the hustle and bustle of urban life.

In Russia, these two opposing trends are taking place simultaneously. On one hand, urbanisation is still ongoing, with smaller towns known for semi-rural lifestyle and poor infrastructure losing their population to mega-cities and regional capitals which, at least prior to the pandemic, saw a steady increase in newcomers. Yet on the other hand, the emerging trend towards de-urbanisation makes the internal migration processes diverse and multidirectional.

Academic papers often explain de-urbanisation by the structural problems affecting big cities, such as overpopulation, traffic congestion, persistent stress, and environmental pollution. Various downsides of urban life as well as the environmental and recreational advantages of the countryside can motivate city dwellers to consider relocation. Many other factors support this decision. New technology enables working, studying and even accessing healthcare services remotely, while smart home devices and products ease household chores, making it possible for relocated urbanites to spend not only summers but a significant part of the year in the countryside.

Unsurprisingly, some urban residents promote their former secondary dwellings to full-fledged homes and home offices which combine the advantages of urban and rural living. 'We enjoy all the perks of civilisation, such as the internet, heating, gas, electricity and retail stores', according to Ksenia L, 'but avoid all the crowds and stress; we find living at the dacha long-term perfectly okay'.

Dacha Lifestyles

All dachas are not created equal. Those of the 'six sotka' type are often about labouring by the sweat of your brow in the vegetable garden to ensure food security for the family, while manor-type dachas are associated with leisure, barbeques and evening tea on the veranda. 

Dachas vividly reflect social stratification: some are mansions hidden behind tall fences. Most people's dachas are small and modest places looking very much alike. Some dacha dwellers live in adapted ancient log houses inherited from grandparents, while others have simply built makeshift huts near their vegetable plots. There are a few remaining legendary, old-fashioned dacha villages like Nikolina Gora and Peredelkino.

According to some estimates, at least 50 million to 60 million Russians own second homes — dachas of various types. But until recently, only a few families — about 3% of all city residents — considered moving to the countryside for good, according to sociologists.

Too small to start a noticeable trend, pre-COVID de-urbanisation involved relatively small streams of city dwellers moving out to villages. However, the new public health crisis has caused the streams to expand into an impressive flow. Today's global cities are now perceived as less comfortable or safe than techno-optimists used to believe.

'COVID-19 has emphasised our societies' vulnerability to highly destructive external forces', according to the authors. 'As the pandemic hit megacities, <...> it immediately and noticeably destroyed the established patterns of social interactions and transformed everyday lives'. 

When big cities are no longer perceived as safe, the countryside can serve as a resource for adaptation to crises. This is particularly true for countries with extensive unpopulated but habitable areas in the Northern Hemisphere, such as Russia or Canada.

Nature Therapy

A phenomenon examined at the intersection of disaster studies and crisis migration research, epidemic-driven migration makes it difficult to draw a line between voluntary mobility and involuntary displacement and may involve a bit of both.

There are few studies focused specifically on epidemic migration: some information can be found in monographs examining the impact of previous epidemic outbreaks or in collections of papers on crisis migrations. While cities are sometimes hit hard by epidemics, cases of mass exodus due to a health threat are rare in modern history, and related relocations are usually temporary.

That said, pandemics can force many urbanites to consider migration. Since crisis relocation requires investment, it also reflects social stratification patterns. Thus, during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, many wealthy families — in particular, those in the upper-middle and upper classes and those having family elsewhere willing to host them — had left the affected area before the crisis unfolded.

But these strategies may not be feasible in a pandemic. 'Extended family? Everyone's in a lockdown', says Natalya V. 'We stopped all family visits to avoid getting sick'. But how comfortable is such isolation? 'One does not think of comfort in this situation', she retorts. 'Staying healthy and safe in a natural environment is more important'.

Not 'back to nature' but 'forward to nature' is what many de-urbanisation studies are all about, hailing Mother Nature for giving shelter to her prodigal children, urbanoids, in difficult times. This idea dating back to the writings of the 19th century American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson (author of Nature essay) and Henry David Thoreau (author of Walden, or Life in the Woods) is still relevant today.

Nature has a powerful impact on the human mind. The rural landscape can be a therapeutic, restorative and enabling environment.

From Complacency to Fear

Many respondents interviewed by Pokrovsky, Makshanchikova and Nikishin say it took them a while to become aware of the serious and imminent threat. At first, they perceived the epidemic as something 'remote' (woman, aged 23, manager) or 'just refused to believe it was real'. According to a 26-year-old female designer, 'I assumed that it was something we had seen before, like Ebola or seasonal flu'.

The first signs of a real and imminent crisis appeared in mid-March, with businesses losing clients, a switch to remote work and study, and people adopting new practices of wearing face masks and gloves and ordering groceries and medicines online. Some respondents learned about their friends becoming ill with COVID-19.

The decision to relocate to the dacha could be triggered by a variety of factors. Many people with school-age children decided to move once remote schooling was announced. According to a 39-year-old psychologist, 'As soon as we learned that school would be 100% online, we moved out [to the dacha]'.

Yet for most respondents, the announcement of a 'non-working week' was the decisive factor. 'Once this was announced, we knew we’d be going', says a 32-year-old entrepreneur. Natalya V. adds, 'It suddenly became clear that things were getting worse and perhaps we should not stay in the city much longer'.

While most people associate going to the dacha with taking a break from work, this time, it was marred by anxiety and uncertainty about the disease prevalence and incidence.

'There was a lot of conflicting information', a 39-year-old psychologist recalls. 'I was not sure whether I'd be very sick if I get the virus; nothing was clear'. Some people decided to relocate as a way to take control of the situation — like a 30-year-old programmer who explained, 'Something had to be done to minimise risks'.

Many respondents decided to leave, because they did not trust other people to be responsible enough to take precautions. 'Most folks in supermarkets refuse to keep a safe distance, and about half do not wear masks', according to Natalia V. 'They are unaware of putting themselves and others at risk'. A 19-year-old respondent observed that some people ignored the lockdown requirements by 'going out to a barbeque, to a park, etc.'.

Frustration and Search of Better Life

According to respondents who moved to the countryside in April 2020, the lockdown restrictions and lack of exercise had affected their physical and mental wellbeing. A female entrepreneur, aged 30, recalls, 'I woke up once in the middle of the night feeling that my life would never be the same, and I was overwhelmed by thoughts which were far from optimistic'.

Ksenia L. shares her mixed feelings about the relocation: ‘Having to flee was annoying. There was uncertainty about the future and general frustration about the situation. The only positive aspect was the fresh air of the countryside'. Relocation often separated families when some household members stayed behind for work or school or just because they chose to stay in the city.

Those who relocated had various motives for doing so, ranging from a panic-driven fear for their own or their loved ones' health to wishing to avoid the lockdown restrictions and to take some time off. According to a 32-year-old entrepreneur, "I felt no particular fear <....> but did what I thought was best under the circumstances; relocating to the countryside seemed like the best option'.

Some respondents appreciated the newly found freedom from the hectic city life. 'I have my own space here, and I am free to walk around — at least in my own garden', says a market analyst, aged 25. 'But there is not much to do here without internet and a laptop', comments Evgeny S.

Local Reconnaissance

Before moving home to the countryside, many urban residents researched the situation at the destination, including the prevalence of COVID-19, restrictions, availability of food, etc., often using a crowdsourced map on Telegram. According to a programmer, aged 30, 'We saw that no one had been hospitalised from our village, only from the neighbouring one'. A university undergraduate, aged 20, reports looking up new cases on the map 'a few times each week'.

Sometimes no such information was available outside of the Moscow region, prompting respondents to contact their village neighbours or to check local online communities for updates. To avoid inadvertently infecting their relatives already living in the countryside, many newcomers from the city took precautions. 'My grandmother had moved to the dacha before me', says Evgeny. 'So I stayed away from her at first, just in case, to avoid giving her an infection. Fewer contacts mean fewer risks'. 

The local residents were not necessarily happy about all the city people crowding in. 'The populations of smaller rural settlements increased noticeably during the pandemic, with all the locals who stayed in Moscow for work or study, as well as dacha residents, moving in before the official summer holidays and often staying for much longer', the researchers observe. The newcomers also included Muscovites who rented countryside estate to wait there for the epidemic to subside. 

While some rural communities did not see the newcomers as a health threat, others did. According to a 19-year-old undergraduate, 'Our relations with the locals were difficult at first. There is a couple living across the street from us, and the wife would not let her husband visit us, even to say hello, because we came from Moscow'. But this hostility towards Muscovites gradually abated over time.

Space Allocation

Most respondents found their first days of adapting to country life the most challenging. Being confined to a small space — both physically and socially — was a new experience for many. According to a 20-year-old undergraduate, the new lifestyle annoyed her at first: 'I resented having to go downstairs to the kitchen, repeating all the same chores every day'. 

But over time, things started to get better; the respondents were working in their jobs or studying remotely and taking care of their families, homes and gardens. Here is how a female entrepreneur aged 30 describes her daily routine: 'I work remotely, there is no kindergarten, so my young child stays at home with me, and my husband is away from his job at the moment and also at home all the time. I cook meals, feed everyone, then I work, then I feed everyone again, and then I work again'. 

Some people organised their homes in a certain way, assigning certain functions to rooms, creating workplaces and making refurbishments, so that each family member was allocated a space of their own. 'We were joking that my room was an office, the middle brother's room was a university, and the younger brother's room was a school', says a 23-year-old woman employed as a manager.

No Masks

The respondents followed COVID-19 updates, taking note of restrictions being introduced or lifted, and communicated with their friends who stayed in the city. At the same time, the newcomers were now part of the local community, joining virtual chats and physical meetings of dacha dwellers. The researchers describe this sharing of one's life between two very different spaces as 'mixed identity'.

The relative freedom of movement and being away from the epicentre of the epidemic often caused respondents to feel somewhat superior to those who were 'stuck in the city'. ‘By reading the news, I realise that there is an abyss between us [and people in the city]', according to a 30-year-old female respondent. 'It does not concern me that people in Moscow are required to wear masks and gloves — I don't even own these things'. Evgeny S. admits feeling sorry for those who have stayed in the city: 'My friends have had it hard. They are psychologically exhausted. I've been more fortunate'.

Although school and university classes, academic conferences and workshops continued online, many respondents missed face-to-face meetings and city life with its little things such as sitting in a café or taking a stroll down a favourite street. They found the rural environment pretty archaic.

'It was an ordinary village with old wooden houses', recalls a 32-year-old entrepreneur. 'It reminded me of Strugatskys' stories, where electric vehicles and space travel coexisted with having to carry water in buckets from a well — a surrealistic picture'.

Compared to the decaying, deserted villages with houses falling apart and rough, muddy roads, the epidemic in the city no longer appeared as bad as it used to. 'We are spoiled by all the good things we have access to in Moscow', says a 30-year-old entrepreneur. 'We take it for granted that there are multiple ways to pay for something or to get somewhere, and there are plenty of jobs for the taking. None of this is available here'.

The vast rural spaces can make one feel lonely. According to a 20-year-old female undergraduate, she misses 'the hectic pace of the city' and the crowds, 'One feels like a Robinson Crusoe here'. The researchers observe that these and other literary references help some people perceive their relocation as an adventure or a quest. 

Can newcomers from the city contribute to modernisation of rural communities? Yes, to a certain extent. For example, they may need a stable internet connection to work remotely and invest in bringing it to the village. They buy local produce and join villagers in engaging with the municipal authorities on various issues. On the other hand, there are limits to what former urban residents can do for rural communities, e. g. they cannot improve access to healthcare and education or build better roads and other infrastructure.

Is De-urbanisation Reversible?

Most respondents appreciate the freedom of living in the countryside and do not plan to rush back to Moscow after the restrictions are lifted. Some are even prepared to change jobs to be able to work remotely all the time.

However, most prefer to keep their city flats and continue to think of themselves as urban dwellers. 'The dacha has been a real salvation but living here all the time is difficult. There are more opportunities in the city', according to Ksenia L.

The study authors wonder whether 'life after the city' is an alternative lifestyle or just a version of urban lifestyle brought to the countryside; in other words, can we break free from the city or do we carry the city around with us wherever we go? 

This question remains open. The researchers expect to reach interesting conclusions by examining what they describe as 'hybridisation of urban and rural spaces while building on the past experience and best urban/rural practices'.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, April 09, 2021