A Good Way to Inhabit the Landscape – Cozy Russian Cabins

by: EJ on 12/06/2016

Today’s blog is an excerpt from the recently released Shrinking the Technosphere: Getting a Grip on the Technologies that Limit our Autonomy, Self-sufficiency and Freedom by Dmitry Orlov. Today we get an inside look at a rustic Russian village cabin...can you say hygge! This and all new Society books are 35% off until December 12th. Just enter Winter16 at checkout.

The humble, rustic Russian village cabin, with its log walls and thatched or shingled roof, is physically impermanent: the logs rot; the thatch had to be replaced every few seasons. All that can be done to extend the life of the structure, which often simply sits on wet ground over a shallow foundation pit, is to periodically replace the bottommost logs, but even then, after a few decades, the entire structure has to be abandoned—disassembled and cut up for firewood, burned in place, or simply allowed to decay into a compost heap. But as an easily replicated technology, it is ageless: a perfect set of adaptations to a difficult and demanding environment that have been honed to perfection over many centuries. It, along with the lifestyle and the practices associated with it, is a very good example of an all-encompassing naturelike technology. 

The house



The Russian village log cabin, called izbá, has many features that are perfectly adapted to its harsh northern environment. It is not the purpose of the book to describe all of them, but to give a sense of what is meant by naturelike technology, let us describe just two of them. The first of these is that the izbá is not entered directly but through an unheated space called séni. Rather than attempting to translate it, this term is better left transliterated because no combination of English terms—entry, hall, mud room, pantry, anteroom, airlock, workshop—is adequate to describe it. It is a completely enclosed, secure but unheated space that shares a wall with the main room, is often just as big as the main room and has a myriad uses. It



is used to hang outdoor clothing, to store skis, snow shoes, fishing tackle
and bait, tools, food and much else. Thanks to the séni, where almost
everything is stored, the main living space is not filled with junk but can be left sparsely furnished, making even a small space seem spacious. In the main room, there are usually a couple of benches, wide enough to sleep on in the summer, and a table. There are also a few shelves for books, a wardrobe, a cupboard and a chest for valuables. The rest of the living space is taken up by the second feature of the izbá which we will discuss below:  the Russian stove.

The stove

The design of the Russian stove is several centuries old and seems to have emerged soon after the spread of firebrick, which is a
formulation high in silica that is less susceptible to spalling when heated repeatedly. It is a massive masonry structure with its own foundation. At its center is a vault with an  arched ceiling and a flat floor, often high enough for someone to squat inside. Fire is set inside the vault, far inside the stove. At the front of the stove is a flue, which includes a dogleg with a gate that is used for hanging meat and fish for smoking. Right back of the flue is a threshold that protrudes down from the top of the vault, holding hot combustion gases inside the innermost part of the vault, resulting in better heat transfer. The top of the vault is filled with solid fill and covered over with a layer of brick, forming a platform, and a straw-filled mattress, which is often big enough to serve as a bed for an entire family of five. Between October and May, when the stove is fired twice a day, the temperature of the platform stays at a constant, comfortable 25–27C (76–80F).


credit: By Hanna Zelenko - Photo made by EugeneZelenko's mother, Hanna Zelenko, GFDL

During the hot part of the summer, when the stove is not fired because cooking is done at an outdoor hearth, the stove provides a cool place to sleep. The outer wall of the stove has several niches. They improve heat conduction from the stove to the air in the room and are also used to dry clothes, herbs, mushrooms and berries, to keep food warm and to provide a place for the samovar, which boils water for tea. The firebox of the samovar, typically stoked using pine cones, exhausts into the flue of the stove. Under the stove is a space that is used to store firewood and can be a warm place for animals to sleep. The stove can also be used as a sauna—by sitting cross legged inside the vault when it is relatively cool. The Russian stove includes an entire dedicated set of utensils that are specific to it, each perfected over the centuries to have the largest possible set of functions. Food is cooked in clay pots and in cast iron skillets that lack a handle. The pots are placed inside the stove using stove forks, which come in three sizes and grab pots by the neck, while the bread and the skillets are moved about using a flat-bladed wooden spade, similar to the paddles used to handle pizza.


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