Snezhana Golubeva and her son go twice a week to workshops led by Cossacks, who once guarded the southern frontiers of tsarist Russia

Alyaukhovo (Russia) (AFP) - Wearing a blue woollen uniform topped with a black fur hat, Snezhana Golubeva’s son pursed his lips as he slowly turned a curved sword in a leafy village outside Moscow.

In a meadow nearby, Golubeva was wandering through tall grass picking wildflowers for herbal remedies.

She didn’t expect to spend the holidays in a village outside Moscow. But border closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic left her and many other Russians scrambling for alternatives – and fuelling a revival of old Russian pastimes.

“Usually, I go with my son to Greece or Italy for a week or two or even a month,” said Golubeva, a 40-year-old beautician.

“This summer we’ve come here for religious services and to join all the activities here.”

Instead of lazing on European beaches, Muscovites who fled to summer homes are watching Soviet-era films and learning about the healing properties of wild plants.

Golubeva and her 14-year-old son go twice a week to workshops led by Cossacks, who once guarded the southern frontiers of tsarist Russia in Alyaukhovo, east of Moscow.

Open-air shows are a Soviet-era tradition, when projectionists would bring the latest releases to remote collective farms

One recent weekend, 69-year-old army officer Nikolai Dolgopol was teaching Cossack songs and sword fighting.

“With no Thailand or Turkey, quite a few young people are coming here to learn the traditional values they’ve been missing,” he said.

While Golubeva’s son learnt to wield a Cossack sabre, she headed to the meadows for a guided nature walk with a group of women.

- Moscow exodus -

Marina Vasilyeva, who worked in the Soviet Union’s broadcasting governing body, was sharing tips on plant-based remedies to boost the immune system.

Instead of lazing on European beaches, Muscovites who fled to summer homes are watching Soviet-era films and learning about the healing properties of wild plants

“It’s no big deal,” said Ksenia Akimova, a 14-year-old student holding a huge bunch of plants.

“Instead of going to Montenegro, I’m learning about the traditions of our forefathers.”

A strict coronavirus lockdown in March prompted an exodus from the capital to country cottages. Almost half of Russians own second homes known as dachas, allocated to them during the Soviet era.

Those without rushed to rent, with searches for summer homes near Moscow surging more than five-fold in April, according to property search site to Cian.ru.

The residences have served as a refuge before. During the economic crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many families grew food in dacha vegetable patches.

In the current crisis, more than half of respondents to an April survey by travel site Tutu.ru said dachas were “the best way” to escape the pandemic.

Families this year were also much less likely to send their children away to summer camps, with 83 percent of Muscovites saying children would stay at home, according to the government’s virus information website.

This mass move from the city drove a three-fold surge in sales of hanging chairs, while sales of inflatable paddling pools, hammocks and recliners doubled, according to Avito.ru classified ad site.

- ‘Another way to travel’ -

One recent Saturday evening, dacha dwellers in Yermolino, a village 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Moscow, sat in traditional cinema seats arranged on grass in front of a large outdoor screen.

'With no Thailand or Turkey, quite a few young people are coming here to learn the traditional values they've been missing,' says Nikolai Dolgopol

Projectionist Alexander Mamayev, who salvaged 1,500 film reels from the local council, uses vintage projectors to stage outdoor screenings.

In spite of the mosquitos, the screenings are a hit, said Mamayev, a 32-year-old lawyer.

Since no one has gone on holiday, “our audiences have doubled”, he said. “Cinema is another way to travel.”

Open-air shows are a Soviet-era tradition, he said, when projectionists would bring the latest releases to remote collective farms.

Mathematician Nikolai Moshchevitin and his daughter were among the audience watching Soviet cult classic The Mystery of the Third Planet – a 1981 animation telling the story of a space expedition to find new animals for the Moscow zoo.

Since conferences in Europe and China on are hold, the 53-year-old told AFP the screenings were “a good way of travelling to my childhood”.