Napoleon famously said, ‘an army marches on it’s stomach’… whose to argue with Napoleon, but to do any marching at all, one needs good footwear. This was the fatal error of the German army in the winter of 1942. Their bellies might have been full – but they had frozen feet in the wrong footwear. The Russians, however, in their valenki stood their ground and soldiered onto victory over the invaders. Of course there is more to this victory than boots, but valenki nonetheless played their part.
Hear the word valenki and you can’t help but smile. They are one of those endearing Russian institutions and enjoy a special, almost legendary status in Russia. Basically, they are an entire sheep on the end of your leg (only two to five pairs are made per fleece). There is so much wool condensed into these things that there’s no way any extreme Russian winter is ever getting near your feet.
Valenki are cleverly made by literally squishing and compacting an awful lot of wool from a fluffy fleece into a dense woven wool, then shaping it and finally ‘felting’ it. That final step (forgive the pun) involves boiling the shaped boot to shrink it down to about one half its original size (see picture below). It’s a tough physical process and the name valenki literally means ‘made by felting’.
I have been on film shoots up freezing Siberian mountains and noticed that the smart guys, the cool, hip local film producers were wearing valenki. Meanwhile I was wearing some dumb western boot that screamed out, ‘ready for winter’, but by midday left my feet frozen, wet and with no option but to head into a mountain hut to thaw and dry out. Meanwhile the producers in their valenki were snug and warm.
There is a sort of democracy surrounding valenki. Firstly there are no left and no right boots – valenki are all alike, both feet receiving the same treatment, making life easier for those who muddle their left and right. Valenki, over the years, have been worn by Tsars and peasants alike and to this day valenki are still part of Russian military issue. Valenki continually pop up in Russian art and culture. There is the famous folk song ‘Valenki, Valenki’ (how many English shoes inspired a song of their own) and as you wonder the Tretyakov or Russian Museum you can play ‘spot the valenki’, particularly in winter scenes by Ivanovo. Its a great way to engage kids – send them off on a quest to identify paintings with valenki.
Peter the Great, wore them after a hard night out, and urged his subjects to do the same. That may not be as daft as one thinks. Valenki are awesomely natural and the wool fibers contain a bunch of healthy stuff, including lanolin and antiallergenic as well as possessing anti-inflammatory qualities. Some people say you should wear valenki bare footed as all that compressed wool provides a natural foot massage and creates some sort of an electric field that apparently enhances blood circulation and relieves fatigue. Interestingly, many old people in villages wear valenki all year round to benefit from their healing properties. I think no one would dispute the fact that valenki always feel snug and cosy on the feet and valenki slippers (a variant you can pick up) are great for around the home.
In addition to their salubrious qualities, valenki are said to possess fortune-telling abilities too (really, I’m not making this stuff up). Young women would, apparently, take one valenok (for the grammatically disposed, one valenki is technically a valenok) and throw it onto the street or over the fence. On landing, the valenok pointed in the direction where you were to find your future husband. If it landed pointing to your home it meant marriages was not yet on the cards.
There are a few Valenki museums dotted around – including one in Vyshny Volochek on the road to StPetersburg, which boasts perhaps the world’s largest valenok at over 2.2 m high. In Myshkin, a Golden Ring town 300 km from Moscow, there are assorted anthropomorphic creations, turning valenki into various creatures (Valenki might be made for the feet but when inverted they lend themselves well to being made into mice, pilots and the like). The other intoxicating attraction in Myshkin is the Smirnov museum, as the mighty Vodka Oligarch was a local. It’s a perfect pairing of museums and gives you the ideal opportunity to check Peter-The-Greats thesis that valenki are the ideal morning after remedy.
So next time you put on a pair of valenki, you are not simply donning a warm and practical garment that can massage your feet, you are putting on an entire cultural phenomenon. While valenki might look unsuspectingly basic, they are anything but, and just might help you live longer.
Michael Gibson 28.2.18 © RussiaKnowledge