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‘Mushrooms Have Kidnapped You’: Pandemic Feeds Russia’s Obsession With Forest Fungi

For many people around the world, the coronavirus pandemic has been an excuse to learn a homey new skill like knitting or pastry-making.

For Russians, it’s all about the mushrooms.

“I go every other day and can’t get enough. I want more, more, more,” says Svetlana Gladysheva, who has had more time than usual to hunt for fungi in the woods, because the theater where she runs a cafeteria was closed. “My husband told me: ‘I’m afraid to lose you. Mushrooms have kidnapped you,’ ” she adds.

Foraging for mushrooms is a longstanding tradition in Russia. According to a 2019 survey by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, nearly half the population in the biggest cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow, participate.

That was before the pandemic left people with limited travel options and more time on their hands. This year, a St. Petersburg-focused mushrooming group on the social-media site VK has nearly doubled to over 39,000, according to Anton Kubyshkin, the administrator of the of St. Petersburg-focused group.

Pickers compete on their gathering rates of mushrooms per hour and show off their cupboards laden with Mason jars filled with marinated and salted fungi, a staple of Russian cuisine.

It doesn’t hurt that this has been a banner year for mushrooms in the boreal forests hugging St. Petersburg.

‘I go every other day and can’t get enough. I want more, more, more,’ says Svetlana Gladysheva.

Photo: Svetlana Gladysheva

“Mushrooms started coming in very early and in huge quantities,” said Alexey Prozorov, who took a break from taxi driving to make a living selling these gifts of the forest this summer.

Early each morning Mr. Prozorov puts on rain boots and heads out to the boggy woods of pine, fir, birch and aspen with a thermos of coffee and a pack of cigarettes. He arranges to sell the mushrooms via online social networks straight from the woods.

One of the record setters is Natalya Pudovkina, who brings in such heavy hauls that she buys special baskets made out of extra-resilient vines shipped from America, she says. Ms. Pudovkina says an obsession with mushroom picking is an “inherited disease” in her case, and she is sometimes joined on mushrooming hunts by her 91-year-old grandmother.

Natalya Pudovkina, a nurse, posted a photo of herself with a sign reading: ‘Have the mushrooms come in yet?’

Photo: Natalya Pudovkina

Ms. Pudovkina, a nurse who worked long shifts in a hospital treating Covid-19 patients earlier this year, was worried she’d miss out on the season altogether. Back in May she posted a photo of herself from the hospital, wearing a white hazmat suit, goggles, and shoe covers, holding a handwritten sign in her gloved hands that read: “Have the mushrooms come in yet?”

Her patience was rewarded. Ms. Pudovkina set a personal record, gathering about a 1,000 mushrooms with her mom on a three-hour hunt.

“It was horrific,” Ms. Pudovkina said about the long night her entire family spent cleaning, freezing, drying and marinating the mushrooms.

The next day Ms. Pudovkina was back in the woods.

Something else driving the mania this year in St. Petersburg is the common appearance of the coveted king bolete, known as porcini by Italians. These mushrooms grow in complex symbiotic relationships with the surrounding trees, and scientists know little about what affects their growth, according to Liudmila B. Kalinina, a junior researcher in the Komarov Botanical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Ms. Pudovkina uses special baskets made out of extra-resilient vines to carry her haul.

Photo: Natalya Pudovkina

Ms. Pudovkina’s 91 year-old grandmother Anna Davidenko.

Photo: Natalya Pudovkina

Encountering a king bolete, with its bulbous white stem, crowned by a reddish brown cap with a porous white underside, let alone filling a whole basket with the mushroom, creates a high and pushes foragers to return to the woods for their next fix.

When Ms. Gladysheva, the head of the theater cafeteria, first gets to the forest, often at the break of dawn, she first sees just the moss, the dry leaves, and the branches sprinkled with dew. But then she spots a mushroom. “I want to squeal from joy. I feel like a puppy greeting its owner,” Ms. Gladysheva says about finding fungi.

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On a recent trip Ms. Gladysheva and a friend quickly packed two baskets with mushrooms, as well as a jacket that they used as an extra sack. On the way back to the car, they lost their way, had to cross a river on a narrow log and tear through a thick forest full of tall nettle. Then they got drenched in a downpour.

Did they consider leaving some of the mushrooms to free their hands?

“Are you kidding? That’s our catch. That’s our precious cargo. We still got home happy.”

Mushroom picking can even improve relationships, according to Svetlana Kostyanaya, a beautician whose business was put on hold for a while during the pandemic. While cooped up at home she was having more arguments with her husband, but their new hobby helped.

“When we fill our baskets, peace and love sets in,” Ms. Kostyanaya says.

Alexey Prozorov’s bounty of mushrooms.

Photo: Alexey Prozorov

On the other hand, it can also cause stress as friends compete on the same terrain.

Earlier this summer, Ms. Pudovkina, the nurse, invited Mr. Kubyshkin, the social-media administrator, to join her. And when he saw Ms. Pudovkina’s secret mushroom patches, Mr. Kubyshkin says, he lost his mind.

Between July 20 and August 3, he returned to that same area nine times, getting to the forest at 3 a.m., just as the sun was about to rise in the northern region, picking and then going to work exhausted.

“One time I did feel a little guilty and apologized,” he says about poaching Ms. Pudovkina’s locations.

Yana Oparina learned to use a compass and got a vuvuzela to scare off wild animals for her new hobby of mushroom picking.

Photo: Anton Kubyshkin

Yana Oparina got serious about the “quiet hunt”—a Russian name for mushrooming—this year. At age 32, she learned how to use a compass via YouTube and got a vuvuzela that she blows into upon arrival in the woods to scare off any wild animals. She works on a remote basis this year and has arranged her schedule around her mushroom hunts, she says.

Not all of her trips were successful. Ms. Oparina has gotten lost, her friend sank thigh deep in a bog, and she had to dump one day’s worth of picking after learning the mushrooms grew too near an industrial site. The deer flies, however, have been the worst.

“Every time I go to the woods, I experience a psychosis because of these deer flies,” Ms. Oparina says. “They crawl in your hair, they crawl all over you, they cause horrible discomfort.” Still, she adds, “That doesn’t stop me because I really love picking mushrooms.”

Write to Yuliya Chernova at yuliya.chernova@wsj.com

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