NOT COOL. On Post-Soviet asshole habits to burning old grass.

Just as the Notre Dame was on fire, Latvia is in flames again, too. "Kūla" or the old, presumably dead and dry grass that cover many fields around the country is seemingly troubling to some individuals for reasons. They say kūla physically messes with the growth of new grass. Some folks burn it off for not being aesthetically pleasing enough to the landscape. Many set kūla on fire only for their pyromaniac entertainment. Even if I could agree with any of those reasons being valid, the process still kills animals, birds, nests, insects, your neighbours, and yourself. So is there any justification behind this irresponsibility after all?

Kūla case in Rāmava, Riga's Metropolitan area. © Reinis Hofmanis, 23 Apr, 2019.

My parents told me a story of when my older brothers were kids and tried out some kūla gig while we lived in the deep country. The boys chose a field across the road from home that seemed appealing and large enough and set fire to some tufts of dry grass. What a surprise - the wind picked up and drove the fire rapidly across the +500m field fast toward a neighbours' farm in seconds. No one would be able to do anything, if only the wind didn't calm down and let the flames to smother themselves out.

I can admit I am totally Latvian in this regard, too. During my childhood I entertained myself by burning boxes of matches, using a magnifying glass to mark drawings in wood, I was even building paper structures (cars, houses, you name it) to set them on flames. Of course, branch piles during springtime that needed to be liquidated after gardening was my speciality. Finally, we, Latvians, build massive or smaller bonfires, fire poles and set up BBQ's at every household. Needless to say - I was and still am doing great, when the burning spree kicks in on midsummer. Many Latvians even jump over bonfires in order to, well, do something with their ancestral fertility, or smth.

Riga is actually one of the most fire-prone towns that can found around Europe. We even built suburbs out of wood by law until 1860's, so they could be burned down for various reasons. And, hell, we did it several times! We also burned down the Latvian National Opera house in 1882, when it still was the German Theatre; the Rīga city castle was in flames in 2013, while under construction to re-become the president's official office (not to say anything about the previous arson cases in other centuries). We have burned down every church in the city, some of them having served as a fire watch tower, but still going down a whooping six times (St. Peter's church is a prime example).

Somewhere in Russia, thankfully (circa 2015).

In 2007, finally, the government launched its first national campaign to stop kūla arson cases from happening around the country. The number of "kūla patrols" dobbled to a total of eight across the state that year. Needless to say, the then active blogging network had fun with the campaign's posters and warned the citizens in different, more appealing ways. By interpreting the wild already slogan "while you burn your neighbour's kūla, meanwhile the neighbour is with your wife", multiple "internet hooligans" came out with some other suggestions. Here are one of the most interesting (look up on for more):

while you kūla, meanwhile neighbour your wife

while neighbour your kūla, you your neighbour's house

while neighbour's wife herself, you with neighbour

while your wife, you your neighbour

while, meanwhile

while you WTF, meanwhile neighbours zOMG

while kūla the kūla, meanwhile kūla the kūla.

Let's be frank, though. Such pyromaniac practices are nothing local. Lighting nature in flames is very often seen as top notch entertainment in Russia. Lithuania keeps up, as well as Ukraine. In fact, there is also a proper web page from the USA listing pros and cons of lawn burning, thus suggesting such method is more international rather than Post-Soviet only. It's a global act of arson. Thanks to another web page from Nova Scotia in Canada, here comes a bit of mythbusting on why setting kūla on fire is an archaic, cruel, and dangerous deed.

The saddest bit of all is that field arson (punished as a crime in Latvia) is not committed by the middle aged people and the elderly only. It's also happens to be younger people - pupils and teens. All together the country lost 3000+ hectares of good natural environment in around 2500 - 3000 kūla cases every year in recent lustrum. Happily, only 2 % of them also affected homes, farmsteads and human lives (if 40 lost homes per average are "only")1. How's that for a burning sensation?

Thankfully, in the last two recent years the average size of burned territory is no more than roughly 2000 hectares, with 2000+ cases and less than 30 damaged houses2. It's finally bringing back the promising statistics prior to 2012 as hope of Post-Soviet atavism dying out.

One is clear - flames are a genuine element of Latvian folklore, habits, heritage, and damnation. All humans eventually fear but are also magically drawn to fire. It is mesmerizing, it appeals, magnetizes, gets you closer, and then it might swallow everything you have. Frankly, everywhere on Earth we love to see a good piece of flame after all. The question is - at what cost and at what brain level?

Mārtiņš Eņģelis

1 Kūla nav jādedzina - laikus jāsakopj teritorija. 2017
2Par kūlas ugunsgrēkiem. 2019