Folktales of Russia: An Earthwatch Experience

By Marsha Lambert.

The copyright is registered to Media Spectrum, Journal for the Michigan Association for Media in Education.

    We were searching for witches, mermaids, house spirits, and magical grass snakes. We found adventure, culture shock, connections with kind and wonderful Russians, and a little bit more about ourselves.“We” were ten American, British, and Australian women and three Russians mentors (one of whom spoke no English). We all managed to survive our two weeks, develop warm friendships, enjoy adventures and make ourselves understood with amazing aplomb.We really came together as a group between 3:00 and 4:00 AM on board a bus outside an abandoned hotel somewhere in southeast Russia. We did not yet realize the hotel was derelict. We did know that the caretaker did not have a key and had no idea who did. Reeling from jet lag, loss of luggage, eight hours on a bus, and our first bathroom break in the woods by the side the of the highway, the group had two choices-to laugh or to cry. The laughter was unanimous if just a touch hysterical. At that point I suspected (rightly) the trip to Russia was going to be worth every difficulty we encountered.

The Earthwatch “Folktales in Russia” expedition description read “Expect the unexpected.” One of my Earthwatch team mates reminded me of this as we dodged puddles on a wet, sandy, village road lugging feather mattresses on our backs. We spent two weeks hauling water from a well, the mechanics of which any fairy tale character would recognize. We washed floors Cinderella style, with rags, on our hands and knees, after sweeping floors and walls with branches pulled from bushes. We even developed hands-on appreciation for the princess who wove shirts from stinging nettles to break an enchantment. Just a brief touch of nettle could raise a blister! We actually raised more than blisters-most specifically, an appreciation for the lifestyles of the Russian villagers. Many welcomed us into their homes, shared stories, and fed us home baked specialties. The lack of telephones, plumbing, stores, and automobiles did not even begin to cramp their appreciation for life and their willingness to welcome culture-shocked strangers.Earthwatch connects volunteers with scientists in many fields of research. “Folktales of Russia” volunteers were to observe, tape, photograph, and diagram folk life and lore in a small Russian village. Our Earthwatch team’s first briefing in the field was held in an overgrown, charmingly ramshackle farmyard, outside the peasant cottage which served as our home base. The sunshine, wildflowers, and scenic countryside only added to the unique nature of our lecture on folklore. Each volunteer was given a piece of paper with a list of questions in Russian. We wrote English translations and made notes on the witches, grass snakes, mermaids, and brownies. The stories began to emerge for us from Cyrillic script into hundreds of years of tradition. Dr. Yelena Minyonok clearly loved her work, and the lecture was relaxed, entertaining, and punctuated with intense arguments about the best translation of a given word or concept. The villagers we were to interview had stories to tell about folk traditions. Our job was to arrive on their doorsteps with a Russian/English speaker, tape recorder, and a list of questions. The interviewer would ask questions in Russian and translate, while a volunteer operated the tape recorder, and other team members settled in as interested guests in a traditional Russian village home.We learned that Russian witches, called vedma, are often believed to have a small tail. Those who wished to prevent a witch from attending a wedding and possibly “spoiling” the bride or groom, would block the door of the house by placing a pin in the wood of the doorway. This prevented the witch from leaving until the metal was removed. Farmers put horseshoes over barn doors, not for luck, but to keep witches out. Vedma traditionally were able to transform into animals, most often pigs, dogs, and cats, in order to spy on people. One local family told the story of a witch who was struck with a stick while in animal form. Upon returning to human form she had the mark of the stick on her face. Witches were believed to take energy from animals, people, or crops, which would wither while the witch prospered. Their power was greatest on St. John’s day, when vedma were believed to gather near crossroads.Most people interviewed indicated they certainly did not believe in witches, but knew of people who still held the old beliefs. Many mentioned individuals in the area who were rumored to be witches. Some refused to discuss the matter at all, indicating they did not believe in such things and did not want to talk about them. Instead they told us about their lives, crops, needlework, families, and wanted to know about us. The beautiful weaving and needlework done by women during the winter months was brought out and shared. We had photos of home to show and gave small gifts to each family visited. The tiny village of about one hundred residents had no young families. The school had been closed and deliberately burned by the government during the Communist era, forcing families to move. The youngest of the current residents were in their late fifties. Many young children came to visit their grandparents, and our cottage became a popular stop for the young people, especially those wishing to practice English conversation. Gifts of home baked breads (from wood-fired brick or stone ovens) were served with strawberries, and milk fresh from the family cow. After day one, no one asked foolish questions about pasteurization. Fresh milk arrived daily from one of our neighbors, and none of us became ill. The milk we did not use was set aside, and as it turned we made a form of cottage cheese. Eaten with honey from the village down the road, it was delicious!

Our other interview questions centered on domovoi, house or yard spirits. These spirits could be helpful or mischievous depending upon how they were treated or acknowledged by the family of the house. Food or milk might be left out for them. It was not good to mention them by name, so generally they were referred to as “the master”. They might warn the family, bring luck, or play tricks. We asked about their appearance, who saw them, and for stories of specific incidents or sightings.Mermaids, called rusalka, traditionally lived near rivers. They appeared as attractive young women who lured the unwary to their deaths by drowning. Just catching sight of one was very bad luck, and could be considered a prediction of death to come. Grass snakes were also spirits, and one older man told us he had seen a grass snake twine up a cow’s leg and drink milk from the cow.Early in each visit, we would begin to get a feel for who the family storyteller might be. We might not always collect information about folklore, but we always heard the story of how the interviewee had survived World War II. The area we were visiting had been bombed, burned, and generally devastated. Those who managed to survive had hidden in the river, or happened to be in just the right place at the right time. Between German soldiers, Russian partisans, battles, hunger, and fire, survival was not taken for granted even fifty years later. The people we talked to did not hold grudges, and made such statements as “There were good Germans and bad Germans, just as there are good Russians and bad Russians.”The hospitality was overwhelming, especially coming from people whose lives are hard, simple, and without such “basics” as telephones, stores, indoor plumbing, or cars. Initially people would apologize for their “poor homes.” We would admire the hand loomed rugs, beautiful embroidery, and fresh baked bread. Most homes consisted of an entryway, a kitchen/dining area, and one large living room with partitions for sleeping areas. The two main rooms each had a large wood burning brick/stone stove. The very old and very young traditionally slept nearest the stove. After seeing how the local people managed so well with what we considered so little, we were embarrassed to complain about cooking for thirteen people on one electrical hot plate. How could we moan about hauling our wheeled water tank the mile from the well when our eighty year old neighbor carried her water in buckets balanced on a stick over her shoulder?Each of us developed favorites among our Russian neighbors. We would seek each other out at gatherings and vie for the translators. Our experiences included hearing the women of the area singing beautiful, haunting traditional songs, attending a religious festival which included marching from the spot where the church once stood to the local holy well, and then serving as guests of honor at a village potluck with music and dancing. We observed a traditional ceremony which involved making a doll, singing special songs, and the tossing of a specially constructed doll into the river. The experience of bathing in a Russian banya, or bathhouse, is a story in itself. The mechanics of our daily lives were dramatically simplified as simple tasks such as collecting water and cooking required full time attention. Food was a simple, yet traditional blend of fresh Russian country food and canned or dried American staples brought from home. Bathing in the chilly local river, mastering the intricacies of a pit toilet, and observing in awe the women who worked the fields for hours each day expanded our horizons. We each learned a great deal about our capacity to adapt and priorities shifted dramatically. The thirteen of us had only three small plastic grocery sacks of trash at the end of two weeks. The trash was not left behind, but traveled back to Moscow for proper disposal.

Saying good-bye to our new friends was difficult. We made farewell visits and exchanged gifts. Somewhere in southeast Russia there are a dozen baseball caps from the Marshall, Michigan Recreation Department adorning the heads of Russian children. Scarves, embroidery thread, jewelry, and small toys for the grandchildren were delivered. Maria, one of our special favorites, presented me with a beautiful hand woven, embroidered cloth. She said our names, Maria and Marsha, were the same. The gift and the gesture acknowledging our connection was overwhelming. Maria was one of the special people who came to see us off. She and I simply held hands, exchanged Russian style kisses on the cheek, looked into each others eyes and intensely, each in our own language wished one another health and happiness. It was incomprehensible, yet totally understandable. The serenity of the women’s faces, the kindness we experienced, and the friendships were far better than any treasure found in fairy tales.My first Earthwatch experience in 1990, an archaeology dig in Scotland, provided the basis for reworking our fifth grade reference skills unit. The Russian trip was partially funded by the Kellogg Foundation and Earthwatch grants with a similar seventh grade projects in mind. Folklore sessions for reading classes, storytelling upon request, and research project starters are all being developed. The camaraderie among the Earthwatch volunteers, our delightful Russian principal investigators, Yelena and Sergey Minyonok and Katya, and the sense of friendship and appreciation for the culture of Russia were invaluable. The appreciation we volunteers had for our own countries was heightened considerably. The Russian stories I tell most often are not folktales, but are about one on one connections with warm, kind, and generous people across the barriers of language, political differences, and miles.