Mother Russia Looks Back

       At the start of the 21st century two brave individuals are looking back, as far as memory will take them, into early 20th and pre-Revolutionary Russia.

Sergey is essentially the theatre director, coming to the study of folklore from his early work in the theatre, having moved on to dramatizing folk tales for The Youth Experimental Theatre of Folk Drama in Irkutsk, now making videos and television programmes on folklore and rituals. The film “Snopot”, (made in 1997), vividly brings to life the annual ritual in the village of Snopot in Brianskaya province; it celebrates the legend of the sudden appearance (in the XV-th century or earlier), of a spring with miraculous healing properties, where an icon of the Virgin Mary came to rest on the river bank. The story tells that God took pity on the hard-working peasants and sent the icon as an excuse for a Holy Day or holiday. (The more likely explanation of the icon's appearance is that, as it was not permitted to destroy them, old blackened pictures were secretly thrown out of the great churches of Moscow, into the river.) The film captures the exuberance of the villagers, decked with flowers, singing and dancing their way to the well, where those seeking restoration to health, pass under the arches of arms holding towel-covered icons, to be blessed with the holy water. The film is a small masterpiece of Russian art, both in its use of colour and vision to reproduce the country side, and in its delicate homage to the ordinary Russian country people.

I was privileged to accompany his wife, Yelena, the academic of the pair, in her search for the old ways and beliefs. Starting as a student in 1985, she has been visiting this area of Kaluzhskaya province at least twice a year, in summer and winter, to collect the old stories of spirit people, witches, sorcerers and forest nymphs, how to avoid their evil powers, and
use their good. In her own words, she was "charmed by the beauty of nature and the good will and hospitality of the country people." For her, despite studying folklore in other areas of Russia, this province has a special appeal. "The more I know this area, its people and their culture, the stronger this land wins my mind and my heart." This important attempt to capture the vanishing past of a mighty people suffered the financial problems of the inflation which has struck Russia in the past ten years. At first the couple financed themselves, hiring video equipment to make their records, but costs soon soared out of their pockets. Then they discovered EARTHWATCH, and have been able to continue their studies with its financial support and its volunteers. It was in this capacity that I joined a small group of two Americans, two English and two Russians, (Yelena and a student interpreter), to stay in the village of Yakimovo, population approximately 250, in the district of Kirov, of Kaluzhskaya province, some six hours' bus journey (380 kilometres) south-west of Moscow in February of last year.

Russia in winter means snow, and we were not disappointed. We stumbled out of the bus in the dark, to a scene which could have illustrated a Dostoievsky tale. Behind us loomed trees, ahead a light gleamed through branches, and we trudged, well wrapped and booted, over the white expanse to the nearest house. When we were greeted by a robust beaming lady and bundled into a landrover to be taken the half mile to our lodging, the image was only slightly dented; for we were welcomed into a one-storey, three-roomed (with kitchen) peasant house where Gogol's "souls" might have lived, and hit by a strong smell of pig!

It was three days before we discovered the source of the smell, two piglets, being kept in the cupboard next to the kitchen stove for warmth against the winter. The traditional stove was also the source of heat for warming water, cooking, baking and brewing; it provided a warm bed for our hostess, and a hiding place for her husband to sleep off his drunken orgies. A second stove in the living/sleeping area kept us so warm at night we needed no blankets even with the layers of snow outside.

Over the next ten days, we recorded old folk songs, watched as the traditional wedding ceremonials were re-enacted, in the spacious new community hall, complete with cinema and library, (but without an indoor toilet), copied the patterns embroidered on ritual cloths used for ceremonies such as funerals and the celebration depicted in the film. We listened to the community "undertaker", who had first said the prayers for her own dead parents, when a priest not been available, and now performed the ceremonies for most of the village. We walked round the village to interview ladies of sixty years and over about their knowledge of house spirits ("brownies"), wood spirits and witches. In the shabby state tenements (where dogs congregated on the stairs), old ladies told of customs from their childhood, when people would collect boughs, make wreaths and go to the river at Whitsun, or how friends or relatives had been trapped in the wood by a hostile spirit, unable to find the way home. In spotless small houses, where the huge tiled stove made a warm bed for the cat, we met also scepticism and doubt of the old beliefs.

For in most homes, a television was lodged in the corner if not constantly flickering, relaying Brazilian soap operas, and news of the war in Chechnya. The old ways, the diversity of this great land mass is being lost as, slowly, slowly, communications spread, roads, buses, trains reach out and households are brought into touch with an outside world. For this corner of Mother Russia, the outside is at present still remote. Though everywhere we met with not only courtesy, but warm, affectionate hospitality, not everyone was approving of our visit. One of our planned hostesses had been dissuaded from accepting us, by her daughter's fear of "Americans". On our third day in the village, we were met by high-ranking internal security police officers who had been informed of Americans taking photos of the district. (We were, it transpired, some fifteen miles from a military airport from which planes were taking off for Chechnya.) Our unflappable leader, with great good humour, took us off to the district headquarters to have our passports and visas checked, and next day journeyed back to Moscow to have a wrong entry date amended on one of them. It became a happy joke among us, that I, a retired TEFL teacher, with wanderlust and rheumatic knees, should be suspected of being a Mata Hari, because of the number of stamps in my passport!

What was still near and clear for these 60, 70, 80 year olds was the experience of the 1940s. On the night of our arrival, our diminutive, vociferous hostess recalled in minute by minute detail her capture and relocation by the invading German forces. In this area, near the limit of the German advance, villagers were rounded up, men and able women sent off to enforced labour, old, children and useless shunted from one barn to another, from one village to another, always hungry and scrounging for scraps, never knowing when their captors might decide to be rid of them with a burst of gunfire. Our hostess, Tatiana Grigorievna Fomchenkova, at ten years old, traveled, with her elderly parents, her sister-in-law and her six children, partly on foot, eventually by truck and train into Byelorussia and the edges of Poland. They were released by the Russian advance after two years, but had to beg their way home on foot, only to find their village had been razed to the ground.

Most of our informants had similar experiences, lost mothers, dying brothers and sisters, they had yet made their way home, to rebuild their village. The traditional homes we visited, looking so timeless nestling into the coverts and curves of the countryside, were not much older than the garish government apartments built in the 1970s.

There were other tales of the past, of how a century of turmoil had affected individual lives. One of our informants came of a so-called "kulak" family, the wealthy peasants who had worked hard to prosper in the early land reforms following the revolution. Resented by the less fortunate, the less industrious, they had been attacked and largely destroyed. One of our performers, Lydia Iakovlevna Balykina, told of how her family had saved and skimped to make good, and been reviled and attacked for it. But the tradition of hard work still prevailed; she had again achieved one of the most clean and comfortable houses of the village, and warmly offered traditional food and home-brewed vodka.

Maybe it was this division between peasant families, or the upheaval of the war, or the advent of newcomers to the district, which had caused the loss of unity and coherent culture that our Investigator sensed in this village. Despite the shared singing, of morose songs of beaten wives, lost lovers and murdered spouses, despite the shared laughter over rude erotic choruses, despite the great enjoyment of shared sausage, sour bread and vodka, the village lacked a depth of tradition, a real belief in rural ways, according to Yelena Minyonok.

We visiting volunteers were not in a position to evaluate the quality of the information we gathered, only to marvel at it; at the delicacy and industry of the traditional embroidery; at the hardness of life without running hot water, or inside toilets, or easy access to telephones; at the strength and warmth of these people. We can only treasure the memory of their generosity, the traditional food they so abundantly presented, the experiences they shared with us, the glimpse of their everyday lives we were enabled to see, simply their very ordinary humanity. It is this opportunity which Earthwatch has given me, both to appreciate and to help preserve a little of the great diversity of humankind, and, at the same time to understand and value its similarity.

Phoebe Ravenhall

of Virginia
Dr. Natalie
University of
Wisconsin Dr.
James Bailey
University of
Colorado at
Boulder Dr.
Laura Olson
University of
Dr. Rouhier-