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entrytitleOh, those Russiansentrytitle

This was written in early August 2004
Well, I survived Russia…and I just couldn’t resist the parting words of that classic Boney M song for my email title. Put your feet up as this is a long mail…(cue wavy, blurred vision and dreamy music)
I arrived into Moscow in the middle of a thunderstorm and was really surprised by the heat and humidity. The airport gave me my first glances of Cyrillic script and I couldn’t help staring around wondering what on earth these signs actually said – hoping I wouldn’t accidentally wander into some officials office or the gents toilets! I was met by a Russian lady called Yelena (who spoke perfect English) and she transported me to the hostel via two different vehicles. The first was a communal minibus built for about 6 people, but crammed with 10 Russians and about 12 huge suitcases…again the personal space and safety values I have ingrained in me being amusingly compromised. We got out at what was obviously a central transport area of the city – it was so hot and there were cars, buses and fumes everywhere. People were spilling off the pavement, the noise was chaotic. Not really how I imagined Russia. We then got a taxi (which, as I should have guessed, was a Lada that looked about 50 years old!) and sped across the city to the hostel. The traffic was almost as bad as London and the drivers of the French school…add that to the fact I was convinced the car was going to fall apart and as you can imagine it was a hairy ride!
I asked Yelena question after question listening avidly, whilst keeping one eye on the scenery. I was amazed at how the beautiful domed orthodox churches that you so associate with Russia just appeared out of no-where in between two 1960’s concrete and green glass structures, or in the middle of a random field. We started talking about the buildings and who owned them and, from that, got onto the fact that at the fall of Communism all the previously state-owned businesses came into the hands of 25 families overnight. The previous wealth of the whole country made a tiny number of people multi-millionaires in a blink of an eye. To actually see the buildings and realise I was in the former Soviet Union made this hard to take in fact much more astounding…I looked around me and realised how little I knew.
My time in Russia was as part of a music and folklore expedition being undertaken by two Russian professors. Yelena was one of them. She runs the folklore department and archive at the Russian Academy of Sciences. The other investigator, Andrei Sergeevich Cabanov (I have a whole thing to explain about the names but it has to wait until the next paragraph…) is the world’s leading authority on Russian folk music, having previously worked at Moscow university, he has now set up his own educational establishment and is widely published as well as being a singing teacher. Knowing this I was unsurprisingly in awe and expecting two distant academics. This could not have been further from the truth, their welcome and the relationships I made with both of them during the trip (despite the fact that Andrei Sergeevich did not speak English) was indicative of Russians as a whole. They were down to earth, funny and made me feel part of the team. In fact, the team, which consisted of 4 Americans, and Irish lady and myself, felt like a family from the very first night.
So to the names…every Russian generally has three formal names. The first name is the same as we would expect and the very last name is the surname as we know it. Now, here comes the second name explanation, prepare yourself: The second name is the fathers first name that is changed if necessary to end in a vowel, then another syllable is added to the end. This syllable varies depending on whether the person being named is a girl or a boy. This second name is referred to as the Patronymic. Women can generally be called by just their first name once you know them, but men, especially men of Andrei Sergeevich’s stature are always referred to by their first and their patronymic names – even when you are just calling them, or referring in passing to something they said.
So back to my first night in Moscow: After dinner with vodka (…I had only been in the country a couple of hours before doing vodka shots), I woke myself up with a cold shower. Rotationally, sections of Moscow have their hot water cut off for three weeks at a time during summer and, of course, our hostel happened to be in the middle of their ban. We then were taken through the streets of Moscow to Andrei Sergeevich’s place of work where we were thrown into the deep end with a communal singing lesson. This extended all night with biscuits, tea and vodka…I couldn’t help smiling at the fact that I was lying on the floor singing ear to ear with a Russian called Svetlana, in a random avenue in Moscow in the middle of the night!
I spent a day and a half in Moscow before moving on to the South of Russia. Needless to say, Red Square, the Kremlin and St Basil are spectacular. In Moscow though the journey on the metro to get to them is just as much of a delight. The underground system is huge (it carries more passengers per day that the London and New York systems combined) and is breathtaking, especially more-so as you are just not expecting it on an underground system: wide stations made totally of marble; long halls with delicate chandeliers; statues; mosaics; sculptures; bronzes and paintings of Lenin and other stirring Soviet scenes are around every corner. The ceilings are delicately painted and the escalators polished 1920s-style wood with art deco lamps dotted along their length. Upon my return to Moscow after the expedition finished I spent an afternoon travelling the metro visiting some of the best stations – and all for the price of one ticket!!
Russia is huge – I thought I had been to some big countries on my travels, but this one takes the biscuit. Our train journey on the second day to the southern Cossack province where we were working ended up taking 19 hours!! We slept (although ‘slept’ is very much an optimistic exaggeration) in communal carriages, where 6 non-Russians caused an almighty stir. I am so glad that I didn’t know about the 19 hours before I came to Russia! Amazingly though, if you look at the distance we travelled on a map of the whole country it is tiny. It takes 7 days to travel by train from one side of Russia to the other.
The countryside is inspirational – beautiful wide fields with multi shades of green rolling onto a vast horizon. I didn’t imagine Russia to be beautiful, but it is the most unspoiled peaceful place I have ever seen. The rivers that meander through the fields are quiet, crisp and clear. We often stopped to swim in them – what I saw reminded me of a Constable painting – perhaps how England would have been over a 100 years ago. The sunsets were amazing and the stars that appeared at night so bright for the lack of any technology for hundreds of miles.
The village where we were based was north of Volgograd (the one that used to be called Stalingrad) and in-between the Volga and Don rivers. The sound of its name in English was Coom-in-ska-sky-ya – but of course in Cyrillic script it looked nothing like that! We were welcomed into the homes of the Cossack villages in the area where in between feasting, laughing and talking we would video, photograph and record the singers. The idea was to document the traditional songs, which had been passed on from generation to generation using the aural tradition, before they were completely lost to history. The world where these villagers live is changing rapidly and the younger generation are not interested in learning the songs or stories so there is a real chance that a huge part of Russian culture will be completely lost.
The hospitality of the communities that we visited was like nothing I had ever experienced before. The villages were tiny and the families lived completely off the land, in a way that I really couldn’t appreciate until seeing it. These people had never seen a foreigner before, and that we had come to their village, their house, was absolutely unbelievable to them. I felt so privileged to see this way of life and to meet wonderfully genuine people. We were greeted with such warm feeling and sincere affection everywhere we went. I consider myself a tactile person, but it did take me a while to settle into the touchy nature of Russians – which is again something that I hadn't expected of them before arriving. Our sound engineer was Russian and explained it as such over some vodka and chat later that evening; 'What you would consider sexual harassment in the west is a form of politeness here!'
The food was never ending and delicious. I consistently ate too much as it was just so damn good! Everything we ate at the villages was home-grown or home-made. Bread is a staple – loaves, buns and soft rolls freshly baked, biting into them revealing a generous filling of soft hand-picked mushrooms, tangy fresh spinach, or jam bursting with apricots from the tree in the garden. Delicious beetroot based soups (and I never thought I would say delicious and beet root in the same sentence!) and cabbage that had somehow been fashioned into a dish that tasted wonderful. Fish from the river, chickens that had been running around the yard that morning. Potatoes with everything – often fried with garlic. Curd cheese, fresh basil and dill with juicy tomatoes. Honey, apricots, strawberries, cherries, biscuits, fruit pies – the tables were always overflowing, with everything presented at once like some wonderful medieval feast. I didn’t realise how much Russians love their food! They are very intent on enjoying it and cannot offer it sincerely enough. Traditionally it is polite to refuse food three times before you accept – so as you can imagine a simple ‘nyet, spaseeba’ (no, thank you for the uninitiated) just doesn’t work!
We shared wonderful meals round huge tables with the families, hearing their stories of life, recipes, of their families, their life in Soviet times, their music and their jokes. It was wonderful to get to know the singers – to be able to speak to them through the translators, but also, to be able to communicate with them without needing words. I imagined Russians as a world apart and was daunted about how they would be, yet I have learnt that I have the potential to appreciate, communicate and share a smile with women, men and children whose lifestyle seems completely opposed to mine. These day-to-day things aren’t important.
Toasts were proffered all the time whilst eating, the vodka abounding before, constantly during and after the meal. It is vital to finish the whole glass in one go, and we couldn’t sneak out of it very often as traditionally you down the alcohol and then kiss the bottom of the glass after swallowing. The men are all particularly proud of their home-made vodka. The first time I had some of the home-brew I literally thought the shudder that went through me would never end!
The other drinks that I really took a liking to were the ones made with various berries from the garden. The fresh berries were crushed by hand, and then sugar and water added to make what they call a compote. Berries are also often put in tea – to make a yummy tea-come-hot ribena drink that tasted so fresh. You simply put a handful of the berries from the bowl into your tea cup and intently crush them over and over again with the back of your spoon, then you add as much sugar as you like (for Russians that was generally about three times as much as I did!), then pour on the black tea.
After hours of eating, drinking, talking and singing round the table (our two Russian/English speakers had to work so hard translating whilst also being showered with all the goodies) we would end the evenings singing and dancing in the gardens, with accordion accompaniment…more vodka, whilst being spun around under the stars by beautifully dashing Cossack men in their traditional costume.
We travelled around these villages on the locals school’s bus, and always seemed to be stopping at little village stores to stock up on vodka, chocolate, biscuits or ice-cream. The Russians are completely mad for ice-cream and it fits in nicely with the ‘eat as much as you want whenever you want’ philosophy that we often had just had breakfast yet we’d have an ice-cream stop! The road network was sparse, the only tarmaced one we travelled on only having been laid in the 1990’s (can you believe that?!), so most of the travel was over fields or on sand tracks. One night after a particularly heavy thunderstorm we were late getting back by 2 hours – all of which was spent in the middle of a pitch black field trying desperately to push the bus up a hill.
I had booked a hotel just off Red Square for my last night in Moscow and the evening that I spent in the city was a fitting ending to my trip. My jaw dropped and then a smile erupted that went from ear to ear when I saw the view of St Basil’s Cathedral, and the Kremlin stretching down the river to the city of Moscow from my floor to ceiling window. I went for dinner with Yelena and her husband (who is a director), at a film maker’s restaurant in Moscow. These professional clubs are a relic from Soviet times when each profession had its own area, buildings, restaurants…and even cemeteries! The restaurant was dark, coloured deep red and up 4 flights of stairs at the end of a long street. I felt decidedly like an underground artist! I came back to my room and sat at the open window watching and listening to the city, lit up beautifully at night.
I feel extremely privileged – to have been allowed to have played a small part in these two amazing academics life and having had a glimpse of the Russian village community, hearing their wonderful music and learning of their culture.
Moscow is only three and a half hours from London by plane and my British Airways flight helped me step gently back to England after such an intense last two weeks, and such a diverse three months. I have spent three months not knowing or caring what day of the week it was unless I had a flight to catch – it is a natural and easy routine to get into…even for a control freak for me (!) and it is wonderfully liberating. As I touched down at Heathrow I couldn’t help thinking about the definition of home and realising that my view of England had changed slightly: I do love England, but I had never previously imagined I could feel as at home anywhere else in the world. This trip has made me feel the world is a much smaller place and that basic human nature, communication and emotion are the same wherever you go – they are overridingly more important than any of the physical differences. This understanding rids fear and makes me feel lighter; language and cultural differences are obstacles that can with intent be overcome. The benefits of doing such, of immersing yourself opens eyes, ears and heart to so much more of the wonderful humanity around the world.

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