A Journey through Russian Folk Belief and Song
Adventure, Hospitality, and Professional Development
By David J. Galloway, Associate Professor and Chair
Russian Area Studies Program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges
The group (minus Sergei, who had to depart a few
days early), outside Praskovya Ivanovna’s house
in Verbezhichi. She is in the black coat, and looks
unhappy because we’re just about to hop
on the van and leave. It was an emotional parting—
we had lived in such close quarters for over a week,
usually sharing at least two meals a day around
her little table, as well as late-night tea.
During the first two weeks of January, 2011, I participated in a folklore expedition in the Kaluga region directed by Dr. Elena Minyonok. Perhaps for some Americans flying to Russia in the dead of winter would be a non-starter, but as a long resident of upstate New York, I actually like the cold and was eager to make the trip. Since I also have taught courses on Russian folklore and culture for many years, I considered it a great opportunity to experience fieldwork first-hand.
The expedition worked in the village of Verbezhichi (pop. ~300) and the nearby town of Liudinovo (pop. ~41,000). I was the sole American volunteer in a group of Russian scholars, including Dr. Minyonok, Dr. Andrei Kabanov, Anna Utesheva, and Sergei Kononov. All had been on expeditions before and were well versed in the folklore genres being collected—in this case the traditional folk song as performed by female choirs in the village and town.
A recording session at Natalya Ivanovna's (seated,
left). She was a wonderful host and we interviewed
her extensively. She also had, I believe by general
group opinion, the best home brew in the village,
though I remember that the praise for that actually
goes to her daughter, who supplied it.
Phase one of our journey was spent in Verbezhichi, where we were hosted by Praskovya Ivanovna Samsonova, a member of the local singing group. The first phase of the expedition was to record and interview the women of the Ivushki choir. Dr. Minyonok had been in Verbezhichi twenty years before to record them, and one of her goals on this trip was to determine the nature of the singing in the village given the passage of two decades. Each day we would travel to different houses, at first reminiscing with the singers, and then recording them in small groups. The team carried a laptop, mixer, and microphones to make stereo digital recordings of the performances, as well as digital video cameras which were also used to capture conversations. Additionally, still photos were taken throughout our visits.
Of course, half of the joy of visiting
Russian villages is the hospitality.
This small spread (!) was set out for us
after recording at Natalya Ivanovna’s.
Verbezhichi’s small population occupies between 180-200 homes, usually one-room structures made of brick and heated by traditional wood stoves. Although there are two general stores, there is no school, post office, church, or any paved streets in the town. The former school is now a village club, and the wooden Old Believer church was destroyed by the Soviets in 1932. Villagers who worship go to Liudinovo, a distance of just 5 km, to one of several cathedrals there. The village has had electricity since 1959, but no running water, relying instead on about 8-10 wells, most of which are within 150 yards of the houses. The population is mostly older, with villagers reporting only six children under age 15 who were year-round residents. As is often the case, many people return to the village only in the summer, preferring to spend the rest of the year in the larger town of Liudinovo.
In addition to recording the singers, we also conducted interviews on belief in domovye and dvorovye. These house spirits are familiar to anyone interested in Russian folklore, but the nature of their persistence in Verbezhichi was undocumented. Armed with questionnaires, the group sent pairs out to talk to villagers and record their responses. Since we were in the village over Orthodox Christmas (January 7), we also had the opportunity to see an interesting aspect of folklore revival—or at least an attempt at revival—at work. Two women came to the door to sing kolyadki on Christmas Eve, and we joined them to make the rounds of the village—but not a single person would let us in. According to one of the women, the tradition had died off and it seemed that villagers assumed we were drunk rather than sincere in singing carols!
The Chernovtsy in the Kazan Cathedral folk
museum. Father Aleksii is center.
We also took individual portraits of all the singers
next to folk objects in the museum.
The second main phase of the expedition was to interview and record the folk group “Chernovtsy,” which was supported by the Father Aleksii Zhiganov, the priest of Kazan Cathedral in Liudinovo. While traditionally the Orthodox clergy have a hostile attitude to folk traditions, Zhiganov seems to embrace it. The Kazan Cathedral not only supports a singing group, but has a folk museum just off of the main sanctuary, with an impressive collection of local artifacts. Zhiganov was a tremendously helpful and congenial host, sitting for interviews himself and assisting in every way in the expedition. The most fascinating thing Zhiganov showed us was his collection of zagovory books—spells written in prayer form, and regarded as heretical by the church. We photographed a number of these books for the expedition. What is remarkable is not the presence of the books themselves—many of these zagovory are well known (and can even be found on the Internet), but that Zhiganov preserved them instead of simply destroying them.
The expedition was a fascinating look at the Russian folk song. Here, of course, we are not talking about stylized material like “Katiusha” and “Kalinka,” but a living tradition. The performances are choral, not individual, though sometimes a calling-out model is used where one singer sings a solo line which is echoed by the chorus. It is sung without accompaniment, and primarily (in Verbezhichi) by women over age 50. It is not purely a tradition for home and social interaction—the Ivushki perform at various festivals, both locally and nationally, and at church functions—but the tradition functions most organically over food and drink. Rehearsal is disdained—our host, Praskovya Ivanovna, famously said, “We never rehearse!”
Lena and Anna following the street path through
town. We had very nice weather when we were
there. Note the combination of brick and wood in
the blue and white house. Apparently, visitors
assume that the brick parts of the house are the
newer ones. The truth is the reverse: since the
town had a brick factory in it around the turn of the
century and much was burnt during the war, in fact
the brick halves of houses tend to be older than the
I became connected to the expedition through American Friends of Russian Folklore, a nonprofit organization which serves to connect American volunteers to Dr. Minyonok’s work. I had been hoping to participate for years—probably more than a decade—and this was the first opportunity I had to fit it into my schedule. I should add that knowledge of Russian is not a requirement—nearly all the expedition’s members are bilingual, and many tasks can be accomplished that do not require language. That said, if you do speak Russian, the experience is even more valuable, and truly fascinating conversations with people in the village occur naturally.
I cannot recommend the experience highly enough. It is not simply being in a Russian village—anyone who has spent time in such surroundings knows the magic of it—but also of being able to both experience living folklore and help to preserve it by working with the expedition, that makes it such a positive experience. My Russian colleagues were consummate professionals, incredibly talented, but also genuinely wonderful travel companions. Six people sharing one large room for a week can try anyone’s patience, but they made it a delight. Yes, anyone contemplating participating has to be prepared for no running water and pit toilets, but what you gain in terms of experience is beyond compare. As one final example, I was astounded when one of the Chernovtsy told me that I was only the second American she had ever met—the first was in 1945 when she was liberated from a German work factory!
To meet these people in their own homes and towns is an amazing privilege.
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