By Natasha Whitling Singing Russia I was a member of an Earthwatch Institute research team, and our task was to record the folk songs and folklore of a dying culture. These are my stories. Episode 12
“One of the scariest things about studying in St. Petersburg is taking the bus,” Anna said. “During my program introduction the speaker told us all about the struggles of finding your stop in the pitch black of winter when all the buildings look the same and the bus is so covered in ice and dirt that you can’t even see out the window.
“When you think you have found your stop you have to ask the person in front of you if they are getting off. Be careful how you say it though. If you mess up the verb you will literally be asking the person if they are crazy. If they are not getting off, they will let you in front of them. If they are, grab on to their coat and hold on for dear life until you reach the sidewalk.”
As we all stood crammed like sardines in a steamy bus headed for the train that would take us to a village called Rzhanitsa, Anna’s words became a reality. Far from the bitter cold and darkness of a wintertime ride in a St. Petersburg bus, this bus was filled to the brim with commuters sweating in the summer heat. With every stop more people found an inch here or there in which to stand.
We were going to Rzhanitsa to record a family of singers: mother, father, two children, and grandmother. The train had not even left the station when a man carrying a plastic bag (it seemed everyone in the villages carried a plastic bag) sat down next to Andrei. His name was Ivan, and he was the father in the singing group.
Just when we thought our bus ride had been in vain, a little luck and Russian improvisation solved our problem.
“This village is more like the average Russian village than the one we are staying in,” Yelena said as she pointed out the dirt roads, rickety houses, and countless outhouses. There were no street lights, fancy houses, decorative churches, and Soviet buildings in Rzhanitsa.
We gathered more singers as we walked through the village. Several women stopped us and offered gifts of milk and asked questions about America.
The ladies wanted us to record outside so they could dance and sing with freedom. Their costumes were more decorative and when they danced they moved their hips, unlike the
ladies in Ovstug. Some local children gathered to watch the show and take a peek through the lens of Kevin’s camera.
“She has healing hands,” Andrei said, as
he pulled me toward her. “Here, take her hand. Can you feel it?”
“Put your hands on her head,” he said to the woman. “Natasha had a headache yesterday.”
The woman placed one hand on my head like a faith healer on TV and moved the other in a circular motion near my forehead. While the woman was guided to my sore spot, she immediately discovered Kevin’s lower back pain when she touched him.
After dinner at a singer’s house we made the trek back to the train station with full stomachs, tapes of songs, and a little Russian mysticism.