Hi all! It’s been a while since I posted on here (sorry about that), so I figured I would post about what I’ve been up to this summer and my Russian-related plans for the next few weeks! Read to the end to see a fun candid of me as I write this in my favorite (and sadly, maybe only) Russian t-shirt, and check out the middle of this post for some very aesthetic images of my copy of Peter and the Wolf. Enticing stuff, I know.
Let’s start from the beginning. On June 15th, 2019 (the weekend after my school ended), I led a “Saturday Stories” session in the children’s section of the library. In this program, a library volunteer reads a selection of 3-4 short stories to children who are usually around 0-10 years old. From 10:30 to 11 AM on that Saturday, that was me!
I read 3 short children’s stories. The first was Clever Katya: A Fairy Tale from Old Russia, retold by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Marie Cameron (ISBN 9781901223644). It begins with a conflict between Ivan, Katya’s father, and Dimitri, Ivan’s wealthy, but self-centered brother, who both desire a young foal born to their two respective horses. It happens to be the one day that the “Tsar of All Russia” hears cases from the local people, and he has a penchant for riddles. For Ivan and Dimitri, the Tsar decides that whoever could solve his riddle – “What is the fastest thing in the world, what is the fattest, what is the softest and what is the most precious?” – would get the foal. Ivan turns to his seven-year old daughter Katya for help, and she wows the Tsar with her thoughtful and insightful answers.
The Tsar is amazed and proud that such a clever girl lives in his kingdom – so much so, in fact, that he marries Katya when she comes of age. Katya then becomes the “Tsarina of all Russia.”
According to Hoffman, this story is originally called The Wise Little Girl in Russia. In different variations, the girl is given no name, or she has to complete an additional set of tasks in the middle of the story. Hoffman gives her the name “Katya” in this picture book, reasoning that “the most important person in the story should not be anonymous” in an author’s note at the end.
When reading Clever Katya, I taught my audience (of little kids and some babies on the other side! So cute!) about what tsars and tsarinas were (like kings and queens, but Russian!) and explained their overall significance in layman terms as the “cultural aspect” of the storytelling. I also had my Russian/Slavic Instrumental Spotify playlist playing in the background (that’s why my phone is on the ground lol), which hosts my personal selection of Russian piano, string, and opera music from the great composers. Here it is – give it a follow!
Next, I read Peter and the Wolf (Пе́тя и волк) by Sergei Prokofiev, translated by Maria Carlson from Russian and illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak (ISBN 9780140506334).
It tells the story of young Пéтя (Peter), who lives in a cottage on the Russian countryside and makes friends with many animals, a small bird and a duck among them.
Пéтя, who can talk with animals, warns the little bird of a cat who was sneaking up on it. Петера дедушка (Peter’s grandfather) then worries about Пéтя going outside of the gated portion of the meadow with their house in it, as a wolf might come by. He then takes him inside.
However, just at that moment, a wolf appears! Пéтя pays no attention to what his grandfather says and ventures past the gate. He watches the wolf swallow the duck whole! It then looks at the little bird and cat, who have climbed a tree for safety, with greedy eyes. Unafraid, Пéтя runs home, grabs a rope, climbs up the tree with the bird and cat on it, instructs the little bird to “Circle around the wolf’s nose, but be careful not to let him catch you!” and then catches the wolf’s tail in a loop he made with the rope, Western cowboy-style. Пéтя, some hunters, and Петера дедушка (who was still worrying about what could have happened) lead out a grand procession in which the wolf is carried to the zoo and locked away.
As the story says: “if you listen very carefully, you will hear the duck quacking in the wolf’s stomach. For the wolf in his haste had swallowed the duck live.”
One of my favorite things about this specific copy of Peter and the Wolf is the illustrations. Mikolaycak does an absolutely stunning job of depicting the Russian countryside and capturing the overall vibe of rural Russian life. Notice the traditional manner in which the elders dress: thick coats for the men and the handkerchief on the woman. As mentioned in this link, handkerchiefs were common among eighteenth-century Russian woman, according to Elizabeth Dimsdale, and were thought to “reinforc[e] the sense of purity” within them. I love how Mikolaycak thought to stay historically true to that. I let the children know about the cultural significance of the clothing and that it is representative of old Russian countryside attire.
Also, note how on the last page (the photo above), where the wolf is shown in its cage in the zoo, there are four references to Russia directly in Cyrillic; these definitely add to the distinctly “Russian” feel of this picture book. Here are their translations: “дикий волк” is “wild wolf.” The other three are all cut off, unfortunately. But, in Russian, in case anyone’s interested, the remaining, slightly legible portions say “ркофьев” (which translates to “Rafiev”? any ideas?), “(д/п)отнм” (my guess), and “-фе” (can’t really make out the first part). Overall, I just really admire Mikolaycak’s creativity, talent, and conscientiousness. He’s done a wonderful job with the illustrations.
Here’s my last note about Peter and the Wolf. According to Phil Tulga, Sergei Prokofiev, who wrote the story, was a great Russian musical prodigy and began composing at just five – five! – years old; he later studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, a very famous and prestigious music school. After returning from lengthy periods of travel to settle in the Soviet Union, Tulga says, Prokofiev composed Peter and the Wolf for a Moscow children’s theater; it was meant to serve as “a child’s introduction to orchestra,” he writes.
In addition to the actual opera, Prokofiev wrote this short, accompanying children’s story – Peter and the Wolf – which quickly became a Russian classic. I compiled a Spotify playlist with the opera (see below). The most interesting thing about this two-part series is how specific parts of the opera correspond with specific parts of the story as well as specific characters. For example, the wolf’s entrance is #8 on the playlist below; it aptly begins with an ominous, dark, and low tone. If anyone can place the instrument, let me know – I can’t find the sheet music anywhere. Anyway, if you’d like to read more about Peter and the Wolf, check out this well-written, informative essay. It includes part of Prokofiev’s personal description of his opera as written in his diary. An excerpt: Prokofiev says that the book is meant to be “read during the pauses in the music, which was disproportionately longer than the text – for [him], the story was important only as a means of inducing the children to listen to the music.” Interesting. He was committed to the music above all else. I suppose this is no surprise; after all, his accomplishments and professional areas of focus click with that decision. And as for the first part of Prokofiev’s musings – that’s exactly what I did! I read the book in the pauses of the opera, letting the music play from the Spotify playlist below. At the end, I told the kids about the actual opera (what I played) and reinforced how the story and the music go along harmoniously. They especially enjoyed the wolf’s section!
Next, I read Hansel and Gretel, the fairy tale about the kids who aren’t nice to the old witch who offers them food and shelter and later get eaten. Quite a classic! Its earliest, most probable origins lie with the Brothers Grimm – Jacob Ludwig Karl and Wilhelm Carl, two Germans who, according to Wikipedia, “together collected and published folklore during the 19th century.” I originally thought that German was a Slavic language; therefore, it would fit in with my “Slavic” theme for the library storytime. Not to mention that kids generally enjoy the Hansel and Gretel story anyway. But the history of the German language is actually quite complex, and many argue that German isn’t even a Slavic language at all! So I won’t discuss the story much here. The origins of German are indubitably interesting, but they will take a while to explain – I’ll save the genealogy lesson for another blog post.
All three of the books were picture books, with colorful, engaging graphics and simple text. This was a really important factor when I was choosing which stories to read, as the kids, although very cute, had generally short attention spans and more so enjoyed the pictures and my inflections and reactions to the stories. What I think also helped was that every now and then, before reading a line or so, I would ask them what they thought would happen, what they thought of the main character, etc. Other times, I asked if they could identify something in an illustration, or even if the content of the story matched up with anything in their lives. This was all plainly done, of course! I also went over the main morals of the Russian stories – insightful, clever heroines can get things done, to borrow the 21st century lingo (Clever Katya), and both taking risks and being kind to all pay off (Peter and the Wolf).
Ellen, a staff member at the library, helped me out with everything and gave me lots of useful tips. Huge thanks to her. After observing and preparing for weeks, I loved finally having the chance to share aspects of Russian culture with the kiddos. It was a really enjoyable experience overall.
Now, I’m super excited about this part. I just attended Concordia Language Villages’ two-week complete Russian immersion program at their Russian language village, Лесное Озеро (Lesnoe Ozero). That translates to “forest lake” – and fittingly, Лесное Озеро is on a lake, surrounded by forest. Real clever. But camp there was definitely one of the most unique, different, and immersive learning experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Not only was everything (and I mean everything) at camp done in Russian – so I picked up a lot language-wise – but I learned очень крутoй (very cool) cultural and skill-based things, like how to play the balalaika, a traditional Russian string instrument. Or even how to cook many different Russian recipes in my кулинарный час культуры (cooking culture hour)! I recorded all the recipes – in Cyrillic – in that brown leather book I used to keep pages still in some of the above pictures. And I learned how to canoe – all in Russian! I journaled about my experiences every single day while I was there, and I’m so very excited to share my entries here in the coming weeks. So stay tuned!
Also: the main reason (other than reading lots of Russian literature, and I mean a lot. So excited to talk about it) that I hadn’t posted much on this blog in the beginning of the summer is because I was kickstarting my YouTube channel! It’s also called Rhea’s Slavic Adventures (I know, I’m very creative. Lol). Please take a look and subscribe! I’ll be posting more очень крутoй content in the next month or two, including cooking vlogs of Russian recipes from Лесное Озеро and videos of me playing the balalaika along to camp songs (a rare opportunity to see me sing! Ура/Ura/Oorah, as we said at camp! It’s a famous Soviet military battle cry). I’ll also hopefully be posting a few literature reviews. Stay tuned for an essay about Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov that I wrote this summer to be posted on this blog, and some reviews of the book and also of the two corresponding movies on my YouTube channel. It was my ~book of the summer~ to be sure.
Check out my first two YouTube videos below!
So that’s it! Lots of fun content to come. I’ll leave you with this fun candid I took with my cousin while writing this blog post – in my Russian t-shirt that I got from Лесное Озеро, no less! It says “Как ты себя чувствуешь сегодня?” on the top, which translates to “How are you feeling in this very moment?” in English, according to my friend Юлия from camp. It then has a bunch of wacky cartoon characters below that depict many different feelings and possible answers (also written in Russian). There’s so many of them – 30, to be exact – so I’d say this is as specific and thorough a shirt as I’ve ever seen. I was just really setting the vibe for a healthy dose of Slavic-themed blogging 🙂