“Got up late; we’re on friendly terms. The last squabble has left some small (imperceptible) traces — or perhaps time has. Every such squabble, however trivial, is a scar on love. A momentary feeling of passion, vexation, self-love or pride will pass, but a scar, however small, will remain forever on the best things that exist in the world — love. I shall know this and guard our happiness, and you know it too…” — Лев Николаевич Толстой, in a diary entry regarding his wife (source).
And the ever-famous, truly profound first line of his Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Really let that sink in. How beautiful. How tragic. Sense a connection?
I’m purposefully withholding my own analysis right now, because sometimes, such striking, enduring thoughts just have to stand on their own, left for each person’s own interpretation. Know thyself, as Socrates said. Ralph Waldo Emerson, too, echoed this sentiment: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,”he wrote in his essay “Self-Reliance.” Take a moment to reflect on those “imperceptible traces,” those lasting scars on love, those fiery feelings that accompany the very best and very worst things in your life. Record your thoughts in a diary, like Tolstoy. Write to yourself. See how you feel.
More on Anna Karenina and Tolstoy to come: I’m a part of a Russian Literature Humanities Independent Research Team (HIRT) at Pingry that’s examining them. It’s been a wonderful experience so far.
“Inside, I am met with an explosion of velvet, tulle and satin. The dozens of dresses, tutus and elaborate headpieces stored here comprise a rare collection of Soviet-era dance costumes, still in use more than 40 years after they were made,” writes Bianca Ladipo in a stunning photo essay for the New York Times.
Ladipo writes about Mazur Dance, a dance school in Chicago where “trove[s] of Soviet-era tutus” come to life on a new generation of American dancers. As I transcribe my second week of long journal entries from Лесное Озеро (check out the first here!), I thought I’d share her piece. It is a part of Surfacing, “a visual [NYT] series on the intersection of art and life.” Ladipo herself was years ago a student at the studio, which is run by by couple Tatyana and Roman Mazur. The photographs I’ve included in this post are my favorites from the article – all shot by Whitten Sabbatini, by the way – and they bear their original captions. I’ve accompanied them with quotes from the article and/or my own reflections. Enjoy!
“I looked at myself in the mirror, an otherwise average girl from downtown Chicago, now transformed into a countess. It was in that moment that I found the resolve to dance through my final ballet performance,” Ladipo writes.
From my intrinsic photographer’s perspective – wow. What a picture. The beauty, the clear sense of reflection, the thoughtfulness, the youth. Mirrors are so powerful. And the juxtaposition between the young ballet hopeful (fresh as a raindrop, as Katniss Everdeen would say!) and the delicate, hand-crafted, historic dress – brilliant and so very well-captured on Sabbatini’s part.
“The bodices, bejeweled with hundreds of handsewn sequins stood in stark contrast to the minimalist costumes of modern ballet productions. The faux gemstones may have seemed large and gaudy up close, but onstage they subtly caught the stage lights, illuminating dancers as they moved. Every decorative element was exaggerated to be visible from the last row of any theater,” says Ladipo.
Imagine all those who have worn these priceless pieces! Imagine the feelings one has when wearing one! Imagine the sensation of entering a different era, a different world entirely, while encased in the fabric!
The blur effectively conveys the famous “spinning” motion. I’ve experimented with this style myself. The focus, the poise. Clever again on Sabbatini’s part – and what a beautifully captured photo.
According to Ladipo, Tatyana and Roman both fled from Kyiv, Ukraine after the Chernobyl catastrophe (which took place in the fairly nearby town of Pripyat) and later met in Latvia. After returning to Kyiv when things died down to teach at a government-funded dance school, they immigrated to the United States and began their studio. Tatyana, upon failing to find first-rate Russian ballet costumes in the United States, “traveled back to Ukraine and Russia… where she bought old costumes from professional companies, including the National Ballet of Ukraine,” Ladipo writes. “The costumes were already 20 to 30 years old at the time [Tatyana] bought them,” she continues, “meaning they were made and worn in the U.S.S.R. during the 1970s and ’80s, when companies would commission local designers and seamstresses to craft elaborate costumes for each production.”
I find it so interesting how the way the costumes themselves bear “the record of differently shaped Russian, Ukrainian and now American dancers” mirrors the immigrant journey of Tatyana and Roman as well as the story of how Mazur Dance began. Both the costumes and their owners have Russian and Ukrainian roots and, by virtue of each other, have begun new lives in the U.S., ready for future legions of dancers.
If you haven’t already, check out Ladipo’s article here. It’s an incredible piece of photojournalism. I leave you with a final quote: In Russia, “Ballet is very popular, it’s like treasure.” What a contrast to the U.S. attitude, as the article points out! Let’s all appreciate the beauty of the craft a little bit more.
Hi everyone! I just attended Concordia Language Villages’ two-week Russian immersion program at their Russian language village, Lesnoe Ozero (Лесное Озеро). Each day, between завтрак, урок, hanging out in Алматы (my cabin), going to the magazine with my дрызья to buy mango-aloe juice, and more, I took some time to record my experiences in a journal.
Through these journal entries – typed verbatim – I hope to provide a deeper understanding of what villagers do at Лесное Озеро and paint a picture of the everyday environment. As someone with no Russian ancestry or prior exposure to a completely Russian-speaking environment, I wasn’t sure what to expect going in. But my time at Лесное Озеро was absolutely wonderful, and I’m so excited to share it with you.
These entries are from the first week of camp. I’ll be publishing the second soon. Enjoy! Oh, and the first part of the title translates to “Canoeing, Pelmeni, and More” 🙂
Вторник, 30 июля
Привет from Лесное Озеро! I’ve been at Russian camp for about 24 hours now. I’m immediately struck by how much this camp mirrors an all-American, stereotypical camp-like experience. Log cabins, bunk beds, lakes, canoeing, etc. Except, of course, for one tiny detail – it’s all in Russian, and entirely Russia-themed! The counselors (вожатый) speak entirely in Russian to everyone (even those with absolutely no background, like my dad when he dropped me off) and use hand signals and gesturing to get meaning across. The teaching methods are really well-thought out, and they work. For example, in the morning, we have зарядка, which is a common phrase (“daily dozen” in English) that refers to morning stretching exercises. Counting out loud with all the other villagers the number of repetitions of a stretch out loud is how you learn your numbers in Russian!
Up until this point, I’ve mainly been interested in the cultural side of all there is to know about Russia (the literature, superstitions, Russian music, etc.), but already, being immersed in the language and really beginning to learn it has me excited to continue learning at home at an even more vigorous pace! My name here is Рая (pronounced “Raya”) Тургеневя. “Тургеневя” is my family (I wonder if that was on purpose, given that I had mentioned before coming that I read Fathers and Sons!). At Лесное Озеро, that’s who you eat with at lunch and do cleaning, activities, etc, with. They are named after famous Russians (in my case, Ivan Turgenev, the great author who wrote Fathers and Sons). One guy in my family is actually from NJ – what are the odds!
Essentially, how the day starts here is: Wake up at 8:00 with one family (different one chosen each day) screaming “Доброе утро!” (Good morning!) outside your cabin and banging on the walls loudly. Quite an experience if I must say so.
Another note about the whole “American camp experience” part of Лесное Озеро. I lose track of time so easily here, because no electronics, and I also forgot to bring an alarm clock. And there’s a cute little wasp’s nest outside my cabin. This is my first time at sleep-away camp (I guess Лесное Озеро would qualify as one?), but I’ve heard these are normal things. All part of the experience, I guess. It’s going pretty well.
Note: Bring notebook to cooking tomorrow.
Четверг, 1 августа
Looking at that date reminds me that the second Democratic debates must have just finished. NYT, CNN, Fox, and Twitter must be abuzz with commentary. Kinda sad that I am missing out on it. During the last debate, a couple friends and I furiously texted and tweeted about the whole thing!
Camp overall is quite an experience. We have 3 classes (called урок) after зарядка and завтрак, all in the morning. My instructors’ (Russian) names are Kola and Dina – but if you pronounce them wrong, as I did at first, they mean ‘dinosaur’ and ‘cola,’ as in Coca-Cola! It became a joke in our урок group. (Роза и Александра, тоже! Я скучаю по вам, ребята!)
Tonight, Лесное Озеро is simulating a Thai restaurant for dinner to give us a chance to practice ordering, making reservations, asking for certain items (“Можно хлеб/воду, пожалуйста”), etc. – we went over all the relevant vocab during урок. During the simulation, we even actually had to call Антон and say, in Russian, how many people we were reserving for, what time slot we would come in, and whether we wanted a taxi (a camp car to take us up the short road that leads to the Санкт-Петербург building)!
Пятница, 2 августа
Тоday in урок, I learned some verb conjugations! It was really interesting to see the way Russian grammar compares to Spanish grammar. Spanish has -ar, -ir, and -er verb endings, which each have their own conjugations and irregular cases. But Russian has more than seven, I think! Combine that with verbs of motion, the notoriously difficult cases, and more, and you have possibly the most complicated language yet. Just kidding, I think… anyway, it’s no wonder Лесное Озеро has an entire час культуры (culture hour) dedicated to Russian grammar. (Земфира, if you are reading this, I so admire your enthusiasm for it!)
Суббота, 3 августа
I got a shirt from the camp store yesterday, which I forgot to write about. It says, “Как ты себя чувствуешь сегодня?” which means, “How are you feeling in this very moment?” And then, there are a bunch of cartoon faces with all the possible expressions. It’s очень крутo. (Note from Рая, transcribing these after camp: check out the end of this blog post to see it!)
Yesterday night, we did an exchange program with the German camp (Waldsee), which is right across the lake. There were plenty of snacks and food when we got there – noodles, crepes, gyros, falafel, corn on the cob, etc. – I’m not sure if any of those are actually German, though, will look it up later (edit: they are not). It was nice to talk to the German kids, though. The German вожатый – lagerberater in German – spoke to us “Russians” entirely in German, using the same hand-signal technique that is used at Лесное Озеро. We then played Capture the Flag with them, but with a twist. Some of the вожатый from both camps were aliens, who the teams (one family from each camp, together) had to capture and bring back to the jail. But in order to put them back in jail, we had to form a circle around them and sing a camp song on the way back – either German or Russian!
Воскресенье, 4 августа
Today was a more special, unusual day. We had no урок – instead, we had 3 huge мероприятие (essentially longer час культуры). The first one was to make pelmeni, or these little dumplings filled with meat or potato (картошка). I got the recipe from Маша and Камила, who gave me and my friends pointers and watched us make them. So did Фера, my cabin’s (yay Алматы!) вожатый. I think she mentioned she makes them at home. It’ll be so cool to make all these camp recipes on my YouTube channel – I’ve been writing them all down, in Cyrillic, in a brown leather notebook, with Камиллa’s help.
I finally learned how to canoe – my friend Svetlana and I went during the third мероприятие. In Russian, of course. Here are some Russian terms related to canoeing: весла (paddles), каноэ (canoe), байдарка (kayak), lake (озеро), спасательный жилет (life jacket), and плыть в челноке (verb: to canoe). Canoeing’s a classic camp-type thing I really wanted to learn how to do as a part of my “all-American camp experience.” It’s even cooler to me that I learned it in Russian, though. And I can now canoe at national parks and other places nearby!
During the second мероприятие, I went boating with Kola, Svetlana, and a couple others on a small camp boat, which was fun as well. It was nice to actually be out on Лесное Озеро (quite literally translates to “Forest Lake” – what we call the lake, and what the camp is named after). Most of the time, we’d think about it just in terms of being the camp name!
Some end-of-week reflections: Camp overall has been a really interesting, transformative experience for me. Being completely in Russian all the time, both language-wise and culture-wise, has helped me infinitely. I’ve solidified my basic grasp on the language, and I have the opportunity to learn so much more about the culture! For my second round of час култупи (we switch in the second week), I can learn cool things like the balalaika (traditional Russian guitar), or pick up Russian folk dance – there are so many cool opportunities. We’ll see what I get. (Note from Рая, transcribing these after camp: more on the balalaika later…) But overall, I really like it here 🙂
Check out my journal entries from the second week here!
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 🙂
For the Data Science unit in my Programming Language and Design class at school, I used R (a statistical programming language) to visualize data on people in the U.S. who speak a Slavic language at home along with their respective English proficiencies.
I love data science and creating cool graphs and visualizations through programming. My research (more on that coming soon!) is done almost entirely in R, so I’m very familiar with the language and various IDEs that people use (RStudio, Vim, Emacs + ESS, etc.). I’m also an avid reader of the daily email newsletter from R-bloggers, a site that offers great R tutorials and discussion as well as a strong community of R users.
Of course, I can’t bear to leave out Twitter, which has introduced me to many awesome women in data science. Rachael Tatman, a Data Scientist at Kaggle with a PhD in linguistics from the University of Washington, is one of my inspirations. She works mainly with R and Python (also used for data science, but more powerful in terms of algorithms/machine learning) and does really cool research in computational sociolinguistics, specifically looking at emoji and how different dialects are processed by computational systems.
For this project, I used RMarkdown to create a report and add descriptions and analysis. It is attached below. My favorite graphs are the map and the pie charts on the second page. R has some really nice color palettes (check out RColorBrewer!) to make graphs look amazing, and those were pretty cool to play around with. It was overall an immensely fun project.
Happy New Year! I hope the holidays have been enjoyable and relaxing for you and your family.
This past Christmas time, my family and I took a day trip to New York City. And, as usual, my camera was by my side! I’m a pretty avid photographer, so I absolutely love visiting NYC – the city offers a wide range of unique, fresh photo opportunities.
We had a great time. We stopped by Bryant Park’s Winter Village (dubbed “Manhattan’s winter wonderland!”), which included an eclectic array of charming holiday shops, an ice skating rink, and of course, a fully adorned Christmas tree! I also tried a flavorful avocado sandwich and a very strong ginger smoothie, called the “Energizer,” at Joe & The Juice, a popular place to grab coffee or a bite and relax. Afterwards, my family and I took part in a free walking tour of SOHO, a trendy, historic New York neighborhood. And we closed out the evening with pizza at Lombardi’s – “America’s First Pizzeria” – and walked around Rockefeller Center and watched the holiday light displays.
My favorite part of the evening was definitely exploring Bryant Park’s holiday shops. I visited a “farm-to-fresh” stall that offered eccentric, yet cool hot sauces like as “Ghost Pepper & Blueberry” or “Chocolate Habanero.” At another place, I tried a garlic and parsley pretzel!
My favorite shop, though, offered a look into Russian culture and art. I hadn’t seen anything like it before! Called “St. Petersburg Collections,” the shop featured various beautifully painted, carved wooden sculptures, ornaments, and the traditional Russian dolls, all made by Russian artists from St. Petersburg, the old Russian imperial capital city. Fun fact: St. Petersburg is commonly referred to by native Russians as Питер (Piter) – St. Petersburg is just the English adaptation!
The hand-painted sculptures were artfully displayed on shelves or hung up inside the shop. The intricate and elegant designs were simply amazing.
Such sculptures are made out of linden wood, “a very soft natural wood that has been used for centuries by the master carvers of Europe,” according to this Etsy item description.
The Russian nesting dolls, however, were my favorite part of the shop. Called матрёшка (matryoshka or matreshka) in the Russian language, they are a timeless centerpiece of Russian art and culture, and often a popular souvenir for tourists to take home from Russia! According to the Firebird Workshop, the first set of Russian nesting dolls was created at the Abramtsevo estate, “an intellectual and artistic center” located north of Moscow. The Firebird posting goes on to describe how, inspired by a set of Japanese nesting dolls, Sergei Malyutin, a resident artist at the estate, planned and sketched the first set of Russian matryoshki. He enlisted Vasily Zvyozdochkin, a fellow resident and woodworker, to carve his design (fun fact – Zvyozdochkin made them from linden wood!), the Firebird posting notes, and then painted the bare dolls himself.
This particular NYC shop featured many colorful, animated matryoshki.
I also conversed with the Russian shop owner, who told me more about the creation of the dolls and the other sculptures. He told me that St. Petersburg Collections has been in business for more than 17 years, and artists from both St. Petersburg and New York work together to create the pieces, all of which are quite common in Russia and in Russian art in culture. He seemed especially proud everything in his shop is hand-carved and hand-painted!
“For me, it’s art,” he said. “Pure, simple, beautiful, Russian art. And I love it.”
For me, too, I believe that sums up the experience quite nicely.
Recently, I started learning the Russian language! It’s been a lot of work, especially to manage on top of schoolwork and other commitments, but it is very rewarding – I’m really enjoying the journey that comes with learning a new language. I’m currently working through UCLA’s first year Russian textbook, Beginner’s Russian, by Anna Kudyma, Frank Miller, and Olga Kagan, and I’m also using the interactive website that goes along with it. Right now, I’m on the 8th chapter. I try to do a little bit of it each day, which I find works pretty well.
The first few chapters of Beginner’s Russian introduced me to the Russian alphabet, derived from Cyrillic script, and also to some introductory words. In terms of the alphabet, as a native English speaker, something I found pretty confusing was that certain Russian letters are visually quite similar to their English counterparts, which makes them easier for me to remember, but others match with completely different English letters! For instance, ‘k’ in the Russian alphabet is ‘к’, as expected, but ‘n’ is actually ‘н’! I would have expected ‘n’ to be ‘и’ in Russian, but ‘и’ actually matches with ‘ee’. It took me a while to get a hang of such letters! Other than that, I find the process similar to that of learning any other new language.
I’m also continuing to read Phillip Longworth’s Russia: The Once and Future Empire from Pre-History to Putin, through which I’m learning more about the context surrounding the development of Russian culture. In the book, Longworth mentioned that it was actually Christian missionaries, not the Slavs, who created Cyrillic script. I found that really surprising!
For some context, according to Longworth, Olga, a powerful, vindictive Christian widow, ruled over Kievan Rus (the old Russian state) after her husband Igor died. She went to Constantinople, the “capital of the [Byzantine and] later Roman Empire and the greatest city in the world,” as stated by Longworth. Although her main purpose for the journey was to procure a more favorable trading agreement, Olga was re-baptized there (and that too, with the emperor as her godfather!), which first established a link between the Rus (early Slavic people) and Christianity. However, Longworth is careful to point out that she never forced Christianity upon the Rus due to their strongly conflicting divine beliefs; it was her grandson Vladimir who later baptized the Rus and solidified Russia’s entry into Christendom.
During her trip to Constantinople, Olga was shown the stunning imperial palace where, according to Longworth, there were “clockwork metal songbirds that sang like real birds; a pair of gilded lions which rolled their eyes and roared… [and even a] Church of the Holy Wisdom… with its immense dome.” Entranced, Olga brought word of these marvels back to Russia, eventually leading to increased Byzantine cultural and artistic influences there.
Soon, Byzantine Christian missionaries began to expand their reach to the Rus as well. According to the paper “Short History of the Cyrillic Alphabet” by Ivan G. Iliev (The International Journal of Russian Studies), it is thought to be Saint Constantine-Cyril, a 9th century Byzantine missionary (monk? I wasn’t sure), or his two disciples, Clement of Orchid and Constantine of Preslav, who invented the Cyrillic script. Due to the many conflicting accounts that Iliev highlights from the time, I get the impression that it has proven nearly impossible to narrow down the true creator out of the three! Anyway, according to Life of Cyril (the Saint’s biography, I presume?), Iliev writes, it was done at the request of the Byzantine emperor. Originally created for the Balkan Slavs (Slavonic-speaking people who resided in the Balkan Peninsula, a part of Eastern Europe), the alphabet represented the “sounds that Slavonic-speaking peoples made when they spoke,” Longworth writes in Russia. “It was to serve the Russians equally well,” Longworth continues, because “all Slavs, whether in the east, west, or south, spoke the same language at that time.”
I found this history behind the Russian alphabet really cool – it’s directly relevant to my introductory study of the language itself! I read a bit more about the alphabet in Iliev’s paper. Apparently, the Cyrillic script was not completely original, like the Glagolitic one (another Old Slavic script, also thought to be created by St. Cyril!). Rather, according to Iliev, it was mainly based on the Greek alphabet, with any missing letters borrowed from others. Then, the Cyrillic script travelled through Bulgaria (part of the Balkan Peninsula) to Russia, leading to the first Old Slavic texts (literacy!), the increased missionary action mentioned above, and eventually, diversification into the East-Slavic peoples we know today (Iliev mentions Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians…). Even nearby Uralic peoples adopted the script, Iliev notes. By the way, this separation of peoples happened mainly after Vladimir’s death, according to Iliev; I mention this to make it clear where the events stand in context.
For Russia specifically, the Cyrillic script further evolved and developed new modifications as time progressed. “In 1708, the Russian Tsar Peter I the Great conducted an orthographic reform,” Iliev writes, “introducing a new type of Cyrillic letters, called civil script, modelled in a Dutch workshop…” to take the place of some of the older ones. According to Iliev, civil script comprises the foundation of each and every modern-day Cyrillic alphabet – including Russian!
The first book written in civil script (Iliev 2013).
Finally, a quick observation about the picture above: Iliev notes that the inscription of “ГЕОМЕТРIА” translates to “geometry.” In modern Russian, “geometry” is “геометрия.” The old and the new are almost exactly the same, save for the last two letters: ‘I’ becomes ‘И’ and ‘A’ becomes ‘Я’ (for ‘y’). Cool, right? And the reappearance of ‘и’ brings us full circle with where my musings started.
I hope this was interesting! If you’d like, take a look at the Iliev paper (linked above) to get an even more in-depth look at specific events in the history of the Cyrillic script and its dissemination in other countries as well – I just focused on Russia here. Feel free to leave questions or comments down below, and stay tuned for a photo essay (!!!) next!
For my first foray into Russian history, I’m reading Russia: The Once and Future Empire from Pre-History to Putin by Philip Longworth.
I have to say – I’m thoroughly enjoying it. The first chapter alone touches upon different environmental, linguistic, technological, and cultural aspects of Russian history that have shaped who the Russian people are today. For example, at least in early Russian civilization, women were actually thought to be more valued than men, but they were still subject to common stereotypes (present only to bear children, or solely responsible for providing, as Longworth puts it, “care and comfort”). Interestingly enough, Longworth mentions that the development of metal technology, which was essential for Russia’s technological revolution, may have played a role in turning that breakthrough around and re-establishing men as the center of society – talk about pros and cons!
There was, however, this one quote that really piqued my interest and got me thinking:
“Interestingly, geneticists suggest that linguistic variations are roughly in line with genetic variations. The Russian language and the genes that make Russians what they are physically are evidently inseparable.”
As a definite linguistics nerd and someone who’s always found “what makes you, you” (a.k.a, genes!) super cool, I was truly struck by that line.
Some background: according to Longworth, the geographical environment and climate primarily shaped the genetic structure of Russians, although there was some slight differentiation from mating with other ethnic groups. For instance, Longworth writes: “in more northerly areas, where [Russians] had less exposure to sunlight, their hair grew fairer and their skin lighter.” As the Russians migrated northward, they also faced geographical barriers such as dense forests, marshland, and a mountainous landscape which further diversified them genetically.
Interestingly, as the physical traits of the Russians transformed under geographical/climatic pressure, Old Slavonic (the first Slavic language) diversified at the same time, for some of the same reasons. Geographical barriers were not only responsible for genetic variations, but also for separating societies and promoting linguistic differentiations.
I thought this was pretty amazing – I didn’t even know there was a connection between the two! But I had so many questions. Geography played a huge role in the diversification – why? And was this all some isolated pattern, or a mere instance or first indication of a serious, all-encompassing trend in human evolution?
I did some further research on the topic; turns out, the answer leans toward the latter. Longworth describes a generally well-known phenomena in linguistics and biology; however, it’s only been observed in certain regions. I came across a 2011 paper called Parallel Evolution of Languages and Genes in the Caucasus Region, where the authors analyzed languages and DNA of indigenous peoples from different populations in the Caucasus region (includes Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia). They concluded that there was a strong correlation between genetic, geographical, and linguistic variation and that there was strong support for parallel evolution between language families and people’s physical traits. Another paper, published in the journal Current Biology, confirmed the existence of such a relationship in Cape Verde with the Creole population and their languages (Parallel Trajectories of Genetic and Linguistic Admixture in a Genetically Admixed Creole Population).
So, I hope you found this pretty interesting too. Let me know what you think in the comments, and stay tuned for more as I make my way through the book!