For us out here in the country, winter is always a joy. Because, well, there’s snow, and snow’s always better than rain. Then, when the hut’s all covered with snow, it’ll be warmer, like under a blanket. Minus twenty outside, the sun’s shining like mad, throwing blue shadows across the white snow. Thin tails of smoke drift upward from the chimneys, like someone’s sitting in the stove with a cigarette and blowing the smoke up into the sky, a sure sign of a cold snap. In winter, no surprise here, everybody stays home – except the small fry. They have a blast, careering down all the hills, whooping it up, and shrieking. They ride their little sleds and those who don’t have sleds slide right on their behinds. And then there are all the dogs – even they’re having fun.
But you have to dress special in winter. See, if you’re in a city, there’s subways and there’s cars, so you could go barefoot or run around in your undies, there’s no way you’re going to freeze. Not in the country, though. Stick your nose out there, and you’re done, it’s darn near frozen off. The gals bundle themselves up in shawls. The one underneath is an ordinary cotton print and the one on top is a thin knit. For workaday life, either brown or gray, but for days off or to go to the club, a bleached, crocheted affair. No villager in living memory has ever worn a fur coat. Sheepskin jackets, yes. But they’re heavy on the shoulders, which is fine for somebody on guard duty, where you’re standing in one spot, or for a policeman. But our folks keep it simple – a quilted jacket and away you go.
Valenki are something else altogether. In Russia, those felt boots are as near as you can get to the number-one footwear, after regular leather boots. The old ’uns who used to roll the felt for valenki were held in high honor. You need a sheep’s fleece, but only from the spring shearing, and you have to prepare it just right. First you have to lay the whole thing out and give it a good eyeballing, let your experienced fingers feel what kind of fleece it is. Thick or poor and paltry? Then it goes on the wool carder. To this day there are still some barnlike outbuildings with comb-looking things installed inside. You put the fleece on it, and that doohickey rakes it through, taking out all sorts of debris, and you end up with a sheet of wool. That’s peeled off the carder, formed into a loose tube, and taken to the workshop. There they spread it flat on a table, divide it into equal pieces (one for the left foot, one for the right), and they stretch the wool out just so and then start beating it with a stick to make the wool cling together. That’s called “fulling,” which is valyat in Russian, and that’s likely where the word valenki comes from.
These artisans were also called pimokaty – pima rollers – sometimes, because pimy are valenki but only up in the north. Our valenki makers were valyalshchiki. And so simple did their craft seem to these people that it gave rise to a saying “Vanku valyat,” which means to waste time trying to knock a Vanka (a roly-poly children’s toy) over – to goof off, in other words. Also, vanka was the old Russian term for a reel – the kind used to wind the wool, I guess.
Anyway, the next thing they did was cook it in hot water, so the wool would shrink and pull together. And once the valenki forms dry, then they have to be crushed and pummeled to make the felt sturdy, else it’s a mess. The valenki will be good for nothing. Proper valenki should make a hollow sound, but the inside should be comfortable and soft to the feet.
There’s no footwear more important than valenki in the countryside. You want to be the judge of that? Well, when it’s cold, there isn’t a boot, whether high or low-cut, that keeps the foot this warm. And there’s something special in sheep’s wool that actually heals the foot, and the felting holds the warmth in. If it’s slushy, there’s no doing without rubber overshoes, that’s for sure. But once you’ve got your overshoes on, you’re all set. You could bathe with your valenki on, if you wanted. And the main thing is that valenki never, ever wear out. If they get shabby or spring holes, you go to an old ’un, and he’ll resole them for you, put a new bottom on, and you’re good to go. Or you can cut the tops off, and now you’ve got a pair of house slippers, and may they be a joy to you. But valenki are inconvenient in the city, except maybe for the kiddies. They’re no good for mashing down on car pedals. It’s taken for granted that you’ll walk slow and steady when you’ve got them on, but in the city everyone’s running. They’re hot too, if you wear them for sitting-down work. In the country, you come home, brush them off, and put them on the stove to dry. There’s even a little shelf on the stove just for that.
Only one of the old ’uns in our village had ever been a valenki roller, and that was Ivan Arkhipych. And he was respected as all get-out. Well on in years, but still nifty with his hands. And such a lively mind when it came to valenki, he’d even been known to put patterns on them if he was making them for a girl. For grown women, no. What would grown women want with that? They wear them with overshoes anyway. So he came out with different sorts of valenki – light ones, heavy ones… But the most complicated were for children’s feet. That took craftsmanship and no mistake, so as not to rub the kid’s foot raw but still leave some room to grow in the coming year. Old Arkhipych himself had more grandkids than you could shake a stick at. The thing of it was, though, that when he was getting the hay in, there were no grandkids in sight, but when the cabbage and potatoes were dug and ready, they’d swoop in to snatch them up and make off with them back to the city. And they really liked valenki. They wanted them for themselves and their child’s godmother and their daughter-in-law and their kids and grandkids. Arkhipych always obliged. How could he not help?
The old lad did have one little character flaw, and that was if you insulted him, didn’t say thank you, acted disrespectful by not treating him to a glass of something, he’d roll you a thicker left boot and a thinner right one, so you’d waddle like a duck. But he could turn out the teeniest tiniest valenki, no bigger than the palm of your hand.
Antoshka was his grandpa’s favorite. He was betwixt and between, only a couple of years old but a smart little tyke. One time, though, he pulled such a stunt as can’t be told with a straight face. His grandma had given him her treasure box to play with, and one of the things in it was a string of beads. So Antoshka up and broke the string, and the beads bounced right into the fleece that his grandad was rolling, and Arkhipych’s eyes were so bad, he didn’t notice. So he handed the valenki to the customer, and the customer couldn’t figure out why his valenki were all lumpy and bumpy. Another time Antoshka tossed his grandpa’s pension into the big kettle. And there it boiled and got mixed in with the felted material. Such a scamp!
Grandpa carries him into the workshop and sits him down on a stool. Antoshka claps his hands; this he’s enjoying. “Pop-pop, pop-pop,” he yells. “Make me katanki!” (Katanki are what we call valenki.) So grandpa rolls him a pair of valenki. And he says, “He’s gotta be launched like a ship at the next big snow.” Arkhipych was in the navy during the war, but that’s no place to be rolling valenki, right?
Yes, but it’s not every day your grandkid hits that all-grown-up mark. So the family came and some neighbors too. Great-grandma was even taken down off the warm stove. She’s blind as a bat and deaf as a post, but she was enjoying herself as well. Antoshka’s mama, Nadyukha, dressed him up in fleece pants, and grandma got all teary-eyed too, and came and gave him a pair of pure silk ankle socks to mark the big day.
Nadyukha tugged the valenki on, and everyone was just wowed by how nice they looked. They set Antoshka on the floor and waited for him to start marching. An agreeable smile on everybody’s face; that house was one joyful place.
Antoshka stood, and stood, and fell over. He wasn’t used to it, they decided. They put him on his feet again. He fell down again. Then they leaned him up against a wall, sort of at an angle. His mama had put him in a knit cap with a pompom like a rose, so pretty it was. But the little tot, even at an angle like that, tumbled over again. “Take everything off,” grandpa grumbles. “He’s got no business sweating like he’s in a bath-house.” “We’re not going to undress him, are we?” Grandma asks. The old gal wasn’t keen on having to dress him all over again. Grandma walks around him, slaps herself on the forehead, and says, “It’s clear as day what the trouble is. That panpon’s tipping him over. It’s heavy. Tear it off, and the deuce take it. He’s not a little lass, he can do without a panpon. Here, pin this brooch on him.”
Mishka Sparrowlegs tore the pompom off. But without the pompon, Antoshka promptly tumbled over faster than before. Arkhipych was taking it very hard, wondering to himself if his valenki were screwing things up. “My valenki,” he says, “are top-notch. My grandson’s not of an age to stand. He’d best be crawling still.” And he suggested bringing Antoshka’s little sled into the hut, so he could be pulled over the floor mats. But great-grandma, deaf as she was, would have none of that, because her own mama had woven those mats. Because it was a lost art.
And then the neighbor girl came running in from the street, frozen stiff. They’d forgotten her, and she’d been standing out there with the sled, waiting to take Antoshka for a ride. Her feelings were hurt, so they decided to give her tea, with honey. And then her mama came and her grandma, and before long all the neighbors had come traipsing in, what with this odd business going on and all. An hour later, the dust was flying; it was quite the shindig, believe you me. They started knocking ’em back, which is the thing to do any chance you get, because it’s so warming. Then somebody brought an accordion, and the dancing started.
About then, Antoshka’s mama remembered that her son was still standing up against the wall. Not a word, not even a sigh from him. “Oh dear,” she says, “I bet he needs to pee!” But it was too late. He already had. Didn’t need help with that. The old gals started undressing him, unwrapping him. They took off his jackets, his leggings, his socks, and, while they were at it, the valenki too. They were wet, which stands to reason, young as he was. So grandma took them to dry on the stove, and out of the valenki fell … a pacifier, sixteen rubles in change, five bottle corks, a matchbox, and a ping-pong ball. “There you go,” grandpa said. “The valenki have nothing to do with it, and your panpon’s got nothing to do with it either. The kid was up on tiptoe.”
Get access to 8000+ articles like this. Subscribe to Russian Life Online for just $2 a month and you get full access to our 23-year archive, with articles by over 1000 authors. Powerful search to find just what you are looking for. Includes the current issues of the magazine.
GET RUSSIAN LIFE ONLINE
Russian Life is a 29-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567