July 01, 2004

Village Notes: Ivan Kupala



In July it is almost unbearable to be outside at midday, due to the heat and the great gadflies. Our only relief is the rain, which occasionally pours on our village of Chukhrai from thundering black clouds, accompanied by flashes of lightning. The villagers gladly take a break from their gardens and the heat or rain to mark the Orthodox holiday of Ivan Kupala (John the Baptist Day) on July 7, commemorating the day the prophet is believed to have been born. It is considered a sin to work on religious holidays and Sundays. No laundry or cleaning for the women. No hitting anything with a hammer or chopping wood for the men. Most of the men in our village find these holidays, which come several times a month, a good excuse to get drunk.

Within a week, the villagers celebrate Petrov Den (St. Peter and Paul Day), although not like they used to. Before the war, the entire village reveled on this day, dancing and singing. The men rigged up a revolving wooden wheel, called a “reili” from the Old Russian verb meaning “to soar.” It had four wooden seats, each holding two people, hung at opposite ends of long beams affixed at right angles. The whole contraption rotated around a cross bar resting on high wooden posts. Two men stood below and pushed the seats up and over the cross bar with long poles. For a fare of only two eggs (to compensate the men for their troubles), one could ride on Chukhrai’s own Ferris wheel.

Having lived in Chukhrai with my husband Igor for seven years, I have learned that the villagers are devoted to the Russian Orthodox faith and associated holidays while at the same time adhere to many pagan beliefs. Igor says they have kasha (porridge) in their heads. They mark church holidays while revering shamans and good and evil spirits in the forest. They believe that wood nymphs live in the forest and mermaids dwell in the river. Over time, pagan rites have even worked their way into celebrations of Orthodox holidays.


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