Every summer since the 1970s, folklorists from St. Petersburg State University go on expeditions to the Russian North. This summer, Inna Veselova went on her 30th expedition. She began going as a freshman in college, and now leads expeditions jointly run by the literature faculty of St. Petersburg State University and the NGO Propp Center. She answered our questions about life and folklore on the “edge of the Earth.”
What role does folklore play in our lives?
Most often, folklore plays a unnoticed role. Important, but unnoticed, because folklore is that which is taken for granted. Telling family stories, singing mom’s favorite lullabies, and establishing relationships with jokes, ditties, and internet memes are all complicated means of communication, but seem obvious to everyone. My dissertation was about urban folklore: how, why, and to whom modern people talk about personal metaphysical experiences. Most people can tell such stories, and almost all people in Russia go through modern rituals and holidays, like the first of September as the start of the school year, proms, and New Year’s trees.
Where do you collect folklore?
Broadly speaking, we gather folklore everywhere there are people: both in megapolises (among our neighbors, in the metro, in social media) and in villages. However, planned field expeditions take place in regions of the Northwest, specifically Vologda, Pskov and Arkhangelsk Oblasts.
How do you get there?
The trip [from St. Petersburg] takes 2-3 days one way: by railroad, then minibuses, then boat or local airplanes. There is no mobile phone connection whatsoever. This year, a small group of us went from the village of Dorogorskoye by boat to two villages completely cut off from the mainland. There is a road to one for a few weeks in the summer and winter, but it is the type of road that is better for extreme drag races on ATVs than for regular transport.
Why is it important to gather folklore in these places?
These are very distant regions of our country, and it is important to remember that people still live there. Journalists often say that life exists beyond the Moscow beltway. Well, it actually exists a lot farther out. For people that live in cities, we might as well be studying extraterrestrial civilizations. But, actually, life there is dignified and interesting, even if it differs from urban life. People found refuge there starting in the sixteenth century. At first, they were escaping Moscow’s conquest of Novgorod, then religious persecution. Then the state started sending political dissidents there. And this continues today. So these are territories settled by people that have experience existing far from power structures, and nearly without the support from the state.
What is life like there? What do people do every day?
Daily life is complicated. Sometimes, going by boat from one village to another, I catch myself thinking that there is nothing in common except for the ring on my finger between me, the urban university professor, who visits bars, museums and concerts, and the me in three jackets and a headscarf on a boat built the same way as it was 100 years ago. I know I would not survive in a village house, splitting wood, heating the oven, cooking in it, growing food in the garden, catching fish, butchering wild game. It is hard for me to understand how my village acquaintances live without healthcare, transport, and cultural institutions, sometimes quite literally in solitude, at the edge of the world.
However, the main issue is that I couldn’t find meaning in my life in the confined village community. Of course, there are televisions, and many have internet, but people need to find meaning themselves. Life is so complicated there; it is possible to just survive, but it is also possible to think about more abstract values. Indeed, there are many good storytellers, talented singers, engaging philosophers, and masters of various handicrafts.
What aspects of the expedition are the most difficult for you?
First and foremost, it is issues of hygiene, due to the lack of a shower and normal toilets. Usually we use the owners’ banya, but that procedure requires specific bodily skills and habits. Village houses are dark compared to urban ones. There are often no mirrors in the usual locations, so with time the need for cosmetics falls away, and you keep up your appearance by feel and memory.
However, the journeys to the village also pose existential questions. How can you live beyond the categories important to urban people, like success and self-realization, when neither the time, nor the place, nor your neighbors exist in these terms? What is the point of being on time or rushing in the forest or on the river? The main thing is to be in the right place and the right time. Rhythms change and you start to have dreams.
With whom do you gather folklore?
Usually we travel as a large and diverse group. Fieldwork is required for Russianist freshmen. These are 18-19-year-olds, who often are seeing a village and going on a serious trip for the first time. Interviews are usually done in pairs, so more experienced colleagues – graduate students – help the beginners overcome their fear of talking to strangers, use the recording technology, and orient themselves. It is also very important that in every group there are researchers from partner institutions, including foreign ones, and scholars in various fields: historians, ethnographers, anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers. So, field seminars are a space for intensive dialogue and engaging discussion.
Is it difficult to get locals to tell you about folklore, letting you into their personal lives?
It varies. There are very open, kind, and hospitable people and whole villages. We prefer to work with them.
Do they believe in the reality of folklore, or do they interpret it as just stories and traditions?
Reality differs for everyone, and the reality of folklore genres also differs. What is the point of believing in jokes? People tell stories about inexplicable phenomena and spirits like they are accurate. But people and spirits don’t interact all the time. Usually the need for spirits and metaphysics appears during changes and existential crises. And yes, sometimes people explain difficult situations as the interference of external forces. I used to think that this was due to weakness and unwillingness to take responsibility for your life, but now I believe that this is a way to name your state of being and deal with it. Not a bad one.
Was there a time when it seemed to you that folklore transformed into real life?
When you, a city dweller, arrive in an unfamiliar village house, reality transforms radically. One time we were in the village as a small group: me with a friend and our adviser.
During the night, and sometimes the day, we heard steps on the roof, but never saw anyone there. And why would he (the steps were heavy, masculine), stamp on our roof? We decided it was a house spirit. We didn’t tell our adviser about our knowledge. And then, on the last day of work we were eating with the door open, and suddenly we saw barefoot legs in white pants descending a ladder from the roof, and then a long white shirt appeared, and before us stood an old man with a white beard and white hair. He was looking at us. It was exactly like the descriptions of house spirits. A silent scene and horror in our eyes.
Then the old man said hello and walked away. The hostess explained it was her husband. He was a fisherman who worked in the evenings and early mornings, and then hung his catch on the roof to dry. But we saw a house spirit. The folkloric register turns on quickly in certain situations.
Have you ever felt like a participant in the folklore performance, not just an observer?
One day we were returning by boat from the next village. We were travelling with a very good singer and her husband. She started singing an ancient song about a boat that sails in a rough sea, and on which one soldier among many asks the colonel for a vacation to visit his wife, small children and elderly parents. The song goes on for about eight minutes, and in the end it turns out that the parents had long since died, the wife had gotten remarried, and the children had left to beg. The song was about time that is lost and stands still on a boat, and we, the listeners, were travelling on that boat. It was like a Fellini movie.
What’s one interesting fact that you learned during your research?
study modern folk art, especially northern women’s multicolored knitting. After retirement, one of the babushkas knitted 2,600 pairs of very beautiful northern multicolored mittens and socks, that is about 130 pairs a year – 260 items – not including sweaters, scarves and vests. She recorded her creations in a special book. She had a sheep for wool, which she spun and dyed herself, which takes a few hundred hours a year. She did not sell her creations, but gifted them. She was knitting universal warmth and care.
I had the great fortune to be gifted a pair of these mittens, so her warmth and care spread from the edge of the world to the opposite side of the world, the United States. Truly universal.
Inna Veselova is a professor of the history of Russian literature at the philological faculty of St. Petersburg State University and the co-director of the research project “First Signs, or Pragmemes” of the NGO Propp Center for Humanitarian Research in the Field of Traditional Culture.
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