November 2, 2012 by dsalkowski
While they’re enjoying a hurricane back home, we’ve just gotten our first dusting of snow. I’ve started helping out in some English classes, and the two questions I always get from the students are: “How do you like the Russian weather?” and “How do you like the Russian girls?” Well, I certainly prefer one to the other.
We have been lucky to have and exceptionally beautiful autumn here, and apparently, the snow was a little late in coming this year. The folk belief is that the first snow should come on October 15th; this is a minor religious holiday that has to do with the Virgin Mary covering the land to protect her people. Although the Soviet Union did its best to stamp out religion here, it is amazing how strongly the people – even if they only go to church on Christmas and Easter – identify as Orthodox.
Here’s an example. I went to the famous Marinsky theatre to see Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, the quintessential Russian opera. The story is about the Tsar who followed Ivan the Terrible who probably killed his younger brother in order to come to power, and he oppressed his people, despite good intentions of ruling justly. Shostakovich re-orchestrated it during Stalin’s reign, feeling its pertinence then, and the production we saw was staged in a modern, post-Soviet interpretation, still strangely contemporary.
Anyways, in one of my English classes, one of my students happens to be a violinist at the Marinsky. Though she wasn’t playing during the production I saw, she had been present at the dress rehearsals. Her main reaction was that the English director had greatly offended the Russian people by using icons in the set and having them put on the ground at some points during the production. Of course, being from the unholy West, I didn’t even notice. This discrepancy between the American and Russian outlook is also what makes the Pussy Riot hooliganism case such a bad conversation-starter.
Another good way to antagonize your host is to ask when World War II started; we typically acknowledge the invasion of Poland as the beginning, whereas that point of view also inconveniently admits the alliance between Stalin and Hitler, so here, the Great Patriotic War started in ’41. According to Shostakovich’s memoirs, this was accompanied by a Wagner-mania in the sphere of Soviet music, followed by a swift about-face when the sides shifted again. Shostakovich himself was objectified as a political figure during the war (and his entire life). We visited the monument to the siege of Leningrad, where Shostakovich’s “Leningrad Symphony” plays perennially. While he wrote the symphony in honor of the millions killed by Stalin during the purges, history has adopted the version that he wrote it as part of the effort towards The Great Patriotic War; this version is still part of the tour-guide narrative.
At the same time, seeing the mass graves – 1.5 million Leningraders died during the almost 900-day siege – makes it pretty obvious how unwelcome any corrections would be to the story. While the historical revisionism is interesting to observe, I don’t want to distract from the loss these people faced; everyone here was somehow affected by the siege, and they certainly relate much more closely to the war than the average American.