Letter from Abroad: Yaroslavl

Pip Cull is greatly envious of Russia’s readiness to embrace childhood fantasy

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Yaroslavl is, in all honesty, bleak. I’m sure it’s beautiful in summer, when the Volga river is moving, the trees have leaves and people can walk on the streets without the risk of breaking limbs. But right now, in mid-February, the sky is grey and empty. The streets are grey and miry, and all people want to do is lie in bed watching the latest episode of Pust’ govoryat (think Jeremy Kyle but louder).

Whilst trudging all the way to university every morning, all I often long for is a cup of tea and a Kit Kat. What I am usually greeted with instead is something not quite as familiar, but equally heart-warming.

Olga, our guide through the wonders of Russian literature, often comes to us with a great Cheshire Cat grin on her face. And, without any introduction, she begins to sing.

Her seemingly endless repertoire mainly features Russian folk songs, or songs from Russian films, such as the catchy favourites of ‘Lozhkoj sneg meshaja’ and ‘Pesenka o medvedyakh’. She often concludes with a little giggle, before returning to her work. Of late, she has taken to dancing at the same time, twisting her wrists and tapping her foot whilst she sings about lonely grasshoppers and frogs travelling the world.

It’s now no surprise to me that people have inhabited this sullen corner of the world for so long, if, all the while, they’ve had such fantastic songs to keep them motivated and warmed.

The close relationship existing between Russians and their fairy tales and folk songs has greatly surprised me. In England, whilst everyone may know the story of Jack and the Beanstalk and we may all be able to recite ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ without much hesitation, it is very much an awkward and frivolous relationship. This is not to say that Russian teenagers read fairy tales instead of Game of Thrones, and hum nursery rhymes on the bus instead of listening to Lady Gaga, but they do seem to happily embrace opportunities to discuss and reminisce about the stories and songs of their childhood.

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Some English friends and I recently had the honour of being invited to a school ball, about two hours outside of Yaroslavl. In Britain, if you travel for two hours out of any city, you are bound to hit another city. In Russia, bare wilderness stretches between cities. We arrived in this tiny village. It had a population of 300 and non-existent running water, yet hospitality was certainly at the forefront.

The school ball turned out to be a whole village affair, and we quickly discovered that ballroom dancing was most definitely on their syllabus. We struggled.

In the midst of this procession of waltzes and mazurkas there appeared a woman, with painted rosy cheeks and a fake nose. She was immediately recognised by the entire Russian contingent as a famous character of Russian folklore, Baba Yaga. Throughout the ball more and more characters appeared, playing various games and telling various stories, all to the delight of the Russians, and to our complete confusion.

Take a moment to visualise your secondary school prom, or college social, and then imagine someone entering dressed as Goldilocks or Tom Thumb. They’d probably be hounded out by empty Foster’s cans. If there’s one thing I want to steal from the Russians, it’s their love of their past. Their adoration of folklore in their culture. Yes, we may like making a ritual out of attending the pub or complaining about the length of the queue at Tesco, but it’s really not quite the same.

When I return to Oxford in October, I hope my tutors will have taken a leaf out of Olga’s book and will greet me with songs and folk dancing in every tutorial. That would certainly be one way to raise student satisfaction.