Nice Things People Ask or Say to You When They Find Out You’re Russian

Because they do! And while I have previously truthfully listed the rather typical things they ask (which tickle all my sarcastic scribbling instincts and love of the ridiculous hidden between the lines), I do always veer towards being positive in the end.

So, that conversation happens where you reveal the R word when people ask you where you’re from (sometimes they insistently ask you where you’re from “originally”, because your name sounds different, regardless of how long you’ve been living in your current non-Russian city). And you might hear one of the following:

Wow! That is a big country! (Yes. Depending on my mood, I might respond with, “Indeed, we have a lot of room” or “Go big or go home!”)

I love that stew, what’s it called…borscht! (Actually it’s pronounced borSCH, without a “t”, but I appreciate the effort and I have to restrain myself from asking if you’ve seen Miss Congeniality and if you might remember that scene in the dingy Russian restaurant, with Gracie Hart complimenting the waitress on that very stew…I’m getting carried away.)

What are those pretty Russian wooden dolls called, the ones you can stack up in each other? (Matryoshka. NOT babushka.)

 

Do you know that animated film, Anastasia? (Yes, I do, and I love it, though before you can ask, I’ll say myself that it’s a rather liberal interpretation of the Russian Revolution and the following years!)

I think you’re the first Russian I’ve ever met. (Honoured! Prepare to be amazed…)

 

 

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Things People Ask You When You Say You Are Russian

A few years back I already partly touched on this subject, since some of the suggestions I made were based on my experiences at parties and any kind of social gatherings with people I didn’t know well. Time has passed and I have collected some more questions that I received as soon as I mentioned my Russian roots. And I’m including the answers to these questions here as well. All is about to be revealed…

Do your parents work in the oil industry?

I understand where this is coming from and if you’re trying to be funny, you might succeed if I like you, but no. The oil industry is not the only industry in the country with available jobs.

Does your dad work in the oil industry?

See above. I notice you’re not asking about my mom. Or my sisters, female cousins, aunts etc. Do you have a problem with women working in the oil industry? Do you feel like an intense discussion about issues with how women are still being viewed in the workplace? Are you trying to put some distance between us right now? Where are you going? Come back!Do you speak Russian?

Da.

Do you speak/ understand Polish/ Ukranian/ Czech?

I’m afraid the answer is no on all counts. They are different languages and you have to learn them to be able to understand and speak them.

Is it dark all the time in winter?

No.

But are your days shorter?

Only in winter. Like in Europe.When do you guys celebrate New Year’s Eve?

December 31.

When do you celebrate Christmas?

January 7.

But why?

Because we celebrate the Orthodox Christmas.

Does your name mean something?

Not as a word, but otherwise…how much time do you have?

Wow, how come you don’t have an accent?

Vot do you mean?

So, are you from Moscow?

No. There are many other cities in the country…

What’s a “babUshka”?

“BAbushka” is a lovely word that means “grandmother”. It is used to address your own grandmother or in general to talk about older ladies.

Do you always put jam in your tea?Why don’t you like whistling indoors?

Because we have a deeply-seated, old superstition about whistling your money away if you whistle inside. We might not all be religious, but in general we’re a superstitious nation.

Did you see Russia’s performance during the last FIFA World Cup?

No, I’m afraid not… I was too busy watching Manuel Neuer.

 

Explaining Russian Cartoons: The Bremen Town Musicians

It was 1969 and an animated musical Russian retelling of the popular tale by the Brothers Grimm burst on to national screens, successfully singing its way in to the hearts of generations to come.

As a child I discovered a still working record player in the back of a closet, along with a stack of records next to it. Sifting through the colourful cases, my eyes fell on The Bremen Town Musicians. I slid the record on the player, carefully placed the needle on the vinyl and that was it.

With the combination of my Russian roots and this being one of the most beloved animated films ever produced in Russia, I keep feeling like it’s important to try and explain its appeal, even if not everyone can understand the language. ” I love it, dorogaya, you should love it too! Listen to me!” But hopefully they can understand some other things: the brilliant rhyming of the lyrics by Yuri Entin and their seamless interaction with the music by Gennady Gladkov, the immediate appeal of the catchy songs and how easy it is to sing along. The tale of friendship and love, the idyllic concept of traveling around a fictional kingdom, singing for a living, or just singing 24/7, with influences from former fashion and music, rock and roll in particular, permeating the adventures of Troubadour, his animal mates and the Princess.

Oleg Anofriev voiced practically every character in the cartoon and his multi-voiced singing is one of the trademarks of The Bremen Town Musicians. Here’s a vivid example in the song of the bandits, where he’s also singing the part of the female leader.

It’s a happy tale and a cartoon bursting with youth, energy and optimism, as well as humour. In quintessentially Russian fashion, the enduring popularity of The Bremen Town Musicians is cemented by the fact that it became almost completely quotable. Start singing a line from any songs among a group of Russians and chances are they will join in or give you a happy smile in return. The dignified and defiant “Quite ruffled, but not beaten” is another classic quote.

“There is nothing better than traveling the world with your friends/ Tempting arches in castles will never replace our freedom.” Yes, it’s not the same as in Russian, but you get the picture.

Videos from the Classic Cartoon Media YouTube channel.

 

 

Swan Lake

The swan is dying. I know she is, and so does everyone else! Carefully, daintily she skitters across the stage en pointe. I don’t know where the ballerina ends and the swan begins. Her arms rise and fall, and I almost see white wings fluttering, perhaps in a futile attempt to fly again. Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s music, both tragic and releasing at the same time, glides around her movements, then folds, just as gently as she finally does on the ground.
This past holiday season has breathed new life in to a long-standing interest of mine: classical Russian ballet. Childhood memories have sustained me all these years, memories of fairytale images, breath-taking performances, bordering on the impossible in their light-limbed, dashing perfection. Memories of sweeping, encompassing tragedy, romance, joy, and oh so much drama. Sometimes over the years I saw parts of well-known classics integrated in to other modern ballets. Other times I would listen to that Tchaikovsky score from The Nutcracker on repeat. And then, by chance, I went to see a performance of Swan Lake by the St. Petersburg Festival Ballet, on tour in Hamburg.
There seems to be only one school of such almost mythical ballet excellence, and it was established in the 19th century with a Russian-French fusion that included the enduring choreography of Marius Petipa. His work extended to Swan Lake, among other ballets. It’s amazing to think how long this foundation has lasted, even if individual companies bring their own touch and spin on the story, performance length and costumes. Paired with Tchaikovsky’s soaring score, in each scene the music makes you think that this soundtrack could not have sounded differently, but only like the notes that are seeping in to your mind as you are drawn to the shore of the swan lake.
Some of the most magical parts of Swan Lake are when Odette makes a solo entrance. To me this character has always conveyed strength and a certain resolve within the confines of the swan curse. The expected physical endurance of the dancer for this role has to be carefully combined with so many other characteristics – poise, grace, fragility that doesn’t seem breakable. She has to be able to express fear, curiousity, hope, despair. As in the performances I remember from long ago, that night in Hamburg a true prima ballerina carried Odette along the water. An example of a dance (from a different version):
 
 The music, of course, has accompanied my cultural experience in different ways, considering its enormous influence all over the world, from what I heard on the radio to an animated version based on the story, with a lot of quotable quotes. Anybody remember? (Don’t watch the sequel, it will tarnish the blissful experience if you enjoyed the first one as a kid.)
 
 Back from the brief humorous reminiscence. It is nice to begin experiencing Russian ballet again as an adult. It’s also interesting – you notice things you may not have noticed before. For instance, I remember the story going along until it finished, even if the audience couldn’t keep from clapping explosively after practically every dance. The ensemble from St. Petersburg, on the other hand, paused after every famous scene and seemed to almost expect applause. Which they fully deserved, but it did break up the experience somewhat. The magical feeling I remember is still attached to the ensemble I have seen as a child. Maybe it’s because they had that one absolutely amazing dancer, and so far she has been the only one I’ve seen who got close to reenacting legendary Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova’s wavy, rippling arm movements as Odette dances her swan song before death claims her:
 
 There is only one Ulanova, true, but there are also, luckily, others who take on the role of Odette and bring their own uniqueness to it, within the traditional dance framework that keeps attracting audiences decade after decade.
I hold my breath. Every eye is glued to the stage. The swan lies motionless. And then…well. Let’s leave it at that.
The curtain drops on the swan lake.
Until next time.