The place: One of 20 some ethnic republics inside of Russia, this one with a history going back to the Khans and Turks. Chuvashia. Where even Russian isn’t the first language. A gentle, quiet people with deep hearts. I am visiting their schools, traveling with a staunch senior lady who is first in my eyes a survivor of the recently deposed Soviet regime. It is deep Russian countryside. Where people are not more than a step removed from the peasantry. The hard life etched in the silence of their movements and the lines on their faces. The smell one of burn piles and new life.
I am her prize pony, “First I bring you Soros money, now I bring you… an American!”
The time: Early spring, Easter weekend to be precise.
The red spot denotes where the Republic that I am staying is in relation to the rest of Russia.
We drove about 6 to 8 hours in deeply rutted roads out to towns with names like Shumerlya and Alatyr. I don’t remember any of the trip, I believe the anxiety of no sleep the night before and the jerky rocking of the car, I went into a sort of shock sleep.
I am younger, in my mid 20’s.
All day we are visiting schools, there are many programs of young girls dancing and singing in high voices a language I don’t know a word of. They are greeting me with the maximum of joy and generosity. Each school 2 girls are dressed in early Chuvash dress, and holding a loaf of bread and small tureen of salt, that my life would know abundance and flavor.
My counterpart is intimidating, not only to me. I am not showing how deeply lost I feel in this new place. I smile robotically and respond to their requests for me to sign their small meticulously organized notebooks with my signature, as if I am a rock star. The students practice their English with me, asking me questions like “Do you like to go to the circus with your brother?” “Yes, yes I do, very much,” I answer, not being able to recollect a time when I have ever done this. But a 4th grader is venturing far out of his language comfort zone to ask a stranger a question in another language so, yes, I love to go to the circus with my brother. I am learning much they never taught at the University. I look carefully for connections I can make with them, waxing eloquently on the profound impact that Helen Keller’s story has, because I know they have read about her in their texts. Or how much I love Somerset Maugham. Because every child in Russia uses the same text to learn English, and they are all on the same page every day of the year, so careful is their curriculum. Eleven time zones. I draw an outline of the US and illustrate where my state is, where my town, Portland is. They oooh as if I have performed magic.
In the evening they, with names like Fyodor, and Sveta, welcome me into their homes with amazing spreads of food, this time very special food for Easter. They eat and sing and play the accordion and drink and talk and they have placed me at the head of the table with my counterpart, Lyudmila. I am vaguely scared of her. I eat entirely too much of their sweet Easter cheese and hope to not get a stomach ache. I carefully avoid the beets, which are everywhere and I try desperately to evade the constant toasts with vodka, which make me feel more strange and less careful than I need to be.
In the morning, it is a magnificently quiet, dappled bright dewy morning in this rare place. My counterpart decides that since it is Easter day, we will go to the “sobor”, which is the Russian Orthodox temple and place of worship.
It is so unbelievably different from any American church I have ever been in, and feels so foreign, more like an artifact than a place of worship. As we traverse the mud, passersby greet each other with “Hristos Voskreys” and respond with “Vayisinos voskreys”. Eventually I learn this means “He is risen!” and “He is risen indeed”.
The sobor has hard tile floors, and this one with its cupolas is unusually bright. There are saints painted in the particular orthodox style hung in intervals around the edge of the church. People are walking around inside, though it is not crowded. There are no seats at all. Anywhere. There are urns with a material designed to hold candles and their dripping wax. There is an altar and pulpit area. It smells of the burning candles. And the faces of the saints all have long, regal noses and piercing eyes and are holding their hands in significant ways. There is old ornate Cyrillic script at the bottoms, denoting the name of the saint. Since I am freshly arrived, within the past 4 months, I still struggle to read the particular script to understand who the saints are.
As I walk around the interior of the sobor, the foreignness of my current lot overwhelms me, and yet the familiarity of what is happening here is as close to my heart as my own children are now. It is an uncomfortable juxtaposition, I want to feel like I know and understand things that are close to me, but here in this sobor, I only recognize the spirit of what is happening.
All of this makes me feel echoes of homesickness. Not real homesickness, but a memory of homesickness. I want to take it all in and appreciate it, but there is too much. It is like spending a day in a rich museum… there is too much to absorb it all in one day, or even in an interval of 2 hours.
Nothing much is happening but I am struggling to not feel overwhelmed. We are merely celebrating Easter, my favorite holiday because it is so much less stressful than Christmas. I love Easter, and now Easter looks so different. But it is the same. Truly there is no place to hide from God.
As we leave out to the muddy streets, the brightly colored wooden houses, the chickens and roosters, the children dressed in valenki (heavy felt boots) play among beekeeping setups and pens for goats. Here a basketball hoop and blacktop fighting a case of weeds, there a garden and everywhere, spring mud.
As I walk back to the place where we are being hosted with my counterpart, she in her very Russian way holds her chest out against chill with her chin set stern and her carefully ordered boots, coat, scarf and fur hat pronouncing if not a regalness, an imperviousness. I try to affect her posture of confidence in my own way, feeling considerably less impenetrable than her. Even the beauty of the countryside and the church don’t entirely go in, it is only now many years later that I better understand that experience.
She greets passersby as they greet her “Hristos Voskreys” and “Vayisinos voskreys”. He is risen! He is risen indeed.
More about where I was at…
Chuvash Republic is in many ways the exact opposite of Moscow Oblast. Personal incomes are low. Most of Chuvash countryside is traditional, affected neither by depopulation nor by market transformation. Although the capital city, Cheboksary, heads a sizable (600,000 residents) urban agglomeration, its location close to the northern border of the republic limits its immediate modernizing influence on much of the republic. Also, 68% of the republic’s entire population is ethnic Chuvash, a Turkic-speaking but Eastern Orthodox people. The Chuvash are even more dominant in the countryside, as most ethnic Russians live in Cheboksary. Chuvash are politically conservative: in 1996, about 80% of rural voters favored communists. Yet, Chuvash president, Nikolay Fiodorov, is pro-reform and has succeeded in the market transformation of local industry. In agriculture, however, collective farms retain strong position. Unlike Moscow Oblast, most of them have not been converted into joint-stock companies. Also unlike Moscow Oblast, much of livestock (e.g., 42% of all cattle) is now in subsidiary farming, that is, kept and fed by peasant families themselves, while at the same time registered private family farms are extremely rare. One interesting feature of Chuvash agriculture is its virtual monopoly on hops in Russia, which is important in view of ongoing fast expansion in Russia’s production of beer.