USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘russia’
Festival
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

V Day in Russia

Main Piece

“On the 9th of May, we celebrate victory over fascism, because its Russia. [Laughs] There’s a military parade in almost every city with tanks and…how do you say, the soldiers. In Moscow, we have this one major theater, and all the veterans would meet up there. If you want to pay tribute, you bring flowers to that lawn in front of that theater. There are barbeques and pop up shops everywhere. My family tries to go to…I celebrated every year until last year because I had exams, but usually my family goes to this restaurant across the street and has barbeque there. It’s a time to honor history…lots of documentaries are shown. It’s about remembering the people who fought the Second World War.”

Background

Informant

Nationality: Russian

Location: Moscow

Language: English

The informant feels different now than compared to two years ago. For her, two years ago, Victory Day represented strong pride for “my [her] country” and “my [her] people.” She had what she called “personally mandatory crying sessions” due to the stories veterans told. The informant wrote poems about the day and the time [in WW2].

Context

In the last two years, the informant moved first to the UK and then to the United States and has presumably learned about history that lessened her pride in her country. The informant heavily implied but never explicitly stated that she no longer feels as strongly for Russia as she used to. For reference, since moving to the United States she has bought and displayed a large American flag in her room.

Notes

It’s incredibly interesting how national holidays and patriotism can play a role in identity, but it is even more interesting that the informant has had their identity changed so much by living in America.

 

Folk speech
Holidays
Humor
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Tales /märchen

Levine Hand Strength

I’ve sat next to this girl for most of the semester, however our conversation has been limited to commonalities between the pair of us rather than old family stories. I knew she was Jewish and from the Valley. She seemed eccentric, and dressed in that way only those privy to Los Angeles beach culture – striped shirts, ripped jeans, lots of pins on backpacks and patches on shirts – can pull off. I had no idea her family came from Russia, or that they were known for their hand strength.

The following was transcribed from a recording taken in class and shared among three or four other classmates. The background buzzed with chatter from other students, but still the edge of the story shone through.

“He was an orthodox Jewish barrel-builder in Russia at the turn of the century. He started this thing in our family, ‘Levine Hand Strength’ – the firm handshake. He was coming off work one day and a Cossack soldier – these guys are usually pretty anti-Semetic – came up to him and pulled on his beard and called him a ‘Jew bastard’. Anyways, in Russian, my great grandpa said to the Cossack, ‘that was very good of you to let me shake your hand’. According to grandpa Harry, he crushed the Cossack’s hand so hard that blood came out of his finger-tips. That’s the family story that we tell at every Jewish holiday.”

Almost as timeless as time itself, stories of Jews overcoming their oppressors never fail to entertain. Fitting in with movies like “Inglorious Basterds”or “Life is Beautiful”, this story further illustrates the pride Jews feel in keeping a positive spirit while facing constant prejudice and oppression. Additionally, it celebrates the familial trait of strength, both physical and mental, by being retold multiple times throughout the year.

 

Legends
Narrative

Barrel Maker Family Legend

This was collected during a discussion section for this class on March 27, 2018 in which we were instructed to exchange folklore with each other. We could share whatever we wanted, so there was no prompting from me about this legend. This was told to me along with several other people in our discussion. WL is the informant, PH is myself.

WL: Okay so this is a family legend, the legend of my …. great-great-great grandpa. Maybe even further back in the family, I’m not sure exactly. I’ll just call him my grandpa. He was a barrel maker. My whole family left Russia at the turn of the 18th century, they were all Jewish, it was anti-Semitic Minsk, Russia. My dad told me this. So, my grandpa: barrel maker, strong, long beard. A Russian cossack comes up to my grandpa, throws an anti-Semitic slur at him, and pulls his beard. Grandpa replies, “Thanks for putting me in my place,” basically, puts his hand out to shake….but my grandpa is really strong–

At this point, I had to leave the discussion to make it to my next class, so the recounting was interrupted. We agreed she would finish telling me another time. On April 8, 2018 I showed the informant how much I had written down to jog her memory.

PH: It ends with your great grandpa extending his hand to shake

WL: Okay so my great great grandpa, whatever it is…his is around like the beginning of the 19th century…extends his hand to this Russian Cossack and is like, “Oh thanks for putting me in my place” etc etc and ends up BREAKING this dude’s hand because he was such a strong barrel maker…. My dad tells this story pretty much at any event where the entirety of his family is over.

folk metaphor
Folk speech
Proverbs

Proverb: Love is like a Tomato

Main Piece: Proverb

Original:

Прошла любовь, завяли помидоры.

Phonetic:

Proshla lyubov’, zavyali pomidory.

Literal translation:

Love has passed, tomatoes have withered.

Actual translation:

The love was a crush and it passed quickly.

Background Information:

  • Why does informant know this piece?

This was told to her by her friends.

  • Where did they learn this piece?

The Soviet Union.

  • What does it mean to them?

If she hears it, it means she had a silly crush and has quickly moved on.

Context:

This proverb is told to young people, usually young girls but can be boys, when they have a crush and quickly move on either from liking the person to hating them, or to another person.

Personal Thoughts:

I find this proverb to be very amusing, comparing a person’s feelings to a tomato that has withered, especially since tomatoes are not a food that is commonly associated with anything romantic. Usually when young people hear this proverb, they are insulted at first, because it seems to diminish the value of their feelings, but they find it funnier as they get older and realize those feelings were not nearly as important or significant as they seemed.

Humor

Dirty Dentist Joke

Main Piece: [Dirty] Joke

Original:

Женщина идет к дантисту в местной клинике. Когда она идет по коридору, она ошибочно входит в кабинет гинеколога, понимает, что это не то место, и идет к следующей двери. Она садится на стул дантиста. Входит доктор, сильно пахнущий водкой. Он подходит к ней и говорит: «Ок, открывай!» Она открывает рот. Он говорит: «Ок, немного шире!» она открывает рот шире. Он восклицает: «Эй, у тебя там зубы!»

Phonetic:

Zhenshchina idet k dantistu v mestnoy klinike. Kogda ona idet po koridoru, ona oshibochno vkhodit v kabinet ginekologa, ponimayet, chto eto ne to mesto, i idet k sleduyushchey dveri. Ona saditsya na stul dantista. Vkhodit doktor, sil’no pakhnushchiy vodkoy. On podkhodit k ney i govorit: «Ok, otkryvay!» Ona otkryvayet rot. On govorit: «Ok, nemnogo shire!» ona otkryvayet rot shire. On vosklitsayet: «Ey, u tebya tam zuby!»

Translation:

A woman goes to the dentist at the local clinic. As she’s walking through the hall, she mistakenly walks into the gynecologist’s office, realizes it is the wrong place, and goes to the next door. She sits down in the dentist’s chair. A doctor walks in, smelling strongly of vodka. He comes up to her and says “Ok, open wide!” She opens her mouth. He says, “Ok, a little wider!” she opens her mouth wider. He exclaims, “Hey, you have teeth down there!”

 

Background Information:

  • Why does informant know this piece?

He likes to tell jokes and learns them wherever he can.

  • Where did they learn this piece?

He learned this joke at a party.

  • What does it mean to them?

He thinks this is a hilarious joke.

 

Context:

  • Where?

At a party or other social gathering.

  • When?

Whenever it is appropriate to tell a joke.

  • Why?

In order to amuse people and make some people uncomfortable

 

Personal Thoughts:

I’ve heard this joke since I was a small child, but I only understood that a drunk gynecologist accidentally ended up in the dentist’s office and why that is amusing when I grew a lot older. These kinds of jokes are very common at Russian parties and gatherings. The most popular jokes are as always, the most inappropriate.

general
Humor

Soviet Joke about a Newspaper Stand

“An old lady goes to buy a newspaper, but she forgot which newspaper she wants to buy. So, the newsman says, ‘Would you like to buy Pravda?’ which means, in Russian, ‘truth.’ And the old lady says ‘no, no, it’s not pravda, there is no pravda in Pravda, no truth in Truth.’ And the newsman says, ‘would you like to buy Isvestia?’, which means ‘news’ in Russian. And the old lady says, ‘No, no, not Isvestia, there is no isvestia in Isvestia, no news in News. Give me the Soviet Sport.’”

NOTE: For a Russian transcription of this joke, please see item 1 on the uploaded image: 

Q. What message is this joke trying to convey?

A. It’s saying that everything is just lies—there are no news, there is no truth. It’s a joke where people laugh at what is officially told by the Soviet party and the Soviet authorities to people, that these are not true news, these are not true truth, Soviet Sport is the only thing which reports the truth. So, it’s not that it’s worth reading it, I mean, my family didn’t read Soviet Sport because we were not into sports, but that’s the only newspaper which has truth—the results reported truthfully—and it is news, because the games were actually played.

Analysis: This joke laughs at the names of Soviet newspapers, which are called by such ridiculous titles as “Truth” and “News,” but only write the party line, so that they are not actually worth reading.

Background on Soviet Jokes:

Q. Are these jokes that people would tell all the time?

A. Well, I remember them now, and I’ve been out of the Soviet Union for over thirty years. I knew them all my life. People would just sit down and they tell jokes, and if you have a new joke, that’s great. People learn those jokes, and they retell those jokes—it’s an underground joke industry. I don’t know how Soviet jokes originated, but all these jokes are something I grew up with, and thirty years later, I still remember them.

Analysis of Soviet Jokes: The Soviet regime was very oppressive. People constantly heard rhetoric about the greatness of the Soviet Union, and that it is a worker’s paradise, but in reality, the situation just grew worse and worse, and life only became bleaker. Thus, these jokes expose the population’s horrible disappointment in the regime. When I asked my informant whether people were idealistic about Communism in its early days, she told me that her grandparents were extremely idealistic about socialism, and believed that the Soviet Union would eventually become a great country with a high standard of living. When part of her family emigrated from Russia to Palestine in 1919, they invited her grandparents—and their children, of course—to come with them. But her grandparents declined, believing that socialist Russia would be a wonderful country. My informant’s parents grew up within this idealistic climate; in the 1930s, even though Russians experienced a horrible food shortage, people believed that since they inherited a terrible economy from the tsar, World War I, and the Revolution, the situation would eventually improve.

In contrast, by the time that my informant grew up, in the 1970s, the Soviet Union was corrupt through-and-through, and no one believed that there would be any improvement. In these jokes, then, we see people’s horrible disappointment, their cynicism, and their lack of hope for the future. The jokes never call you to resist the regime because resistance is futile and people feel powerless to change the system; rather, these jokes simply give people the satisfaction of laughing at the regime, an outlet for their disillusionment.

Humor

Soviet Joke about Caviar

“A person who left Russia during Revolution came to visit. He comes to the store in Moscow and says, ‘Can I please buy a hundred grams of caviar?’ Well, there was no caviar in Soviet stores, it disappeared when I was a child, somewhere in the 1960s. I still remember when I was very little and my mom would take us to buy a little bit of caviar, and there would be black caviar and red caviar, and even though red caviar is considered to be the most expensive one, I liked the black caviar. And then, it disappeared because Russians suddenly realized—the Soviet authorities—that they can sell it for dollars, for foreign currency. So all of it went abroad and it disappeared in the Soviet Union. So that’s what you have to know before you can understand this joke. So the person comes and he goes into the shop and he says, ‘Can I buy a hundred grams of caviar?’ And the saleslady says, ‘Could you step aside, sir? Just stand here.’ There’s a big line of people, and one person comes and buys bread, and another person comes and buys milk, and a third person comes and buys something else, butter or bread. So, after the man stays there for fifteen minutes, she says, ‘Do you see anyone asking for caviar?’ He said ‘No.’ She says, ‘You see? We don’t carry it anymore because there is no demand for caviar.’

Link to Russian transcription of joke: 

Q. What message is this joke trying to convey?

A. This is a joke about the shortage of food in the Soviet Union. It’s also about how the Soviet authorities would cover up the truth. Why we don’t have caviar? Not because there is no caviar in Russia, but because there is no demand. We always have some sort of an explanation. For example, at some point, in Lithuania, where I grew up, the Soviet Union started to take meat and send it to other parts of the Soviet Union, and also to Vietnam. And to cover up the shortage, they said that there is no demand for meat all the way through the week, and there should be a couple of days per week when the meat stores should be closed. (There were separate meat stores.) So, suddenly the meat stores are closed on a number of days. Why? Well, the truth is that there is not enough meat. What is the Soviet explanation? That people come from White Russia, from Belarus, which is a neighboring Soviet republic which really doesn’t have meat at all, come to Vilnius [the capital of Lithuania] and they buy all the meat. So, we don’t want to have meat stores open on the days that they come, like weekends.

Background on Soviet Jokes:

Q. Are these jokes that people would tell all the time?

A. Well, I remember them now, and I’ve been out of the Soviet Union for over thirty years. I knew them all my life. People would just sit down and they tell jokes, and if you have a new joke, that’s great. People learn those jokes, and they retell those jokes—it’s an underground joke industry. I don’t know how Soviet jokes originated, but all these jokes are something I grew up with, and thirty years later, I still remember them.

Analysis of Soviet Jokes: The Soviet regime was very oppressive. People constantly heard rhetoric about the greatness of the Soviet Union, and that it is a worker’s paradise, but in reality, the situation just grew worse and worse, and life only became bleaker. Thus, these jokes expose the population’s horrible disappointment in the regime. When I asked my informant whether people were idealistic about Communism in its early days, she told me that her grandparents were extremely idealistic about socialism, and believed that the Soviet Union would eventually become a great country with a high standard of living. When part of her family emigrated from Russia to Palestine in 1919, they invited her grandparents—and their children, of course—to come with them. But her grandparents declined, believing that socialist Russia would be a wonderful country. My informant’s parents grew up within this idealistic climate; in the 1930s, even though Russians experienced a horrible food shortage, people believed that since they inherited a terrible economy from the tsar, World War I, and the Revolution, the situation would eventually improve.

In contrast, by the time that my informant grew up, in the 1970s, the Soviet Union was corrupt through-and-through, and no one believed that there would be any improvement. In these jokes, then, we see people’s horrible disappointment, their cynicism, and their lack of hope for the future. The jokes never call you to resist the regime because resistance is futile and people feel powerless to change the system; rather, these jokes simply give people the satisfaction of laughing at the regime, an outlet for their disillusionment.

Folk speech
Narrative
Proverbs
Tales /märchen

Russian Proverb about a Broken Wash Basin

“Do you want to go back to your broken wash basin?”

This Russian proverb comes from a fairytale, which my informant recounted to me:

“This is a story about a golden fish. An old man, very poor, lives in a cottage next to the sea. He goes to fish, and he catches in his net a golden fish. And she talks to him in a human voice, and she says, ‘Old man, let me go, I’ll give you whatever wish you want.’ The old man is a kind person, and he says ‘Oh, go little fish, swim in the sea, I’ll find other fish to eat.’ He doesn’t ask for any wish. So he comes home, and he sees his wife, an old woman, sitting near their cottage, which is falling apart, and she’s trying to do a wash, but she washes the clothes in a wooden basin and it’s falling apart, there is a big hole in it, it’s broken. And he tells her the story about how he caught the golden fish, and how she said that she can do any wish he wants. And the old lady is furious; she says, ‘I can’t even wash the clothes, the basin is broken, and you let her go!’ So, he wants to make his wife happy, he goes to the ocean and calls for the fish, and he says, ‘Can you make my wife happy, can you give my old woman a new basin, which is not broken?’  He comes, and he thinks his wife will be very happy because she got a new wash basin. But she’s furious—she says, ‘You could ask anything you want, why do you ask for a basin? Ask for a new house, don’t you see the house is falling apart, there are holes in the roof?’ So he goes back, and he says, ‘I’m sorry, fish, can you please give us a new, nice house?’ The fish says, ‘Okay, you go to your wife.’ So he goes home, and instead of his old, falling-apart cottage, there is a beautiful new house. He thinks his wife would be happy, but she is furious. She says, ‘Why do you ask just for a regular house? Ask for a palace with servants! Nice clothes, nice dishes, everything. I want to be a noblewoman!’ So, as you can expect, he goes back, he gets her a palace with servants and all that, but even that is not enough. After some time, she wants to be a queen.  Okay, she became a queen, to cut the story short. The old man doesn’t recognize her. She doesn’t want to associate with him, she doesn’t want any of the servants and all of these people to know that he is her husband. So, he is some lowly worker in the yard, sweeping the yard, while she is the queen in the palace, with servants and all that. So, some time passes, and she calls him again, and she says, ‘I’m tired of being a queen. I want to be a Tsaritsa of all of the seas and I want the golden fish to be my servant.’ The old man goes, and he says, ‘There’s nothing I can do. That’s what she wants.’ Suddenly, there is a horrible storm, and the fish just went away. So he comes back, and here is his old house, falling apart, and his old woman is sitting with a broken wash basin.”

Q. When would somebody use this proverb?

A. Let’s say a person did something for you, or did you a favor, and you demand more and more and more—he could say it. It’s like saying, “Look. Stop it.” Instead of pointing out that a person demands too much, this is a nicer way to say it. Usually, people like their childhood memories and fairytales, so they won’t feel antagonistic.

Q. Do you feel that in Russian society, people use proverbs more than they do here?

A. Yes—Russia doesn’t have much mobility, and in a society that’s very stable, it’s easier to have proverbs that move from generation to generation. The culture is homogeneous, so people know what you mean.

Annotation: Russian writer Alexander Pushkin wrote a poem about the story of the golden fish, entitled “The Fisherman and the Golden Fish.”

Pushkin, Alexander. “The Fisherman and the Golden Fish.” Trans. Irina Zheleznova. Russian Crafts, 1998-2007. Web. 26 April 2012. <http://russian-crafts.com/tales/golden-fish.html>.

This tale has also been featured in multiple works of Russian art, including lacquer boxes:

http://russian-crafts.com/home-decor/lacquer-boxes/tale-about-golden-fish-939.html

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

Russian Superstition about Black Cats

Background: “I grew up in Lithuania, and in Lithuania, you have Poles and Lithuanians who are Catholic, Russians who are Russian Orthodox, and Jews. We were a Jewish family, and I was always told that Jews do not have superstitions. But all my friends were either Polish or Russians, and they had superstitions, and eventually, I felt like, ‘well, it’s safer to believe in it.’”

Black cat superstition:

“If you walk and a black cat crosses the road in front of you, you’re supposed to turn around over your left shoulder three times and spit over your left shoulder three times. And I would do that, just in case.

“There were four girls in my big apartment building who were the same age, and we would walk to school together. And if there was a black cat crossing the road in front of us, we would all start turning and spitting. In fact, that’s why I have this superstition. It didn’t come from my mother—my mother always said that we shouldn’t believe in that, even though she believed in cracked mirrors. But I started believing it because the other girls did it.

“I’m sure that belief is Russian because there is a Russian song about a black cat. It’s about a black cat who lives behind the corner, and everybody hates him because there is this saying that you would have bad luck if you meet a black cat. But the truth is that it’s only the black cat who constantly has bad luck. That’s what the song is about. And that was a very popular Russian song. It appeared in the 1970s, when I was a kid.”

Q. Why do you think that this superstition exists?

A. In some of the Russian fairytales, you have a witch, Baba Yaga, and she always has a black cat with her. So, it is an element from Russian fairytales. Perhaps that’s why, I don’t know.

Analysis: The custom of turning and spitting is interesting, especially because it must be done specifically over one’s left shoulder. The practice seems to be almost an attempt to reverse time, as if to undo the effects of the bad luck.

The informant mentions a song about a black cat (“Chernyj Kot”), which pokes fun at the superstition, laughingly conveying the message that people should not discriminate against black cats. (After all, cats cannot control the color of their fur!)

Transliterated lyrics to this song can be found here:

“Chernyj Kot.” Lyrics Time. www.lyricstime.com, 2002. Web. 26 April 2012. <http://www.lyricstime.com/aguzarova-zhanna-chernyj-kot-lyrics.html>.

Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic

Superstition about Fixing Clothes

Background: “I grew up in Lithuania, and in Lithuania, you have Poles and Lithuanians who are Catholic, Russians who are Russian Orthodox, and Jews. We were a Jewish family, and I was always told that Jews do not have superstitions. But all my friends were either Polish or Russians, and they had superstitions, and eventually, I felt like, ‘well, it’s safer to believe in it.’”

Superstition about Fixing Clothes: “If something was torn on me and needed to be fixed fast, my mom would take a thread and sew, let’s say a button or something like that. I would be given a little piece of the thread to keep in my mouth, in order not to sew my brain out. If you don’t suck on the thread, then your brain can get sewn onto the garment and you would be stupid.”

Q. Do you know where this came from?

A. That came from my mother, and she came from Belarus, so it must come from Belarus.

Analysis: It is fascinating to compare my informant’s account with a description of this same superstition that Alan Dundes gives in International Folkloristics: “Or take the Jewish superstition that claims it is very bad luck to repair a garment while that garment is being worn by an individual. Once one realizes that the only time a garment is sewn on a person is when a body is being prepared for burial, one can understand the custom. In other words, repairing a garment—for example, by sewing on a button—is enacting a funeral ritual . . . In such instances the person wearing the garment being repaired must chew on bread or thread to counteract the potential danger” (Dundes 115).

When I shared this passage with my informant, she said that his logic makes sense to her, although she had never heard his explanation before; she had always thought the warning about one’s brains being sewn to be silly, but had never been told any better reasons for the tradition. Perhaps, this is because in more recent societies, people are far enough removed from the practices surrounding death that they no longer carry the associations responsible for this superstition. Meanwhile, although my informant comes from a Jewish family, she knows nothing about this superstition being Jewish, only that she learned it from her mother. She also never heard that bread—as opposed to thread—can counteract the potential danger.

“The Principles of Sympathetic Magic.” International Folkloristics. Alan Dundes, ed. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999. Print.

[geolocation]