USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘russian’
Magic
Tales /märchen

The Frog Princess

The 26-year-old informant was born in Russia, but moved to the U.S. at a young age. During his undergraduate studies at Dartmouth College, he was a teaching assistant for a Russian folklore class and found these pieces of folklore to be particularly interesting or representative of Russian culture.

“So there’s this prince named Prince Ivan who has two older brothers. Their dad, the King tells them that they have to find wives and they must do so by shooting arrows in different directions to find their brides. The first two brothers shoot their arrows and they land in the houses of noble and wealthy merchants. Ivan shoots his arrow, and it lands in the mouth of a frog that lives in a swamp. Ivan gets upset and is like, “How am I supposed to marry a frog??” but the King says he must because that was the agreement and he must meet is fate.

So Ivan marries the frog and his brothers marry their beautiful brides, and after, the King tells his sons that he wants each of their wives to bake him some bread for the next day. Ivan is freaking out and goes home and his wife, the frog, asks him what’s wrong, so he tells her what his dad just asked of him and his brothers. The frog tells Ivan not to worry and that she’ll take care of it. She tells him “morning is wiser than the evening,” and so Ivan goes to bed. That night, the frog takes off her frog skin and turns into a beautiful maiden and bakes the bread. The next day, the King is impressed and likes the frog’s bread best.

He then asks the three wives to make him a full silk carpet, and that night, the frog does the same thing and makes the best carpet. The next day, there’s a ball at the palace and wants all the princes to come with their wives. Once again, Ivan is sad because how can he go to a ball with a frog? But the frog tells him to go to the ball alone, and when he hears thunder and the earth starts shaking, just tell the other guests not to worry and that it’s just your frog coming in a little box. Ivan does this.

At the ball, the frog performs other magical feats. One thing she does it pour some water into her left sleeve and bones into her right sleeve. So as she dances, she swings her left sleeve out and creates a lake. She swings her right sleeve out and swans appear on the lake. The other wives are understandably jealous and try to do the same thing, except since they have no magical powers,  they just spray water and bones at the King and the guests.

Meanwhile, Prince Ivan sneaks away back home and finds the frog skin lying on the ground. Since he wants his wife to stay in human form, he burns the skin. When his wife gets home, she’s like, “What did you do? If you had just been patient for one more night, I would’ve been free from this curse, but now you must find me 33 kingdoms away in the castle of Koshei the Deathless,” who’s like a major evil figure in Russian folklore.

So Ivan sets off on his quest, and he first sees an old man. He tells the old man of his misfortune, the old man says, “Why’d you burn the frog skin?” But he decideds to take pity on him and gives him a magic ball of yarn. and tells him to follow it to find the right path. Along the way he sees a bear, which he wants to kill, but the bear speaks to him and says “Don’t kill me! I’ll be useful to you in the future,” so Ivan takes pity on him.

Next, he sees a duck, and wants to kill it, but the duck also asks him to take pity, so Ivan takes pity again. Next, he sees a rabbit, and the same thing happens. Then, he comes across a fish trapped in a shallow pond, and the same thing happens.

So then, he reaches the home of a witch named Baba Yaga, who lives in a magical house on chicken legs. He tells the house to turn to face him, and it does, so he’s able to enter. Baba Yaga can be helpful or sometimes a cannibal, so she’s like, “What are you doing here, young man?” and he tells her she’s got bad manners because she’s asking a guest questions before offering a meal and a bath, which is really representative of Russian culture. So Baba Yaga then provides both, and then Ivan tells her of his dilemma.

Baba Yaga’s possibly the only creature that knows where to find Koshei’s death, which is on the tip of a needle. The needle is in an egg, and the egg is in a duck, and the duck is inside a rabbit, and the rabbit is in a big chest, chained to the top of a tall oak, which is hidden. So, Baba Yaga tells Ivan where to find the oak.

When Ivan gets there, he doesn’t know how to get to the chest. Suddenly, the bear he spared shows up and destroys the oak, and breaks the chest open. Out of the chest springs a rabbit, which runs away, but the rabbit that Ivan spared appears and kills it. Out of that rabbit, a duck flies into the sky, but the duck that Ivan spares kills it. Then, the egg with the needle falls into the sea, but the fish that Ivan saved retrieves it from the bottom of the sea. Ivan then breaks the needle, and now Koshei is mortal, so he defeats him, getting his wife back and living happily ever after.”

 

For another version of this fairytale, see Vasilisa the Beautiful. Dir. Vladimir Pekar. Soyuzmultfilm, 1977. Film.

Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Snowmaiden, Snegurochka

Folklore Piece:

“Ok, so, there’s these two parents. Well, wait, not parents. There’s this couple, and they can’t have kids, and they’re, like, pretty old now. So it’s snowing one day, and the husband goes outside, and has an idea to build a snowgirl…? So like a little girl instead of a snowman. They made her look really realistic and then a stranger comes by one night, and he, like, does some sort of magic and then he leaves. Then, at night, the snowgirl comes to life. And so they’re really excited, because now they have a daughter, so they take her inside. But, she’s, like, snow, so they keep her from going outside as it becomes spring and summer, and in the summer the girl wants to go outside, um, and her parents always tell her ‘no’, and they don’t tell her why, they don’t tell her why, they don’t tell her that she’s snow. Um, so, the parents go to like the market, or they leave the house one day, and the girl goes outside, and she melts. And the parents come back and she’s, I guess, dead.”

 

Background information

I mean, I like it. It’s stuck with my all of these years. I don’t know, I didn’t do, like, a great job of telling it. I think the message is to always be honest, I guess? And I like that, I think if the parents were, um, more honest with their daughter they could’ve saved her.”

Context

My parents got, like, a little set of stories from India. It’s not an Indian story, but they used to read it to me at night. Sure enough, I actually met the informant’s mother later that day. I asked her about the story and she said, “Oh yes, we used to have plenty of books filled with little stories that we’d tell the kids before they went to bed. Not necessarily Spanish, or Indian, just some fairy tales and little stories.”

 

Analysis

I had originally asked this informant to participate because I knew that her and her family were very much still in touch with their roots. She visits India nearly every year, goes to Indian weddings, lived in Spain near her family for half a year, talks about all the traditional Spanish food her mom makes. So when I asked her to share with me some form of folklore, be it a proverb or a cultural event, or a story, that this is the one she thought of.

To be honest, it could have been because she had been around a previous informant who was also telling a tale, but I still believe it is telling. Out of all the stories that her mother told her over the  years, and I’m sure countless relatives had told her, she remembered “the one about the snow girl.” She couldn’t remember exactly what the story was for some time, and I suggested that maybe she think of something else. But she was adamant about teling this story; she called her mom, called her dad, called the house, and finally it clicked.

After more of my own research, I found the origin of the “Snow Girl” tale to be, in fact, Russian. The Snow Girl, or Snow Maiden, is formally known in Russian folklore as Snegurochka. There are many tales of Snegurochka, and many variations of this same story that the informant had told me. Here is a variant where she melts, but does so intentionally, after her parents compare her to the value of a hen when a fox brings her home from being lost in the woods. However, in this story, she refuses to leave with the fox, and her once banished dog brings her home and is rewarded, and she remains in tact and happy. To read yet another version, you may want to check out The Snow Maiden and Other Russian Tales by Bonnie Marshall. (Marshall, Bonnie C. The Snow Maiden and Other Russian Tales. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2004. Print.)

Beyond the interest of all these variations, however, is the context of this informants nationality telling this story. Clearly, with so many stories, the Snegurochka is something that Russian’s identify their culture with. Yet, here is a girl, whose parents are from countries that don’t even traditionally see snow, retelling the tale in Southern California as the one piece of folklore that she would like to share. This just goes to show that while one’s heritage and self-proclaimed culture are important, they are not all encompassing of the folkloric artifacts that they hold dear.

Narrative
Tales /märchen

Masha and Natasha

AD’s grandma is originally from Kursk, Russia, and would always tell her fables and fairytales whenever AD came to visit. She has fond memories with her cousins sitting around her grandma as she would tell these stories in a thick accent. Her grandma would always compare herself to Baba Yaga or make jokes about her, and the stories were a very important part of their relationship. This was the most memorable fable she told AD. It follows many aspects of Propp’s fairytale structure, notable the abstention of a parent, an evil stepmother, a donor (the mouse), a test, and a homecoming. This is then repeated again by the other daughter, Natasha, but unsuccessfully, serving as a moral warning against selfishness.

“Masha is a sweet, prefect girl, a Cinderella type: beautiful, smart and sweet. She lives with her mother and father on farm. It’s nice but they don’t have a lot of money. Then, her mother dies, and her father remarries. The other woman has a daughter, Natasha, but she is opposite of Masha: ugly, spoiled, rude, selfish. Her mother loves her a lot. Masha’s dad loves the mom, plus she has money, which helps. The step mother does not like Masha, and wants Natasha to have all the opportunities. One day, she’s talking to her husband and says, “We cant afford to take care of both of these girls. Masha is smart and strong, she’ll be fine. Take her out in the forest and leave her with a candle and a little kasha (porridge) and she’ll be fine!”

After hesitation he agrees, and takes Masha, puts her in the cart with a candle & kasha. He then takes her into middle of the forest and doesn’t tell her what he’s doing. He says goodbye and leaves her. She’s cold and sad, so shemakes herself some kasha heated by candle. Then a little mouse comes over (“mouth” as pronounced by grandma) and asks

“Oh I’m so hungry, will you share with me?”

“Oh but I only have a little”

“Please, I’ll help you in return”

Masha, being generous and kind, gives him some. She doesn’t know here’s a bear in the forest, but all of a sudden the bear comes over and is like “Get out of my forest”

Mash says no.

The bear says, “Okay, I’ll make a little bet with you. I’m going to throw 3 stones. You are going to run in a circle around this cave. I’m going to close my eyes so I can’t see, and throw stones. If I hit you, you’re dead. if I miss all 3 times, I will give you all the riches, jewels, gowns and wealth you could want.”

Masha looks at the mouse, and the mouse says “Do it, I’ll help you.”

She takes the deal.

The mouse takes Masha’s place and runs in the circle while Masha stands aside.

The bear throws the 1st stone.

“Did I hit you?”

“No”

He throws the 2nd stone.

“Did I hit you?”

“No”

He throws the 3rd stone.

“Did I hit you?”

“No”

The mouse runs away. The bear gives Masha her riches, servants, and a beautiful carriage. The next morning, the rooster is crowing “coocuracoo.” Natasha looks and says “is that Masha?”

stepmom says,  “No she’s dead!”

“No it’s Masha!”

It’s her, returning with all these beautiful things. She has a happy reunion with father.

The stepmom can’t stand that Masha came back with all beautiful things. She wants the same thing for her daughter, and decides to send her out to same place so she can also get riches. Of course they send her with lots of food, lots of stuff, an entire full wagon into forest. The dad drops her off. She sits down and doesn’t know what to do, so she lights a candle and starts making food. The mouse comes over and says “Oh I know you”

“You don’t know me”

“Oh you’re not Masha”

The mouse asks for food, and she refuses to give him any because she’s spoiled.

Then the bear comes over, and proposes same deal he made to Masha.

Natasha takes the deal.

She starts running in the circle. obviously not as fast as the mouse who refuses to help her. He kills her with the first stone.

The next day, the rooster crows “coocooracooo”

The stepmother has been waiting for her daughter to return with the riches in a carriage, but all they see is the wagon coming, carrying Natasha’s bones.”

Foodways
Material

Tomato Soup

The informant is a Film Production and Biochemistry major at the University of Southern California, where he is in his third year. He is originally from Washington state, and his family moved there from North Dakota. Before North Dakota, his family lived in various parts of Eastern Europe. The informant says that is very much influenced by his grandfather, who is a professional storyteller.

In this piece, the informant describes how his family sees tomato soup—they have very particular thoughts on how it should be made and why.

“Both of my grandparents come from European places, and they’re very particular about their recipes and stuff. Like if you look at the way they care about their recipes, it’s just like equally the way that they would care about their folk tales. Like, we have the same borscht recipe that has been used since like my great grandparents. It’s passed down, you know, and it’s an old piece of paper and you can tell it’s been recopied over the years, but the most recent copy is in an old 1940s, it’s like an Eastern European cooking book that a bunch of the grandparent women, my family’s from North Dakota, so it was a bunch of North Dakotan Czech and German and Austrian, you know women and Russian and they all came together and they sat down at a typewriter and made, typed up all their family recipes from whatever cards or whatever.

So it’s kind of like, a little encyclopedia of like, a lot of family recipes, and my family’s borscht recipe, which is like a Russian soup, is in there. And it’s like, that’s like a very important thing to pass on, that recipe. And, you know, in like, I wish I had like a story I could say that they took from Europe, but that same preservation, like in a sense the recipe is its own like thing, and there’s a dill, like a dill tomato soup.

There’s like a little story about, like it’s like you know those grandparent sort of rant things about like “you don’t realize how important this is” but it like really changed, like, it’s like, they have this rant about tomato soup, and how like, how like Russia kind of invented tomato soup, and like how important, it’s like… Cause their version of tomato soup is um, there’s tomatoes, there’s dill, there’s sour cream, and like rice, and more like, substantial than just a regular soup.

And they kinda just like, this is like the original soup because you have grains for the soup that wouldn’t last because of mold and other stuff, you have tomatoes, which is like, were kinda hard to come by, so when you got those you just, cause it’s acidic and it’ll go bad, and like, they just talked, I don’t know, like, it’s just kinda a thing that they’re like, and you wouldn’t have tomato soup like this today, cause it’s just tomato soup in a modern sense. And this is another one of those recipes that they put into this book. I wish I had more of that rant off the top of my head.”

Analysis:

This piece brings up the question of ownership—when the grandparents talk about tomato soup, it’s to imply that Russian tomato soup is the “original” and most important tomato soup. The recipe itself is also interesting; though the informant did not remember the exact recipe, he remembered the specific reasons why ingredients were chosen, which gives the recipe much more context. To an outside listener, tomato, dill, and rice may seem like an arbitrary combination, but with the context that the tomatoes and grains would go bad unless made into soup, the reasons become clear. The way that the older women recorded these recipes for their descendants was also interesting, and it helped reinforce the importance that these recipes hold for them.

Game
general

“Mishka, mishka, mushka… Katikatushka!”

One day while hanging out with my friend, I was being playful by pretending to play the childish game of “peekaboo.” To my surprise, she responded by saying, “mishka, mishka, mushka… Katikatushka!” Then she went on to explain that this is a Russian kids’ game similar in concept to “peekaboo.” When she first explained it to me, she thought that “mishka” meant “mouse” and that  “katikatushka” meant “cat.” Therefore, the literal translation was supposedly, “mouse, mouse, mouse… cat!” But as I will explain after my interview with her, it turns out that’s not exactly the case.

Informant: “So, ‘mishka’ is a game that my dad used to play when I was very little. I would sit on his lap, and it’s the cat and mouse game, so… ok, it goes, you get really small like a mouse, and you go “mishka, mishka, mushka… and then you get really big and tickle the person and you go like, KATIKATUSHKA!!” which apparently, I asked my Russian friend what that means, and I think one of them means ‘bear.’ Or it means ‘big bear’ so maybe my dad lied to me… he didn’t know the actual names. So maybe it’s like ‘mouse, mouse, mouse, BIG BEAR!’

Collector: “Instead of ‘cat’?”

Informant: “Yeah. But he always thought it was ‘cat and mouse.’”

Collector: “Where does your dad get it from, do you know?”

Informant: “Probably his mother. His mother was a gregarious Russian woman.”

Collector: “Is this maybe a traditional Russian nursery rhyme or child’s game?”

Informant: “Yeah, I’ve heard other people who are Russian know of it as well”

Collector: “Do you know of this existing in other languages, or other cultures?”

Informant: “I haven’t heard of it, have you?”

Collector: “No, I haven’t either”

Informant: “But I think the game of surprise is always common…”

Collector: “Yeah, just in different forms”

Informant: “Yeah, like ‘peekaboo,’ similar…”

Collector: “And when you were little, was this just supposed to be a scary little, messing with you as a little kid game? I mean it sounds playful, but do you think it had any other purpose other than just pure playfulness?”

Informant: “Yeah, I think it was a way to connect… I think it was something to do, like ‘I’m bored, what do you wanna do?’ ‘I don’t know… let’s play the cat and mouse game!!’ you know, cause you tickle each other and you laugh! And then it ends in tickle fight”

After interviewing the informer, I looked up the meaning of “mishka,” “mushka,” and “katikatushka,” to almost no avail. There seem to be many words with similar spellings and pronunciations, but different meanings in Russian, Slovenian, and Bulgarian. So instead of attempting to translate from Russian to English, I used google translate to find the Russian words for mouse, cat, and bear. According to google, mouse is “mysh,'” pronounced “moosh.” Cat is “kot,” pronounced “khot.” And bear is “nesti,” pronounced “neesty.” So I’m not sure how my friend’s dad’s game got translated interpreted at cat and mouse, because although there is a slight resemblance to the words I found via google translate, they seem too far off to be correct. Perhaps there’s variations of the same word depending on the tense and other grammatical rules. Or perhaps the language of the game got mixed up as it was passed down generations of Americans from Russian descent.

Customs
Folk medicine
Homeopathic

Russian Sinus Remedy

The informant is a 19-year old student attending the University of California Berkeley. She is majoring in Media Studies and Journalism with a minor in Hebrew. She grew up in West Los Angeles with her two parents, immigrants from the Soviet Union. I mentioned that homeopathic remedies were a form of folklore and she told me about this remedy her mom taught her.

 

Informant: “I got colds a lot when I was a kid, so I remember this one very well. My mom used to take eggs, boil them and then take the warm boiled eggs—two of them—in a towel. You use two because they go on either side of your nose so that your sinuses get released. It’s super weird sounding and it looks funny too. But it works! It actually felt really really nice. It was super comforting.

Interviewer: “Wow, I would never think to do that! But it makes sense.

Informant: “Yea, well Russians had them, the eggs, because chickens were a thing they had. Even in the Soviet Union where there was so much poverty and people had almost nothing. They still had chickens! So I guess this was a way to alleviate sinus pressure when it was cold as hell and people would get sick.”

 

Thoughts:

What the informant said about eggs being something readily available to people in Russia during the time of the Soviet Union makes a lot of sense. Homeopathic remedies from different places often involve plants or food with similar properties, but that grow in different regions, native to whatever area the person giving the remedy is from. This says a lot about the nature of folklore, and once again reminds me of the film, Whose Song is it?, in the variety of folklore concerning one topic, or the variances of a particular piece of folklore.

 

Customs
Folk speech
Foodways
Gestures

Russian Drinking Custom – Toasting

The informant is a 21-year old student attending the University of California Berkeley. She is majoring in Media Studies and Journalism with a minor in Hebrew. She grew up in West Los Angeles with her two parents, immigrants from the Soviet Union. The following is what she said when I asked about her step-daughter’s wedding a few years ago, of which I was in attendance.

 

Informant: “Drinking is really big in Russian culture—you probably know that. We have a lot of family dinners and there is always drinking, of wine or vodka. Guest will bring wine or the host will bring out their favorite wines. My parents actually have a whole spreadsheet of the different wines in their wine closet. Since drinking is so much a part of Russian culture, there are traditions that go along with it. The biggest thing I can think of, I think, would be toasts. Like, there are certain traditions of what toasts you say in what order. Second toast is usually for the host. The first toast is always for the occasion you are gathered for, and second for the host. The third one is for those who are at sea.”

 

Interviewer: “Are there lots of people at sea…?”

 

Informant: “No. We say ‘at sea’, but it’s really more a reference to those who are not with us—either dead or not the at the dinner table.”

 

Interviewer: “Hmm, that’s really interesting that the toast for people not at the table is the ‘at sea’ toast. Do you have any idea why that is?

 

Informant: “No, I don’t know. I mean, drinking culture was a big think in Russia in general. And I guess originally there may have been a lot of traders? Or people at sea? What I think is so distinct about Russian drinking is this tradition of you can’t drink unless you toast. You have to validate your drinking with a toast.”

 

Thoughts:

What my informant said about toasts being a way of validating drinking stuck with me. I feel like a lot of folklore, or festivals and rituals, at least, is centered in validation—validating customs already set in place, validating a relationship or new union to be had, validating a new stage in a person’s life, validating one’s entering adulthood, etc. What is sometimes seen as merely paying homage to an earlier time, or to a certain religion one follows, usually has more influence than that.

 

When I asked my informant about why the third toast is said for those “at sea”, when no one I know of her family is actually off at sea, it seemed like the first time the informant had really been considering the question. This illustrates the tendency not to question the traditions and the folklore one grows up with, contrasted with the tendency many people have to critique or ridicule other traditions and folklore, ones the criticizing individual hasn’t grown up with. This speaks to the us them mentality that we see quite often with folklore—one example of the mentality’s presence is in practical jokes, a form of folklore that often serves as an initiation, or a demonstration of the tightness of one group and the outsider-ness of the one being pranked. However, it is worth noting that in the person being pranked, they are many times being initiated into the group of the pranksters…

 

For a slightly different interpretation of the third toast, see an article in the New York Times from 1995:

http://www.nytimes.com/1995/09/08/world/moscow-journal-glassy-eyed-etiquette-a-guide-to-russian-toasts.html.

Customs
Festival
Holidays
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays

A Tree for the New Year

The informant is a 21-year old student attending the University of California Berkeley. She is majoring in Media Studies and Journalism with a minor in Hebrew. She grew up in West Los Angeles with her two parents, immigrants from the Soviet Union. The following is what she shared with me about the Soviet way of celebrating New Year’s Eve.

 

Informant: “The Soviets made New Years the new holiday. They weren’t allowed to celebrate Christmas anymore, so they went around the rules and celebrated the secular holiday instead. They had a pine tree and Father snow (he was instead of Santa Claus). My family celebrates Soviet New Years still. A lot of us immigrated here—my mom and dad and both of their siblings and all of their kids. And my grandparents. So every New Year’s when I was growing up we would have a big family gathering with a tree—even though we are Jewish, I know it’s weird, but it’s not religious at all. It’s really just like a holdover from the Soviet Union. I got presents and my dad and grandpa always sang these long, hard-to-understand Russian songs.”

 

Thoughts:

This reminds me of Santeria, a syncretic religion in the Americas, centered around Yoruba-mythology and belief. When those who believed in Yoruba mythology were forced to convert to Catholocism, they began worshipping the Catholic Saints instead of the Yoruba Gods, at least in appearance. Rather, it seemed as though they were following along with the new rules imposed on them, but instead they were practicing their religion in disguise. The syncrasy of the religion came about, but the religion seems far more blended to outsiders than it is in practice.

People in the Soviet Union being prohibited from celebrating Christmas of other Christian holidays was a part of the Soviet anti religious campaign for state atheism. Given how much weight belief holds for many people and how so many customs, practices, and rituals are grounded in belief, it is unrealistic to extricate it from people.

 

Customs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Russian American Bar Mitzvahs

My informant is a member of the Russian Jewish community in Los Angeles. She explained how her community celebrates special parties like graduations, bar mitzvahs, and significant birthdays.  The particular Bar Mitzvah party that she told me about was similar to many of the parties within the Russian community in Los Angeles.

Normally invitations for such parties are mailed to the guests.  For a wedding and Bar Mitzvah invitations would be mailed.  But for a birthday party or graduation party, the hosts typically call the guests and invite them.  And once they say they are going, there is no backing out.  So much planning goes into the parties that it would be inconsiderate to back out.

I asked if the Bar Mitzvah had any different religious practices or traditions.  But my informant explained that it is not so much the religious ceremony or even the fact that the event was a Bar Mitzvah celebration that is important.  In fact, many of the party’s attendees did not attend the religious ceremony.  My informant said, “Bar Mitzvah means nothing.  It’s a party.”

My informant said that the parties like her friend’s Bar Mitzvah celebration are extravagant.  Prior to the party, women get their hair, makeup, and nails done and wear cocktail attire made by high fashion brands such as Alexander McQueen and Dior.  They were fine jewelry. The men wear suits.  It is not so much the question of what are you wearing, but who are you wearing.  My informant explained that many attendees make such an effort to look good because all of the party’s attendees are talked about after the party.  Word spreads fast.  My informant has even heard about Russian American parties that have happened in New York.  She said, “All of the Russian grandmas are going to hear about me and talk to their grandsons. I once had a guy fly down from San Francisco to go on a date with me.”

These Russian parties typically take place at people’s homes or restaurants.  This particular Bar Mitzvah celebration took place at a Russian restaurant called Romanov.  The party begins with about an hour of greetings.  “The first hour is basically just saying hello, kissing, and talking. Then the hostess tells everyone to sit down.” The attendees then sit at their assigned table and are greeted by top-shelf vodka and tequila.  The attendees then rotate between eating, toasting, and dancing.

My informant explained that every inch of the table is covered with food. The food is served family style.  While most of the food is Russian fusion, my informant said that every party will serve the Russian staples: crepes with red caviar and butter and pickled vegetables.  There are several courses to the meal and almost no one eats the main course because they are already so full by then.

During toasts the guests stop eating.  There are several toasts throughout the night given by family members and close friends.

My informant’s favorite part of the night is dancing.  “There is always good music–everything.  ABBA sometimes.  Songs that you love.  It’s very rare that you get electronic music.  It’s fun music.”  She explained that there are no traditional or choreographed dances.

The older guests sometimes dance but it is more likely that they sit, talk, and gossip with one another.  Having learned what older guests do at the party, I wondered what younger guests do.  My informant explained that if a couple has a baby they will bring the infant and a babysitter.  The babies are a part of the party.  They even have their own seats at the dinner table.

The only “traditional” dancing she has seen was performed by professional dancers hired for entertainment at the party.  Having performers at these parties is not uncommon.  There are always performers at Romanov, the restaurant that commonly hosts the parties.  She has seen performances featuring snakes, dancers, aerial artists, DJs flown in from New York.  She shared, at one Bar Mitzvah a woman popped out of a cake and danced sexily!

My informant explained that within this social circle are different kinds of Russians.  They are all in a wealthy group, but some are more wealthy than others.  She explained that her family is not in the group full of socialites.  Rather, her closest family friends within the community are more down to earth; they came from poor cities in Russia.  So rather than pouring money into extravagant performances, it is a tradition in her family and her family friend group that the children put on a performance at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. One year the children performed skits from Grease.  Another year, Austin Powers.  They all dressed up in costumes and performed “full-blown” skits.  The parents of the group also take part in the tradition.  For a family friend’s 40th birthday party, all of the parents organized a skit based on a scene from Grease.  A guy even rode in on a motorcycle! At another 40th birthday party, all of the wives dressed up as old Russian women wearing a giant plastic butt and giant fake breasts.  The women did a whole Russian song and dance, and the performance ended with a toast to the birthday boy.

At the end of the night, guests leave the party having had fun. Though it is customary to say hello to everyone at the beginning of the party, it is common to leave the parties without saying goodbye to all the party-goers.

Gifts are common at such parties.  Almost everyone brings checks.  It is very rarely a gift.  In the case that someone receives a gift, they are perhaps more meaningful but also the recipient would most likely just prefer the cash.  It would be unheard of to not bring a gift. My informant said that diplomacy is the most important aspect of Russian culture.

My informant expressed that the Russian American community in Los Angeles is superficial. I asked my informant if members of the community were trying to one-up each other with each party.  She first agreed with me but then said the parties were more like a display of taste and wealth than a one-upping.  Taste seems displayed through the venue, type of food, type of alcohol, appropriateness of performers and women’s dresses.  Wealth seems displayed through the venue, the amount of food, the amount of alcohol, the extravagance of the performers, and the designer of the women’s dresses.

 

 

Customs

If you don’t drink, you’re a spy

A couple of my roommates have gone to my informant AF’s house for dinner.  Each time my friends have come home at least tipsy, maybe even drunk.  It is atypical for my friends to come home tipsy or drunk from dinner with a friend’s parents.  Yet, when they go to AF’s house, it always seems to happen.  I wondered why.

Both of AF’s parents were born in Russia.  As a result, AF grew up in a Russian American home.  Besides the fact that vodka is a Russian drink, I’ve wondered why Russians seem to be so good at drinking. My friend AF explained that it is custom for men to drink anything and everything in Russia.  Why?  AF explained, “If you don’t drink in the pace with other people, you are a spy in Russia.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man refuse a drink. Or at least it is very rare.”

This mentality is definitely present within the Russian American community.  In fact, this mentality perseveres outside the community.  My friends expressed that they felt uncomfortable or rude turning down a drink in AF’s home. The paranoia that AF’s parents experienced in Russia has had residual effects.  It is custom for Russian Americans to prove that they are not spies by drinking heavily and possibly impairing their judgement, simply because they can.

 

 

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