Traditions live in Siberia

Traditions, customs, crafts and songs brought by Belarusian emigree to Tyumen Region in the19th century helped survival and preservation of identity in severe taiga
Traditions, customs, crafts and songs brought by Belarusian emigree to Tyumen Region in the19th century helped survival and preservation of identity in severe taiga

Siberian Belarusian Nadezhda Vychuzhanina at the Yermaki Local Historical Museum in Yermaki village

Last autumn, we went on a business trip to Tyumen Region, where we met emigree Belarusians living in rural areas. Each made efforts to preserve our ancient traditions, as we reported in Belarus magazine and Golas Radzimy (Motherland’s Voice) newspaper. We analyzed the Christian folk-custom of ‘Candles’ in the Vikulovo District’s Osinovka village. Here, we look at the importance of preserving our Belarusian ancestors’ cultural traditions.

While we hear that ancient cultural traditions are valuable, many of us also admit that customs are ‘out of time’ with modern day living: inconvenient and impractical. Some believe that bast shoes and embroidered shirts with belts must remain in the past but we hope that such thoughts only come to those with superficial knowledge of our ancestors’ culture. Those with more learning will know that cultural idiosyncrasies help preserve our national identity. In this fashion, they provide more than entertainment. They are like an invisible fortress, protecting our very ‘soul’. Our native language, melodies, beliefs, legends, traditions, customs and folk costumes are embodiments of our history, each telling its own story and bringing a sense of community harmony and shared identity, regardless of ‘education’.

No doubt, our future relies on the promotion of culture, as we often hear: our customs are a talisman against corrupting forces of avarice and selfish behaviour. In celebrating Kupalle, Kolyady, Dziady and other festivals of such a kind, our grandparents were doing more than amusing themselves. They believed in supreme forces, which could protect their family against evil spirits: like a spiritual vaccination.

These days, we believe that the Internet can tell us everything, giving us access to scientific papers. We can also read hypotheses on mystical matters (the natural laws we are yet to fully understand). If our dead forefathers do transform into gods, we’d certainly better live in peace with them, to avoid rousing their anger!

Of course, Belarusian traditions have strong roots, hailing from Indo-Aryan Vedic culture, while Christianity emerged later. Many Belarusian villages — especially those in Polesie — still adhere to pagan beliefs, upholding ancient folk customs and traditions more than other Slavonic nations. Unsurprisingly, these cultural codes have drawn a lot of attention, being appreciated as treasures. Think of poetess Marina Tsvetaeva, who said: ‘My poems’ turn will come, like noble wines…’ Vladimir Mulyavin, the famous singer, and composer and the genius behind Pesnyary band, was a subtle connoisseur of folk songs and melodies. Born in Yekaterinburg and Russian by nationality, he was sent for military service in Belarus and set up a musical group, inspired by folklore history. As soon he plunged into Belarusian song heritage, he realized its wealth.

Osinovka, Yalovka and Yermaki

Anyone visiting our countrymen in Siberia will be convinced that the Belarusian language won’t disappear in the globalized future and that Belarusian songs and traditions can survive under the toughest of conditions. We visited Vikulovo District, 500km from Tyumen, which seems like the end of the Earth: a backwater district on the taiga. Long ago, Belarusian villages of Yermaki, Osinovka, Yalovka, Berezovka and others were established there; many Belarusians moved to Vikulovo and Tyumen over the course of time.

Yermaki-born Nadezhda Vychuzhanina knows how Belarusians arranged their life in such places, showing us around the Yermaki Local History Museum, which keeps primarily Belarus-related exhibits. “The museum was established by Yermaki schoolteacher Vera Velenkova, who also headed it, in her school,” explains Vikulovo journalist Valentina Khakimova, whose roots are in Belarus. “Museum exhibits were collected from different areas and, as many Belarusians live here, we enjoy a rich Belarusian department as a result. Later, the museum moved to the House of Culture (now directed by Nadezhda Vychuzhanina, who also leads Rossiyanochki (Russian Ladies) folk band).” In 2001, the folk group received the title of ‘People’s’.

Ms. Vychuzhanina explains, “Our migrating ancestors — who came to these places in the late 19th century — probably did not imagine that their native language would survive in Siberian taiga. In the past, there was an impassable forest on the site of today’s Yermaki. Old timers recall that you could hardly see sunlight through the tall trees around the Tenis River. Our ancestors chose this place to settle in 1884-1886. Among the first were pilgrims from Mogilev District — Yevdokim Melnikov and Prokop Krupnikov. They built the first houses and, the following year, another 20 families came. They reached Petropavlovsk (on Kazakh territory) by train and then continued on foot or by dawk. After settling, Belarusians began uprooting trees, to turn forested areas into fields: each meter of the land was cultivated with great effort, as no machinery was available. Branches were cut from living trees, then left to dry for 2-3 years. Meanwhile, land lots were allocated in long lines of 1km x 8m.”

This rushnik (napkin) was embroided in Siberia by Marina Stolyarova-Morozova

She continues, “The harsh environment pushed our ancestors to be strong and united, in order to survive. Naturally, they protected and promoted their traditions, working as a group, since this made it easier and quicker to fulfil difficult tasks. Local areas were rich in mushrooms, berries, nuts and medicinal herbs, while neighbouring lakes and rivers were full of fish, but it wasn’t easy to catch fish or animals. Domestic cattle were also bred in Yermaki, kept in woven barns, and villagers made bast shoes, as well as weaving baskets and boxes. In short, all the best features of Belarusian life were encapsulated in those tough times and our national roots and cultural traditions proved strong. Listening to the stories of our senior citizens from Belarusian villages and looking at their lifestyle and daily routine, I’m truly impressed at how much they’ve preserved, despite being so far from their homeland. They even have a unique manner of speech, which has been close to my heart and soul since childhood.”

Taiga life accompanied by song

Ms. Vychuzhanina tells of those who have preserved Belarusians customs, holidays and songs in Siberia, with much respect and warmth in her voice. They pass these treasures from one generation to another, as she recollects, “As far as I remember, songs were sung on any occasion and at any time: during round dances, at evening parties and weddings and, even, while working in the fields. Moreover, the manner of singing is wonderful, catching audiences’ attention. As we used to say, singers are guided by their songs, which can cure physical and mental illnesses. A song has its own magic, inspiring us to feel compassion and to understand others. It can evoke love and never condemns others. It’s better to sing rather than to simply listen. We, Belarusians, used to sing together, as still happens at village weddings. Sadly, we’re celebrating fewer weddings these days.”

Migrating Belarusians brought many different songs to Siberia: soft, tender and warm. Ms. Vychuzhanina explains, “Our songs narrate our routine problems with reserve. There is a saying that songs warm souls and we feel this in our choir. Songs cheer you and bring a release from anxieties. Talented and wise women kept and performed old Belarusian songs and customs — women such as Т. Greshchenko, Z. Alkova, P. Vorobieva, L. Chekanova and Y. Chernyakova. They experienced much grief and worked hard but never lost their love of life. As I remember, their singing took our breath away. Their manner was unusual, mixing Belarusian and Russian words.”

Happily, those songs have not fallen into neglect, being now performed by Rossiyanochka, at the Yermaki House of Culture. The choir unites 12 amateur artistes and, although singing was always common in the village, the group only made a name for itself in 1994.

On the New Year’s Eve, the choir celebrates its jubilee and deserves to be congratulated for its efforts in preserving our culture. Last summer, I heard Rossiyanochka sing at Tyumen’s Stroitel House of Culture and, this autumn, the ensemble performed at the Belarusian State Philharmonic Society as part of the 2nd Arts Festival of the Belarusians of the World. Its Over the River song is a true calling card, and we hope it will one day become available online, so all can enjoy it. Its lyrics read: ‘Over the river, over the river, a new house was found./ A widow lived there with her wonderful daughter.../’

Candle continues burning

After our tour to the museum in Yermaki, we took a mud-locked road to the neighbouring village of Osinovka, where Ms. Vychuzhanina pointed to a site on the left after the local House of Culture, where the first settlers lived. The house was demolished not long ago, so the site is now just ruins and grass.

Then we headed to an elderly couple’s house: Manya and Nikolay Uchuzhaniny. Last year, they hosted a local relic: the Resurrection of Christ icon, which is often called ‘alive’. The villagers (mostly children of settlers from Gomel and Mogilev regions) take the icon to new hosts early on the morning on January 7th every year, with a new house chosen each time. Hosts must be willing to welcome anyone wishing to pray and address God.

Domna Artsemovna with her daughter Lena and Lena`s husband Ivan

The custom is described online and, in early 2014, Golas Radzimy newspaper devoted an article to it. It attracts people from remote areas, including those from Belarusian communities in Tyumen Region. The tradition is ever gaining new features and Rossiyanochka has taken on the role of singing during the custom (since local grannies lack the physical strength to do so). The choir has even prepared a stage version to perform at folk holidays.

There is much talk online that an Orthodox church might open in Yermaki, due to the ‘Candle’ custom, which promotes religious ideas. It could be located in a local village but the issue would arise as to what to do with the famous icon, since the tradition would be lost if it is returned to the Church. We hope nothing of the kind will happen. Of course, a copy could be made: the important aspect is for believers to offer their houses.

Place we visited and where we helped ourselves...

This autumn, Ms. Vychuzhanina told us that Yermaki received guests from Minsk’s University of Culture and Arts, eager to learn about local customs and songs. They were accompanied by Tyumen’s Belarusian Lilia Demina, the Director of the Institute of Music, Theatre and Choreography — from Tyumen’s Academy of Culture, Art and Social Technologies. She also heads Rostan folk choir and collects folk treasures, having recorded dozens of old songs and having published a collection of books (including of Belarusian songs).

It isn’t difficult to find Internet photos of Ms. Demina’s recent expedition: her ‘guest route’ resembled ours, including a trip to see hospitable Lena: a retired accountant and the daughter of Domna Lashkova. At Domna’s house, we took photographs of her, Lena and Lena’s husband: all holding rushniks (napkins), embroidered with Belarusian motifs. “These were embroidered by my mother,” explained granny Domna, fingering the fabric. “My grandparents, father and mother came to Siberia from Belarus, arriving from the village of Usushki, in Mogilev Region’s Chausy District. This flower-ornamented, embroidered apron was worn by my mother when she went to church. I also remember my grandmother Anna Stolyarova and my mother Marina Morozova (bearing her husband’s family name).”

Lena explained that, previously, they lived in the Belarusian village of Zhiguli, 17km from Yermaki. “I came here to work after receiving a degree in accounting. Later, I married Ivan and brought my parents to the village,” she told us. Lena does not sing with Rossiyanochka but cherishes another wonderful Belarusian tradition: baking pies, and cakes from rye and wheat flour, as well as cooking meat in jelly and mushroom dishes. Lena can even brew beer! Her welcome was more heartfelt than we could have anticipated, and we greatly appreciated everything she prepared for us. “Your table is full of dishes — as if we were celebrating the Easter,” we joked, but Ms. Vychuzhanina backed her friend, saying, “It’s natural for Lena.” Granny Domna also praised her daughter, saying, “Nobody else can brew beer like Lena, although it was me who taught her. She learned to bake while staying in Yalutorovsk.”

Domna has never visited Belarus but speaks almost perfect Belarusian, telling us the recipe for rye-flour beer — as brought to Siberia from Belarusian lands. We hope to publish it one day; meanwhile, those wishing to learn can contact Lena. She cherishes all Belarus-related matters, while her husband, Ivan, adores her potato pancakes and appreciates his wife’s many skills.

By Ivan and Valentina Zhdanovich
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