Tales of Orthodoxy

With the Easter season, I found myself photographing many Orthodox Christian services. Parishioners stand for the entire service which lasts anywhere from 1.5-4 hours depending on the occasion. At various intervals they cross themselves with a large, swooping cross from the top of the head to the navel then to each shoulder and then bow their heads. Sometimes the crossing happens once, other times in sets of three, like a solemn choreographed ballet. The priests follow their own choreography in rituals handed down to them from the Byzantine Empire. It feels as if each individual is there alone in the church with only God to bear witness. They celebrate together but each alone in their devotion. The solemnity here is in very stark contrast to most churches in the US, particularly southern baptist or evangelical. It would be almost impossible to imagine Russian Orthodox singing, clapping or sitting for that matter. That’s not at all to say that Russians, even devout Christians, don’t enjoy song, dance and revelry; they do for sure. I realized last week how this branch of Christianity suits the Russian temperament perfectly. On the whole, Russians are more stoic, more reserved people. You can argue that it’s because of the climate or a side-effect of Communism or a host of other variables, but it doesn’t so much matter why. The key is to get past that stern outer layer (often not a difficult task), and there you will find a people that are open, warm and willing to give you everything they have.

Just the other day I was photographing in a church, actually it was in the only church in town for baptized Tatars..most people from Kazan don’t even know that such a thing exists. Anyway, it was my first time in this church and there weren’t many parishioners that day, maybe 10-15. So as a young woman with a large camera, it was difficult to “blend.” Their expressions ranged from blank to stern to one could say downright consternating, but as soon as the prayer service ended, their faces lit up and they started pointing to things that they thought I should photograph.

The second Tuesday after Easter (9 days later), Russian Orthodox celebrate a day to honor the dead. On this day every year, they visit the graves of their ancestors and loved ones, clear off any debris that accumulated over the long winter, perhaps add a fresh coat of paint to grave markers and leave neon-colored flowers, Easter eggs and various snacks and candies. In this way, they are celebrating the bounty of Easter with those who have passed. I spent a couple of hours wandering through the maze-like cemetery in the center of the city taking in all the sights and sounds. It was very quiet, peaceful, sorrowful but also sometimes joyous celebration. Many Russian graves have a wooden benches next to the headstone where people can sit and reflect, but on this day, many bring food and drink and spend time at the grave as a way to ‘be’ with their loved ones. Off in the distance you could hear the sounds of a small band, comprised mostly of wood and wind instruments, playing tunes that wavered between lamenting and marching band. Although the cemetery was predominantly Orthodox, I did find several Jewish and Tatar graves that also looked as though they had been recently visited.

Diving In

For the title of this update, I was scouring my brian for all water-related phrases, as only these could aptly describe my experiences this past week. Russia has begun the great thaw and with temperatures in the 50s (10 C?), this thaw is occurring at an awfully fast pace. Everywhere you look there is water. It flows down streets like rivers, utterly soaking my shoes, socks and feet. Pedestrians walk the obstacle course that are the sidewalks, skillfully sidestepping the vast oceans… also known as puddles.. and occasionally having to jump out of the way before being completely drenched by a passing car. Water is also streaming down the walls of my living room and drips from multiple places in my 100-year-old ceiling. At one point my roommate donned a camouflage rain jacket, flipped the hood over his head and engaged in acts of heroism as he emptied and rearranged the buckets dispersed on the floor. Three days later, things are starting to calm down.

When I wrote last week’s update, I hadn’t yet remembered that Orthodox Christianity follows the Julian calendar, so instead of photographing Easter last Sunday, I photographed Palm Sunday (Easter will occur this Sunday). Part of the ceremony of Palm Sunday involves parishioners having their palm fronds (or in this case, pussywillows) blessed with holy water. Hoards of people crowded the altar as the priest doused them with water using an implement resembling a cat-o-nine tails. I was photographing from a position between the priest and some of the parishioners and was therefore also blessed by this water. The crowd loved every second of it and with every spray of water they became increasingly animated.

In non-water related news, I also photographed a competition of student and professional designers of Muslim clothing. It was a fantastic event and brought back memories of making a short film about the Miss Austin and Miss Austin Teen Pageant. The majority, if not all, of the models were Russian so it was really a great mix of people.

I have been receiving emails about my update from last week, with comments particularly about babushkas. This got me thinking more about babushkas (a general pastime of mine) and why there are so many of them. Yes, Russia has a shorter life expectancy than most countries in the West and you could believe the stereotype that Russia’s people, particularly her men, meet an early death due to alcohol and smoking, but really, what I am actually seeing is the lasting effects of WWII. Russia lost almost an entire generation of men in that war (here it’s known as the Great Patriotic War); a million soldiers died in the battle of Stalingrad- in just one battle! On May 9th, Russia celebrates Victory Day, the day they defeated the Germans in 1945. It’s a very big event in Russia and I’m glad to be here to photograph it.

I’m gearing up for a very big weekend. The archbishop of Tatarstan will take part in Saturday’s midnight service and Tatarstan’s president will attend Sunday’s services. Should be exciting!

Hello Kazan…Again!

I arrived in Kazan on March 28th to the most picturesque scene straight out of a Russian fairytale. The evening sun was pushing itself through a layer of thick grey clouds, casting a stunning glow of pinks and oranges over the forests, pastures and dachas still engulfed in snow. But instead of a white horse-drawn carriage, I was met by two friends in a tiny red Lada hatchback. We crammed my bags into the trunk area and proceeded towards town. Once on the highway, I leaned back in my seat which then pressed on my bag which then pressed on the latch to the trunk which then opened. The car kept speeding on while I quickly turned around and somehow managed to grab my bag before my things emptied onto the highway. We pulled over, rearranged and carried on…until the car broke down. For half an hour we sat by the side of the road, my friends laughing and chain-smoking cigarettes, as that’s what you do when things break down. As the non-smoker, I was in charge of thinking positive thoughts that would then get the car moving again. And indeed, it did. About 40 minutes later, I arrived safely at my apartment in the city center.

Kazan already feels like a second home and everyone is welcoming me back like family. The past few days I have connecting with friends and acquaintances, finding out all that I’ve missed since I’ve been gone. Just the other day a friend asked me to name a few specific things- sights, sounds, smells- that really give me that feeling of being in Russia. I thought for a moment and came up with a small list: the sound of my neighbors quarreling in Russian, the smell of dill, the experience of riding local transport (to which my friend heartily laughed as it is a subject I wrote about on my blog last year which everyone found quite amusing), and last, but most certainly not least, babushkas. Babushka is the Russian word for grandmother but it is also an affectionate word for elderly women. Now, everywhere in the world there are elderly women, but really only in Russia are there babushkas. It is difficult to list the qualities that differentiate babushkas from all other elderly women. There are the physical aspects- the stalky body, the round face, the floral headscarf tied under the chin, but then there are the more intangible qualities, a very specific Russian-ness that any Russophile would adore. There is something solid and immovable about them, like no matter which direction this country moves in, there has always been and will always be the Russian babushka.

Alas, Easter is this weekend and I’m off to make arrangements to photograph the celebration. It seems a very suiting way to begin.