In a remote village six hours west of Moscow, a group from HWS on an expedition to explore Russia’s folklore heritage was welcomed to join a local family at their home for an unforgettable cultural experience.
It was Christmas Eve in the Smolensk region, and the team of students, alums and Department Chair and Associate Professor of Russian Area Studies David Galloway, humbly accepted the offer to enjoy an authentic holiday meal at the table of rural townsfolk. For the HWS team, it was one of the marvelously poignant moments of an experience abroad that presented them the chance to learn about the traditions of those living in rural Russia, far from modern city life.
Recalling her experience, Abigail Wandell ’13, an English major with a Russian Area Studies minor, says her memories of that evening are fond, noting that the family was happy and hospitable, the traditional food amazing and the opportunity for cultural immersion with local people irreplaceable.
“Having a family invite our entire group into their home to partake in their meal is certainly an experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget,” Wandell says. “The trip certainly made a positive impact on my HWS experience. If I wasn’t at the Colleges, I never would’ve had such a great opportunity. I was able to see a unique part of the world that very few people can say they’ve visited. I met some amazing people.”
Hosted by American Friends of Russian Folklore (AFRF), a nonprofit based in the U.S., the guide-led tour took the team to several small villages to observe and record folk singers and interview performers as part of a scholarly quest to better understand Russian folklore as it has been preserved by locals for generations. The expedition took place during winter break from Dec. 31, 2012 to Jan. 14, 2013.
The group, which included Galloway, Wandell, Jim Prowse ’15, Patricia Franklin ’15, Kelly Brown ’15, and alums Hannan Merritt ’11 and Melissa Warner ’12, was led by folklorist Lena Minyonok of AFRF. The team funded the experience themselves and students took the course RUSE 237, “Russian Folklore,” as a prerequisite.
The tour, which acted as a pilot program, marked the first time members of the HWS community joined with AFRF for an expedition, Galloway says. Previously, Galloway has led students on short-term trips abroad.
“Everyone in our group had a positive experience,” Galloway says. “Going on this trip was important to them. There is a huge gap between the classroom experience and the actual experience of being immersed in the field. Your understanding is abstract until you have a firsthand experience.”
Galloway says the opportunity to travel alongside faculty adds to the student learning experience by providing them with context and knowledge that they may not otherwise access. He adds that students who participated on the rural trek through Russia also were reflecting the ideals of global citizenship in the very best way. He says it was achieved first through both linguistic and cultural preparation and study; then reinforced and enhanced by the in-country visit to Russia.
On the folklore tour, students found themselves in a world very different from the Western tastes of the area’s modern cities. Specifically, the student researchers sought to learn more about musical folklore, songs derived from a tradition of using sung melodies to help pass time while working. The challenge, too, is finding elderly villagers who have memories of parents or grandparents from the era before World War II, and who still remember how the traditional tunes were sung.
During the expedition, the students also obtained a strong sense of what it means for student researchers from the United States to be in a village hours from the nearest city. And despite extensive preparations, observing and experiencing the rural lifestyle and traditions was considerably different for the students, Galloway explains. Life in rural Russia can be challenging. The climate can be harsh, particularly if a traveler is unprepared, and in the remote villages, running water is often rare.
“It’s interesting how you can experience so much in just two weeks,” Galloway says. “That doesn’t happen when you’re in modern cities abroad. Time seems to stop when you’re meeting with these local people and you feel like you’ve been gone for such a long time because you’re so far away from what you’re used to.”
The significance of experiencing the culture and tradition as a researcher and guest is what’s most important, Galloway says. Wandell says she couldn’t agree more.
“This, and other experiences I’ve had through the Colleges, have taught me that it’s extremely important to go out of your comfort zone,” Wandell says. “Otherwise, you can miss out on so many things.” For Wandell, the folklore expedition led by AFRF and facilitated by Professor Galloway accomplished just that.
For those who wish to learn more about the trip, Prof. Galloway and three of the student participants will give a presentation on their experiences on Monday, March 25, at 7 p.m. in Stern 103. Russian refreshments will be served.
The photo above features the HWS research team dressed in traditional costume during the folklore expedition in rural Russia.