It was the kind of day that brought an old favorite poem to mind (see bottom). So sunny and bright that you couldn’t stand to look down for a second–until icy black street water seeped into your shoes and reminded you of your folly.

Totally worth it.

Last week was a good week for quality time with Russian-Tutor Anna. On Sunday we rose bright and early to get in a scary tiny bus and go to Siz’ma, a village/living history museum about 1.5 hours from here. I had not expected that we would have a tour guide to accompany us for the ride, but he was there and ready to bombard us with information about the various villages we were passing through, some of which had names like “Resurrection” and “By the River”, but others of which had names like “Lost an Axe” and “Red Elephant.”

By the time we arrived, my ears were so bruised by trying to understand every word that my mind wandered a lot throughout the rest of the day. The handy thing about living museums is that there’s plenty to see and touch, so listening isn’t really necessary to get something out of the experience.

We started off in the linen museum (linen production is historically one of the major industries of the region), where traditional clothing, embroidery, and stamped cloth were  on display, as well as a loom and all the paraphernalia that apparently goes into making linen. There was a huge contraption made of wood, a tube about 6 feet long with a handle on one end and a cradle on the bottom. The tube was cut into a V on the bottom, which fit into an upwards-facing V on the cradle. The first step in linen production, apparently, is to slam the contraption shut on the flax stalks to slowly break off the tough outer layer and expose the spinnable fibers. But mostly it just makes an ungodly racket.

There was a box full of dress-up clothes, and when no one expressed an interest in experiencing a sarafan from the inside, the tour guide recruited Anna to demonstrate. She was a trooper and looked very convincing once she got her volosnik, a headdress for married women. I did not wish to put on museum clothes, although if they’d had a kokoshnik I might have had to go for it.

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There was a whole room dressed up to look like a schoolhouse on one side, and on the other they had all these old tools. Unfortunately, they hurried us through the room with no time to look around. This is the Old Church Slavic alphabet (red) with modern Russian equivalents. Old Church Slavic is–you guessed it– the language of the church, much as Latin used to be in the Catholic church. It’s more similar to Bulgarian than Russian, but its alphabet is real crazy.

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I’ll give this to the person I love. Love me as I love you. (complete with folksy grammatical errors)

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A teeny tiny spinning wheel. Much more convenient than a cotton wheel.

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Again, “I’ll give this to the one I love.” With the same folksy errors.

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Niddy noddy, niddy noddy, awesome legs, awesome body.

The village of Siz’ma is unusual because it’s still a very religious place, with 3 churches and just 233 people. Admittedly, the ability of these churches to stay open may have something to do with the business the village gets by adhering to a traditional lifestyle. That doesn’t make the churches any less interesting and doesn’t deter the spirited telling of the various miracles and mysteries associated with each individual place of worship. First we visited the Shrine of St Ksenia. They say that Ksenia will give you whatever you ask for, so we were encouraged to write our wishes on paper and leave them at her icon.

Russia has a strong tradition of superstition, fortune-telling, and magic, and it appears that when the first Russian Christians got to the part of the Bible where it says that all that stuff is bad, they just squinted their eyes and turned the page. These (in my opinion) conflicting traditions mix in fascinating ways.

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The shrine to St Ksenia of Petersburg. Cover your head and cross yourself three times before entering. When leaving, walk three times around the perimeter of the chapel. A framed icon of Ksenia on the back wall (not pictured due to general taboo of photographing places of worship) has so many slips of paper stuck under the edge of the frame that they fall everywhere on the ground.

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The unexplained ruins of a church next to St Ksenia’s shrine

Then we slipped and slid down a path to a well while Nikita bounced along on the snow banks beside us. The well is said to be holy, so we washed our faces in it. I thought that was invigorating enough, but then I looked a bit further on and saw the open-air bathing house where you can submerge yourself in the stuff, I suppose to rid yourself of truly egregious sins and odors.

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Nikita said he didn’t want to be in the picture, but then he changed his mind.

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As good a place as any to fall and die, I suppose…

Feeling all holied up, we set off for the house, where the highlight of the whole day (according to the marketing team, anyway) awaited us: lunch cooked in a Real Russian Pechka! I was a bit disappointed to learn that, since the Fedorovtsys, I am more familiar with pechka cooking than many Russians, but the lunch was satisfying for a totally different reason: it served as confirmation that the Fedorovtsy lifestyle was, in fact, quite in tune with Old Russia. The lunches were almost identical: sauerkraut soup, a “cutlet” (fried ground meat patties), mashed potatoes, sauerkraut, homemade apricot pies, and homemade beer (obviously we didn’t have this in Tishanka, since they don’t drink).  The low doorjambs, beautiful corner, and a “wherever-it-falls,-there-may-it-be-permanently-stored” attitude towards kitchen organization also smacked strongly of Tishanka. Fortunately, this time I was unfettered by my companions’ aversion to photography, so I got a couple of shots before the room filled up with hungry folks.

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The inside of the pechka

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Sorry I cut off the top.

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Finally, we made it to the actual church, All Saints’ Cathedral. That was a lie– I have no earthly idea what the name of the church is, but we may as well call it All Saints’. It has two levels, each of which is a completely separate chapel. They use the downstairs, which must be heated, in winter, and the upstairs, which is quite drafty, in summer. They gave us a detailed tour, but my Russian ears were completely shot by this point, so instead I bought some beeswax candles and explored the icons on my own. Lit candles to St Nicholas (not Santa) and Kirill and Mefodius (creators of the Cyrillic alphabet). After the end of the tour, Anna took me back around and shared the highlights of the tour in Kate-friendly Russian (because she’s awesome). There are a couple of legends about icons that you hear again and again. For example, the story of icons whose faces are completely blackened (or don’t exist at all), and then one day they spontaneously develop the image of a saint. Or two. Or three. Or seven, in the case of Nikolas II and his family (although technically they’re not saints, but passion-bearers; the difference is that you can only be sainted if your death was directly related to your Christian faith). Another common legend is of icons or, in the case of this church, a stone cross) floating upstream against the tide. Eventually they become still in the water, and generally someone erects a church on the shore there.

This time, however, they showed us one icon whose story I had not yet heard. After the October Revolution, it became common to steal holy items from churches. Although some of this was probably done for personal gain, much of it was also simply to preserve these relics. The Cherepovets art museum owes a whole wing to these “thieves,” the children and grandchildren of whom have since taken the icons out of hiding. Anyway, there was a period of time where these icons, unimaginably revered and some unimaginably old, were sitting around people’s apartments, waiting for…anything.

It also happened that if you have two deeply conflicting philosophies that must coexist prominently, as did Scientific Atheism and Orthodoxy, someone will get carried away and do something that history will regret. So there’s this guy who has this icon lying around, and he decides he’s about done with the nonsense of the church. So he scratches the icon’s eyes out. Within some not-very-long-but-also-not-specified period of time, he went blind himself. He has since died, but his wife, who remained a believer and returned the icon to the church after the fall of the USSR, is still alive.

Of course, according to this article, “at certain times, the Icons must be covered so that the ‘eyes’ of the Saints cannot see what is happening in the home, especially if there is the changing of money, gambling, sexual behaviors, etc. Some icons have their eyes scratched out because they ‘saw’ too much and therefore can no longer be looked in the eye.”

You can choose which version you believe.

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Nathan and I are endeavoring to spend more time looking up. You discover things that way. Here’s a pretty bad picture looking up from the bell tower.

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The belltower houses the scariest staircase in the history of staircases. I get arthritis just looking at it.

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Around the dome, it says “Not to us, but to your name be the Glory.”

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i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

e.e. cummings

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