Songs of the past by Sasha Velichko

The North of Russia abounds with history, folklore and mythology. Seclusion of these lands from the central regions had a substancial impact on how people save and cherish their artistic and folk heritage from the old days.

The North of Russia abounds with history, folklore and mythology. Seclusion of these lands from the central regions had a substancial impact on how people save and cherish their artistic and folk heritage from the old days.

The idle cultural expansion from the mainland hardly had a strong impact on the local ways, and nothing disrupted the natural flow of life for the northerners. Family customs, beliefs and traditions, clothing and speech had remained mostly untouched since the past. The very nature and terrain had a say in it as well. Severe climate conditions and harsh landscapes complicated the connections of the smaller villages to the outer world: impassable woods and swamps, ruined roads, ubiquitous lakes and the White Sea – all that stimulated an own brand of isolation. At the same time, the peace and tranquility of the North instilled a unique set of qualities in its inhabitants. The natural beauty inspired and strengthened peoples’ love towards creativity and art in all its manifestations and instances.

Anna Zavarzina and Elena Ovodova / Suzemushki call themselves “rich woman” — all because of the preserved outfits from grandmothers’ chests. Many things from this wardrobe are more than a century old, and once every little element of the costume had its own purpose in the life of a northerner. Patterns, jewelry, density and appearance of fabric, ribbons and hats reflected the wealth and status of the family. There is a lot of symbolism with ancient meanings. Women belted the sarafan (sundress) under the breast, and men on their waist. These belts served as amulets. The belt was given to the newborn, girls were belted after baptism. A person was also belted when seen to their final journey.

This land has never seen serfdom or slavery, which is deeply reflected in the internal sense of freedom and lifestyle of the northerners. It is quite challenging to describe exactly how life in such a pristine and, in a special way, honest seIng can change humans, but you can feel it in those legends, songs and tales, preserved in the faraway North.

However, there are not so many people like, who would safe keep this heritage. Women of a folklore theatre of Pomeranian culture “Suzemye“ (roughly translated as wildlands) carry on the traditions of their kin. They chant songs, tell legends and tales, recreate scenes from old customs, save and restore ethnic costumes, ornaments, jewelry and family household items.

Such an unusual name was not chosen by accident. Suzemye is a sacred place, wild backwoods far from roads and civilization, place that hardly saw a living soul. People say: do not go to the Suzim (Suzemye), or you will get lost and might never come back. The troupe attempts to make people feel the northern culture trough and through, its significance and special spirit, make them believe in the marvels from the sagas and tales they tell.

Aglitsky scarf
 / Aglitsky scarf
 Shawls and sundresses were sewn from Aglitsky chintz in the North, bright flowers sprouted across the red field of fabric. The scarf shown in the photo is over 150 years old. Aglitsky chintz was made at the factories of Pavlov Posad and Vladimir. Girls went to “vecheren’ki” (“evening parties”) in these dresses and in the summer they wore them as casual clothes. Later sundresses were even worn on haymaking, and it was not appropriate to appear in them to celebrations.

Up to this day the North is a home for peculiar speech and dialectic chants with the authenticity of the long-forgotten times. Suzyomushki (the artists of the theatre) have a distinguished manner of speaking, somehow overly soaked with the most important thing in their lives – their art and legacy of their ancestors. You may not notice it right away, but rather gradually find yourself in the world of their special language with peculiar particles, prefixes and proverbs.

The troupe exists since 2007, includes only women of various ages and is led by Ovodova Elena Severianovna. All the participants were born in Pinezski district. This theatre is unique in its self-sufficiency, as they do everything on their own: from scenario writing for the performances and studying historical archives to administration and organization. They do not have any managers, bosses or external sponsorships. Everything is based on pure love to local folklore and traditions and desire to pass it on.

Vasilisa, granddaughter of Elena Ovodova / In the modern world the connection between the older and younger generations is weakening, and children have no craving for traditions. Suzemushki try to instill interest in the culture of the North from an early age through legends, tales and lullabies. The youngest children in the family spend a lot of time with their grandmothers and help them: participate in rituals, support their performances, and prepare dishes from the old recipes together.

The women want to leave a collective memory, outliving any of them, carry the songs of their people through generations. They want to give people of today the opportunity to learn what happened in the North of Russia through performances and customs of the bygone times.

The songs, performed by Suzyomushki, were wriRen down from the memory of their grandmothers and grand grandmothers, were taken from songbooks and municipal archives. Some of them are more than 300 years old. The women are genuinely passionate about finding these materials and try to adapt it for their audience. Every shown custom is accompanied with a traditional song. In their performances, they clearly demonstrate such customs as: seeing-off the recruits, marriage ceremonies, burials, etc. The troupe also plays out tales, epics and buffooneries. During their acts, the women also often acquaint the spectators with the meals and cuisine of their ancestors.

Each of these women considers the troupe as a family. One of them compares it with a portal to childhood, when every song had a special place and feeling in your head and your soul. Suzemye is their family, their home, memory and reminiscence, so dear to their hearts. And this notion, memories and knowledge need to be kept safe and protected – as there is no future without the past.

Kozulya from Umba / Kozulya is a dough figure most often in a shape of a deer, a goat or a cow. Sacrifices played a big role in the culture of our ancestors for a long time, and faith in “agricultural magic” intensified after the land development and livestock emergence. At some point, people came up with ritual dough figures to preserve the ritual and avoid the Christian prohibition on the sacrifice of real animals.
 A large number of figures on the eve of agricultural holidays symbolized an increase in livestock and harvest, and also well-being of the family.
 Now kozulya is baked for Christmas, presented to relatives and friends with wishes of happiness and health in the New Year.

About Sasha Velichko

Sasha Velichko is a documentary photographer and visual artist. Born in 1993 and based in Brest, Belarus. In 2016 graduated from the Belarus State University, the faculty of Radiophysics and Computer Technologies. 2017-2018 – School of Modern Photography Docdocdoc, Russia. The work focuses on the themes of social problems, culture and provincial cities. She believes a photograph can attract people’s attention to the problems they know, but are blind to.

Anna Olimpieva / Anna inherited all the outfits from her grandmother. From childhood to this day the girl lives for folklore. She’s known Suzemushki for more than 10 years, but became a participant 4 years ago. In the collective she sings and participates in the recreation of ritual scenes. She plays the psaltery.

Silver bracelets with carved patterns / Jewelry was given the most emphasis. Amber beads, silver “bruslets” (bracelets) and chains showed wealth and served as dowries. Pearl earrings were worn in wealthy families, while silver and bronze were found in ordinary homes. Men in the north also sometimes wore a silver earring — in one ear.

Elena Ovodova / Northern women were very persistent, literate and respected. They helped men, often worked along with them. This influenced a certain independence of Pomeranian women. The ones who lived in a city didn’t even wear weaved sandals, they wore boots.

Festive povoynik / Povoynik is a headdress, raised above the forehead, but tightly adjacent to the head in the back. The upper part of it was made of brocade. Status and age determined what kind of povoynik the woman would wear, the same goes for any other type of headwear. Hair is usually braided, or even tucked in this “hat”.

Anna Zavarzina / In the North faith in signs and everyday mythology is captured in songs, tales and epics. People have long believed in everyday paranormal creatures like leshiy (wood goblin), domovoy (house-elves) and polunochnitsa (night ghost) — spirits that come to children at night and torment them, not letting them fall asleep. Pinega still believes in the spirit of hiccups, which causes a “whooper” — a kind of obsession, when demons posess a person so they begin to cramp, scream heresy and cannot control themselves. There are “ikotnitsy” in villages — Old Mothers who can come into contact with evil spirits to heal people and send hiccups. This gift was transmitted through the female side of the family.

Gold headband with beading / Stones, embroidery and patterns arrangement in festive hats had a “protective” function. It was believed that a person is subject to external influences during ritual transitions, and he must be protected from undesirable influence. Snowflakes on bandages were embroidered with river pearls, which were obtained in the northern rivers, or they were embroidered with beading. Important hats were inherited.

Maria Kadashova and Lyudmila Onegina / In August 2018 one of Suzemushki – Kadashova Maria Nikolaevna was gone. In the collective she was called “matsi” (mother). When asked about her age Maria Nikolaevna replied that she was fifteen … and after a pause, she added: “to a hundred!” She was an incredibly smart woman, very cheerful — a young soul, as they say. Her sarcastic jokes and a cunning look amazed everyone. Maria Nikolaevna was telling very touching things about her past. Everyone loved Baba Manya

Silver chain / This chain is called “ringed”, because the chain width is determined by the number of rings fastened together, and wide chains with five connected rings were considered the most expensive. A cross was hung on a chain, and a girl could wear three such chains with crosses at the same time

Olga Klevakina / Olga said that Suzemye helped her beat cancer. “Without them I wouldn’t have survived,” — tell she. This occupation and feeling of togetherness became a great support.

Festive kokoshnik 
 / A North Russian wedding has a unique tragic mood. The pre-wedding period is as dramatic as nowhere, because for a bride the wedding was often a forced step. After the consent of the parents there’re rituals to “separate” the bride from her family: her girlfriends sing funeral songs with choral litany, also invite mourners. The groom doesn’t see the bride until the ceremony. On wedding day her face is hidden behind a scarf. During the celebration the bride doesn’t eat anything and sits with her head down, while guests and family members feast and have fun.

Participants of the theater of the Pomeranian culture “Suzemye” (from left to right):
 top row — Maria Kadashova, Elena Ovodova, Olga Klevakina;
 bottom row — Lyudmila Onegina, Maria Khromtsova, Galina Volkova, Ekaterina Kobylina.
 The collective is incomplete in the picture, there are no Anna Zavarzina and Anna Olimpieva.

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