"You're doing more for mutual understanding between Russians and Americans than all the diplomats put together."
I never thought a few yips and howls in the rehearsal room of the new arts center would eventually elevate me to the status of a diplomat. However that is exactly what we, the Middlebury College Russian Choir, became when we took our act on the road; the Gold Road, that is, around the cities that make up Moscow's Golden Ring. Everywhere we went we heard comments similar to the one quoted above by an audience member in Kostroma. Our audiences were not only old men and women from the villages, but also the young city slickers from Moscow and St. Petersburg, all flocking to hear the Americans sing their songs, songs practically forgotten among their own people.
Led by Associate Professor of Russian Kevin Moss, the Middlebury College Russian Choir has been in existence for 10 years, performing Russian liturgical and folk songs at Middlebury and other colleges in the Northeast. The choir raised money for the trip by giving concerts and selling tapes. This was the first tour of Russia in the history of the group, and Moss hopes to make it a tradition.
The 15 singers and two "roadies" who made the trip overseas were rather an eclectic bunch. Since the only requirements for membership in the choir are a willingness to show up for rehearsal twice a week and a love for loudness, no Russian background is necessary. The range of Russian language proficiency among the students ran from those with a plane ride's study of Russian At a Glance (such as the author) to those who had already studied abroad in a small Russian town for a year.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for the choir was the extent to which Western influence had infiltrated Russian culture. "I was amazed to see that the Russians, even in small towns like Vladimir, were beginning to sense the value of a dollar," said Mandy Blasko '93, who spent her junior year abroad in Vladimir only a year ago. Others lamented the loss of Russian traditions. "I'm still looking for Russia," said Philip Webb '95, "I can smell it, I just can't see it."
Yet, amidst the black marketeers hustling us for dollars (yes, dollars-the ruble wasn't worth much more than toilet paer), and the bus drivers haggling over bribe money, we managed to catch a glimpse of what we called, for lack of a better term, "the real Russia."
One of the most memorable moments for Moss occurred at a concert in the Manezh, the central exhibition center in Moscow. The center was displaying the relics of the family of Nicholas 11, most of which hadn't been seen since the Communist Revolution. Dmitri Pokrovsky, who first began writing down Russian folk songs and performing them in concert, invited us to sing with his group. Moss had sung with Pokrovsky when he was living in Russia. After the formal concert, a few audience members asked us to sing on our own. One elderly man fell to his knees and begged us never to stop singing. "These songs have been part of the Russian tradition for thousands and thousands of years," he exclaimed. "They have been almost forgotten by her own people. I thank you humbly on my knees for reviving them. Please, don't let them be forgotten, ever."
The last concert of the tour was one of the most special. We performed in an active church in St. Petersburg in which the members preserved the tradition of standing throughout the service. We solemnly sang the old Russian liturgical music while some of the congregation actually wept. Blasko remembers one woman in particular who was crying, blowing kisses at us, and waving as we said good-bye. Krell felt that the concert had the deepest emotional impact for both the congregation and the choir because, "We finally were singing the music the way it was meant to be sung." The concert represented the culmination of Von Hessert's search for Russia. "Instead of black marketeers, I finally saw human beings who were able to show their Russian soul rather than hide it behind a facade which the rest of the world requires them to wear."
Some of our favorite concerts were the ones that were unplanned. We would spice up a visit to ABC (Another Bloody Church. as our Yaroslavl tour guide put it) by singing a few liturgical pieces for whomever was there. One of our most appreciated impromptu concerts occurred at the Moscow train station. The choir was in a rather festive mood after the farewell banquet from Moscow. In order to make the wait for the train to Kostroma more tolerable, we began to sing some of our loudest folk songs. After the crowd got over the initial shock, they actually began to join in on a few verses. They almost seemed disappointed when the train came. We tried the same thing at Kennedy Airport while waiting in the customs line. Although we were not as well received, the line suddenly did seem to move faster. For many of us, meeting Russians our age left an indelible impression. Through their experiences we were able to imagine what life might be like for us and what impact the economic crisis would have upon our futures. Despite a few difficulties, all would agree that the trip was an unforgettable experience.
It wasn't the impressive architecture, the beautiful scenery or historical monuments that we'll remember most, but rather the giggles of the children, the weeping of the babushki, and the begging of the old man who heard our music. "I'm glad this was my last Middlebury expenence," said Blasko. "It left me with a positive feeling about what I have done here for the last four years and about the people I have gotten to know in the choir and through our performances."
Middlebury Magazine, Autumn 1993, p. 25