Babushkas: A Fulcrum of Russian Life

The babushka is the one constant iconic figure in Russian culture. The first thing you need to know about them is how to properly pronounce their title as westerners often mispronounce it. The emphasis is on the first syllable: BAH-boosh-ka. This title can mean elderly woman, grandmother or granny, but in general it gets treated as a term of respect. It comes from the word baba, which means married woman, and iyushka, which indicates something small or fragile. Literally translated, it means little old married lady. “Babushka” can also refer to the trademark headscarf worn by virtually every granny in Russia.

Unlike many other cultures, achieving the status of grandmother in Russia equates to something just short of gaining sainthood. While many Western societies routinely shuffle their elderly off to nursing homes or senior living apartments, Russian families like to hang onto their old folks. Because of the housing shortage and cost of living in Russia, entire families will almost always live under one roof. Everyone in the family works together to ensure the health and safety of the entire group. The role most often delegated to the babushka is the care of the youngest children. This might sound like getting stuck with the babysitting, but it is considered a position of great importance and honor. In fact, the Babushka’s role ranks so high that tradition dictates a new mother to place her newborn first into the arms of its babushka before passing it on to the rest of the family. In matters of childcare, the babushka often has veto power over even the child’s parents. Basically, you don’t mess with your babushka.

Once a woman’s first grandchild is born, the entire family calls her “Babushka,” which is often treated as major status symbol. Members of the family show her respect by serving her first at meals, helping her with anything difficult, and listening to her advice – even if they don’t want to. Others from outside the family show their respect by assisting them with their groceries, helping them across the street, and giving up their seats to them on trains and busses. They hold such a position of respect they often avoid queues, something just short of miraculous in a country where you have to stand in line for nearly everything. Even rough men on the street will tell their buddies to watch their language when a babushka passes by.

Because of this ingrained tradition of cooperative living as an extended family unit, when young Russians immigrate to the United States, they often bring their parents and grandparents with them. The daycare industry we have here does not appeal to them as they know their babushkas are the best people to watch after the little ones. These talented old grannies not only take care of the kids, they cook, clean, and grow gardens full of fresh vegetables, called dachas, for the family meals. They play the role of storytellers and history keepers of the family’s past exploits. The tradition of handing down family history runs so deep the babushka picks two or three of her grandchildren to carry on the tradition after she passes away. It is considered a great honor for a child to get picked for this job, and the entire family takes it very seriously. Everyone pitches in to help the youngsters memorize the tales taught to them, and the kids get to practice their accounts at special gatherings as their babushka watches nearby to make sure they get it right. It’s a tradition of living history a lot like the way the American Indian tribes passed their stories and fables down from generation to generation.

Several years ago I traveled to St Petersburg, Russia, with my family. Our little group consisted of my mother, my Grandma, my sister, and myself. I noticed right away how differently the Russian people treated my Grandma. She was about eighty or so years old and was obviously traveling with her family. Everywhere we went, people were super polite to her, letting her go first in a door or serving her first in restaurants. We stopped at a cathedral to hear some Gregorian Monks sing, and they led us into a special chamber that supposedly had really amazing acoustics. The acoustics sounded the way they did because the entire room consisted of ancient stone and no wooden chairs were present. The wood, apparently, acts as a sound buffer and changes the way the singing sounds. So the entire chamber consisted of stone, including these skinny little stone benches sticking out from one wall. The monks ushered us over to the benches and indicated we should sit. But they wouldn’t let my Grandma sit until they had someone run and get her a soft pillow to sit on. Even though their singing was absolutely amazing, after twenty minutes of sitting on those stone seats, I started wishing I had one of those little pillows, too.

nesting-dolls

The 1st Russian Nesting Dolls, c.1890

Another way the Russian people show their respect and admiration for their babushkas is to market worldwide the famous graduated babushka nesting dolls. These brightly painted wooden dolls open at the waist and inside another, slightly smaller doll resides. Then that one opens, and there’s another, and so on. They keep getting smaller and smaller until the very last one: a solid carved doll. They sometimes display the likeness of flower peddlers, fortune tellers, religious figures, Christmas dolls, or pretty much anything you can imagine.

The history behind the dolls is almost as interesting as their wide variety of decorations. In 1890, an industrialist and patron of the arts named Sava Mamontov lived on an estate near Moscow where he sponsored many educational works and toys for Russia’s children. He did most of his work at his workshop, The Institute of Children’s Education at Abramtsevo. Momontov had worked for many years improving not only the schools and their resources in the major cities of Russia, but also the rural community schoolhouses. He had traveled extensively and adopted the idea that Russia needed to insure the best education for her youth so they could keep up with the rest of the civilized world. During the late 1800s, Russia enjoyed a time of great economic growth as well as cultural development, due primarily to the fact that trade with the rest of Europe and the Americas had opened up significantly after the assassination of Czar Alexander II. Momontov realized many of the children in the lower grades and those from farming communities didn’t read or write, so he put his design crew to work trying to find ways toys could be used to teach important concepts and history. He had a team made up of dozens of educators, artists, and folk craftsmen. They eventually came up with the very first nested Matryoshka dolls. Today, these are called Matryoshka or Babushka dolls interchangeably.

Matriosha is a very old and popular female name common in peasant communities. Derived from the even older name Matriona, believed to originate from the Latin root word Mater, which means mother. No wonder, then, that the first Matryoshka dolls depicted a stout peasant mother and a bunch of equally stout children. Sent out to schools around the country and used in teaching lessons about counting and, depending on the facet of society each displayed, the first dolls recounted different fables from Russian folklore. In this way, Momontov and his craftsmen and designers worked to give knowledge through play, a concept that wouldn’t become popular in other countries until the end of the next century.

We had an opportunity to see hundreds of different Babushka dolls on display when we went to a large market near the city center famous for its eclectic shopping choices. Built in 1710, the Sytny Market was so packed you almost couldn’t move around. Many people bought groceries and stocked up household items while tourists moved around in a disorganized swirl buying trinkets and tchotchkes. Even though it was packed, I could tell people directed many polite gestures to the elderly women around us. Because of this, my Grandma started feeling sort of privileged and whenever we wanted to ask ‘How much’ for something, we gave it to her because she would get noticed and waited on right away. It seemed a huge switch from every other country we visited in Europe.

The real test of Russian courtesy toward old ladies came at the end of our shopping trip as we walked down the main boulevard, Nevsky Prospekt. We passed a bunch of middle-aged men who looked like some pretty tough characters, mainly cabbies and laborers, and some wore overalls that looked like they might be janitors or something similar. They were smoking and laughing and having a pretty good time. One of them noticed us coming down the sidewalk, and he motioned to his buddies and said something, gesturing in the general direction of my Grandma. We had been walking a lot that day, and the journey had taken its toll on her. We had suggested to her several times we could sit and let her rest, and my mom had even offered to hail a cab to drive us back to the hotel.

But my Grandma, ever stubborn at the best of times, wasn’t having any of it. She just kept slogging along with her cane, gradually going slower and slower as we went. My mom noticed the men’s interest in us, and started to guide us a little further away from them as we passed. They all stood, and very gallantly offered Grandma a chair to sit and rest. Their manners so gentlemanly it took us by surprise. They even argued briefly over which of their chairs she should take. One minute we worried about getting robbed, and the next they babbled away in Russian and smiled at us. It was pretty weird, but in a really nice way. Even though we didn’t speak much Russian, and they spoke no English at all, we sat there for a while and played a sort of surreal pantomime with them. When we rose to leave, one of them cut his break short and taxied us back to our hotel. We had enjoyed meeting them so much, when we arrived at the hotel my mom tipped him a generous tip and he nearly had a heart attack. We later learned she had given him about a month’s salary worth of rubles.

The following day as we prepared to leave St Petersburg, my mother asked our tour guide, Tanya, why the Russian people show such respect to their elderly women, where other European countries don’t seem to at all. Tanya told us the story of how Russia’s involvement in the Crimean War had cost over four hundred thousand Russian lives in just two and a half years in the 1850s. Followed only twenty years later by another war, this one between Russia and Turkey. The winter of 1877 was a very bitter one, and tens of thousands of young soldiers on the front lines froze and starved to death.

The women in Russia were so outraged that the government would send their sons and husbands to war and wouldn’t take care of them, they just packed up and marched to the front lines to take care of them. Huge camps sprang up with thousands of women cooking for the troops and caring for the sick and injured. So many women poured towards the front lines that soldiers in the cities had to forcibly stop them from boarding trains. “This was terribly embarrassing for Czar Alexander II!” our tour guide laughed. “He was so humbled he rushed to end the war and bring his soldiers back to their Babushkas!” Russia won that war, and “popular history,” as she put it, gave the credit to the courageous love of Russian mothers.

Tanya also told us that, in a way, the fearless “marta nasha mamuchkas,” or March of our mothers, herald the beginning of the end for Czar Alexander II. I found her comments very interesting for two reasons. First, because she said “Our” mothers. It told me the image in her mind, and presumably of that in many Russians’ minds, was of the women who marched to the front all those years ago who embody the forebears of the average person in the street today. Logically they are, of course, as she was talking about tens of thousands of women, from which the common people today surely descend. But the way she claimed them as her ancestors and the pride in her voice truly showed us how she identified with those brave women and saw their personification in every babushka walking around St Petersburg right now.

"Babushka" by Irina Gaiduk

“Babushka” by Irina Gaiduk

The second thing that struck me was the power those women inadvertently had over the course of Russian history. They lit the fuse that became the end of Alexander II, the single-most powerful man in all of Russia and ruler of a sixth of the world. Apparently he had a fair bit of popularity for most of his twenty six years as Russian Emperor. He had freed the serfs of Russia, modernized industry, and improved the lives for much of the lower classes. His people even called him Alexander the Liberator. But he lost the respect of the common people after the Russo-Turkish war fiasco in the Balkans and the Caucuses, due in large part to the humiliation of having all those grannies on the front lines taking care of his troops. His critics claimed it proved him inept and not fit to lead. One group after another tried to kill him off, and eventually they succeeded in March, 1881. He holds the dubious distinction of being the Russian Emperor with the most attempts on his life. I now know when a Russian tells you not to mess with his Babushka, he isn’t kidding.

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marshallMarshall Morgan grew up traveling the world in a military family. Born in Washington State, he spent most of his time experiencing Europe from a small town in the English countryside, about 20 miles north of London. He is currently studying for a position in the computer field.