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Matryoshka nesting dolls from Ann Arbor Russian Fes­tival. | Courtesy Gladys Oster.

There’s an old Russian folktale that is often told with the help of Matryoshka nesting dolls.

A man was trying to pull a turnip from the ground, but it was much too big. He called his wife to help him, but still the turnip wouldn’t budge. The wife called their grand­daughter over. The three pulled, pulled, pulled with no luck. Next, the dog was called, and a great effort was made. Even after the cat offered to help, the turnip stood fast in the ground. The dejected troupe saw the mouse crawl out of his hole, and they asked him if he could help them try, just once more, to pull the turnip out of the ground. Finally, with the help of everyone, the prized turnip came out of the dirt.

This story was told again and again by a Russian woman selling hand-painted Matryoshka dolls at this past weekend’s Russian fes­tival. In its sixth year, the Ann Arbor Russian Fes­tival is rich with culture and fairy tales similar to the Giant Turnip story.

Aside from Russian nesting dolls, dif­ferent tents sold tra­di­tional scarves, hand­crafted flower hair clips, and various Russian-themed goods. Several shirts and mugs with pic­tures of Putin, often with funny sayings, were also for sale; a par­ticular favorite of fes­tival-goers was a mug with a picture of Putin holding a puppy. The reli­gious-themed items, on the other hand, were said to be rem­i­niscent of the tra­di­tions of pre-Soviet Union Russia.

Wooden Russian doll from Ann Arbor Russian Fes­tival. | Courtesy Gladys Oster

“Every­thing – culture, folklore, and more – was soaked in faith,” Leta Nikul­shina, a member of the planning com­mittee, said. “The Soviet Union caused it all to be pol­ished and neutered. The fes­tival helps bring back some of what was lost, but still accounts for the climate during and after the Soviet Union.”

This union of a sat­u­ration of faith and basic day-to-day life can be seen in many aspects of the fes­tival. A painting of Mary, the mother of Jesus, on a wooden egg is dis­played next to nesting dolls depicting Harry Potter and his friends.

Men and women of the parish served food, eager to help those fluent in Russian and con­fused Amer­icans alike. Locals spent the morning of the fes­tival cooking tra­di­tional Russian food and drinks, including soups, crepes, shish kebabs, coleslaw, dumplings, and Russian teas. Many of the parish­ioners pre­ferred to grab some vodka from the beer tent.

Russian food from the Ann Arbor Russian Fes­tival. | Cour­testy Gladys Oster

The focal point of the fes­tival was the music tent. Singers, dancers, or musi­cians were con­tin­u­ously on the stage with beau­tiful dis­plays of art through their talents and cus­tomary col­orful cos­tumes. The Kon­evets Quartet filled the tent with their sonorous voices and the Russian lan­guage. Dancers from Russia and Ukraine used their skills to express the stories told before they graced the stage. Each act was intro­duced by a lively Russian guitar player with an incli­nation to crack jokes about America and Russia alike.

The audience itself ranged in age and eth­nicity, but the common link was in everyone’s deep appre­ci­ation and enjoyment of the enter­tainers. Snezhana Knysh, a member of the women’s group at St. Vladimir’s, believes that the church and fes­tival fits in per­fectly with their location.

“The city of Ann Arbor is very cos­mopolitan, and we’ve met so many people who are happy to have us here,” Knysh said. “The Uni­versity [of Michigan] also fits into it all with its growing interest and curiosity of our food and dance.”

Russian immi­grants were looking for a place to cel­e­brate their faith and Russian her­itage in the late 1970s after set­tling in and around Ann Arbor. The small group orig­i­nally held ser­vices in the basement of a Roman Catholic Church until they finally raised enough money to pur­chase 10 acres of land to build their own church upon. Now, more than 150 fam­ilies make up the diverse parish of Rus­sians, Arabs, Serbs, Greeks, and Amer­icans. Despite dif­ferent back­grounds, parish­ioners find comfort in the church’s roots in the Slavic tra­dition of the Orthodox Church.

St. Vladimir’s Russian Orthodox Parish in Ann Arbor, MI. | Courtesy Gladys Oster.

“Instead of buying a plane ticket home, I can just come here,” said greeter and parish­ioner Zena Ealovega.

The fes­tival holds a special place in Ealovega’s heart as it is what led her to join the parish.

“I rec­og­nized the Orthodox cross from the freeway and attended the very first fes­tival here. Since then, I have been a member of the church and an active member on the fes­tival planning com­mittee,” she said.

It’s stories like Ealovega’s that motivate the church to con­tinue to pour $5,000-$6,000 every year into the fes­tival without charging for parking or admission.

“It’s our biggest form of evan­ge­lization and exposure to our culture,” Rev­erend Father Gregory Joyce explained.

St. Vladimir’s Russian Parish | Courtesy Gladys Oster

Other parish­ioners expressed the same sen­timent, saying it is an oppor­tunity to give people who are not exposed to Russian culture, reli­gious and oth­erwise, the chance to under­stand a culture that may be mis­un­der­stood.

St. Vladimir’s is con­fident that their fes­tival will con­tinue to spread the tra­dition of the Orthodox Church and grow the com­munity around Ann Arbor. St. Vladimir’s also hopes to start a clas­sical academy based in the Russian Orthodox tra­dition, and they hope to draw in stu­dents of all nation­al­ities.

The fes­tival helps the church express and raise awareness of these goals and their mission. Just like the tale of the turnip, it takes every person in the small parish to accom­plish the great feat of putting on a suc­cessful fes­tival, but in the end, it is all worth it.

Russian per­formers at the Russian Fes­tival in Ann Arbor. | Courtesy Gladys Oster
  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    As an Orthodox Christian I believe the reli­gious revival cur­rently taking place in Russia is a miracle. I’m old enough to remember the Soviet Union and the decades of reli­gious oppression of Chris­tians in Russia. Now all that is changing.

    Whether you agree with Pres­ident Putin or not, he has changed Russia from the Marxist-Leninist athe­istic regime it was into a nation wanting to recover it’s lost past. Pres­ident Trump is right when he tries to diminish bad rela­tions between Russia and the west, there is no reason for it in most cases.