November 19, 2018
Far Flung
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Russia
“Woodstock,” Russian Style

Indulging in nostalgia and poetry, at a clandestine festival somewhere between Moscow and Siberia

By Lina Zeldovich

“Remember how we had to hide from the militia?,” Alex asks, as we weave through a constellation of multicolored tents, clustered around fire pits underneath pines so tall I have to throw my head back to see the pale blue sky. I hear someone playing a guitar. Another chimes in from a distance. Someone’s humming, someone’s whistling, and the air smells of burning twigs and kasha.

This is Russia’s answer to Woodstock. The natives called it The Festival of Bards. We’re in the middle of the Russian woods, at a camp-like sprawl about 400 miles northeast of Moscow, where the concepts of civilization, friendship and trust take on a different meaning.

“I remember,” I say. This was my juvenile alma mater, where everything happened for the first time: first time in the forest, first night by the fire and first love in a tent. I was 18, only a couple of years older than this event.

Now I am almost twice that age, an American tourist who speaks her native language with a slight accent, whose foreign-structured sentences sound funny and who doesn’t get the latest political jokes, because she’s unfamiliar with Kremlin gossip.

The Trek

We get here by coming to Kazan, a city halfway between Moscow and Siberia, at the confluence of the Volga and Kama rivers. Kazan was founded by Tatars — the descendants of Genghis Khan — and later conquered by Ivan the Terrible.

Then we take a bus to Aisha village, famous, in its own way, for giving the world Alexander Poniatoff, the founder of America electronics company Ampex.

In the old days, a long path without signs would lead us from the bus stop to the hidden forest valley, intended to be found only by the word of mouth. It was part of the secrecy that only those who had the right directions could make it here.

Everything is different now, except that the festival is still nicknamed Aishinsky.

“These days everyone drives,” Alex says. “And we buy Cola and Fanta at kiosks, which were unheard of even 10 years ago.”

A Clandestine Affair

With an effort, I can recall the lyrics to the songs. I hope I still understand their subtleties. I breathe in the sweet scent of sap floating in the air, and follow Alex on our quest for the director’s tent, feeling almost as young and Russian as I once was.

Twenty years ago, this as small and clandestine affair, an outlet for the Soviet iconoclasts who retreated into the woods to speak their minds, scream out their frustration and sing their carols without being eavesdropped on, ratted out and arrested.

Back then, the big cities weren’t safe. One couldn’t have a politically incorrect conversation in cafe, because a nerdy guy at the next table could’ve been a KGB thug in plain clothes. One couldn’t criticize authorities in one’s own apartment, since the place could’ve been bugged.

People trusted only those they’d known for a long time — that’s why the Russian concept of friendship always had a deeper, stronger meaning. A friend was not a buddy you bowled with on Wednesdays or drank beers with on Sundays, but a confidante you trusted with your deepest thoughts. It was someone safe to take along to the woods to share a bottle of vodka, a pot of tea, a guitar and your latest rebellious rhymes.

“Remember how we used to truck everything in on our backs — tents, pots, canned food, drinking water? Alex keeps talking. “How we schlepped from the bus, getting lost and not asking for directions, unless it was another bunch of kindred spirits with guitars strapped onto their backpacks?

A construction crew would arrive the day before, to fell some trees and build the outhouses, or fix any that still stood from the previous year. It was typically an all-male team, but still The Damsel’s Hut was always the first to rise.

A Life I Miss

I almost stumble over a man in his early 30s sprawled across the path, next to a guitar and a nearly-empty vodka bottle. He’s snoring, and someone’s unattended and unwashed children jump over him like a log.

The sleeping guy looks familiar. I make a mental note to come by later; he may be someone I used to know. For now, we have to hurry if I want to be included in the program. The sun is sinking below the pine crowns. We’re cutting it close.

We finally find Stas’ tent. Short for Stanislav, Stas is the festival’s historical figure without whom things tend to fall apart. He’s got a mixed reputation as a good singer, a horrible womanizer, and somewhat of a dark horse who used to get away with cracking political jokes, even during the Soviet era. Some people love him, while others wince at his name. He’s another make of Russian - one you trust up to a point.

He recognizes me, though my once-raven black mop of hair is now blond.

“Look who’s here,” he says with a hug that makes my bones crack. I forgot how close Russians get with people they know.

He wants to know what possessed me to take two planes and an overnight train from Moscow to this middle of nowhere.

“I miss this,” I say, trying to explain life on the other side of the globe. I miss the tunes, the smoky midnight tea brewed over a fire, even the white frost that decorates the tents in the early morning.

I give Stas my new Russian poetry book. He asks me to sign it, and tells me to come by the stage shortly after midnight.

He asks if I am writing my next book, and I nod, even though I haven’t written a word in Russian for ages. The Slavic rhymes and English grammar don’t get along, at least not in my head. Luckily, a gang of slightly drunk youths bursts into his tent yelling about a broken mike, saving me from having to tell more lies. They also confide that tonight’s guest star got pulled over by the militiamen for sipping Stoli while driving.

“I’ll see you at the stage,” Stas tells me as he flips open his cell phone to do damage control. If he’s lucky enough to know the militiamen on duty, the celeb may still make it. We leave the tent as Stas orders his crew to find him a sober driver.

Alex and I walk back in the dusk through the suddenly bright spotlights of fires and twinkling “cyclops” flashlights worn on the forehead. Performers are getting ready, tuning up their guitars and drinking warm-up vodka shots.

Performance

By the time we reach our tent, the wooden stage is lit, and the nearby hill, which serves as theater seating, is seeded with spectators.

We pass a young woman who is prepping her man for tonight’s performance by force-feeding him.

“You’re on your second liter and you haven’t eaten a thing!” she yells, holding a bowl of soup to his mouth. “You won’t make out the strings!”

She resorts to the method Russians use for their young picky eaters. “One spoon for mommy, one spoon for daddy, three more spoons and you can have another shot.”

We find our clan — the same one I used to belong to, before we all got married, divorced, rich or disillusioned. Some are drinking vodka, others sipping tea — the two refreshments as inseparable from the Russian psyche as snow from winter.

Traditionally, every concert opens with a song written by Oleg Nechayev, “We All Got Together Tonight.” Everyone on the hill sings along. I’m happy to see that the gala has upheld its insubordination agenda.

The singers mock Putin’s insatiable desire to rule and the masses’ inherent inability to follow his laws. Men sing about the journeys ahead and women they have left behind. Women sing about choices: whether to follow their men into exile or marry their politically-successful best friends.

Russians worship nostalgia. In summer they miss snow, in winter they long for the sun. They believe feeling nostalgic is important — that you have to understand what’s missing in order to appreciate what is.

Yet, one shouldn’t be sad on such a great night, and that’s why everyone has glasses and flasks. I keep refusing the alcohol handed toward me from all directions, explaining that I needed to be able to walk up to the mike.

Finally, at quarter to midnight, I head down to the stage.

I have a sudden panic attack. I’m from another world, a foreign continent, a different universe altogether. Why would these people care about my poetry, even if it’s written in the language they understand? Why did I agree to make myself a laughingstock at Woodstock?

I search for Stas or his bearded emcee to tell them I’ve changed my mind. But they’ve already announced their guest from New York. So now the crowd is bellowing with excitement.

The stage is bright, and woods are darker than a black hole. The hill in front of me is painted with flashlight polka dots, like a quivering living blanket.

I open my book and abruptly change my mind about what I’m going to read. I start with the piece I wrote on the plane that, years ago, took me from Russia to the United States.

Back then I thought I would never be able to return. I peered out the window wondering if I was flying over Aisha, and over the pine that witnessed my first kiss.

As I read, I realize the entire hill is so silent I can hear the night birds chirping. And when I throw a quick furtive glance at the emcee, whose face looks strangely yellow under the stage light, I can tell he understands, even though he never moved away from his homeland. When I’m done with my three selections, he motions to me to read more.

I flip to the first page and read “Little Harlot,” which is based on Balzac’s “The Harlot High and Low,” and is my favorite. I read about love that happens and love that doesn’t, and about where we go after we die, which for Soviet atheists is a question of eternal debate.

Half an hour later my throat is sore, and I bid farewell to the crowd that suddenly roars and applauds. Now I can drink all I want.

The Aishinsky Festival takes place on the last weekend of May. Lufthansa Airlines flies to Kazan, with a stop in Frankfurt; you can also take an overnight train to Kazan from Moscow. From Kazan, hire a taxi ($15-$20) to Aisha Village. Then follow your intuition, and any backpackers on foot. There still are no signs, official parking lots or websites.

Lina Zeldovich writes in English and Russian, and is the recipient of three Writer’s Digest Fiction Awards. She blogs about her adventures at http://noveladventurers.blogspot.com/

2 comments about ““Woodstock,” Russian Style”

  1. Tim Harper says:

    Great story.

  2. Bella says:

    Oh Aisha?a festivals? The very brightest memories of past days. In many years in ?pre-perestroika? Russia it was a little bright spot where we could meet people like us, not really ?communism builders? ? and talk, talk, talk without (or with only little fear) being ?politically correct?. In ?perestroika? times ? talk without fear! Listen to the music we like, meet entire families of different people, people who shared same ideas and ideals? Long time ago, Aisha?s memory of Aisha is the best!!!

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