As temperatures this week in Sydney reached up to around 35°C, I found myself taking vicarious refuge in yet another winter-themed book to cool me down.
I found the perfect relief for this hot Australian summer in a collection of Russian folk rhymes. The illustrations might be frosty, but as a child who grew up in the former Soviet Union, it warms my heart as I reflect on these familiar old folk rhymes.
They are similar to Mother Goose nursery rhymes in the English-language literature tradition but are rooted in Russian heritage, and all (in this particular book) have a connection to winter. The rhymes are witty or lighthearted and humorous, the repetition of lines, their rhythmic and melodic language make them perfect for singing and some do exist as songs.
Here are a few couplets from the rhyme about a young lad Vanya riding his horse onto thin ice and falling off the horse. Unable to raise himself up he just lay there on the ice until two joyous Russian girls have come to the rescue – helping Vanya up and mounting him back onto his horse:
Как на тоненький ледок
Выпал беленький снежок,
Выпал беленький снежок.
Ехал Ванюшка дружок
Ехал Ваня, поспешал,
Со добра коня упал,
Где упал там лежит –
Никто к Ване не бежит…
My toddler son was delighted at hearing these rhymes read aloud to him in Russian, though some managed to challenge him and, more surprisingly, to challenge me. “Mum, what’s “коромысло”?” my bi-lingual child enquired on hearing the unknown Russian word. “It’s “a beam”, I offered having consulted Google Translate. Hmm…. and a confused look on his face. I pointed to the girl in the picture below and the “коромысло” that she has across her shoulders to make it easier to hold and carry two heavy pails full of water. A light of understanding lit up little son’s face for just a brief moment, and then a barrage of questions rained down as he tried to get his head around the motivation for this young rosy-cheeked child to go out into the freezing cold to fetch two pails of water from a small hole in the ice – “but why???”… This book has given us a few prompts to talk about different lifestyles and ways of living that differ from ours and given my Australian-born son food for thought and a little insight into the Russian cultural heritage of his parents.
What makes this book special is its illustrations by Yuri Vasnetsov (1900 – 1973), who is a distant relative of the famous Russian painter Victor Vasnetsov (1848 – 1926). Yuri is one of Russia’s leading artists of children’s books and a celebrated Soviet graphic artist of the so-called Golden Age. Yuri illustrated more than a hundred books, including Russian fairy tales, rhymes, folk stories and works by such literary luminaries as Pushkin, Marshak, Chukovsky.
He studied under Kazimir Malevich (the famous creator of the “Black Square”) and was influenced by the Suprematism and Primitivism movements. He has then worked in Detgiz publishing house alongside other masters of illustration of the Soviet-era – Lebedev, Charushin, Pakhomov. Vasnetsov’s highly recognisable style is influenced by Russian folk and popular art; his illustrations have enchanted readers of all walks of life and ages.
I hope you too enjoy Yuri Vasnetsov’s atmospheric and very “Russian” winter.
For more reviews of fabulous winter and Christmas themed books click here.