Culture in Moscow

Bittersweet Moscow IV: Practicing prasniks

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Marco North continues his series on coping with life as a single father in search of quality and happiness for his daughter in Moscow.

A prasnik is something between a party and a pageant. The children practice for weeks a hierarchy of roles for the prettiest girls and the loudest boys. The rest of the parts are delegated to children capable of memorising but not dancing.

In the first prasnik I attended at my daughter’s kindergarten I understood much less Russian than I do now. It was a series of scenarios inspired by the poems of Pushkin. The rest of the world knows him as the author of Eugene Onegin, a romance perfect for the artifice and majesty of opera.

I doubt foreigners realise that the most beloved fairy tales in Russia are Pushkin’s. Can you imagine Hans Christian Andersen writing La Boheme in addition to The Ugly Duckling? Pushkin pulled it off.

One skazki (fairytale) the children acted out involved a witch named Baba Iga. The rest was completely lost on me. The littlest children were led in and out of the room at various points as they acted out the parts of squirrels (and then played tiny bells). There was something about oranges, and maybe cows. Honestly, I have no idea.

This prasnik went on for about an hour, then was interrupted by a belly dancer -- a voluptuous young woman who seemed to have been dropped from the sky into this ancient kindergarten that smelled of warm milk, kasha and dirty shoes.

Little boys and fathers ogled in hushed awe as she twirled and wiggled across the dusty rug in the centre of the room for a number of minutes.

I knew that at least one of Pushkin’s ancestors was African, and made a crude guess that the belly dancer was some misdirected history lesson. Or, it may have been some of the trademark randomness I have grown to expect here.

The next prasnik celebrates Christmas and the New Year. The Russian calendar is different from the rest of the planet (the same as the scales in their music schools). In a good chunk of the world 25 December is some kind of day off. Here it is a normal workday, full of traffic and grit and homework assignments.

Being an expat and trying to celebrate along with everyone back home seems completely foolish. The Russian calendar also combines Christmas and New Year’s Eve into one night, so Santa Claus (Dedya Moros, literally meaning Grandfather Frost) brings toys on the last night of the year for good kids.

His granddaughter is a snowflake princess, named Snegorechka (little snowy one). There is a lovely story about how she melts and returns every winter. The Christmas trees here are called yolechka, and a Christmas prasnik is also called a yolechka. Dancing around the tree and singing old songs in your party dress is a big deal.

As you may imagine, scheduling various yolechkas is something of a kashma (headache). Parents are drawn into rooms for lengthy meetings as people argue what gifts should be bought for the teacher, and their children.  Father Frost is always dressed in blue, and his face is so cold it turns bright red. Ironic, that he looks completely drunk as well.  

For about a thousand rubles you can invite Dedya Moros to your apartment on New Year’s Eve where he will make jokes, squeeze your child’s cheeks and present the gifts you slip into his bag. Chances are he will be drunk, and the red makeup is just his face cold and wet from a hectic night of visits.

There are springtime prasniks that have children singing about war and dead soldiers. Songs about heroes, boys play-acting war games, girls as nurses -- it’s straight out of the '50s. This is the party that father’s flock to, digging out old uniforms and sitting with straight backs in tiny chairs as the teachers dedicate songs to them.

My daughter stands in a white dress with a kerchief wrapped around her face along with all of the other girls. It is a bizarre moment as I see her marching and snapping to attention like she is in the military, and yet she is charming -- as every daughter is to her papa.

She dances with the same partner at every prasnik, a slight boy named Misha. He has curly hair and wears bowties. He is also missing one arm.

The next holiday is Women’s Day, a loathsome holiday when every man is chastised unless he buys a cheap bouquet of wilting tulips or carnations for every single woman he knows.

If you hate your receptionist, or your mother-in-law or the lady who serves you soup in the cafeteria, you must still buy her flowers on Women’s Day or you will owe her a debt of gratitude that can never be corrected.

Yes, there is a Men’s Day, but there are no fast rules except dad can get drunk if he wants to.

During the Women’s Day prasnik, the girls hold dolls in their arms and sing them to sleep. My daughter’s favourite kukla (doll) has dark brown skin and is named Sasha, her African princess.

It paints a hysterical picture: These tiny girls in a perfect row, wearing white dresses, rocking white dolls in their arms... and then my daughter, the tiny elephant in the room.

My daughter, the one picking her nose most of the time. The one who does not get the impressive roles. The one who speaks two languages. The one with giant brown eyes. The one that fills this tiny room with her smile. The one with the brown baby.


Reprinted with permission of Impressions of an expat.

Marco North is an expat New Yorker living in Moscow with his daughter. He is a professional filmmaker, published writer and musician, known for the singular nature of his work. Read more about North's life in Moscow via his blog, Impressions of an expat.

Photos by Marco North.

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