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Valeria Kolosova (Russia)


Designing Folklore as a Way of Designing National Consciousness

(according to the materials of expedition to the village of Starye Broskovtsy, Storozhinets district of Chernovtsy region, the Ukraine)

The work is fulfilled with the financial support of the Open Society Support Foundation (RSS No.: 1140/2000).

In this paper I would like to summarise materials of two expeditions to the Ukraine. During these trips I could notice that some information given as an answer to a researcher's questions was heard by informants over radio and television or read in books and newspapers. That means that the usual process of transition of knowledge inside the tradition is now existing parallel with the process of penetrating of knowledge into the tradition from outside. The paradox lies in the content of this knowledge. From radio and TV programmes villagers find out how they should celebrate religious holidays, what are the traditional ways of using herbs and so on. Folk tradition, instead of being source of folklore, becomes "a pupil" to whom folklore is taught. Besides mass media there are also other sources to influence traditional culture and change some of its elements. I have made an attempt to classify different sources of influencing traditional culture, intentional or unintentional.

1. Influence of city-life is constant and it has always existed. The simplest example is changing material code of traditional culture. Ritual objects, which traditionally were made on one's own, now may be bought in a shop. It has also reflected on changing traditional bright-coloured wedding clothes into white wedding-dress. Even flowers in wedding bouquet and wreath are white now. Another interesting example concerns attitude to odd and even. Traditionally even number of objects was supposed appropriate during wedding party. Number of wedding gifts, candles, loafs and other things accentuated the idea of twoness. On the contrary, according to the words of informants in years, "nobody put anything even at the funeral". Such custom had a strong motivation - if somebody brings something even to the funeral, someone else will die, that is the dead person will take a couple for himself. The concept of a gift itself has changed. Formerly only useful things - clothes, material, food - were supposed to be worthwhile presents. Now younger people believe that flowers are also "real" present, without which they cannot now imagine any holiday, though it is not so for elder people. A whole series of changes is connected with changing in economy condition and social life, state demands. So, delivery now takes place in maternity hospital; custom of shaming dishonest fiancée was prohibited; overwhelming majority of villagers stopped planting poppy because of drug addicts who destroy gardens; after annexation Bukovina to the Soviet Union villagers had to visit other churches on St. John's Day instead of St. John's church in Suchava, which stayed in Romania.

2. Church influence. Church has always tried to instruct villagers and change their behaviour. However this influence has been existing for so long time and, what is more important, was not interrupted under the Soviet Union, that it is taken as a natural part of everyday life. Some instructions are carried out because villager cannot avoid it - for example, now unmarried maidens and even little girls must go to church with kerchiefs on their heads. Another example concerns both church and state - it is foundation of the Ukrainian autonomous church. Some parishioners think that it is wrong and frontiers and political changes have nothing to do with church affairs. The others suppose that the new independent state of Ukraine must have its own church, that is they suppose model "state is equal to church" quite normal and natural. However it is not only question of ideology. After church in Suchava has become inaccessible, on St. John's Day the villagers began to visit St. John's church in the village of Bobovtsy. Now it is also a problem, because the church in Bobovtsy is now under protectorate of the Ukrainian autonomous church, and both churches of the village of Starye Broskovtsy belong to Moscow patriarchy. Informants say: "If they had not been in schism [sizm], we all would have gone there, and our parson would also have gone. And now they are in schism, and we have nothing to go there for". On the other hand, all efforts of the church on prohibition of fortune-telling or beating with branches of pussy-willow on Palm Sunday were useless. Parishioners are also convinced that there is no point in consecrating herbs and flowers on any holiday if it is not St. John's Day.

3. Mass media. Local newspapers publish folk legends about flowers, explaining their symbolical meaning, ways of magical using, medical using. There are also radio programmes about herbs, used in folk medicine. On radio and TV there are regular programmes which tell history of calendar holidays, explain their meaning and give advice on what ritual actions one should fulfil on these days. However, not all terminology and propagandized customs are known to villagers of this region, because programmes are being prepared in centralized way and transmitted in a big territory, without considering pecularities of local traditions. For example, St. John's Day here is traditionally called Ivan Suchavsky ('John of Suchava') or Ivan Zil'ovy, Ivan Zillyak ('Grass John', 'Herbal John'). The question "How do you call this holiday?" is almost always answered like this: "We call it Ivan Zil'ovy, but on radio they say Ivan Kupala". Such adding to the local term, small and harmless on the face of it, may have grave consequences:

[Did you bath in flowers?]

We have never bathed, I didn't go, we didn't have it, I don't know about it, so that they go bathing, it is now that I hear, that is Ivan Kupala, they are bathing, and before it wasn't like this with us, I don't know it.'

4. Literature. Rather often after answering this or that question (or even instead of the answer) informants offer to read the book written by the local teacher of Ukrainian seeing and describing history, culture, traditional clothes, traditions and customs, housekeeping, folk medicine. Sometimes they even use information acquired from this book for answering collector's questions. Besides, villagers, especially elderly women, willingly read herbals and use them for self-treatment. The last group of books to influence the local culture is methodical brochures. But it is more appropriate to talk about them in the context of the last source of influence:

5. School. It is, from my point of view, the most complicated object of research, because it has long-time perspective. Village school-children, from the researcher's point of view, are the most problematic and inconvenient informants - they are receiving knowledge about traditional culture from two sources simultaneously, that is in every-day life, so to say, "from the grandmother", and at school, from books and teacher's lectures. So, interviewing school-children, one always has to ask questions a sort of "Who says so?", "Where have you known that?" and so on. And what is more, in the long run, when these school children reach the age of supposed tradition-keepers, it is natural to surmise, that in their mind knowledge, received at school, will mix with elders' narratives. It is characteristic, that information about, for example, symbolism of flowers, as it is described at school, cannot be deduced from old people's stories. Colour symbolism of ribbons for wreaths is also described in full, while in the local tradition there was not a custom of wearing these ribbons at all.

And what is more, at schools teachers use special scenarios for dramatisation of traditional holidays and rituals, for example, wedding party or cutting a child's hair. Authors of school methodology brochures write with pride that "wonderful folk holidays, rites, rituals such as evening gatherings, rituals of Saint John's Day, seeing-off the winter and so on are step by step revived in the Ukraine" (Zhmundulyak, Verzhak 1996: 67). The problem is that they either are revived in the other form which is not peculiar to this local tradition or even appear in it for the first time. I used to hear descriptions of such school performance, which sounded quite different from the real local rites, described by the old people. For example: "…in general we didn't celebrate Saint John's Day, though once at school we put it on the stage… I remember, we made round dance and a bonfire, and jumped across it, there were such games… we also decorated a living tree with ribbons, and all was held near this tree, all round dances".

The aims of such "folklore designing" are rather clear declared in methodology brochures on Folk-studies and Ukraine studies: "In a bright and blessing hour of national renascence one of the most important tasks of school is returning from non-existence the spiritual heritage of our wise ancestry, reviving of good traditions, holidays, uniting by deeds, mind and heart with original material and spiritual culture of the native people (Zhmundulyak 1998: 3); "national-spiritual life of new generation must stand on legal base"; "Ukrainian-seeing is to help in upbringing real Ukrainians"; "it is time to watch more attentively and learn customs of our people, to find in them that rational grain which in future will guarantee welfare and prosperity of the power"; "future specialists' mastering cultural heritage of their people will guarantee their adoption of national originality of the Ukrainian ethnos and also forming in them feeling of national dignity and honour" (Zhmundulyak, Verzhak 1996: 3, 4, 32).

Sometimes arguments advanced for ethnic originality are rather unexpected: "Besides Ukrainians, neither of Indoeuropean peoples had a custom of baking pies" (Zhmundulyak, Verzhak 1996: 49). This situation is comparable to similar processes in Russia, having been described in Moroz's paper "Believing and Not-believing Informant. The Modern Condition of Traditional Culture and Problems of Field Folklore Studies" at the conference "Field Methods in Social Sciences" in European University at Saint Petersburg 8th April, 2000: "failure of natural mechanism of knowledge transmission is compensated with all accessible ways, including those contradictory to traditional ones". But, besides obvious similarity, there is also some difference. In our case the paradox lies in absence of "failure of natural transmitting mechanism" - the local tradition in question is quite stable by virtue of a whole series of reasons. The village is very big - more than two thousand homesteads, several thousand people. It was annexed, as whole Western Ukraine, after the Great Patriotic War, when collectivization was carried out with much less cruel methods, and antichurch politics practically didn't exist; there wasn't escaping from collective farms, quite opposite, most peasant recall Soviet time as the most safe and prosperous. As a result, all age groups are present in the society; wedding parties take place every year. That is the natural mechanism of tradition transmission is not replaced by books and mass media but exists parallel with them. In other words, traditional ways of knowledge transmission are existing in close neighbourhood with ones "contradictory to traditional". But traditional culture doesn't only loses something, it also obtains something. Though, while comparing informants' remembrances to modern observations it may seem that the tradition is being destroyed, but at that it doesn't just lose some elements, it also builds new ones in, conceiving them with the help of modes having been existing long since. It means that in one or two generations we may observe a situation, when the older generation has already gone, and the younger one possesses knowledge of so called pseudo-tradition, which was designed artificially, unified for the whole state territory and has no variance usual for authentic traditional culture.

* * * * *

So, among different sources of influence we can see those, the influence of which may be called "natural" and unavoidable - this is first of all influence of city life, generally in material code of culture. On the other hand, there is intentional and planned influence. Its purpose may be determined as unification of folklore with the ultimate aim of strengthening national self-consciousness.

It may be interesting and perspectively to research some other aspects of this complicated problem, for example, informants' attitude to all above-named factors and their hierarchy from informants' point of view. Or: changing of structure of "sacral map of the world" in informants' mind (saints' names, sacral places and so on). But one problem is actual right now - what do we really research in cases like this - old, "real" folklore or something that was artificially constructed. Now we still have an opportunity to compare - according to the informants words - "how it has always been" and "how it is now". But, after all, for each informant personally "how it has always been" just means how it was in his childhood. For modern generation childhood coincides with school age. So, rather soon, going "to field" we may receive fakelore instead of folklore, at that on very large territory. It is all the more possible in new independent states, for which the question of national consciousness is especially important.


Zhmundulyak 1998 Zhmundulyak D.D. Ukrainian studies in answers and questions (for pupils, teachers and parents). Chernovtsy: Hotinskaya regional printing office, 1998. 100 p.

Zhmundulyak, Verzhak 1996 Zhmundulyak D.D., Verzhak R.B. Ukrainian studies in старших класах (for pupils, teachers and parents). Chernovtsy: Regional printing office, 1996. 207 p.

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