The colors of autumn are warm as we walk onto the sun-swept grounds of St. Vladimir Russian Orthodox Church for its first annual Russian Festival, serenaded by the largest balalaika I have ever seen. Four feet across at the base, this giant version of the traditional Russian instrument stands on an end pin and is played upright like a bass. Musicians, dressed in traditional Russian clothing, play smaller balalaikas too, and they are all so engaged with one another and their music that they do not even notice us visitors walking past.
Our first stop is to tour the church, with its gold and silver spires. We listen as the priest explains the symbolism in the exquisite iconography.
We are lucky to run into a friend from my kids’ elementary school, who shows us around and tells us all the good things to eat. Nine-year-old Little Brother is (always) hungry, so we visit each of the many food stations, and we try a little of everything–pelmeni meat dumplings, golubtsy cabbage rolls, beet and cabbage borscht, various kebabs and sausages, and an incredible assortment of pastries and tea cookies. There are also Russian ice cream and chocolate for the kids and Russian drinks (and an infused vodka tasting) for the adults.
We eat under the big tent while watching musicians and folk dancers perform on the stage in bright dresses and flowing ribbons, with flowers everywhere. The children are adorable, of course, in their jeweled crowns. When the handsome young flower peddler on stage is pulled from side to side by the young village women fighting over him, you get a sense that it is springtime all over the world.
When Little Brother grows restless, we take photos with our heads as matryoshka dolls, and we take selfies in front of (a large painting of) St. Petersburg’s famous spires. He tries his hand at the chessboard and at the matryoshka doll beanbag toss. We watch a puppet show about a fox and a hare in the deep cold of the Siberian winter. Then Little Brother chases the autumn light and runs with the other children through a maze of dried stalks in the back field, the trail marked only by scarecrows.
I am struck, as I see three men dressed in military uniforms from three different eras, a violin playing Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff just on the periphery of my attention, that there are many Russias being celebrated here, from all corners of its long and storied history.
Then I turn around and come face to face with the Great Russian Bear. And he is smiling.
The second Russian festival is at St. Vladimir Oct. 4 and 5.