Tangible Truth: Dance, Rasputin, and Reading the Earth
by Rachelanne Bolus
It began with stories. Not written tales or the fables a grandmother tells whilst you lay snuggled in bed, but stories told with the body in dance. Every late summer I would stand in the heat, my red woolen knee socks scraping at my calves, begging to be ripped off, and I would watch my parents dance. My father, dressed in a deep red shirt, led my mother around on the dance floor to a somber waltz. When the waltz concluded my father would bow and my mother would curtsy and they would go back to being Mom and Dad, but while they were dancing, they were a couple I did not know. They became two Russian people in red and black and I just drank it in. My parents were not actors pretending to be a couple in love – they were a couple in love and with their movements under a blazing sun amidst rolling grasses and limpid white tents, they painted a true story of their friendship as well as a story of lovers past.
My father was good, but it was my mother that I loved to watch the most. She would dance with the other women, holding hands and singing the lyrics of the songs while they floated in heavy black boots across the floor. My favorite dance was reserved for mothers only, many of whom would carry their infants onto the stage. This dance told of post-winter prayer for the young children that had lost their lives in the cold and it celebrated those that lived. The dance was slow, quiet, haunting and beautiful. I fancied my mother a dark-haired nymph, her forehead haloed in a wreath of flowers, ribbons flowing down her back like water.
Because I was raised Orthodox, the church that I went to included immigrants from all of the Orthodox nations: Russia, Greece, Ethiopia, and just about anywhere in the Middle East. While my family was Lebanese, the church membership was still heavily Russian; this accounted for the ethnic festival that was held every summer. My mother would dress me up with the other church youth and we would run around the stage attempting to mimic our lithe parents. Not only did we dance but we also sang and read stories and from this church a godmother was chosen for me, a Russian woman named Anastasia, and she would later have a significant influence on my development. Most importantly, this early on immersion into Russian culture would eventually lead to my broader passion for history.
Before I was able to read on my own, my mother would read to me at night. One of my favorite books was a gift from Anastasia that told the story of a young Matreshka doll captured by the evil Baba Yaga. As I listened, I played with my own Matreshka doll, imagining her escaping the confines of Baba Yaga’s evil, magical, chicken-footed hut in the woods. I fingered the red on her dress and the tiny hand painted flowers spotting her apron, shrinking in size was I opened each doll to reveal another, inner doll. The book made me think of my nymph-mother and my black Russian box with delicate red and blue flowers brushed onto the lid, concealing my most cherished treasures.
My father, though Lebanese and disinterested in children’s tales and dolls, has a particular affinity for Russian culture, language, and history. When I was growing up, the bookshelf in our living room was laden with Russian history and literature. I stared at the bindings, not understanding the titles; the only book I knew I wanted was one that sat on the center shelf, its deep purple dust cover standing out against the dull browns, musty yellows and brick reds. On the cover it said: “The Life and Times of Grigori Rasputin by Alex de Jonge” and it featured a black cut-out of an Orthodox seminarian in a black cassock with a long beard, his right hand laid just over the center of his rib cage, a pose I had seen my own priest take many times during his sermons. His face blank, his eyes evil and haunting, Rasputin terrified me because unlike Baba Yaga, my father told me he was real. If you want to scare your kids, tell them about an iron-toothed witch in the woods, but if you want horrify them, tell them about Rasputin. It was here at this early age that I began to understand that real life could be even more thrilling than fiction.
My fascination with Russian culture only grew as I became older. As a young girl I was not interested in museums; they were boring and I had to walk around for hours while some old lady would go on about things I didn’t know or care about. However, when I was about nine there was a traveling exhibition of the treasures of the Russian Imperial court and my parents excitedly dragged my two older sisters and me, knowing that we would likely never have that opportunity again. The exhibition featured everything from gold filigree eggs, to swords, costumes, icons, and jewelry, and each told a tale, a true one. I wanted to reach out and touch each item so I could feel the story; I had become so accustomed to stories being linked with physical touch. However, it was around this same age that I became grossly jealous of one of my sisters when I realized she was named after the last Tsaritsa, Alexandra Feodorovna, also known in the Orthodox Church as Saint Alexandra the Passion Bearer. I began wishing I had a Russian name too, like Xenia or Anna. As I passed the different cases of gowns or jewelry, I imagined myself as “Anna,” a Russian princess, attending a ball or going to church, but then I would read the plaque and my small fairytale would vanish, leaving with me a true narrative.
Time passed and I found myself interested more and more in history. My father’s passion and literary interests influenced this significantly because when I reached high school, and was finally able to read at a more advanced level, I quickly began to undertake the books from my father’s shelves at home. As a child, I thought if I cracked open those books I would read more tales of Baba Yaga and Rasputin, but instead I found myself reading about the emancipation of the serfs, the Bolshevik Revolution, Communism, and Cossacks. I read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and quickly after, The Idiot and I fell in love with his characters. I read The Communist Manifesto and a book of primary source documents about Medieval Russia. I soon started buying my own books, works like Anna Karenina and books of poetry by Anna Akhmatova, but also history books, this time. My love of history and truth in story telling had spread beyond Russia.
As I began to read history more often, I also found myself going to more museums and wanting to see and touch the physical history but that was not something I could truly attain until I found archaeology. Archaeology is truth and it is a story but it is also tangible. Every layer of earth that I peel back is like reading a story in reverse, each chapter separated by changes in soil color and artifacts acting as characters narrating a story; you would think that knowing the ending before knowing the beginning would make the story pointless, but in fact it made it more beautiful.
These days I don’t spend a lot of time folk dancing. Instead, I spend my summers under that same blazing sun, my hiking boots instead of knee socks begging to be ripped off, and I dig away the earth, flipping pages with each pull of my trowel and, like reading a book or watching my parents dance, I read the earth and watch a story unfold.
Rachelanne Bolus is now a second-year student at the University of Cincinnati, majoring in archaeology, anthropology, and classical civilizations; she wrote this essay as a freshman. Rachelanne intends to graduate in 2017 and pursue a Ph.D. in Classical Archaeology, focusing on ancient plant remains. She expresses her deep gratitude to her beautiful mother, her two incredibly bright sisters, and a father that inspired her to become the woman that she is today.
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