Ghost in report on modern babushkas

In Russia she is called "Babushka." In Greece she is called "Yiayia." It really doesn't matter what you call her, since she is the same famous character -- the legendary grandmother who looms over her children and grandchildren in the old-world communities of the East.

If you are trying to capture her character on film, there are two classic images that you need.

In the first, she is scowling at her progeny in stark moral disapproval, trying to save them from sins that will yank them into the depths of hell. In the second, the babushka or yiayia is shown at the back of an Orthodox sanctuary lighting candles as she prays for her children and grandchildren. She may also be shown shushing people who are not showing adequate reverence (perhaps by talking, wearing the wrong kinds of clothes, failing to make the sign of the cross correctly, etc., etc.).

It's interesting to note that, in Russia, these iconic images of the babushka were so powerful that the stereotypes even survived during the Soviet era. No story about the fading role (or perhaps the brave, sustaining role) of Orthodox Christianity in the Soviet Union was complete without a visit to a Moscow church that was all but empty, except of course for the many silent, faithful babushkas.

I bring this up because of a lively and interesting Washington Post story about a Moscow contest to select a circle of new "Super Babushkas" to serve as examples for modern Russia. The emphasis, of course, is on the new, the different, the improved image. Thus, the opening:

MOSCOW -- If the word “babushka” once summoned up a resolute dowdiness -- Americans might know it from the eponymous scarf often tied under the chin of Russian grandmothers -- hello! -- the year is 2011.

Now babushkas carry cellphones, and Irina Komarova was wearing a large-brimmed, bright pink hat last week when she turned up to accept her title as one of Moscow’s best babushkas. She took up yoga not long ago, swims frequently and has a deep, expressive singing voice. Reaching into her purse, she retrieved a freshly pressed CD of her work to present to a new acquaintance.

“I keep forgetting my age,” she said, recalling that she’s 69. Komarova still works as a telephone operator at the substation where she has toiled since 1960.

The problem, for me, is that the story (a) tells readers next to nothing about the classic elements of the babushka archetype and (b) does not link this subject into Russia's crisis of demographics and shattered families. Russia is celebrating mothers and grandmothers for a reason.

In other words, readers miss the religious elements of the stereotype and the moral issues that could have been woven into the story. We end up, as we should, with a fun feature, but one that could have been more complete. It could have had just a suggestion of the deeper issues.

There are one or two passage that hint, a bit, at the context.

Valentina Gorbatova, wearing a long purple gown with pearls arranged flapper-like around her neck, selflessly took on the task of patrolling the line of winners waiting to climb onstage.

“Who’s number 8?” she demanded, taking her sister contestants by the arm and moving them to and fro as they fussed over each other, smoothing hair here, fluffing it there.

“I’m very proud of my grandchildren,” Gorbatova confided. “If everyone had grandchildren like mine, Russia would not be so low.”

And later on, we read:

Galina Kamyrina, wearing a splendidly embroidered black caftan, had only just finished remonstrating with the expo center staff. She had carried her dress from home, she said, and not only did she have trouble finding a decent place to change, but the checkroom did not want to keep her bag. “Of course I made a scandal,” she said. “We were brought up in the Soviet Union.”

Kamyrina, who will be 70 soon, was brought up when rules were rules and babushkas enforced them.

Rules? What kinds of rules? Moral rules perhaps?

In other words, was there content to the babushka's famous, serious and all-knowing scowl? She was deadly serious and judgmental, but why?

Please respect our Commenting Policy