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TRISH and BECCA from Brown University wonder…

QUESTION: Do old women actually wear headscarves and spend hours decorating eggs after they’ve taken out the inside of the eggs?

ANSWER: Trish, Becca, congratulations! You’ve combined two stereotypes in one: the Russian “Babushka” and colored Easter Eggs.

First of all, let’s clear up one point that often gets mangled by foreigners, and that is the curious association between headscarves and old women. The words in Russia are similar, but in Russian, it’s all in the accent so:

1. Babushka (pronounced BAH-boosh-ka): means “grandmother,” and is used as a title. For example, Velvet, my daughter, refers to HRH’s mother as “Babushka.” One can also find younger men speaking to older women they don’t know as “Babuliya” which is a diminutive of babushka, and would be approximate to “Old Lady.” Since Ma’am doesn’t exist in Russia, and “Comrade,” which did such stellar work for eight decades has rather gone out of fashion, “Babuliya” often has to fill the gap.

2. babushka (pronounced ba-BUSH-shka) means headscarf.
Now that you have these clear, its time to look at what older women in Russia do, actually wear. A random sample follows – taken on Moscow’s Arbat Street, shows us that fur seems to be the most popular, but live felines can also be seen.

As to the eggs: I spent a lot of my childhood decorating these Easter eggs you speak of: after the yolk had been blown out. We went to a very talented friend’s house who set up her entire kitchen as an egg factory. We used a technique you’d be familiar with from summer camp: batique, where you put wax on the egg and then dip it in lanolin dye, repeating through the color spectrum until you have a lovely, multi-colored egg, which you can hang on a ribbon from your kitchen ceiling. It’s painstaking, but they last forever. The friend was, however, Czechoslovakian and this all took place in Western Massachusetts, so I’m not sure it is part of the Russian traditon.

In Russia, things are a little less elaborate, unless you are in the knock off Faberge egg biz. The traditional way to decorate Easter eggs is to boil onionskins in water and dip hard-boiled eggs into them to produce a very natural red color. Eggs are brought with the traditional Easter cake of Kulich to the Easter Mass the night before Easter Morning, to be blessed, and then they are consumed with the meal that immediately follows mass. And they taste great, because, if you’ve adhered to Russian Lent (beginning on February 15th this year!) strictly, you have eliminated all the yummy food groups, until you get down to bread and water. Great for taking off some unwanted weight. 40 days…give it a try!
{photos by the author}

Do you have a question about Russia? Baffled by a stereotype? Want to know more about the world’s largest country? Leave a comment below, or e-mail me and I’ll get back to you!

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