THE FIRST TIME I heard about the Russian Festival in Rincon, I gave a quizzical look.
Russians? In Rincon?
Then all my senses leapt back to when I studied everything Russian in high school and college. The food, the art, the music and... the infernal grammar.
Yes, that’s what I wanted to be at one point in my life, an English teacher in Russia or a Russian teacher in America. Thankfully, no one spoke Russian at that first festival I attended in 2010. I would have withered.
But the men and women of St. Mary Magdalene Church had a kitchen full of sashliki (skewered meats from Georgia, the Russian one), piroshki (stuffed breads), borshch (beet soup), golubtsi (stuffed cabbage) and many other savory and sweet favorites.
The church’s artists had tables full of their wares, including beautiful icons.
And the church’s singers sung the hauntingly beautiful religious and folk melodies that carry the Russian sound down into your core. You might know some of these as classical pieces (by Rimsky-Korsokov) or pop crossovers (“Midnight in Moscow”).
I was happy. But the questions remained. How did all of this come about in a corner of the world far removed from ice and snow? To get the answers for you this year, I turned to the church’s choir director, iconographer and spokeswoman, Denise Norman.
“St. Mary Magdalene doesn’t minister only to Russians,” Norman says. “It has never been an ethnic church.”
She explained how the Orthodox Church in America started with Russians in Alaska and moved across the country, including to Savannah in 1989.
(The Greek Orthodox Church in Savannah, St. Paul’s on Anderson Street, was formed in 1900. If you enjoyed their annual Greek Festival recently, you definitely should try this.)
“In some ways, we were a military church,” Norman says. “We had many, many servicemen and their families.”
The congregation moved from one rented Savannah location to another until, like a lot of people, they found land for a permanent home out in Rincon in 2005.
The gorgeous little church they built there is a knock-out Russian-style structure that evokes Moscow’s Golden Ring, the string of ancient towns with onion domes and huge bells just outside the Russian capital.
Its Russianness comes by faith more than by birth. Its few Russians are outnumbered by parishioners like Norman, a convert who grew up in Boston’s Italian community.
“I’m still very much Italian,” she says. “I’m making an effort not to be waving my hands around during this interview.”
Her Orthodoxy led her to Russian art, including her brilliant icons. They look simple. But making them is anything but easy.
“No one makes up an icon,” Norman says. “There are models that we use.”
Iconographers depict Biblical figures. They use only certain types of wood. Linen, plaster, egg yolk, vinegar and hand-ground pigments are just a few of the ingredients.
“But you can go to a class where there are 20 students and everyone is painting exactly the same icon from exactly the same drawing and at the end of that class you’re going to have 20 different icons,” she says.
She has icons in churches and private collections. Her first iconography teacher became her first Russian cooking instructor.
“Every time I would go to her home for an iconography lesson, which was at least once a week, she would create these amazing meals,” Norman says.
And this returns me to the inner Russian I never shed. While I can do without adjectival declensions and heavy literature, I can’t wait two years for kolachki (jam cookies), ponchiki (doughnuts) and povitica (nut rolls).
Yes, it’s so good, it skips a year. The next one won’t be until 2016.