If I had to pick a national icon for Russia, it would not be vodka. Vodka was introduced to Russia by (who else) Italians in the 15th century. The matryoshka wasn’t even introduced until the height of the Slavophile movement in 1890, with a design straight lifted from Japan’s much older daruma dolls. No, if I had to pick one, it would be the babushka (grandmother): hard-working, stern, traditional (and ubiquitous, given the much longer life expectancy of women over men in Russia); they are the mainstays of old-timey Russian values, combining upper body strength with moral superiority. Seriously, if you want to find out if something is taboo in Russia, try doing it in front of a babushka and see how long you’ll get away with it before that death glare/cane/soup ladle/ purse/disgusted sigh bears down on you.
The sacred art of aging in Russia is characterized (for women) by gaining 50 pounds, perfecting the twelve most useful applications of butter, and of course forming a Beatles cover band with your girlfriends. (For men it’s characterized by alcoholism and death, but that’s an issue for a different post).
Over the past two years, babushkas rose to international prominence through the group “Buranovo Babushkas,” a serious contender in the Eurovision singing competition since 2010. Hailing from Russia’s Udmurt Republic (near Finland), the babushkas, all in their 70s and 80s, started out with traditional folk songs. They really rose to prominence when a local fan suggested they try rock music. The group took songs like “Let it Be” and “Yesterday” by the Beatles and “Hotel California” by the Eagles and translated them into Udmurt. YouTube videos of the group went viral, and they caught the attention of the organizers of Russia’s Eurovision finals. I mean seriously, what could be more “in” right now than embracing your body, growing your own vegetables, and tasteful pattern-clashing?