Russian Women Prove It's Hip To Be A Babushka

Jun 27, 2011

In Russian culture, one iconic image is the elderly woman — in Russian, you call her a "babushka" — sitting on a roadside, selling vegetables from her garden.

One group of babushkas from the village of Buranovo, 600 miles east of Moscow, is blowing up that stereotype.

The dozen or so women – mostly in their 70s and 80s – have become a musical sensation, charming audiences across Russia. They sing Beatles tunes and songs by iconic Russian rocker Viktor Tsoi. They fly around the country for concerts. They made it to the Russian finals of the Eurovision music contest. And they have a Facebook page.

These women are sending a message loud and clear: It can be hip to be a babushka.

Music Lifts The Suffering

As modern as these women appear, the "Buranovo Babushkas" do also embody one sad reality of Russian life.

Because of harsh work conditions in Soviet times and rampant alcoholism today, men in Russia live, on average, to just 62. Women generally live more than a decade longer, and often live those later years alone.

The same has been true for many of the singing babushkas.

Yet, instead of spending quiet days peddling vegetables on the road, these women turned to music for comfort and companionship. Some have been singing for quite a long time.

Elizaveta Zarbatova – who, at 84, is the oldest member of the group – was widowed in 1957 when her husband was electrocuted on the job.

"After I lost my husband, I received some kind of gift – the ability to compose music," Zarbatova said in a recent interview in her village. "The music comes from the heart. The suffering comes right from my heart."

Even as the women talk about suffering, though, the excitement surrounding their music seems to be uplifting them.

Valentina Pyatchenko, 72, left her alcoholic husband in 1984, shortly before he died. She got along on her own, but it was rough. Thirteen years ago, the tiny woman was using an electric saw to build a new porch. Her lower right arm was cut off.

"It was my sweater," she recalled. "Somehow it took the sleeve of my sweater."

Her prosthetic arm is too heavy for her to wear all the time. She saves it for concerts, where she's singing, smiling and dancing.

"I'm an optimist," Pyatchenko said. "You'll never hear me complain."

And there's Galina Koneva, 72. She lost her husband in 2004 to drinking and diabetes.

"We can't lose heart, or get depressed," Koneva said, before bursting into a song she knows from church about life moving on.

"Life goes on, it's impossible to stop," Koneva said. "That's what we sing."

Eurovision Stars

The women live in Russia's Udmurt Republic, home to people who speak a language that is much closer to Finnish than Russian.

This group of friends always liked to sing together around their village. But then, three years ago, a local fan suggested they try rock music on for size.

The babushkas 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 grabbed the attention of the organizers of Russia's Eurovision finals.

There were the babushkas last year, wearing traditional Udmurt dress – long dresses and colorful head scarves – competing on a stage that seemed better suited for a Lady Gaga concert, with the flashy set and pink and blue neon.

The babushkas did not win the right to represent Russia at the international Eurovision contest. But they stole the show that night, and have also been making people in their region of Russia proud.

The Udmurt republic of Russia was known for Soviet weapons factories and as the home of Mikhail Kalashnikov, the designer of the AK-47. Resident Alexander Pilin says that may be changing.

"Many people say Russia, it's Kalashnikov. And Udmurt Republic is Kalashnikov too," he said. "Now, I think it's Buranovo Babushkas – best brand in our republic!"

The babushkas have gotten themselves a producer in Moscow who books gigs for them. They donate most of the small amount of money they make to try to rebuild a church in their village that was destroyed in Stalinist times.

This year so far, they've raised $4,000 for the church.

As for what's next?

The babushkas say they have another Eurovision run in them if the organizers come calling.

Mostly, though, they're just having fun on the road, and enjoying each other's company.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.