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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Songs for Supper and for Russia

The Andrews Sisters they're not.


Nevertheless, the female quintet outside the pay entrance to the Izmailovo crafts market can croon a mean Russian folk song.


Dressed in long, green embroidered dresses, with jackets thrown over their shoulders against near-freezing temperatures, five women from the town of Voskresensk trek the two hours into Moscow each Saturday and Sunday to sing for Izmailovo's shoppers, scratching together a meager supplement to dwindling incomes.


Nina Vangayeva, 56; Yelena Mitina, 58; Zinaida Gorgol, 50; Galina Karatayeva, 50; Valentina Osipova, 57 -- all belong to a 25-member Russian folk choir based in Voskresensk's Cement Worker house of culture. With their salaries floating uncertainly in the twilight zone that is today's government budget, the musicians have tapped into a stable, if not lucrative, source of extra cash.


"We have a situation now in which the area of culture hardly receives any funds," said Mitina, the group's most voluble member. "So we're transferring to a commercial basis -- what can we do?"


Most visitors to the bazaar on a recent Saturday afternoon lauded the group's efforts. "At least they're not walking around with a pot on their heads and banging a spoon on it," said Maya Georgiyevna, 65, a retired engineer. "I can't stand that. I think what they're doing is great."


Placing a bill into the basket in front of the vocalists, Valery Polyakov, 50, said, "They're promoting Russian folk songs to the masses -- why not?"


Polyakov, an economics professor, added, "I know the town of Voskresensk -- I've got a dacha near there. In the town, about 50 percent of the people are unemployed. There was a huge chemical factory, and today it's working at about 15 to 20 percent of its capacity. There are masses of unemployed, and for those who work, their salary is very low."


Despite this bleak outlook, the women themselves are surprisingly upbeat. "We raise everyone's spirits in this tough time," said Karatayeva. "We ourselves can't go for a certain number of days without singing."


Lilliputian Osipova, the shortest woman in the group, said, "I've danced since I was 7 years old. I sing folk ditties. We've been on television and radio. I love to sing," she said, her voice rising as she bobbed up and down. "I can't live without singing! I sing, I dance!"


For five months, the women have shelled out 22,000 rubles ($4.04) per round-trip elektrichka fare for each day they come to Moscow. They sing classics from the folk repertoire -- "Katyusha," "Moscow Nights," "Ural Rybinushka" -- from noon to 4 p.m., breaking from time to time in the colder weather to dip into a nearby hut for a slug of hot tea.


Donations from listeners offset their expenses. "It pays for the trip and we can buy something to eat," said Mitina. But she stressed the other benefits of the group's coming to Moscow. "Most of all, [we do this] for our inspiration -- when all the foreigners come to talk to us, when people applaud us, when they smile at us."


One such foreigner was Olga Bilyk, an American in Russia on assignment with the U.S. Agency for International Development. "I think it's kind of sad if you have to be that age and come out and earn a living like this or supplement your pension. ... This is the time in their life when they should be home enjoying their grandchildren."


Graham Hamilton, a Briton working on a technical assistance project for the CIS, saw the realistic side of the equation. "[Life] is difficult, but it's difficult all over the country, especially outside Moscow from what I've seen. Whether it's good or bad, it's just the state of affairs."


Tatyana Ponomaryova, 55, a professor of Russian history at Natalya Nesterova Humanities University, said, "When you look at them, you feel sorry that they have to [sing] under the open sky. But on the other hand, I have respect for them. They have the courage to overcome their pride.


"Some would starve back in their apartment. They don't have the stamina. These ladies have, so I very much respect them. ... You have to cope. I don't like people grumbling and complaining. It's better to start doing something."