History professor Suzanne Ament sings Russian folk songs in a voice so clear and effortless it makes you want to close your eyes and float on the sound.
“I can’t remember not singing it’s always been part of my life,” she says, but it wasn’t until she took a college trip to the U.S.S.R that she fell in love with Russian culture.
The summer after she graduated from high school a year early with a 4.0 grade average, she took an intensive Russian language class and was hooked. That fall, she enrolled in the University of Cal-ifornia at Santa Cruz to continue learning about all things Russian.
The following spring, she joined a professor and a group of 20 students on a six-week study tour of the Soviet Union. At 17, she was the youngest of the students. And, as the only blind member of the group, the others took turns helping her get around.
It was 1978 post-détente, and rough going for U.S.-Soviet relations. A group of American students was noteworthy, and Ament’s singing was broadcast by Moscow radio.
Constantly on the move, they traveled by plane, train and bus and weren’t in one place long enough to really get to know any Russians. But they practiced talking with their Russian tour guide, who, Ament says, although quite obviously a KGB plant, taught her several Russian songs. And everywhere they went they’d hear music.
“It was different in each place and always expressed a different agenda,” she remembers. “The dissidents played Beatles music loudly; government places, like museums, played pompous state music; in the republics, they played their national music.” In a land noted for repression of speech, music was the symbolic voice of the people.
Ament heard a different kind of music in the historic little town of Suzdal, just north of Moscow. One afternoon, in that place known for its quaint wooden cottages and 12th-century stone churches, she found herself outside and alone for a change.
“It was so peaceful and quiet. I heard the birds singing, and it touched my soul. I remember all of a sudden feeling like I was home.” It was a new feeling for her growing up as an Army brat, she’d never felt that any one place was home.
She returned to Leningrad in 1981 via the Council on International Education exchange program for the spring semester, taking classes at the university and living in a dorm. She ended up staying for six months, teaching North American Culture at a private institute. “I had no books,” she recalls. “I just made it up as I went along.”
During that time, she studied the history of Russian revolutionary music, which was the subject of her master’s thesis. And it was then that she first heard the Russian World War II songs that would be the subject of her doctoral dissertation.
When she returned for 10 months in 1990 to do her dissertation research, it was to the Republic of Russia the U.S.S.R. was no more. She began her research with the hypothesis that the popular WWII songs were grassroots-generated, but she found that they were actually produced by the powers that be.
“It was the Stalinist mechanism for making art,” she explains, “and so they were recorded and preserved by the state. They’re beautiful and a true legacy of Soviet history.”
Ament hopes to return to Russia this summer. In the meantime, when she plays her guitar and sings from her repertoire of about 30 Russian folk songs, each with its own story, her listeners experience some of the richness of a culture most of us know so little about.
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