Russian Folklore in the Digital Age

Alexander Matochkin on preserving singing culture and the new life of old traditions.

Alexander Matochkin has been actively studying and archiving Russian folklore for two decades. Matochkin views the preservation of traditional songs and tales, through performance and online distribution, as his personal mission.

Alexander Matochkin was born in Severomorsk, located in the Murmansk region north of the Arctic Circle. As a child he had no connection to folklore; he was raised like all Soviet children, ignorant of the singing traditions of the past. But his father, an electrician by profession, was a music lover and there were always many records at home, of Soviet pop, jazz, rock and classical music, and recordings of the Soviet underground scene started to appear in the early 1980s.

This home collection of records didn’t influence Matochkin’s own musical tastes at all, but it did expose him to a broad range of music and inspired him to further his musical study. “I had a suspicion that there was some other, different singing culture out there and so I began to dig for the roots,” Alexander says.

In 1995 he was accepted into the Department of Philology at St. Petersburg State University, where he began to study folklore. Back then Matochkin would painstakingly collect everything that had even the slightest connection to traditional music; using a cassette recorder, he recorded the snippets that appeared on radio and television broadcasts. His joining of the oldest folk music ensemble in St. Petersburg in 1998 proved a real turning point. All the information he had gathered thus far began to reappear in large quantities.

Meanwhile, Alexander went on his first ethnographic expedition to Vologda region, where he expected to finally hear traditional songs firsthand. Since the mid-1990s he had been steadfastly traveling around Russia collecting material, of which, as it turned out, there wasn’t that much: folk music had basically ceased to be a part of contemporary life in the countryside. Matochkin felt responsible for the material that he had recorded and began performing the songs himself: “The old people are dying, taking the songs with them, and this is bad. Something has to be done so that the songs stay alive at least for our lifetimes. I won’t forget these songs now for as long as I live. They will be sung, if only by this one voice.”

But his main goal has never been performance. It’s most important to him that the musical tradition’s continuity remains unbroken; one way or another, a song must reach a listener, otherwise it hasn’t fulfilled its basic purpose. Therefore, at the end of the 2000s, Matochkin began to make his recordings freely available on the social network VKontakte.

Today his group “Ladno-Khorosho” (OK-Good) has over 20,000 subscribers: many of them interested in listening to traditional songs, even if they sound obscure or strange. “This was done by my ancestors; it’s a part of my life; it’s all I have,” Alexander says. “People respond to it, so they also need it. They’re interested in finding out what their grandmother sang.”

In Matochkin’s opinion, the internet is an effective means for documentation and archiving. He maintains that tradition and technology have never been strangers; he compares tradition to the countryside, which throughout the course of history was oriented towards the city. Alexander understands tradition as a flexible phenomenon, which will continue under any conditions. Life today is structured in such a fashion that traditional singing is gradually disappearing, withdrawing to the periphery of our everyday experience.

Matochkin speaks about himself as a bridge between generations, calling this his life’s mission. If in ancient times songs and tales were transmitted by traveling soldiers, then today, to learn a new song, one simply has to go online. He views this as a new form of folklore and sees its manifestation everywhere in society. Songs and stories today live in messages on social networks and traditional folklore merely attempts to find its own small place in this endless stream of information.

Alexander argues: “Each generation creates its own, new folklore. Our ancestors had one folklore and we have another.” He diligently collects it with the understanding that folklore will live as long as people are willing to appreciate traditional songs. He tries not to think about the future: “Perhaps it will all end with us, but hopefully it won’t of course. I want it to continue.”

Matochkin began performing in public recently: he is now collecting, studying, and telling “byliny,” one of the oldest genres of Russian folklore. A “bylina” is a traditional epic poem, usually chanted by one or more storytellers. As an experiment, he holds a lecture-performance every weekend in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where he teaches anyone who wants to learn how byliny are structured and how to perform them.

However, each year there are fewer and fewer people who are able to sing a folk song or tell a bylina. Folklore is a fragile thing, being so tightly connected with traditional rural life. But Alexander is optimistic: “This is all disappearing, but we sing and tell folktales anyway.” And he does have one dream: to hear someone perform a bylina especially for him while he simply sits and listens.

Alexander Matochkin performs the fragment of the song, which tells of unrequited love and difficulties on the path to finding one’s beloved.