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Nina Matviyenko: The Great Day of the soul
“I’ve realized that Velykden it’s all your life that God gives you as a precious gift. It’s so great that everyone can express through it whatever they are capable of — some give their selfless work, others give people their voice, still others bring children into this world… But we all of us must learn to love. All of it is so important for me — and so difficult to be true to it. I want my soul, heart to be fully prepared to celebrate the Great Day of Easter, I want my eyes, my words to be properly attuned since without being so prepared I cannot experience fully the feeling of the resurrection of the soul.”
Nina Matviyenko is a singer very well known in Ukraine. Her repertoire is mostly made of Ukrainian folk songs in traditional and new arrangements. Her interpretation of the songs is uniquely her own but at the same time it is solidly based on an age-old tradition. She has been awarded an honorary title of “People’s Artiste of Ukraine” and in her case the title fully reflects her actually being a people’s singer — of the people and for the people.
Lesya Hryhoriva interviewed Nina Matviyenko exclusively for Welcome to Ukraine Magazine and what follows is the singer’s monologue combined from her answers. In fact it was mostly a monologue anyway, interspersed with questions.
As long as I remember myself, some time before Velykden I began to feel as though I were being drawn into a wonderful fairy tale with everyone around me getting ready for something evidently very important and exciting. For me, Velykden has always been full of wondrous and amazing moments and revelations whose nature I could not quite comprehend as a child. There was enough sadness, woe and misery in life in general, and there were all kinds of things in the life of my parents, both good and bad, there were fights between them, but, you know, when Velykodniy pist (period of fasting before Easter; Lent) began, there were no fights, no loud arguments. You could not shout even at the cattle, or any other domestic animals. Whenever my mother felt she would not be able to contain herself, she would rush out of the house to avoid the reproving gazes of the holy images in the icons staring at her from the icons’ corner. Before Velykden, the house was thoroughly tidied and cleaned up, everything that was of no use any longer was thrown away. I was very curious to know why people would do all these things. I wondered, What was in that God that made people behave in such a way?
On the morning of Velykden mother would wake us up very early; she would pour water into a basin, put a krashanka (painted Easter egg) into it and wash us, still sleepy and only half-awake, in that water. I wondered why mom did it, and she kept saying that we would have rosy cheeks and be healthy… Incidentally, since those times I’ve always had ruddy cheeks… Afterwards, mom began reciting prayers, and we joined her in prayer. We prayed devoutly and earnestly, the way only children can. The prayer over, we went to church.
The church in our village of Nedilyshchi, in the land of Polissya, was an old wooden one, with icons from the times of old in the iconostasis, dark with age. The priest blessed the Velykden cakes, Easter eggs and Easter food that people brought to church for the priest to bless. The people then would stay in front of the church for some time, singing Velykden songs and dancing Velykden dances. I remember that when still very young, I was looking forward to hearing those songs — there was so much vitality in them, there was so much of a spiritual uplift in them. I loved to sing them, even though I was not allowed to join the grown-ups in singing and dancing. The Velykden church service, the spring, those songs — everything was full of magic and mysterious excitement. It was then, back in my early childhood, that the foundation of what I call the Velykden of the Soul was laid…
When I was about ten years old, an event happened that was very painfully carved into my memory. The school I went to stood right across the street from the church. One day, shortly before Easter, when I arrived at school, I saw that the church was being dismantled — right before my eyes! And the man who was in charge was our head teacher! The shock was so great that it felt as though the earth began to quake under my feet. For our village it was like the end of the world had come. A crowd gathered, staring and not believing what they saw. The icons were ripped out from the iconostasis and hurled into a well — the well in our schoolyard! It was a deep well too, and the icons made a lot of noise falling down. They seemed to be groaning and moaning as they hit the water, the water so many of us used. Some people were so overwhelmed that they fell into a swoon. The man who actually cast the icons into the well died soon afterwards. Even then, when it was happening, I heard people whisper among themselves that this sacrilegist was doomed to die a terrible death. Some time later, he slipped, when he was crossing the railroad tracks, fell and was run over by a train….
The pain and grief I experienced on that Easter entered deep into my heart, and I think I’ve never been quite free of them…
The church in a neighbouring village survived and we went there to attend the regular services and those on feast days. Once, on a Maundy Thursday, my sister and I, we went to that church, about three kilometres (two miles — tr.) one way. On the way back, we had to walk that distance at night, carrying a burning candle that had been lit in the church. It was very important not to let the wind extinguish the flame. You were supposed to bring the candle into the house, to walk around it, exorcising by the holy and inextinguishable flame the evil spirits that might have crept in. We did manage to prevent the candle from being blown out, but the moment we ascended the ladder and opened the hatch to the garret to cleanse the attic, we heard a movement and sudden loud noise, a strong draft began to blow, and then something — something hairy, or so it seemed to us, whooshed past us. The flame was blown out and we rolled down the ladder, and hid in the corner with the icons. I can’t actually claim it happened the way I remember it but it does not matter, really — we lived in our own world of childhood which was full of wonders and frightening moments as well. Even today, some people continue to believe in magic, retain some beliefs that come from the ancient pagan times — and yet go to church.
I myself did share a lot of these heathen beliefs and feelings, and it was only recently that I began to leave them behind. I could have tried to keep them longer, to make a fairy-tale world out of them for myself, but you can’t make it a fairy-tale world for others. God has given us the light of life, and to seek something alternative in fortunetelling, in black magic — it’s to lose that light, to lose the future. A moment came when I began asking myself some tough questions, I conducted long talks with my soul, and I realized I had to go up from the level I had been at before. I did not reject or renounce some of my former beliefs completely, but I just went further, to a new comprehension and vision of things. There are many traditions of the Ukrainian people that should never be renounced or rejected — they go back into very ancient past, they connect us to the past, and they must be held, they are very sweet and nice. I came to a realization that Velykden is a resurrection of the soul for me. It was Christ himself who through his own Resurrection made us aware of the resurrection of our own souls. It’s not accidental that we celebrate Easter in the spring, at the time when Nature is reviving, when it begins to blossom, when the bees began to fly, when the moon becomes so amazingly beautiful in the night sky. There comes a longing for a universal, omnipotent love. There is love for the body, there’s love for the heart, and there’s love for the soul — and this love is all-powerful, all-renewing, and all-forgiving. The very essence of a human being is this potential ability of the resurrection of the soul, it’s Velykden of the soul. We’ve been placed on this earth — no matter what the circumstances of our individual lives can be — to rejoice, to love and this joy should be an experience that always stays with us. I believe that Christ’s Resurrection is based on the beautiful people — beautiful in a profound, spiritual way, on the people full of the divine light, on the Velykden people who know how to resurrect their souls. Without experiencing the resurrection of your own soul, you can’t come to comprehend the Resurrection of Christ… Such thoughts crossed my mind often — they came and then left, and at last they’ve come to stay. They left me when I sank too deeply into everyday worries and paid too much attention to petty things, but there was always something that brought them back…
Even now I still get myself into tight corners or walk into blind alleys once in a while, and seem to lose the sight of the star that leads to me Velykden but I always rediscover it and keep moving with more confidence to a moment when I’m fully prepared to face that Great Day, the Velykden morning, the dawn of Velykden breaking and giving light to life… There’s only one thing I pray for and ask God to give me — it is the ability to forgive… I want to be able to look people in the eye and pass on love, even if some of them have done me wrong. I’ve realized I should be open to people, that I should not be affected with any of the negative emotions, I want to call out loudly, People, open the widows of your hearts, let the angel of your souls out, be like birds in the spring!
I’m looking forward to Velykden, I want to experience the great uplift. Memories are a nice thing to cherish, but they are not enough, you have to keep gaining new uplifting experiences. You have to come to Velykden, cleansed bodily and spiritually. God gives each of us a burden that we can carry, no matter how difficult it may seem sometimes. Our burdens have been carefully weighed and all we have to do is to carry them with dignity.
I’ve realized how important it is to wake up in the morning and smile, how important it is to experience joy. I want people who will listen to me sing to feel an overflowing joy that comes from my heart. It’s my own Velykden, Velykden of every day of my life. Give your worries to the realm of worries, and prepare yourself for Velykden.
Velykden — literally: Great Day; this Ukrainian word is used in reference to Easter,
but Nina Matviyenko uses the word in several senses that range from a wider metaphorical meaning to a more narrow meaning of Easter Day — translator.