Day in the Life: Lena the festival organiser

Lena Sabinina with an old Petrushka puppet at Narva Town Hall. 30 March 2019.
Lena Sabinina with an old Petrushka puppet at Narva Town Hall. 30 March 2019. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

While I am currently studying at a vocational school, that is the least of who I am, or what I do. Officially, I don't have a job. But in reality, I am a singer, a songwriter, a musician, and a performer. And since 1993, I have been responsible for organising a singer-songwriter and poetry event known as "Narvski Pri4al." My name is Lena Sabinina and I am a festival organiser in Narva.

On a typical day, I wake up relatively early — around 6:30 in the morning. I have a conference in a week, so there is so much to think about before I fall asleep and again as soon as I wake up.

Once I am up, I make a big salad, and then take some time for an Indian practice that is a bit like meditation. I eat afterward, and have coffee, and make sure to really enjoy it. The beginning of the day is very important. How the rest of the day will go is anyone's guess, but the beginning has to be lovely.

My husband is the breadwinner in the family; he works in construction. I am the one who then spends the money on my hair and my accordion. We have a 25-year-old son who is currently serving conscription in the Kuperjanov Infantry Battalion. We also have a cat named Margoša, whom I found in front of Town Hall. My mother had died and I wanted my father to have some company, so I told the cat, "This is where you will live now." My husband initially tried to tell me that it was either him or the cat, but he has since fallen in love with her. Typical.

Technically I am unemployed, but that doesn't stop me from having plenty to do. If I have time in the morning, then after breakfast I will study, picking up an unfinished topic where I had left off. I am studying behavioural sciences.

When I was younger, I wanted to become a singer. But my mother, who had a dominating instinct for saving people, wanted me to become a medical doctor. I did try my hand at higher education, but the programme was an Estonian-language one, which was very difficult for me, as I had never formally learned Estonian growing up in Narva. There were a lot of exams. A professor once asked me whether I didn't want to speak Estonian. I said I did, but I didn't want to speak at the level of a six-year-old child.

I am the director of the nonprofit Igra Theatre Association. I am also the main organiser of the annual singer-songwriter and poetry festival Narvski Pri4al, which dates back to 1993, and the much more recent international folk festival Golden Gates, which was first held last year. Both of these festivals actually keep me busy year round.

Wearing several hats

A typical day will find me sitting by the sea in nearby Narva-Jõesuu, writing applications to submit to the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, the Ministry of Culture and similar in connection with these festivals. Asking for money for these things is the hardest part, and that's the phase that I am in right now. I write these applications in Russian, and then I go ask Jüri Nikolajev at ERR's Raadio 4 to translate them for me. Jüri and I are old friends; we even used to act at the same theatre when we were younger.

When it comes to something like organising a festival, there are two types of people — one comes up with the ideas, and imagines things, and the other one writes the projects necessary to bring these dreams to life. The way things currently are, though, I have to be both of these people myself — I have to both come up with the ideas and write the projects necessary to fund them. If someone were able to help me with this, I would very much appreciate it, because this is actually exhausting. I've looked for someone to help, but haven't found the right person yet.

Even so, I know this is the right work for me. There aren't really many jobs available in Narva. I could work as a seamstress or something, but if I know how to do other things, and have other skills, then that just wouldn't be enough. Life is short — I want to do something more! And while organising festivals doesn't bring in any money — oh, if only it did! — it is when I attend other festivals to make new contacts and network that I know that this is the job for me. I make friends at these other festivals, and then they attend mine too — it's a great system. It just unfortunately doesn't pay.

When you do work like this, your workdays don't follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule, either. In reality, I'm always working, including when I meet with a group of people at a restaurant in Narva's Old Town after Narva College has closed for the night. Which we do every Friday. There's always something.

Lifelong resident

I was born and raised here in Narva. My mother and father met in Vyartsilya, Karelia. My mother worked as a seamstress, but my father was a border guard. Pregnant with me, she came to Narva to give birth. She still had another three years to work in Vyartsilya, however, so we returned there for the first few years of my life. Ever since I can remember, however, we have lived in Narva.

I had a very happy childhood. My grandmother sang very well, and my father drew. I also have a brother, who also still lives in Narva and has five children of his own. I actually think he is more interesting than I am. But it is my Izhorian grandmother who is the source of my good fortune in life. Ethnic Izhorians are native to Ingria, a historic region roughly located between Narva and St. Petersburg, and my grandmother spoke only Izhorian at home with us. It is a nearly extinct Finnic language, closer to Finnish than Estonian, and unrelated to Russian.

I can distinctly remember the parks and graveyards along the road from Narva to Narva-Jõesuu on the coast. My childhood friend Ingrid and I would climb trees there; I learned Estonian from her. I remember stumbling across filming for the 1969 version of King Lear taking place in a park, and seeing such stylish men, with their beards and their dogs. This sparked my interest in the theatre; it seemed so interesting! We lived in our own kingdom, in our own garden, far from town.

Singer, songwriter

From age 16-19, I worked in a chemical lab. I then went to St. Petersburg, still known then as Leningrad, to study theatre on scholarship at the Leningrad Institute of Culture. For eight years, until 2011, I was also a member of the local folklore ensemble Suprjadki, with which I have even performed at the popular Viljandi Folk Festival. Suprjadki sings in various languages and dialects, from Narva to Seto.

I write and sing songs of my own, and have performed in Helsinki, Warsaw and St. Petersburg. Sometimes I perform a bit here in Narva as well. For six years, I was accompanied by a guitarist. I've also had backing musicians come from Minsk. I usually sing in Russian or what we call the Narva language, but am planning on working Izhorian songs into my repertoire as well.

As though that were not enough music for one person, I am also the head of an ensemble of people with disabilities; I play the accordion and they sing. We meet once a week at the old Narva College dormitory on Energia Street, but as that will be torn down, we will have to find somewhere else to meet. We would meet more often, too, but it is difficult as it is for them to get around.

When I do have time for myself, I have a group of housewives I get together with. I also love to cook. I stopped by home for about half an hour earlier and made chicken plov, a Russian kind of rice pilaf. I love making borscht too, and when my son comes home from conscription, he wants homemade pelmeni, or Russian dumplings.

Amid everything else going on in my life, it is when I am drawing that I truly relax. But being busy all the time doesn't keep me from being happy. What makes me happy? I love people, flowers, and trees — and cats, and dogs, and drawing, and singing, and playing instruments. I would say I am permanently happy; it's a state of being.

I also seem to have a knack for getting people to open themselves up to me. When I interview people, I have to really understand them, something I've picked up from theatre. I actually hitchhike to places like Tallinn, Tartu and St. Petersburg in order to meet people and listen to their stories. Some don't seem to want to open up very much at first, but I think most people are just waiting for a chance to be asked — for a chance to tell their story. Participatory anthropology. For some reason I really enjoy doing this.

Sun still rises

If my childhood self and my current self were to meet, I would tell younger me that it was a good thing that she went to music school. She wanted to learn the piano, but I would tell her that accordion is hard, but worth it. You can take an accordion along with you anywhere and have an instant party — and you're in the middle of it! I think my childhood self would tell me that it's a good thing that I am still always learning.

A lot has changed in the world around me during my lifetime, as well as here in Narva, in the country's northeast. I remember when Estonia regained its independence in 1991. Things were actually very wild and terrible here, and there were shootings happening in the streets. But we were just told to haul decorations to the theatre.

But so much is still the same. The sun still rises and sets as it always has; trees grow leaves in the spring; the storks return. These things don't change. Everything else we can decide for ourselves. Narva is the groundwater of life in Estonia; you may not see anything at the surface, but things are happening below.

On cold nights, I watch films before bed. When it's warmer out, I'll take my bike for a ride. It's not quite warm enough for that yet; I'll wait a little while longer. But I bike out of the city — where we lived in our own kingdom, far from town.


Day in the Life is a near-weekly series by ERR News telling the stories of everyday Estonians, their livelihoods, and their lives. If you know someone whose story you feel should be told, email us at [email protected].

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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