Beautiful Balalaika


Year of Russia event brings sounds and tastes to KSU

KENNESAW, Ga. (Oct 21, 2016) — In the final scene of the award-winning movie “Dr. Zhivago,” the sweeping saga of love and cultural identity in the midst of the Russian Revolution, the half brother of the deceased doctor and poet poses one question to know for sure that the orphaned daughter of the story’s heroine is in fact her long-lost child: “Can you play the balalaika?” he asked. “Can she play?” the girl’s fiancé yells back rhetorically.

 big ballalaikaSince the late 1700’s, playing the balalaika has been part of Russia’s cultural identity. The modern three-stringed, triangular balalaika is to Russian music what the violin is to western classical music and the saxophone is to American jazz. Its beauty and range of expression were part of the experience captured this week at the “Year of Russia Day,” a signature event of this year’s annual country study at Kennesaw State. The “Year of” program is organized each year by the Division of Global Affairs.  

 The event featured a concert by Balalaika Fantasie, a six-piece ensemble of the 40-member Atlanta Balalaika Society Orchestra. They played a repertoire of Russian and Eastern European folk music, including a square dance, sabre dance and village songs that inspired toe tapping and handclapping, as well as lyrical songs and romantic waltzes that aligned the balalaika’s strings to those of the heart.

 In addition to the prima, alto and bass balalaikas, the ensemble included a small and alto domra — also stringed instruments — and a bayan, which is similar to an accordion. Joining the ensemble was guest folk singer Zhanna Ivanovskay of Minsk.

 After nearly dancing out of their seats during a sabre dance song and another one featuring Russian onomatopoeia, Marvin Cox and Pamela Kjaafar allowed their joined hands to sway to the slow, steady rhythm of a waltz.

ballalaika crowd“It was my first experience [with Russian music],” said Kjaafar, a junior communications major who has attended four “Year of Russia” events to date. “I absolutely loved them and feel so fortunate [for the experience].” She hopes to study abroad in Russia or Italy next year.

 To Cox, some of the music sounded “very familiar,” like something he might have heard in a movie, he said. “This is great.”

 Havan Temesghen, a first-year chemistry pre-med student, enjoyed her first experience listening to Russian music alongside Cox and Kjaafar. She said the rhythmic flow of each individual song grabbed her the most.

“I gained so much insight listening to the performances,” Temesghen said. “Some of the songs sounded very intimate, and others were very upbeat. Exposure to more than what we as college students are accustomed to is one of the most important things we can take away once we leave. It makes us more knowledgeable and opens our perspectives.”

 year of russia foodDuring a break in the musical performance, more than 150 guests sampled Russian delicacies prepared by Kennesaw State’s culinary services. The menu included cheese-filled piroshki (dumplings); blini (mini pancakes) with caviar and crème fraîche; shashlik (beef on a stick); Cossack dill pickles and marinated onion salad.

The Year of Russia continues throughout the year. View the schedule of lectures, classes, a film festival and other events here.

-- Sabbaye McGriff

Photos by David Caselli



A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit