In 1992, I made the first of what was to be fifty-nine journeys to Russia, something I could never have foreseen when I stepped off a plane in St Petersburg. Between then and 2006 I developed Firebird Russian Arts, a business specialising in Russian crafts, and became a lecturer in traditional Russian culture. Somehow, I ran this alongside my other writing projects and activities, although it did take over the course of my life for fifteen years! It also resulted in a book called Russian Magic, first printed as The Soul of Russia, drawing on my experiences in Russia and related research.
Returning to my Russian adventure stirs up plenty of memories, both joyful and sad. It was a unique experience, getting to know the country just after the Iron Curtain had been lifted. And in particular, for me, learning directly from its artists and discovering the charms of Russian rural life had a huge significance. This month, for the next four posts, I’m celebrating that quest through posts based on articles I’ve written, extracts from my book, and diary entries. All have been adapted as necessary for this new output. I hope you enjoy them.
The next-but-one post will explain the art of the Russian lacquer miniature, which was at the core of my visits.
The Russian Izba
In 1995, I bought a wooden village house in Russia, known as an ‘izba’. It was situated in the village of Kholui in the Ivanovo province, east of Moscow by some 200 miles. I’d started buying and selling Russian lacquer miniatures which are an acclaimed art form in their own right. Kholui is one of the four artists’ villages where these are painted. Although there are about 300 artists in the village, along with an art school, a painting workshop and a museum, it is still very much an unpretentious country village. It sits on the river Teza, and was once a place of annual trading fairs and passing river traffic. I was won over by its charm, the friendliness of the people, and the chance to immerse myself in the life and work of the artists. A later article this month on Cherry’s Cache will say more about this art, but this one is a memoir of that first idyllic summer, when my former husband and I took over a wooden village house, and immersed ourselves in local life.
Even on the threshold of the twenty-first century, the wooden cottage or izba, remains deeply rooted in the Russian psyche as a symbol of simplicity and comfort that also represents an aesthetic, even spiritual, perception of the world. These cottages served to diminish and humanize the vast scale of the Russian landscape, offering a place of comfort in an alien universe.
Russian Houses – E. Gaynor, K Haavisto (D. Goldstein 1994)
I should explain that I had to buy the house through one of my business partners, Ludmilla, as it needed a Russian signature on the deeds. She and her husband Valodya were close friends and colleagues, and Ludmilla helped us in every way with the Kafka-esque process of trying to buy a modest village cottage for about $4000 (American dollars, the unofficial Russian currency).
Extracts from the Russian diaries: What follows are extracts from my diary of our first stay in the house that summer of 1995 in Kholui. We arrived in late May, having travelled there on the overnight bus from Moscow, an experience in itself, and the first major journey that we’d made in Russia by ourselves.
Friday May 26th 1995 – Arrival
Yesterday we arrived at our dacha for the first time since the ten minutes it took to choose and agree to buying it last September.
In Moscow, Vladimir had found out that the arrival time in Uja, the nearest stop to Kholui, was supposed to be at 8am. He told us that the arrival times had been scratched off the notice boards, so that you had to go to the bureau inside and pay 1000 roubles to get the information you needed.
We actually arrived in Uja at about 6.45am. It was a lovely day. My primitive Russian began to seem even more primitive as a few friendly travellers and women travelling with their produce to market questioned us. Finally, our Natasha arrived from Kholui with a car and a driver, and it was lovely to see a familiar face. Her family, the Malkovs have agreed to be our caretakers, and they are going to look after us as well as the house.
We just about got all our cumbersome, hard-shelled suitcases and bulging holdalls into the car. Packing had been a nightmare; I accumulated what I thought were small but essential items for the house, and some useful food, as we didn’t know what provisions might be available. We packed; I weighed. We were 30 kilograms overweight. We unpacked. We repacked. Chris threw out the candles, and I put them back in again. (Wisely, as it turned out, as there were a number of power cuts during the next couple of years.) In the event, when we got to the airport, all the computers were down, and the poor airline staff had enough to do, writing out boarding passes by hand, without worrying about overweight baggage.
Driving into Kholui from Uja, we both felt a surge of euphoria. Till then, we had been full of joy and confidence in our undertaking one day, the next struck by insecurity and panic. The village looked wonderful in the brilliant sunshine, with dandelions and buttercups in bloom, the grass already rich and deep, and the dignified green and white onion domes of its ancient church crowning the scene. Already men were fishing in the river, women were washing clothes from the banks, and children were splashing in the water. Over the bridge, along the road to the right, a turn to the left, and we were there.
The house is painted in gentle, kindly, faded, blue and brown colours. Like other Russian country houses, it has elegantly carved window frames and looks bigger than it is. Most houses have been constructed to accommodate cows, goats, potatoes, boats, tools and hay as well as people, and plenty of space is given over to this. It has two main rooms: one a large, regularly shaped front room with a traditional Russian stove built up to ceiling height, and the other an L-shape, with the kitchen built into the missing section. It’s sunny, and feels peaceful and settled. The previous owners have left two primitive tables, two wooden benches, two rickety stools, one bed base with old-fashioned metal bed-ends (useful for hanging towels on), a stove that runs off bottled gas, a free standing corner shelf, a small kitchen cupboard, and lots of rusty paint cans and empty beer bottles in the numerous gloomy wooden storage rooms that cluster around the main living space. The toilet is a wooden throne emptying onto an abyss below, with only two ancient and grubby curtains hanging across the entrance to dignify one’s privacy. (We replaced these with a door as soon as we possibly could!)
As with most country village houses, there is no running water. The local well is just around the corner at the bottom of the lane, roofed in a quaint, fairy tale style. A sort of upturned painted biscuit tin over the sink acts as a temporary water tank; we fill it with a bucket and then it comes out of the tap below. This might seem rather pointless, but does mean that you can turn the tap on and get a quick trickle if you need to rinse something or wash your hands. I have instituted a graded water programme, with bowls of good water for rinsing dishes, and less good water for first washes. An ancient fridge rumbles self-importantly, and thank God that we’ve got it, as it’s so hot, and the lovely fresh milk, butter and eggs that we have would go off in no time otherwise. Natasha has kindly filled the cupboard with basics, mainly potatoes, pasta and more pasta, which is a curious grey-brown colour.
Settling in – We have unpacked as best as we can, but until Ludmilla comes on Monday, we will be a bit limited with cupboards and storage space. Then we hope to go to Uja and buy some cheap Russian furniture. Natasha sent her son over with one of her own soft mattresses for the bed, and she had managed to buy us a folding bed too – just as well, as we wouldn’t have been able to cram two of us into the ancient, indigenous bed.
Not long after we arrived that morning, I lay down on it to test it out, and was soon fast asleep after three nights of little rest. The sound of hammers ringing all around became a kind of lullaby. At this time of year, everyone is outside, planting potatoes in the garden, or improving their houses and outhouses. The growing season doesn’t begin until May, and will be over by the end of September. There is an air of ominous necessity about the frenzied activity and industriousness too; it’s been explained to us that if country people didn’t grow their own vegetables and potatoes, they probably wouldn’t eat, since some of the factories in the nearby small towns, which used to provide them with employment, have lain idle for two years.
This morning, Natasha sent round three of her brood in the blistering heat to finish the potato planting. (They’ll be using our back garden to grow vegetables, and they are more than welcome.) The eldest, Misha, knocked at the door, and asked if he could use the electricity socket. I thought he had some kind of a rotavator that he wanted to plug in, but instead he had an enormous ghetto blaster, for very loud music while they worked. The children lined up along the rows: one to open up the trench with a spade, the next to drop the potatoes in, and the third to cover them over with earth.
Shopping – a challenge Today we have sorted out the house as best we could, and in the early afternoon, we went for a walk around the village, partly to admire it, and partly to find the food shops. Kholui is peaceful, yet fully alive. It is not noisy in the way that cities full of traffic are, but it is certainly not quiet either. As well as the hammers, you can hear cockerels crowing, goats butting up against the side of the house, wood being chopped, geese honking, the roar of an antiquated motor bike, the voices of neighbours loudly calling out their news to each other. And, as we discovered later, in the evening, you may also hear the plaintive sounds of the garmon, a kind of small accordion, which is often played as people gather on the riverbank, or a party is struck up in someone’s parlour.
We watched hens and cows meandering around contentedly, saw boats being pulled up on the riverbank, and old people sitting on benches outside their homes. When we got to the shops, however, my Russian began to seem useless as we were drawn into conversations and began to make our needs known. I kept asking for sugar, sakher, and was met with incomprehension until someone finally said, ‘Oh, sakher!’ Which sounded to me exactly the same as what I had already been saying.
I also got the words for butter (maslo) and meat (myaso) muddled up, when we were trying to buy groceries. One shop on the far side of the river, the church side, was a mystery to me as it appeared to have nothing in its rather impressive chilled cabinets except for a few biscuits, but was still presided over by several ladies in white overalls and head coverings. In the other establishment on our side of the river, we managed to buy margarine, and a tin of steamed Chinese cow.
Across the dirt road, a man was selling provisions from his porch. At his miniature Upstart’s Emporium, we got butter; a large cardboard box was produced, which contained a gigantic block of butter. He carved some off for us, which wasn’t easy in the heat, as it threatened to slide everywhere. And we got the famous sugar at last, where the request for half a kilo mysteriously turned into a kilo’s worth, but never mind. It’s lovely sugar, only partially refined. Tomorrow I must find out where the bread comes, as it’s Saturday, and we shall need plenty for the weekend. Little quests like that take on a pleasing importance, and present an adventure in themselves.
An unwelcome visitor When we came back from our walk, we had a sleep, as we are still catching up, but our siesta was disturbed just now by a young man with blond hair, sporting an elaborate gold cross on his tanned bare chest. He marched in practically uninvited carrying two very heavy rusty tin cans. We didn’t know whether he had been sent by Natasha our caretaker, so we were cautiously welcoming. He wanted us to guess what was in the tins. He claimed they contained a kind of preservative oil for painting on the house, and he wanted three dollars for them. Since he was trying to have a good look round, and was commenting on our nice big angliski suitcases, (you can see one under the bed in the photo above) I began to feel rather uncomfortable, and decided that I no longer spoke or understood much Russian, so that he would feel he was wasting his time. (This was the only – and rather strange- occurrence – where someone was pushy and out-of-keeping with usual neighbourliness in the village)
Saturday May 27th 1995
Life at the riverside The weekend begins in earnest. Once again, it is very hot, and quite humid too, with some strange cumulus clouds appearing at intervals. It’s a family day, and motorbikes with sidecars have bumped their way into the village complete with husbands, wives and children on board. Some arrived in their faithful Lada cars, and one family was even towed in on a trailer at the back of a tractor. Everyone made for the river, and the bathing area in the centre of the village was soon full of splashing children. The whole scene reminded me of the 1950s: little girls clad only in cotton knickers, women in loose flowered shifts, metal pails, bicycles, and picnics.
At our swimming place further down the river, there were fewer families, perhaps because the water is deeper there. You have to wade out, acclimatising slowly in my case, then strike off in a diagonal direction, though this only just about counteracts the effects of the current. Eventually, the current cuts back in with a vengeance, and I drift back downstream again. I usually end up bumping my knees against the rocks under the water where it becomes shallower again.
I love the life of the river. This is what I observed: Terns swooping down, catching the fish out of the water from right under your nose. Swallows and martins flying over the water. Fishermen using round nets, like large shrimping nets, which they allow to rest on the bottom until the shoals of tiddlers are just above them, and then they can draw up a catch. Frogs, croaking and warbling. Water lilies and waterweed. A large herd of cows and calves which come down at about 4pm every day, and stay until they are called by their owner at about 5.30pm. Dogs which stride purposefully into the water to cool themselves down. Boats – plenty of them – narrow, pointed, elegant, and used with paddles or poles. Women washing at the edge of the river on little wooden platforms built out over the water, so that they can rinse the clothes and sheets that they haul out of the tubs, brought on little trolleys to make the load easier. Mosquitoes and more mosquitoes, worse in places where the water is still.
The bread queue I was truly initiated into Russian life today by joining the bread queue. I decided to try the Co-op shop which we spotted last night, and found myself in line behind fourteen or fifteen women all buying their bread for the weekend – four loaves of chorni khleb (black bread), seemed to be the norm. The girl serving was dressed up in a white overall and a sort of starched white baker’s cap made of material pressed around some cardboard. She was efficient, and the wait wasn’t that long.
In the meantime, the man behind me in the queue found out I was English, and said excitedly to the ladies in front of me, ‘Did you hear that? She’s English!’
They nodded sagely and said, ‘Oh yes, we know. We know all about her.’
So, although the people we meet along the road may only give us a brief formal greeting, most of them probably know exactly who we are and are full of curiosity about these mad foreigners who have taken up residence in Kholui.
We tried to buy matches today, and at last managed to get a cigarette lighter in the Upstart’s Emporium. He has put up a little hand-written notice which says: Kino –ie cinema – and offering showings of Karate Kid for a modest entrance fee. I suppose it’s a video played on his television. We found some Djam in the Sweet Shop, along with two Mars Bars and some cherry soda. The woman who works there wears her hair nicely waved, and watches a portable TV as she works. It’s quite fun seeing what you can get hold of on any given day, but then we’re not struggling to feed a family here on a tiny budget.
The Kholui workshop When we went into the workshop yesterday, (the official studio, where a number of mainly female artists painted lacquer miniature boxes) we tried to find Kamorin, (the director) but he was nowhere around. However, we called in on the ‘Brigada’, and the women artists were very welcoming. They downed their paintbrushes, and soon had an impromptu lunch party in full swing. We ate macaroni, as all pasta is called in Russia, and drank to Anglo-Russian friendship with the famous cranberry vodka that I enjoy so much. (If you manage to read to the end of this blog, your reward will be a recipe for making ‘Cranberry Vodka’ – very easy and delicious!)
Partying, village style Today after lunch, Chris went off to do something useful outside, and I lay down today for yet another afternoon snooze (must be the Kholui air), at about 2.30pm. Then I heard some music playing. First of all, I thought it was a recording of some accordion music playing popular Russian tunes. Then a song began, and I realised that the cracked voices raised in joyful unison were in fact coming live from the house over the road, and that a party had started up. I fell asleep while listening to them, and dreamed that they were all singing, ‘Down the Old Kent Road,’ and in my dream marvelled at how well they knew the words in English. When I woke up, the party had moved outside onto the grass verge. The men and women began dancing, doing some old Russian country dances as far as I could tell, then started on some kind of a waltz. Later, when we came back from our swim at about 6pm, the music and dancing had stopped, but quarrels were breaking out, the drink having presumably flowed freely. Now, at 9.30pm, a serious fight has broken out between two men, but a group of women have just sorted them out, and sent them on their separate ways.
Sunday May 28th
At about 10am, eruptions were still happening out of the smouldering ashes of yesterday’s volcano of a party. A young man rushed out of the house pursued by a middle-aged woman, who was dressed only in an elastic girdle and an armour-plated bra. She was holding a frying pan with which she was taking a swipe at the young man’s head every time she got near him. He put his hands over his head to protect himself, as he raced towards his motorbike, which he got to just in time, leaping on it and accelerating up the lane. The dust was billowing up behind, as she ran after him screaming, and waving her frying pan. After that, everything went quiet. They must have all exhausted themselves.
In the late afternoon, I made a cup of tea, took it down to the bottom of the lane, and sat with my book under a willow tree on the riverbank. I thought to myself: I am sitting in a Russian village, by a Russian river, drinking tea and reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. What could be better?
Below are scenes of Kholui village life. Goats, cows, chickens and geese wander where they will, and return home at the end of the day.
Tuesday June 6th
Farewell to Kholui Today was our last full day in Kholui. In the morning, I went back to the studio to see if the ladies of the Brigada had any more lacquer boxes to offer me. They didn’t, and I was glad in a way, as I now have a lot of lacquer miniatures to take home, and my budget is getting tight. So we had a kind of farewell party instead, and although it was only 11am, they began preparing a feast for me. I was given a copy of a magazine to look at called Droog, or ‘Friend’, which was all about pedigree dogs, while they began scurrying around gathering the ingredients together. ‘Big Olga’ leapt up and went to purchase six little fish from one of the other factory women, and made boiled fish and soup on the spot. The soup was called Uxa, pronounced ‘Oo-kha,’ with a kind of owlish hoot. One woman opened her mouth so wide to demonstrate how to say it that I could see every bit of fish currently lodged within.
We had a merry conversation, as best as I could manage. They are curious to know about England – what kind of home do I have? Is it a flat? How many floors has it got? How many rooms? Does it have a garden? Do we have servants? Our Georgian house in Bristol is in fact very large by Russian standards, and I tried to play this down. I promised to bring some photos next time.
In the afternoon, Chris and I went for a wonderful walk, our final one for this visit. The sky had cleared to a cloudless blue, and it was warm but fresh. We started to walk along in the direction of the weir, but on the opposite bank of the river to our house. Soon we had to make a detour, as one often does here, to avoid boggy patches. We’ve learnt that it usually pays to follow the path, which circumnavigates the numerous ditches, dikes, quagmires and swamps that dissect this area.
Reflections on the landscape Past the weir, we eventually arrived on a bank-side path which ran through a beautiful sandy, heath-like stretch of ground. Here the flowers were in full bloom, and even more gorgeous than those we saw the other day. There were magenta flowers like single pinks, buttercups, a kind of mauve campanula like a Canterbury bell, a type of yellow cowslip, scabious, wild flowering chives (good to eat with the loaf of fresh bread we’d just bought), vetches, wild pansies, and an extraordinary yellow and purple flower, the exact colour of heartsease – the flowers themselves are yellow with what seem to be purple bracts. The effect is rather like an exotic bird’s crest. There is also lacy cow parsley, a type of ladies’ bedstraw, occasional orchids, and various other blue and purple flowers, so that the whole ground is carpeted with a delicate mixture of tall grasses and flowers, and full of butterflies. It will probably be short-lived, because the heat and the rain have brought the flowers on rapidly, and during the summer, the profusion will dwindle.
The heathland was dotted with bracken and silver birches, one of my favourite types of landscape. There were large oaks in full leaf too. Eventually, we came to where the wood ended and the ground opened out into a large meadow ahead of us, with a village set above it on a little hill. We tried to get there, then realised that the river lay between. In the meadow on our side of the river was a herd of cows, with two male cowherds in attendance. They carry what I call long whips, and Chris, with his Scottish ancestry, calls ‘knouts’. When I looked up the Russian for whip, it is in fact knoot, so there is obviously some common origin there. Although we think of Russian as an alien language, there are lots of words which are similar to ours, not only those from Latin roots, but some which must relate to old Norse or dialect words in our language. Bruki for trousers, and ‘breeches’, barsuk the badger, and ‘Brock’ as an old nickname for badger, buk and ‘beech’, holm and hill, kot and cat, are just some of the examples that come to mind.
We passed a cemetery; I’ve noticed now that Russians often place their cemeteries in woodlands and forests. I like the idea of being planted among the trees. Finally we came out, as we guessed we would, right by the Detski Dom (children’s home) in the old monastery, and from thence our path back to Kholui lay straight and clear.
Finally…Now it’s 10.30pm, the sun is setting, and tomorrow we leave for Moscow. We’re talking about coming back for three or even four weeks next summer. The river, the walks, the studio, the artists, the museum – it’s a unique combination. We went to the museum once again today, and after ringing the bell and waiting for a long time, one of the young curators appeared.
‘Mozhna?’ I asked. ‘May we?’
‘Mozhna,’ she replied, smiling, and opened the door wide for us.
It only costs about ten pence to get in, and houses as fine a collection of lacquer miniatures as you could see anywhere. The museum employs about four female staff, but what do they do all day? I don’t think they spend their time cleaning, because the dirty footprint on the carpet today was the same as it was last week when we paid a visit. Perhaps they catalogue a bit, and read professional journals; I don’t know. Although they can’t have more than one or two visitors a day, when we looked at the Visitors’ Book today, we were astonished to find that an American from Texas had visited the museum since we came in last week. Who could he be? How did he reach these parts? Where might he be going? I’m beginning to react like a Kholui local!
And afterwards – Posting these diary records tugs at my heart strings…I kept the house until the early 2000s, and visited it about three times a year. It was a colourful time, but over the course of the years became textured with challenges and even tragedy. Accidents, both serious and fatal, occurred to people we knew; wintertime in the village could be beautiful but harsh, and the old innocence of country life began to shift under the rapidly changing influence of unstable economics and the increasing sophistication of the Russian cities. But I’ve never forgotten the beauty and fulfilment of those first few visits to Kholui, or the kindness of the people there. The countryside in Russia still holds the essence of its old traditions and wisdom.
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