Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The shuttle and the egg: a Russian Easter blog.

The apartments on Golden Lane where I live have little storage and the aesthetic is minimalist. Even so there are many things that decorate my rooms that serve no purpose but I am unable to throw away. In this and coming blogs I write about some of my Russian objects.

This shuttle was given to me by my Yuri and Sveta Vashchenko who have looked after me so well in Russia, especially in the first years I travelled there. Their dacha in Kostromskaya Oblast is full of such things - inherited and found in the empty dachas in the village and neighbouring villages, some of which are entirely abandoned. 

From first visiting Russia I always found that there was little to collect - few beautiful things were available to buy - this is no longer the case but it was then - it was difficult to decorate my flat and make things pretty. But Sveta always could. She could make a dish of lobio from tinned kidney beans taste wonderful and fresh, just with the help of a sprig of coriander. She could make soup out of some herbs from the dacha garden and some tinned meat. She could make breakfast pancakes out of a cup of milk and some flour. And she could decorate with whatever was to hand: their dacha is decorated with these peasant objects - utensils, tools - and also embroidered linens. In the 1980s, my mother invented the phrase ‘shabby chic’ - Sveta was also a natural adept. Their apartment in Moscow was made decorative and sophisticated by the lightest of touches. In their case it was elegant, simple, pre-revolutionary art nouveau photo frames, often with tiny openings for the actual photo. Yuri and Sveta’s bed has, instead of a bedstead - a dozen or so of these on the walls, holding tiny photographs of their parents and themselves and their children, some of them processed by Yuri in the darkroom in Sveta’s former studio. 

Their bed was narrow - I only noticed because we arranged for an American photographer to stay there one summer when they were at the dacha and he mentioned it - that it was the size of a single american bed. In the countryside Yuri and Sveta often slept in the senoval - the hayloft - where tall grass from around the house, scythed (by Sveta) was dried and then placed. It was the most fragrant place to sleep in the world. It was also incredibly romantic and couples who slept there would skip down to breakfast in the morning with a spring in their step and sing song voices. Indeed I had my first sexual experiences in Russia on the senoval at the dacha. I smile to think of it now - I was 19 and the boy in question a little younger. And there was another boy who slept there too - we always thought he was asleep - but I heard him whispering about what he had seen to a friend of his later on in Moscow, and was mortified.

I marvelled at the aesthetics of Yuri and Sveta. They knew and recognised the natural, the authentic and knew to cherish it, in a blighted country where there was so little that was decorative. I wanted to recreate it, but I couldn’t, not in Russia - I didn’t know how to handle, nor find, the materials. Yuri and Sveta did - they had an eye for it. This present of the spindle was part of that. It is made of birch wood and is very light. It was made by hand, and has been smoothed and polished by use and extensive handling. It was a kind of blessing for my choosing to be in Russia.

The egg I bought in Izmailovo - the flea market where you could, beginning in the late 1990s, buy soviet objets. Handicrafts began to become more popular to at this time also and painted eggs were one of the things that were sold. 

This weekend was Russian Orthodox Easter. At home people colour eggs dark red with onion skins - or you can buy turned and painted wooden eggs like this - a symbol of rebirth and hope.