Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Artisans' Tale: For Love, For Money, For Both

It rises from the rutted, muddy street like a vision from the 19th century: a simple wooden cottage at once whimsical and solid, an oasis of tradition in the surrounding desert of fading dachas and incongruously flashy New Russian palaces.

Through the sturdy metal gate in the fence that surrounds his cottage in Svetlye Gory, a village north of Moscow, blacksmith Valentin Vorobyov leads visitors through a grass-covered yard to his masterskaya, a cruciform building that houses an informal salon flanked by two shops and topped by a second-floor aerie where Vorobyov waits for the muse's visits.

Here in an environment of his own making, Vorobyov, a man of medium height and powerfully stocky build, his sandy, shoulder-length hair restrained by a braided leather band, continues the legacy of his grandfather and father, perfecting in this third generation the artistry of blacksmithing.

In today's Russia, artisans enjoy a host of new opportunities -- the ambience of official censure has given way to an environment of artistic creativity -- while facing a rash of new problems -- the economic vicissitudes of the market can be brutal for those raised in a system of state-sponsored guarantees.

Vorobyov appears to have the best of all worlds: a fully operative shop in his backyard, artistic freedom, a manager active in promoting him at home and abroad, a wife who functions as creative and domestic support, and two sons -- Andrei, 23, and Yasha, 17 -- who will carry the heritage on into a fourth generation.

But Vorobyov's has been a long struggle. Before perestroika lifted the heavy weight of official censure and opened up opportunities for self-realization, Vorobyov said he both accepted and chafed at the officially sanctioned Soviet structure for artists. Largely taught by his father and with only a secondary art education, Vorobyov nevertheless wanted to get into the Artists' Union, the state-controlled organ that acted essentially as the artist's promoter, censor, agent, manager and curator.

"When I was being accepted into the Artists' Union without [formal] education, it was hopeless," explained Vorobyov in his studio over the din of hammering in the nearby shop. "That was about 10 years ago. The Artists' Union of Russia -- it was impossible to get in without education, but they took me because I already had professional works. I had already learned to work and think in metal."

Vorobyov's metal thoughts people his crowded salon, representing three decades of philosophical and artistic development: the scorpion-cum-bureaucrat lurking impotently in one corner; the swimmer jumping into water and sending out a riot of metal ripples; a steel pretzel; the chandelier ready for shipment to a New Russian client; the crucifix sprouting wings, a memorial to the artist's late father.

"I'm always searching, always trying to perfect myself. I'm an artist, after all. I can't get stuck on one thing. If I work in one direction, that's not interesting. I'm eternally seeking myself."

Seeking self was not something the Soviet state promoted. But Vorobyov said he got through this repressive period thanks to a scrappy personality and an indomitable nature. "I'm lucky in that I have a restless character. I love to achieve goals. I set a goal, and regardless of whatever difficulties happen in our country, I achieve them."

He achieved these at times in spite of himself. Some of his works were obviously and eloquently anti-Communist, such as his 1986 "Stroke of Memory," which ingeniously portrays a church cupola sliced vertically into three pieces, each of which thus resembles a sickle. Vorobyov said he had wanted to portray the period "when our churches were being felled, when the Communists were destroying them." But at the time he couldn't exhibit this work because officials told him, "We don't understand this."

Vorobyov's father sometimes pleaded with his son not to exhibit such obviously anti-Communist compositions. "My father was of that generation that, God forbid, wouldn't say a word against the Party." Both his father and grandfather -- "a strong muzhik with huge hands" -- had seen too many of the horrors of revolution, war, repression, privation.

Vorobyov's grandfather, a village blacksmith from the area near Belgorod, lived in particularly squalid, primitive conditions. His brother, a kulak, was sent to prison under Stalin, leaving a wife and children behind. As Vorobyov explained it, "There was horrible hunger ... Left without her husband, [the wife] went mad and boiled her children -- then she ate them. Can you imagine such horrors? She ran around the village and said, 'Come over to my house. I'll treat you to some meat.'"

Despite such grim realities, Vorobyov said he is grateful for his heritage and homeland. "In Russia, our history is so rich. I am grateful to fate that I was born in Russia, because Russia, throughout the course of my life, has thrown up all of these revolutionary events, in which [environment] a person could think. Russia forced me to make something of myself -- the revolutions, all of that longsuffering."Today, though the suffering -- in the guise of economic constraints -- continues for most Russians, Vorobyov has been largely spared. He exhibits regularly and accepts orders for gates, chandeliers and other works that run into the thousands of dollars. Of his costs, Vorobyov said, "Frankly speaking, I know my price."

These prices keep all but the most well-heeled away. Vorobyov's clients, almost exclusively New Russians, normally approach him for a specific project, such as the elaborate, 300-kilogram chandelier of four dragons that lies in his studio ready for delivery.

Vorobyov had suggested for this particular client, who lives in a granite palace 50 kilometers from Moscow, various options for the chandelier; his original drafts for the piece had included birds and other non-threatening winged creatures. "No, I want something mean-looking, with dragons," Vorobyov quoted the client. "So I drew the dragons. 'They're smiling the way you have them. Make them mean, like me,'" was the response.

Vorobyov's clients sometimes find him through his exhibits and sometimes through the Artists' Union. But as the role of the Artists' Union wanes, Vorobyov has discovered the advantages of working with an agent. Vorobyov said he is happy to share 20 percent of his profits with Sergei Vaitkovsky of New Artistic Management: "I'm glad I'm working with him because he's taken the administrative load off my shoulders."

Vorobyov shares his artistic load with his two sons and his wife, all of whom assist him in formulating subjects for new works. "We philosophize together."

For his sons, the fourth generation of blacksmiths, Vorobyov said, "I see a greater future for them. I went through a lot of tough times, lived through the end of the Communist period. Sometimes I hid works in the cemetery from the Communists, so they wouldn't destroy them.

"But this generation has a future. They know how to think. The main thing is that they don't have complexes. They didn't catch the Communist period."

While Vorobyov bludgeons metal into submission in his spacious shop north of Moscow, Irina Zorina sits in her small, uncluttered, scrupulously clean two-room apartment in the city's southern quarter, wielding vermicelli-thin paintbrushes and bending over naked, wood matryoshki dolls. Though working in a completely different medium, Zorina, too, faces many of the problems and possibilities confronting the Russian artisan.

If Vorobyov scraped by for many years, making a name for himself as an artist while keeping the official dogs at bay, Zorina, a handsome 43-year-old with auburn hair and a trim figure, lived somewhat quietly within the system. The daughter of a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Army, she said she was discouraged by her parents from pursuing an artist's education, so she became an engineer.

Though she has worked for 20 years with GosKomStat, Zorina has found that her salary of 485,000 rubles ($88) per month cannot keep pace with inflation. Furthermore, GosKomStat, like many government organizations, does not regularly pay out salaries; Zorina only recently received her salary for the months since June. Like Vorobyov, Zorina has two sons to support, 17-year-old Igor and 15-year-old Ilya. Unlike Vorobyov, she has no one to help her, a divorcee for nearly a decade.

So for the past 5 1/2 years, Zorina has fallen back on her childhood love -- painting -- to put bread on the table. She transforms the plain matryoshka shells she purchases at Izmailovo for 4,000 to 5,000 rubles into traditional Russian dolls bedecked in the regional costumes of Novgorod, Tver, Kostroma, Vologda and Kaluga. Her matryoshki differ by their originality and the intricacy and professionalism of the painting from the kitsch often found at Izmailovo and crafts stores -- dead Soviet leaders nesting one inside the other, members of American basketball teams, the Simpsons.

For Zorina, resorting to this cottage industry has not been unwelcome. "In my childhood, I was active in painting. The need to paint was like the need to breathe. If for three or four days I didn't sit down and paint something, I couldn't stand it. I would just sit down and paint something, with watercolors, pencil -- whatever was available."

The workshop where she now paints consists largely of a desk that she shares with her sons, whose books fight for space with her matryoshki. On the opposite wall hangs a 1993 calendar from the State Historical Museum on Russian national costumes. Zorina copies the intricacies, colors and even textures of the dresses, creating sets of 5, 7, 10 and 15 matryoshki, which she sells for between $50 and $250.

Where Vorobyov's clients are New Russians, Zorina's are foreigners, many from the diplomatic community. When she first started producing the traditional wooden dolls, she stood out at the Izmailovo arts bazaar for hours on Saturdays and Sundays. Over steaming bowls of homemade borshch laden with giant dollops of sour cream, Zorina explained that her Izmailovo clients had included Germans, French, Japanese, Americans.

Then, about a year ago, a Western diplomat who frequented Izmailovo decided to introduce Zorina to various friends. The introduction was so warm and the resulting clients so pleased with Zorina's work that she no longer has to schlepp to Izmailovo. She now sells some of her dolls through a small shop at the American Embassy. And at a recent function of the American Women's Association at the Radisson-Slavjanskaya Hotel, Zorina said she sold 16 of the 25 matryoshki she exhibited.

Her work with the dolls has helped Zorina not just on a material level. Psychologically, with the economic rug pulled out from under her, she finds comfort in her rediscovered interest. "I'm glad that I have this work -- it's work for the soul. I can't say that I don't like my present job, or that I'm indifferent to it ... But now that everything's changed, this work [with matryoshki] is the most important of all."

She has yet to find the somewhat repetitive nature of her work tedious. "When I sit down to paint, it's a joy ... When the kids get to me, when everything else gets to me, I lose myself, I can relax. For me then, it's not work, it's pleasure."

Zorina said she has no regrets about not pursuing an artist's education in her youth. "These days it's simpler. There's more freedom. But back then, as banal as it may sound, it was in fact more difficult to become an artist. You had to be either really talented or really aggressive."

Vorobyov, for his part, sees that the future for artists and artisans is clear in today's Russia. "There's good news and there's bad news. The bad news is that now we are being chosen" by clients, he said. "The good news is that -- excuse me -- the strongest are surviving. If an artist is talented, truly talented, he'll survive."