Toymakers build future on Soviet rubble

May 03, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

BOGORODSKOYE, Russia -- Two dozen forlorn tenements loom over the countryside here, stranded out in the middle of nowhere, turning what was once a historic village of celebrated folk artists into an eyesore.

Driving down a long, narrow, rutted road and suddenly coming upon this gloomy settlement offers a chilling look at what more than 70 years of Communist rule inflicted on the people of Russia.

Inside the smelly, dirty buildings, another powerful impression emerges: crowded into the warren-like apartments are a great many people who are stubbornly re-creating themselves, their villages, their country.

Until the so-called "Permanent Site" knocked most of it down, this was Bogorodskoye, a village known since the 16th century for its fine artisans who took soft linden wood and carved it into fanciful toys and graceful figures.

Alexander Gorokhov, 26, and his wife, Marina, 24, are among the heirs of this rich tradition.

Both spent part of their childhoods nearby and developed a love for wood. "It started as a hobby," Mr. Gorokhov said. "I always liked to make something with my knife and hands."

Mrs. Gorokhov's mother was a carver, too. The young couple met while studying sculpture at the wood-carving school here.

While their artisan predecessors lived in a collection of wood houses decorated with delicate gingerbread trim, the Gorokhovs look out their window from seven stories up, where they live in a small four-room apartment with their 18-month-old son, Kostya, Mr. Gorokhov's parents and his brother.

The view from here is desolate. Only a few houses are left in the village -- the crumbling nine- and five-story apartment buildings dominate, with the houses gathered incongruously next to them. At this time of year, the landscape is a muddy brown. The last snow is melting, and no buds have sprung forth yet.

Down on a sidewalk, a man lies sprawled in the cold sunshine, motionless, dead drunk. Knots of children play badminton without a net. Women take the laundry off a line.

The Gorokhovs sit in their 9-by-12 room, carving. Mrs. Gorokhov works intently, taking advantage of every moment while Kostya naps. She is creating a lovely statue of Mary, holding a precociously wise-looking baby Jesus.

Galina Yakovleva, director of the Moscow Folk Art Museum, says the Bogodrodskoye work has always been distinctive.

Not easy to learn

"Many people try to imitate it," she says. "But it takes a great deal of time to learn it -- and something acquired with your mother's milk."

Typical is a piece from the beginning of this century: A bear and blacksmith sit on sliding pieces of wood, alternately striking an .. anvil. More complicated toys depict a peasant kitchen, with carved husband and wife raising tea and bread to their lips while a nodding cat looks on.

"Permanent Site," about 65 miles north of Moscow, is neatly isolated from any sense of purpose or connection to its surroundings. It was created to house the workers who run the Zagorsk Hydroelectric plant down the road.

It was distinguished from "Temporary Site" -- where transient construction workers lived. A good swath of the old village was knocked down to make room for the high-rise settlement, where streets have no names. There are no road signs directing the way here -- only a sign for the electric plant.

Bogorodskoye -- Mother of God -- was named with another Russia in mind, the Russia of the Orthodox Church and the czars. While life was dreary and difficult enough in those days for average people, at least they could live on a human scale in a natural landscape.

The artisans of Bogorodskoye developed a steady living selling their carved toys and sculptures to the pilgrims who visited the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergei, about 15 miles away in Sergeyev Posad, which in Communist times was called Zagorsk.

The monastery, founded in 1345, still attracts many tourists, and they still buy Bogorodskoye toys and Sergeyev Posad's famous matrioshkas, the wooden dolls that fit inside each other and came to Russia by way of Japan.

Now the artisans, having endured the painful adaptation to communism, are trying to figure out how to adapt to post-communism.

In 1913, the village carvers formed a guild, which was transformed into a work collective in 1923, which in 1961 was turned into the Bogorodskoye Factory of Artistic Wood Carving. Last year it became Bogorodskoye Woodcarvers Limited. The factory has a school attached to it; graduates of the toy and sculpture programs were sent to the factory to work.

The old days

The artists sat at long tables, working together; the factory management decided what toys and sculptures they would make, the factory sold and distributed their work, and the workers had a guaranteed paycheck.

Now that system is breaking down. Although the factory still produces toys, like other state structures it offers low pay. The younger artisans see little future in it, and many are striking out on their own, like Mr. and Mrs. Gorokhov.

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