Funny and Free in the USSR

My wife and I met a remarkable man named Yuri in the small Russian village of Ust Barguzin near Lake Baikal – a really out of the way place in vast Siberia. The year was 1996. We were told about a quaint artist and went to visit him.  He could have been in his sixties or seventies, with large silver fillings showing in a mouth that was framed by frequent and enthusiastic laughter. His small yard was crowded with carvings and sculptures of wood and ceramic creations, leaving barely enough room for the Siberian every-man’s garden that grew potatoes and other vegetables. A separate building was a workshop full of pieces of art of all sizes and shapes. The windows were laced with artfully arranged and woven wooden twigs, giving a special effect to the light pouring through.

There were innumerable, exquisite, natural paintings done in all seasons along the shores of huge Lake Baikal, many in winter, requiring him to be outside for a long time in temperatures far below zero. These, like almost everything else, he refused to sell.  He did finally relent on one of his creations, and we bought a very funny piece. It consists of individually carved small tree branch ends, mounted upright on a 4”x5” wooden base. The carving of these branch ends was slam-bang-bold: five drunken revelers standing in a circle and leaning back with great smiles and mouths agape in song.  A couple of these cleverly done figures remind me of the look and gaiety of the artist himself.

Our host gave us a warm reception and an enthusiastic tour. His wife made only one brief appearance. Our accompanying son, who had lived in Russia for several years, asked him about the effect of politics on his life. He just waved an imperious hand as if it was nothing. Obviously, in this remote location and with his focused creativity, he never had to pay any attention to Russia’s freedom-robbing bureaucrats, instead just bubbling along through an unperturbed and laugh-filled existence.

Our final question was how he could possibly paint along the ice-covered winter shore of his beloved Siberian lake, where he recorded the cold, clear, austere scenery demonstrated in his paintings. He assured us that it was technically impossible to paint under those conditions. The paint would be too frozen to manipulate onto canvas. “I have a secret technique – but I’m not telling!” This last defiant comment was accompanied by a great peal of laughter.

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