Kaluga

After spending a full six weeks in Vishny Volochok at the Academic Dacha, My brother said our goodbyes, packed up, and left for Moscow. But our time in Russia still wasn’t over for almost 3 weeks. We spent the remainder of our time with a painter named Ilya Yatsenko, who has been a friend of my brother for several years. Ilya spends most of the year in Moscow with his family, but during the summer often spends time at a family dacha in Kaluga. It was in Kaluga that we spent the bulk of our time. After making a trip to the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow’s biggest and most important Russian art collection, we piled into the car and left for Kaluga.

Kaluga has little of the small town feel of Volochok. It’s a city of about 300,000 people, located on the river Oka. There are expansive neighborhoods of dachas along the river. Most of these have dense gardens – a few different kinds of fruit trees, dense beds of vegetables, a greenhouse, flowers, all spilling over the fence on a classroom-sized plot of land. It’s a very different aesthetic from the tamed lawns and “decorational” fruit trees common in suburban Virginia. scatterings of rotting cherries, and apples paved the dirt road to Ilya’s dacha, which was barely visible from any angle on account of a very dense apple orchard surrounding it.

The dacha in Kaluga was built in soviet times, like most of the buildings outside the center of town. The inside was all wood and threadbare floral print upholstery, icons and overflowing bookshelves. It was incredibly cozy and lived in – like a hunting lodge or fishing cabin, and very different from the bare, damp studio  where we had lived in Volochok. there were old children’s toys in baskets, strange trinkets, several new additions to my growing Russian matchbox collection – even a cat, Chernushka who we brought from Moscow.

While our house was much more like a home, our schedule for painting was actually much busier. We did three sessions a day – before breakfast – before dinner and before bed, moving between the banks of the river and a huge pine forest. It was rarely below the 90s Fahrenheit, and so we also did a lot of swimming. While it’s socially unacceptable for adults to wear shorts in Russia, it is perfectly fine to walk around in nothing but your underwear, and after a few days I gave up and stopped bothering with pants – no one else did.

We made a trip while in Kaluga to Optina Monastery. Optina was an important center of Russian culture in the 19th century. The spiritual community there was considered particularly strong;  it was at the forefront of a revival of the institution of elders, or starets,  in monasteries. Many of the century’s most important writers, including Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Gogol made pilgrimages there. Dostoevsky in particular is associated with the monastery, which was the basis for the monastery in The Brothers Karamazov. The character of Father Zosima was inspired by Father Ambrose, an elder who lived at Optina for 30 years. He was canonized in 1990.

I’m pretty uneducated about Orthodoxy and so I won’t go into much detail about the different services and chapels we visited. I will say that the monastery was very active – with pilgrims and monks and a few other visitors like myself, and that there was a definite air of respect within the walls very different from some other monasteries I have visited in Russia.

Our time in Kaluga was an excellent capstone to the project. In those two weeks we worked very deliberately and had constant instruction from Ilya. We were also more immersed in language and culture, living in a real house with a real live Russian, than we had been in Volochok. One of the biggest perks of our time in Volochok was evening tea. We would crowd around the table – all of us in various states of exhausted, sun burnt undress, and drink cup after cup of strong black tea, with cookies, and sometimes nutella, and Ilya, over the course of an hour or so would launch into long accounts of Russian history. He has an almost photographic memory for names and dates. The first few nights I just listened until his speech slowed to a crawl and he fell asleep in his seat, but then I learned I could direct his monologue and started doing so with strategic questions. I asked about poetry and got a long and involved poetry reading, asked about Lithuania and got a complete history of their language, culture and sausage.

But even these evening teas were not the pinnacle of our immersion in Russian life. That came in the final three days of our trip, after my official research was over, when we took a train ten hours to the east of Moscow to a tiny village of less than a hundred people called Darovinki. There we lived with Ilya and his entire family in a very old log-cabin, purchased for $300, where were surrounded by accordions, ancient churches, stray dogs, excellent food, singers, icon painters, unemployed motorcycle-riding classical guitarists, huge anthills, monks, broken down cars, famous sled-dogs etc etc. That story, however, has little to do with painting or oral history, and I’ll leave it at that.

Below are sections of two paintings by Ilya where my brother and I make appearances. In the first, I am drawing some flowers on the bank of the Oka, and in the second my brother and I are painting in the pine forest: