Sculpting in the U.S.S.R.

In 1992 I was part of a goodwill exchange between the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) and the Soviet Union. Bill Smart, the founder and director of the VCCA had traveled to Peredelkino, a writers colony outside Moscow and had fallen in love with the long green benches dotted among the white birches on the grounds.  He arranged for a bench to be sent to the VCCA and for me to be sent to Peredelkino to carve a stone for them.

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The day I arrived at Peredelkino, an army truck delivered a stone that looked like they’d blasted off a giant piece of a mountain.

stone arriving
“You said you wanted a big stone?”
volodya on stone
Comrade Vladimir personally delivers the stone.
what have i got myself into
“What have I got myself into?”

hammering on stone

The stone was so hard, I could hardly make a dent in it.

They gave me a twig broom, which turned out to be my favorite tool.

Naturally, people were curious and stopped to ask what I was doing. “Admin,” I explained, using what someone said was the Russian word for “exchange.” (Turns out it doesn’t mean anything).

Bog pomagayet!” they would answer, meaning, “God help you!”

I didn’t learn until later that this is just the conventional expression for “good luck” without any dire connotations.

writers residence peredelkino

Peredelkino was a writers retreat for members of the Writers Union. I made some good friends there, despite my non-existent Russian. Here are some of the writers gathered in front of the residence.

director scything grass

View from my window. The Director scythes the grass among the white birches.

This was as far as I got – an incised design of rising crescents. Although I worked diligently, I’d barely made a dent in the stone by the time my visa ran out six weeks later. “Come back and finish it next summer,” they said. “If the Soviet Union doesn’t fall,” I said, thinking I was making a hilarious joke. Two weeks later, the USSR collapsed. Peredelkino was privatized along with everything else.

Moscow in 1992 had almost no restaurants, cafes or stores where a foreigner could buy anything. You had to be a member of a union or collective or the guest of some high-ranking party member, and even then there wasn’t much to buy. But there was lots of life on the street.

The subways cost less than a penny to ride and were full of Soviet art. I wonder if Lenin is still there now.

bearded man

But what must still be there is the Novodevichy Cemetery which contains the most extraordinary sculpture.


stone under snow

The stone is still there, patiently waiting. . .


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