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Amid the roots of sunflowers and guns

How does the arts world respond to Putin's invasion of Ukraine? Memories of a time in Russia suggest a war nurtured in fields of beauty and danger.

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A wild ride, somewhere between gentle and fierce: Russian painter Kuzma Sergeevich Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939), “Fantasy (The Rider on the Red Horse”), oil on canvas, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

THE WAR HAS BEEN SWIFT AND BRUTAL and destructive, and most of us in the West have been struggling to understand and keep up. Why has Vladimir Putin invaded a nation that is like a cousin to Russia? Where is the sense in upending the international balance of power, killing thousands of civilians in Ukraine, destroying its cities, sacrificing the lives of thousands of Russian soldiers, hauling Russian dissenters against the war into prison cells, and impoverishing the people of his own nation? How has he so miscalculated the strength of the Ukrainian resistance, the willingness of the rest of the world to clamp down, and his own military’s seemingly overestimated might?

And how, it’s hard to keep from wondering, is a country with such a rich cultural heritage – the land of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Akhmatova, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, Chekhov, Pushkin – also capable of such savagery? Yet, we tell ourselves in response, is not the social dynamic of that very possibility of savagery at the heart of several of these great artists’ work?

In the West, we’ve learned a lot and no doubt far too little in the days since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine and Russian jets and missiles took to the skies. While international sanctions have strangled much of the Russian economy and Western weaponry has flowed to the aid of Ukraine, the cultural world has been largely caught off guard, unsure how to respond.

Russian artists with close ties to Putin and no inclination to cut them off, most prominently symphonic conductor Valery Gergiev and operatic superstar Anna Netrebko, have lost prestigious jobs in the West. Some performing companies have canceled performances of works by Russian composers and playwrights. (And some have not: In Oregon on Saturday night, the Portland Youth Philharmonic performed a long-planned program of works by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, declaring that the orchestra “stands with all free people and nations as well as those striving for freedom” and was “shocked and appalled by Russia’s ongoing aggression,” but adding that the music had long ago become “a part of the artistic heritage of the world” and was “not composed to further any political or nationalistic agenda.”)

A painting that seems to anticipate Ukraine’s response to the Russian invaders: “You shall not pass!” Ukrainian artist Fedir Krychevsky (1879-1947), self-portrait, 1923-24.

The artists representing Russia in this spring’s Venice Biennale have withdrawn their work, at great risk, from the high-profile art festival in protest against their government’s war. Film festivals have dropped new works by contemporary Russian filmmakers, even several who have openly declared their opposition to the war. Russian dance companies accustomed to touring have been cut off. The actions seem at turns reactive, necessary, sometimes brave, and perhaps, in spite of everything, ineffectual. What effect, in a time of existential crisis, can a cultural boycott have? And yet, how can one simply go on as if the war did not exist?

We’ve scrambled, many of us here in the United States, to learn a little about Ukrainian culture: the richness of its folk traditions, from painted eggs to decoratively painted houses – traditions it shares, with local differences, with people across Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and Russia itself.

We’ve reminded ourselves of the groundbreaking Ukrainian Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich, and of Tchaikovsky’s Ukrainian family roots. We’ve familiarized ourselves with at least the names of the novelist and poet Serhiy Zhadan and the Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky, and seen splashed across social media the work of visual artists such as Polina Royko, who turned her home’s interior into a lavish painted garden of murals; Tetyana Yablonska; Fedir Krychevsky; and the brilliant folk painter Maria Prymachenko, twenty-five of whose works were thought to have been destroyed when Russian forces burned a museum near Kyiv to the ground; later reports said townspeople had saved the paintings.

A different view of flight: Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko (1909-1997), “A Dove Has Spread Her Wings and Asks for Peace,” 1982. Twenty-five of her paintings were believed destroyed last week when Russian troops burned the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum to the ground. Later reports said townspeople saved the paintings.

Through it all, I’ve reminded myself that there is a very large difference between the Russian government and the Russian people, who I’ve found can be generous and lively and enduring. It strikes me, in the current crisis, that as important as it is to gain an understanding of and appreciation for the Ukrainian people and their history and culture, it is equally important to attempt to understand the history and hopes and fears and resentments and dissonances of Russia itself. My attempt to understand what’s going on has sent me back to a conversation more than twenty years ago in a café in St. Petersburg, Russia, with a prominent and distinguished if typically underpaid figure in the city’s rich cultural life.

“Russia is a very good place to visit,” she told me, almost in a whisper. “But it is dangerous. You do not want to live here.”

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The Hermitage Museum complex in St. Petersburg, Russia. Photo: Pedro Szekely, Wikimedia Commons, 2019.

IT WAS THE SUMMER OF 1999, eight years after the crumbling of the Soviet Union, and the woman in the café, a curator at one of St. Petersburg’s great museums, abruptly punctuated our conversation about the city’s art with – what was it? – a confession, a warning, an unveiling to naïve or at least inexperienced eyes of things roiling beneath the sleek surfaces of a city on the make. There is this Russia you see, she suggested, this newly progressive and ambitious and westward-leaning giant waking from its long Soviet slumber and embracing freedom. And there is the Russia lurking below, still caught in the maw of a history of autocratic czars and revolutionists turned repressive ruling class.

I was in Russia as a reporter, following the assembling of an international art exhibition drawn from the centuries-old collections of the prominent Stroganoff clan; the exhibition would debut in January 2000 at the Portland Art Museum. And although I didn’t know it at the time, I was there when Vladimir Putin, a largely unknown former KGB functionary, was about to rise to power.

On June 12 of 1999 – the same day that President Boris Yeltsin’s troops were prompting a tense standoff in the Balkans with NATO forces at the Kosovo airport – I was sitting in on a negotiating meeting with Portland museum officials and Mikhail Piotrovsky, the powerful director of the Hermitage Museum, at his office in the Hermitage. Yeltsin’s reputation was swiftly fading, and two months later he named Putin prime minister, the second most powerful position in the government. On New Year’s Eve of 1999 Yeltsin resigned, and Putin became president. Since then he’s held on to power ruthlessly, pursuing a deep and ever more autocratic nationalism and, in the minds of many, a reckless and almost hopelessly romantic reconstruction of the old Soviet bloc, including not just Ukraine but also other Eastern European countries that gained their independence after the USSR’s demise.

I’m far from an expert on Russian affairs and temperament. I was in the country much too briefly to begin to understand the nuances of Russian politics and culture and belief in a way that living there daily for an extended period might have offered. But what I saw in St. Petersburg and surrounds; in the small town of Solvychegodsk, in the shadow of the Ural Mountains; and shortly after in Estonia, the breakaway Baltic state famed for its “Singing Revolution” before the breakup of the USSR and Estonia’s reestablishment as an independent nation, helps me make what little sense I can of the current crisis.

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It’s the museum curator’s second, older, deeper Russia that’s on everyone’s minds now – the Russia of the neo-czar Putin, the vindictive and seemingly remorseless strongman who’s upset the world order with his brutal invasion.

It is the Russia of the heavy paw, which strikes and strikes until it gets what it wants, or goes down trying. And it’s a game that many, probably most, ordinary Russians don’t want to play. But dissent is being squashed. The moral and political implications of Putin’s war are severe, and the response of the rest of the world has been both forceful and restrained. Financial and supply-chain sanctions have been swift; weaponry and other aid have flowed to Ukraine. But the West, deeply aware of Putin’s control of his country’s nuclear arsenal and the remote yet real possibility that he might actually deploy it, has not moved in to join the fight directly. Almost twenty-three years after that café conversation, Russia is more dangerous than ever.

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Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia after the breakup in 1991 of the USSR. Yeltsin’s eventual fall led to the rise of Putin in 1999. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/1989.

THE RUSSIA OF THE 1990s, since the fall of communism, was a place of deep disasters and great opportunities. In place of the stolid and meager but sure Soviet safety net grew a free-wheeling marketplace that created huge wealth for a few while many others were barely able to feed themselves. Politics had a cowboy-shootout unpredictability – a sense that, under Putin, still prevails. The economy had collapsed, as it is collapsing under pressure once more, and many Russians felt the nation had been humiliated on the international scene – a sense of outraged impotence that seems still to drive Putin, and that in his grasp for power he continues to manipulate and feed.

For decades during the Soviet years, cultural exchanges with the West provided a kind of back-door line of diplomacy — a way of keeping international communication going no matter how hard the official shoe might be pounding: traveling ballet troupes, singers and other star musicians, borrowed and loaned fine art. As a result, this was often the easiest kind of trade agreement to make in the new Russia: People were used to the way it worked. Yet the nation’s unsettled state made any kind of negotiation between Russians and foreigners, even a cultural one, a delicate matter: The foreigner needed always to be attuned not only to the unfamiliar ritual of another culture but also to the underlying personal and national mood. And today, in the increasingly isolated Russia, even this back-door form of diplomacy has been slammed shut.

Adding to the difficulty was a sense of desperation among cultural institutions, which had lost the state support of the Soviet years and seen their financial fortunes plummet with the rest of the nation’s since 1998’s disastrous economic collapse. Money was of the essence. “We believe in this life,” one Hermitage curator said one evening over dinner. “But it is a struggle. For money. For power.”

It was early summer, and Yeltsin’s surprise deployment of paratroopers to take control of an airport in the disputed territory of Kosovo shocked the world: a small-scale forecast of today’s massive incursion into Ukraine. As now but to a lesser degree, relations between Russia and the United States were tense, throwing yet another complication into the museum deal. “Kosovo is nothing,” the curator said, waving her arm impatiently. “It doesn’t matter.” Her voice dropped morosely and her eyes looked down. “It’s all about money,” she said with resignation. “All money.”

***

Russians know what it means to be attacked by a foreign army on your own soil. The Siege of Leningrad by German troops during World War II cost an estimated 1.5 million lives and destroyed much of the city, now known as St. Petersburg. Photo: Ebert Georg, German soldiers in a ransacked and burning Leningrad, 1941. Collection of Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe, Warsaw, Poland / Wikimedia Commons

RAMBLE AROUND THIS CITY of five million souls in 1999 and you’d have seen evidence of destruction everywhere – and it wasn’t just the legacy of Soviet thuggery. For nine hundred days during World War II, German bombs rained on the city, reducing much of its great architecture to rubble. The Siege of Leningrad killed as many as 1.5 million people – many through starvation – and caused the evacuation of another 1.4 million, an untold number of whom died during the arduous trek toward the hope of safety.

When the war ended the city began not only to rebuild, but also to recreate what had been lost. Instead of putting up cold modern buildings where the old had been, as London and many other European cities did, it painstakingly rebuilt its central-city architectural treasures to the same specifications, and with the same craftsmanship, as the originals. Despite Russia’s economic and political crises, the process continued.

The city’s pride in its artistic traditions made the whole place seem like a living, breathing museum: tattered at its edges and intensely ailing in its infrastructure, but miraculously whole in spite of it all. The damage was daunting, and at times the task must have seemed hopeless. Yet, like few places on earth, St. Petersburg was attempting to fold the better parts of its past into its future. That attempt has been turned on its head in 2022, when Putin continues to revive the worst parts of his nation’s past and fold them into a perilous present.

Then and now, location is key to St. Petersburg. Like few places on earth, the imperial city of Peter the Great is balanced precariously between east and west – one of the easternmost cosmopolises of European culture, a disorienting doorway to Russia’s vast and brooding interior. A decade after the collapse of the Soviet system – and despite the shoot-from-the-hip instability that made the new Russia sometimes seem like the old Wild West – the roiling contemporary city of 1999 was luring both low-budget and well-heeled tourists hungry for a taste of dark history, revolutionary changes, and high culture.

St. Petersburg, with its stage set of sophisticated traditional splendor, has been the native or adopted home to an astonishing list of cultural giants, from Pushkin to Stravinsky to Balanchine. With its splendid cathedrals and palaces and its dozens of museums it was reasserting its place as one of the world’s significant centers of historical architecture and art. But an up-to-date portrait at the time might have been titled “Shock of the New.” You could sense the tectonic rumblings along the great boulevards of the central city, where streams of walkers paced past a jarring clash of modern and traditional. The exotic spirals of the Church on Spilled Blood, built on the spot where Czar Alexander II was murdered, soared above a rat-a-tat volley of huge and garish advertising billboards, emblems of the new state religion, the Church of Buy and Sell.

The new city had become a feeding ground for savvy nouveau capitalists on the make: Wandering serenaders in the streets, Nashville twangs in the nightclubs and cool Scandinavian jazz in the upscale restaurants; tattered trolleys, restless underground art shows, cash-hungry casinos, teeming traffic on its latticework of nearly a hundred canals and other waterways. As in New York, and as now in the broken streets of downtown Portland and the city’s many tent encampments, the extremely wealthy and the desperately poor strolled the same territory.

Historically, St. Petersburg’s ravishing beauty has had a ruthless underbelly. It was built on a swamp in 1703 by Peter the Great, who wanted a new capital city to match his ambitions to reshape Russia’s provincial culture into a unified, dynamic modern power. Mosquitos, hard labor, and marauding wolves killed thousands of serfs who carried out Peter’s grand architectural plans, giving his new metropolis the unsavory but apt nickname “The City Laid on Bones.” Generations of czars plotted and were plotted against. Rasputin briefly mesmerized. During World War II, when the city was known as Leningrad, it endured one of the most brutal sieges in human history at the hands of Nazi forces, a human and infrastructural carnage from which, in 1999, it was still recovering.

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Angels all around: Polina Rayko (1928-2004), born in Tsyurypinsk, Ukraine, began painting the interior of her house at age 69, eventually decorating all of her walls and ceilings with paintings ranging from angels to animals to iconography.

REBIRTH COMES IN MANY FORMS. It is said that a kind of perverse and perhaps truly felt religiosity helps drive Putin’s intense nationalism, a trait that has endeared him to many on the religious and political far right wings of American life. Certainly he, like so many politicians in the United States, has used religion as a highly effective political tool, a kind of handy hammer of God. Whether he is himself a fervent believer – and many say he is – he discovered and manipulated a religious thirst among many Russians after decades of Soviet suppression of religious life.

By 1999, a kind of religious revival was flourishing, as I saw in both small-town churches and in St. Petersburg’s grand Kazan Cathedral. Inside, the cathedral conveyed a magnificent restraint: It was both lavish and pure. Its great circle of arches lifted the eyes, and the shafts of light filtering down from its dome suffused the receptive soul. The floor’s inlaid marble rippled outward from a central star, fooling the eye with a trompe l’oeil rise and fall. Petersburgers entered quietly, lit candles, knelt. With his flowing gilded robes and patriarchal tangle of snowy beard, the priest, Vasily Markov, exuded a timeless dignity.

When the Soviets took over Russia in 1917, they turned Kazan Cathedral into the Museum of Religion and Atheism – an ideological act belied by the building’s innate sense of reverence: Kazan feels like a portal between two worlds. “It was kept as it was, but as a museum,” the Russian literary agent Olga Borodyanska told me. “Just for information.” A quarter-century earlier, as a young woman, Borodyanska had worked for a year at the museum as a secretary. Now she was revisiting it as a place of worship. The cathedral had been reconsecrated two years earlier, and once again was filling its intended role. Worship was on the upswing in Russia, Bododyanska said, even among the young and recently liberated. “Much higher than expected. Times are quite unsafe, and people want some refuge.”

Yet a streak of something akin to ancient paganism also held sway in this far-northern city. To understand the art world of St. Petersburg it helps to have a nodding knowledge of the things that shape it: the city’s history and politics and traditionalism and radicalism and larger culture and simultaneous suspicion of and eagerness to join the West; its confusing cascade of current events; even its climate. Winter arrives early and stays late in the northernmost large city on the planet. For months on end the metropolis smothers between two blankets: one of snow, one of near-endless dark broken only by brief spans of wan sun. The city huddles, private and too deep in its own thoughts.

But in April or May the grass grows green and shaggy. Skeletons of trees take on puffs of pink. The air warms. The sky turns parchment from softly angled sunlight. By the early summer period known as the White Nights, the sun shines twenty hours a day and the city’s inhabitants prowl the streets in a frenzy of celebration. Even with the temperature in the mid-80s and humidity drenching the city in the musk of human sweat, Petersburgers smile as the light spreads mystically and benevolently, like the soft glow of an Old Master painting.

In a city torn between orthodoxy and atheism, something pagan happens – something fleshy and exultant. Astride the grand boulevard called Nevsky Prospekt, Kazan Cathedral’s sweeping semicircle of sober stone pillars reaches out to embrace the helter-skelter of humanity rushing along the city’s central nervous system. On a hot summer day the city’s young and restless sprawl across the cathedral’s vast lawn, drawing fake tattoos on their bodies and stripping to the waist to catch the sun. Visitors approach the cathedral past a makeshift beer garden tucked strangely but gregariously into a streetside corner, like a belly dancer gyrating for tips in front of a mortuary.

***

In wartime, all sorts of people go hungry and ordinary rules of behavior are abandoned. In 1918 the great Russian painter Ilya Repin created this painting, “Bolsheviks,” depicting a soldier stealing bread from a child. Oil on canvas, 49.2 x 35 inches, Constantine Palace, Strelna, Russia.

EVIDENCE OF THE EXTREME GAP between rich and poor, I noted in 1999, confronted the visitor almost at every street corner. Romani bands roamed St. Petersburg, begging or hawking souvenirs at open-air markets, singing and dancing for their supper at upper-crust soirées. Across the street from the luxurious five-star Grand Europe Hotel, the intimate Philharmonic Hall attracted crowds of music lovers dressed in anything from tie and tails to sturdy country work clothes.

Just outside the concert hall, a gaggle of beggars partly blocked the sidewalk. A woman, young but inexplicably old- and gaunt-looking, held an ill-dressed, listless baby in one hand and a hat for coins in the other. “Oh, it’s just the Gypsies,” a Western European woman said as she brushed past. “Ignore them. They do this all the time.”

Another visitor, or perhaps a local, looked at the baby, reached into his pocket, grabbed a few kopeks and dropped them into the hat. He walked past a second woman, dirty and gaunt but without a child.

“Hey, mister!” the woman cried.

He did not turn back.

The Soviet state had crumbled, but vestiges lived on. You could see it in the forbidding faces of the department store women who sat in cages waiting to take your money and reluctantly give you change. Don’t bother me, their scowls said. I hate my job.

Late one evening the latter-day Stroganoff, Baroness Hélène de Ludinghausen, and her party cruised down St. Petersburg’s Neva River on a sleek dinner ship, eating red caviar and pike in puff pastry and drinking vodka and good French wine, hinting at the days of wine and oligarchs already well on their way.

In the soft golden shimmer of the midnight sun, the boat slipped past palace after palace. It slid past the vast length of the Hermitage, and eventually, before turning back again toward the beauty and safe haven of the imperial inner city, past a massive overcrowded red prison and the cold gray blocks of Soviet brutalist architecture that filled in some of the gaps where Nazi bombs had dropped during World War II. In one such fortress, the baroness pointed out, the KGB had done its dirty work, prompting a line of bleak Russian wit: “People used to say, ‘From the windows of this building you can see Siberia.’”

***

Presentation Cathedral, one of five surviving Stroganoff baroque churches, in Solvychygodsk, Russia. Photo: 46Yuri46, Wikimedia Commons/2013

SOLVYCHEGODSK, A TOWN OF about 4,000 souls in 1999 and smaller than that now, is a long way from St. Petersburg, the capital of Russian cultural and intellectual life. Yet in a way my journey into the heartland was a journey into a great country’s soul: its history, its hunger to succeed, the hope that rises and falls with its periodic lurches between cultural advancement and paw-swipes of fear and repression. The village, with its thousands of trees and millions of mosquitos, leans east toward the Ural Mountains, the great stone spine that divides Europe from Asia. Five hundred miles northeast of St. Petersburg, it’s a frontier huddle that seems captured in another time and place, raw and arduous and folkloric.

The town was founded in the 14th century, and a little more than a century later, with its nearby salt deposits, ores, and vast forests, became the foundation of the Stroganoff dynasty and riches. The Stroganoffs have been gone for more than three hundred years, and yet they remain in local memory as founders and myths, fabled figures from a golden age.

Like a serf chained by law to the land, Solvychegodsk today is careworn and intensely isolated. Its river is navigable only five months of the year. The rest of the time it’s iced in, sealing off the town like a closed chapter in a history book. With its vast forest sweeping up toward the Urals, this rough northern land is still a place brimming with raw materials and little else. And from the day we all learned of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the thought – the fear – that some of the babies I saw there in 1999 might be in the Russian army now, and perhaps on their way to Ukraine, or perhaps there already, and perhaps already dead – has held a small but persistent space in my mind.

As our boat approached from Kotlas downriver the great spire of Solvychegodsk’s Russian Orthodox church shimmered and faded in the mist. We were traveling with the Baroness de Ludinghausen, and it was as if a myth were springing to life, like a firebird reborn. Two hundred people waited along the windswept bank of the Vychegda as the launch pulled into its sodden slip. They were cheering, strewing rain-bedraggled bouquets of flowers, laughing, nudging, shyly reaching out.

A police escort, wipers sloshing and amber light flashing against the charcoal sky, waited to lead the baroness and her party through the town on a single-lane, roughly paved road. Inside swaybacked 18th century wood-framed houses, people pulled aside their plain lace curtains and stared at this strange parade. It was an exciting day. After two hundred years, a Stroganoff had come home.

Basket of pliable carved bark with pine lid, made by students at the arts and crafts school in Solvychegodsk, Russia, and brought home by the author. ArtsWatch photo

The Soviet years were not kind to the town’s traditions, but they did not entirely destroy them. This place seemed to have nothing to do with the nation’s political leaders and their power struggles, and everything to do with the history and hopes and everyday lives of the Russian people themselves. Since 1919 the old Stroganoff church, a quietly gorgeous, spiritually compelling work of architecture whose cornerstone was laid in 1560, has been the Solvychegodsk Museum of History and Art, and it’s here where much of the struggling town’s riches remain.

The museum is filled with ecstatic, grand-scale examples of icon paintings by Moscow masters commissioned by the Stroganoffs. Inside the museum, where huge scaffolding reflected the post-Soviet era’s desire to patch and reclaim the past, it was easy to understand that no amount of money could adequately measure the value of this place. Great slabs of Russian stone covered the floor. Every inch of the interior was painted with scenes of saints, angels, and long-bearded patriarchs, soaring up toward the dome and God. Ancient brass incense burners hung sixty feet and more from the ceiling. A brilliant iconostasis dominated the wall behind the altar. The massive tableau of icons, each panel separated by ornate gilt framing, was three rows deep and seven paintings wide, creating a narrative of the pathway between Heaven and Earth. The onetime cathedral was a ravishing, open, illustrated book.

In honor of the baroness’s visit Father Vladimir, the local priest, conducted an Orthodox service in the museum. Sprinkling holy water from a big silver chalice, Vladimir – a young, lean man with a sketched-in mustache and a pulled-back ponytail – sonorously gathered the assembly into a mood of reverence. His chanting voice was keen and plangent. A choir of three women followed his lead with unearthly sweetness: The church was an echo chamber, giving their voices a pure, resonating beauty.

The museum began to fill with townsfolk, most of them elderly, taking advantage of the rare opportunity to worship in the old church. One ancient, wrinkled woman, shrunken to the size of a child inside her headscarf and plain brown coat, hummed softly along with the priest, in a voice deep and strong and muted. It was plain, heartfelt, beautiful. A return to something that never truly disappeared. Looking back, it seems both utterly disconnected to the war of 2022 and also, somehow, a deep and vital aspect of an ancient culture that finds itself, once again, thrust into a war that most of its people do not want.

Despite the slow incursion of pop culture – a few kids wearing Adidas and Reebok and Calvin Klein brand names; a fondness for James Dean-style denim and leather jackets; an oddly lulling kind of Russian techno-pop on the car radio – Solvychegodsk moved to the relaxed rhythm of a place that hadn’t been overrun by Hollywood dreams.

You could feel the rhythm deeply at the town’s arts and crafts school, in a low-slung log building that paired the tradition of wooden looms with the vitality of teenagers eager to learn. Here you could find bright embroidery, intricately woven good-luck belts, carved round boxes of leather-soft bark with pine lids – craftworks not so different from the flood of Ukrainian crafts we’ve been seeing on social media in recent days, prompting the inevitable question: Why should these two nations of people, so independent and yet so alike, be at war? It seems astounding and strategically foolish and irredeemably immoral, as if the United States were to invade Canada.

Here in the arts and crafts school, the people of Solvychegodsk feasted the baroness and her party. It was a special night. Alexi Biltchuk of the history and art museum, a smiling man with a large crooked nose and a mustache with a Magyar droop, did a stomping dance. At one end of the long T-shaped table a broad, strong woman of middle years and three bright-cheeked young supporting singers performed the deep-chested, chant-like folk songs of the region. “You have so beautiful eyes,” one Russian woman translated. “You have so beautiful hair. You have cheeks red like carrots.”

The food flowed out of the kitchen and down the long table. Sturdy pastries stuffed with potato or mushroom. Long breads with whole fish baked inside. Fried potato with chunks of beef and slices of thick homemade pickle. A bright red kirsch-like drink, a raisiny Tokay-style wine, a cloudberry jam the color of orange roe for spooning into cups of thick tea or coffee.

Like so many other things in Russia, the dinner was replete with ritual. The silver samovar sat at one end of the table, and from the other end the teacups were passed forward in long succession, filled, and passed back to the other end again. Then the samovar was picked up and moved to the opposite end of the table, and the long process began again in reverse. As the cups clattered from hand to hand, conviviality rose like friendly steam – as it would, I can only imagine, if a coterie of Ukrainian villagers were to visit in ordinary times. Friends across the border, whether they had met before or not.

A country life, no matter the country: Ukrainian painter Tetyana Nilivna Yablonska (1917-2005), “Summer,” 1967.

On another day, after a grand and pungent country breakfast, among the expanse of leftovers was a mound of pickled mushrooms, huge bulbs with the slippery texture of steamed okra and the suicidal bite of an incorrigibly over-aged cheese. The Russians at table had politely left the delicacies for the Americans, and the Americans had just as politely taken a single mushroom, valiantly swallowed it, and left the rest in the serving bowls.

As the ladies of the town cleared the leftovers away, Natasha Metiletsa, director of St. Petersburg’s theater and music museum, leapt from her chair and began to talk excitedly in Russian. The mushrooms, she exclaimed. Delicious! We can’t get such fine mushrooms in St. Petersburg. Would it be possible? … The ladies smiled. Big glass jars emerged. The mushrooms went in. One jar. Two jars. Three. Four. Five. Tossing her head back and beaming, Natasha walked off with her prize: a taste of the real Russia, to help her through the long months of coming winter. As east and west were meeting, so were city and country. And on that day, at least, war seemed such an outmoded and unnecessary concept that it didn’t enter anyone’s mind.

At the farewell luncheon in Solvychegodsk, speeches and vodka once more poured forth. Our friendship will be eternal, local dignitaries vowed. We hope many visitors will follow in your footsteps to see our wonderful treasures and experience our hospitality. The baroness rose and spoke courteously.

“Unfortunately, I am not a rich font yet,” she declared. But she promised two new, self-perpetuating annual gifts to Solvychegodsk from the Stroganoff Foundation – one for the museum, the other to aid children in the town’s sanitarium. Ah, the Russians replied. Next year when you visit, you will see what your gracious gift has done for us. The baroness spoke carefully, diplomatically. “I shall come back one day,” she said. “When, I don’t know.”

Once again the townspeople of Solvychegodsk crowded the riverbank, craning for their last look at the foreign tourists, and especially at the diminutive baroness who seemed like some fairy queen returned to her principality after a deep sleep of centuries. One teenager, eyes bright and face shining, shouted out excitedly as de Ludinghausen looked back at the village from the boat’s railing. “This is your destiny!” the girl cried in brash English. “To be with us!”

“I will return,” de Ludinhausen called again in response.

The exchange carried a faint messianic chill, the sort of pleading and promise on which religions have been built.

One final time the baroness waved. Then the river launch slipped away. And today I think: No return. With war raging, that ship has sailed.

And Solvychegodsk, and all of Russia, and Kyiv, and all of Ukraine, and all of Eastern Europe and Western Europe and the Americas and a world that amid an overflow of beauty cannot seem to escape the temptation and curse of war: Where will they be?

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  • I traveled to Russia in 1999 on assignment for The Oregonian, and am grateful to the newspaper for its support. Portions of this essay are adapted from stories published in The Oregonian in 2000. I am also deeply grateful for the openness of the many Russians who shared their lives and viewpoints with me, and to the Portland Art Museum for giving me such intimate access to the assembling of a major exhibition, Stroganoff: The Palace and Collections of a Noble Russian Family.

Senior Editor

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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