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Hazel and Di in Russia and Ukraine

Imagine a situation where you have three ageing (and normally sensible) adults sitting on a flight from Dubai to Moscow feeling apprehensive.  None of them admitting it to each other.  The reason for the nerves?  Well, they’ve all grown up hearing stories of the KGB and being sent to Siberia.  To this day, there are reports of girl bands with dubious names being sent out to those frozen plains.  So each of them was wondering what was going to greet them at passport control, worried that just maybe, something was wrong with their visas and they’d be, well who knows what? 
They ‘fessed up to each other once they had got through passport control and chuckled at their naivety because, apart from the fact that they have the best travel agent in the world – one who makes sure that everything falls into place – the Russian and Ukrainian people are the most friendly, generous and hospitable people you could hope to meet, and this includes the bureaucrats.  If you want to rate passport control on a scale of 1 to 10, Russia is probably about a 9 (the missing point being the language difficulty). 
Russia is one of those places that’s on everyone’s bucket list.  We’re curious about it, say to ourselves that we should go there, but somehow never get down to it.  So, when Di phoned me and said that we had an invitation to attend, exhibit and teach at the Masters Golden Hands VI International Show in Kiev, I didn’t have to think twice about it.  We accepted the invitation and within days had decided that, apart from Kiev, we would take in Moscow and St Petersburg as well.  And then my husband said that he was coming too.  All of us knew that it wasn’t going to be like any other trip.  From the embroidery point of view we had no idea what we would find there, but so what.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.   
And what an adventure it was. I’ll get onto the embroidery a little later because first, I want to tell you about the art and craftsmanship in both Russia and Ukraine. Russians (with whom I include the Ukrainians who, until fairly recently, were part of Russia anyway) are very spiritual people. On ever second corner you will find, usually, a Russian Orthodox church. Recognisable by their onion domes and cupolas, some of them up to a thousand years old, these buildings are works of art both inside and out. But here’s the thing. Some of them are less than 25 years old. 


It is well known that religion was banned during the Soviet era, but what is not common knowledge to those of us that live in this part of the world, is that they blew up many churches, monasteries and cathedrals, along with the treasures housed within their walls.  In some instances the relics and treasures were saved, but in most cases not.  Since the demise of the communist regime some of those churches and cathedrals have been rebuilt and in doing so, they have remained faithful to the original style.  And that is what I found most fascinating.  Those buildings, and in particular their interiors, are incomparable.  Not for them modern (read: lazy) art or contemporary, clean (read: boring) lines. 
If you are a Russian artist or craftsman you put adornment next to decoration, cover it with ornamentation, enrich that, embellish it some more and illuminate the whole thing with gilding.  It’s busy, it’s colourful, it shines, it’s exquisite and it works.  I was in my element.
Surrounding these pockets of splendour and not to be ignored, are the features of the Soviet era.  Smoke stacks seen from ornamented bridges, depressing grey apartment blocks and clapped out Lada motor cars juxtaposed with all the bells and whistles of the new era.  Up to date airports, efficient metros and trams, free and fast internet everywhere and, our biggest concern before we left, “bankomats” (ATMs) that default to English, so that we could draw money with our credit cards. 
After 36 hours, Di and I left Peter to his own devices in Moscow and boarded a flight to Kiev.  He followed a few days later.  From the moment we landed in Ukraine we were looked after by the most hospitable people you could hope to find.  Yuri Shumanskyi, his wife Natalia, son Alexei and most of all, his daughter-in-law Tatiana,  did not leave us out of their collective sights while we were there.  Tatiana was our translator and, despite exhibiting her own embroidery at the show she found the time to give us a full tour of the important cathedrals and monasteries on the day before the show started, and to take us to the Caves Monastery on the day after the show ended.  Kiev is one of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe and going to places like St Sophia Cathedral or Pechersk Lavra, both about a thousand years old, to be told the history of all the warring tribes, to see where they are now – with less of the trappings found in Moscow and St Petersburg for sure, but such an evolved and cultivated society – was very special.   
Coming out of the St Sophia’s precinct we heard shouting coming from a small gathering in the square.  Tatiana guided us away from the action very quickly and when we asked her what was going on she explained that their elections were imminent and that this was a political protest.  A protest?  No pangas, machettes or knobkerries, no muti and only one bored policeman looking on?  So civilised. 
And so, we get to the reason why we went there in the first place.  The Masters Golden Hands VI International Show is largely about dolls, beadwork and teddy bears.  The show is Yuri’s baby and despite being a fashion editor and publisher, he is keen to promote needlecraft in Ukraine.  From the embroidery point of view, we were there to help him do that. 

The show was much like any other show that you might attend in South Africa.  Boothed stalls with crowded aisles and held at one of the Kiev exhibition centres. 

It was, however, what was being exhibited that told us we were not at home, particularly the dolls and teddy bears.  Creatively and skilfully crafted, it was their faces that were so fascinating. 
Either whimsical and elfin or comical, the artists are not making an attempt to reproduce the human face but, rather, creating the creatures that form part of their folk lore. And very often doing that with humour.

The beadwork, too, is very different to what we do and see here at home.  Like Russian art, generally, it is rich and ornate.  Di and I, along with the Japanese bead masters who had flown in from Japan, were asked to judge the entries in a beadwork competition. 

Some of the entries were what we refer to as off-loom weaving (your peyote, herringbone, and similar stitches), but most of them were bead embroidery.  Jewellery and accessories comprising cabuchons, bevelled crystals, semi-precious stones and glass beads, stitched onto felt or leather and backed with leather. 


The Russians have got it. By that I mean ‘the message’. If you want to produce exquiste art use fine quality materials. Every single entry –literally bar none – was superbly put together and choosing our preferences was not an easy task. At the end of the day we just went with what had the most aesthetic appeal to each of us and it was interesting to note that, by and large, we chose the same entries. Good taste truly is universal.


As we had anticipated, our workshops were smaller than we are used to in, say, Australia.  Tatiana really was a competent translator and some of our students understood English, but having to translate everything for the benefit of those that didn’t understand us, did tend to slow things down, so it was just as well.  With the language problem in mind we had both chosen to teach smaller projects so that we would finish in the allotted time, which we did.  What made the difference though was the fact that stitching is far more a part of that culture than it is of many others, so the ladies could see what we were demonstrating and, being sharp, picked it up easily. 


Russian society is generally more conservative than ours and, consequently, a lot more formal.  It is seldom that a craft show here, or anywhere else for that matter, holds an opening and an awards ceremony – complete with diplomas and bouquets.  This happens in Kiev and whilst it took us by surprise to have to go up on a stage and speak through a microphone, or to have students arriving at a workshop (that they have paid for) with a gift or a bunch of flowers for the teacher, it was just an aspect of what could be called the old fashioned way of doing things.  Something that much of the rest of the world may have lost, and something that I tend to mourn, largely because along with that formality comes treating fellow human beings with respect.  Neither of us are arrogant and nor do we expect to be given special treatment if we go anywhere but, oh gosh, it was so nice to be treated with plain old, common or garden respect.  I think its called manners and Russian society still has it.  So much so that I kept going back to it, kept discussing it and kept bemoaning the fact that it doesn’t happen here.  If anything, the opposite.
And that is why, when we were invited back, we said that we would go again.  So much of what we do has nothing whatsoever to do with making money.  It is to do with common interest, fellowship and making friends and that was there in abundance.
Last week I bumped into an old friend who had recently been on a Russian cruise.  She said that she found it depressing which, of course, was not our experience.  And so it dawned on me how lucky we are to travel the way we do.  We meet up with like-minded people, people who have invited us and are proud to show us their beautiful cities and people who don’t see us as nuisance tourists.  We feel truly blessed.
On the cards next year are trips to France (L’aiguille-en-fete),  Birmingham (Craft, Hobby and Stitch Show), Australia and New Zealand (Koala Conventions), Norway (Bitteliten Broderi Retreat) and a return to the Masters Golden Hands International Show in Kiev.  Watch this space because I’m going to be telling you all about these wonderful events.