Moscow Stories: So long temple of the arts, hello temple of the eats

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The Independent Online

It is hard to know whether to laugh or to cry at the plight of Yuri Pavlovich Khmelyovsky. Yuri Pavlovich is an artist, whose home is a terraced wooden house down an unmade road in an overgrown village near the picture-pretty artists' colony of Abramtsevo, north of Moscow. Three generations of his extended family are in and out, along with two cats and some chickens; a car and two horses are stabled nearby.

Until recently, when he started turning out delicate bronze figurines and compositions, Yuri Pavlovich specialised in engraving and carving on stone and mammoth tusk. We visited him, on a near-freezing afternoon, as the light failed, getting lost several times in parts of the village where the wrong streets had the right names.

In some ways, Yuri Pavlovich's story is the story of a whole generation of artists who hovered on the edge of the the official art establishment as the Soviet Union collapsed. Artists, especially those who enjoyed the reliable commissions and perks offered by the state-funded Soviet Artists Union, have had a lean time over the past 10 years, unless they were born entrepreneurs or their work proved commercially viable. Their union, shorn of its state subsidies, has had to sell or lease out many of its holiday retreats and exhibition halls. The artists have been thrown on the mercy of the market.

Yuri Pavlovich joined forces with a couple of associates and took out a lease on a Moscow gallery, but he abandoned the enterprise as too much of a distraction from his real work. Now, he sells to other galleries and individuals and relies on exhibitions to extend his network of buyers. A neighbour, whose house has a new porch and extension, is in huge demand, thanks to his expertise in religious illustration and the boom in church restoration all over the Moscow region. But Yuri Pavlovich, as his gallery experience suggests, has found life harder. Selling is not really his forte. We had first come across his work at one of the first commercial exhibitions of religious art to be held in post-Soviet Moscow and commissioned two small carved stone icons.

This time, in his studio, he had displayed for our benefit several large photographs of his recent magnum opus: a large throne, made up of finely carved mammoth-tusk panels, showing scenes and emblems from Russia's past. The work, modelled on a throne of Peter the Great, had been commissioned by a district of central Moscow in the mid-Nineties when enthusiasm for Russia's past was in full flood. It had taken seven years to complete.

By the time it was finished, however, the district's new mayor said that the budget would no longer stretch to such a capital outlay as the "New Russia Throne" required. Yuri Pavlovich was invited to donate it, but declined. The throne was exhibited without finding a buyer. A friend of the artist is now touting it among Russian émigrés in the US.

So if anyone out there knows someone with a very large number of roubles, who might be in the market for a unique, hand-carved Russian throne, I will be happy to play go-between.

One of the early signs of Muscovite nostalgia for the old days was the reversion of the city's premier grocery shop, known through Soviet times as Gastronom No 1, to its pre-revolutionary name, Yeliseyev's. The shop, a former palace which had managed to preserve its elegant façade and at least some of its opulent interior - but, alas, not its Fortnum's-like range of victuals - is currently being restored to its original splendour.

According to tastefully calligraphed notices in its windows, the shop will soon re-open with a style, standard of service and range of goods similar, if not superior, to those offered by the first Mr Yeliseyev. And in a touch calculated to appeal to today's new bourgeoisie, the notice concludes with the good news that, "as in Mr Yeliseyev's day, there will also be a uniformed porter to carry your purchases to your 'carriage'".