Cemonov: Land of Spoons: Chainsaws and Modernity

Alright, Cemonov isn’t really famous for just its spoons; it’s also famous for dishes, Russian nesting dolls, and ducks as well. Actually, it’s the woodcarving and painting involved that makes them famous. (But really, I saw the factory workers making Sochi 2014 wooden spoons to sell for the Olympics, so spoons are at least kind of a big deal.) More specifically, the city is famous for its special Xoxlomckaya art style (Those X’s are pronounced as hard H’s (as in Bach). Sorry again for my terrible transliteration skills.). The style is swirly, red, black, gold, and really pretty. It also features berries a lot. Warning: this post will have a lot of pictures in it.

The teacups from my last post are also this style. The silver color you can see in the above picture actually turns gold once it’s been fired, so the final objects turn out looking more like this:

Everything’s hand painted. We got to walk through the workroom where dozens of women were hunched over platters, bowls, chess sets, even computer keyboards, painting swirls and berries on them.  I wonder how long it takes to train someone to work there.

We also got to see a Matroshka (Russian nesting doll) factory.

Looks a little scary doesn’t it? Like those pipes could suddenly fall from the ceiling onto the carving machines. Like it could fall apart at any second. A lot of Russia looks like that actually. I’m a little surprised it hasn’t all fallen apart already.

These are unpainted nesting dolls shaped. There are stacks of logs all over the factory with different radii (as seen in the background). There are workers who carve the logs into the doll shapes and also hollow them out. That’s what this slightly irritated-looking woman is doing, hollowing out a nesting doll.

I even got to paint my own little nesting doll! See, here it is in progress. (This picture is mostly to appease my mother, who probably wishes that more of these pictures had me in them)

And here is the finished product. I did everything except the dotted circles. Some Russian babushka came and did that part for me. And the face was done when I got it. The two large dolls in the back were there for inspiration or something. Maybe just to emphasize that I am, in fact, an American, and cannot paint the Russian style. (Although I can’t really paint in any style…)

Anyways, back to the factory. Besides visiting the main work rooms, we also took a trip to a separate room where two master artisans were working on more complicated things, mostly large serving bowls set in the body of a wooden swan. Absolutely gorgeous.

And I absolutely love this next picture. One of the artisans is carving a woman to stand next to the already carved boy, who it looks like is waiting quite patiently for his friend.

However, I was most interested in this room because it seemed so…out of place? Archaic? Old? In a factory full of electric machines and the mechanized, assembly-line process of creating thousands of dolls, what were these two men doing working with their hands and little tools on individual pieces? And as I stood there and watched, I realized something very important. I realized why Russia intrigues me so, why living here is interesting to me. I figured out the point of friction I keep seeing in Russian life that makes life what it is. (Warning: this post gets increasingly essayistic and philosophic from this point forward.)

The friction is the strength of tradition in the face of modernity. The weakness of tradition in the face of modernity. Either, for better or for worse. You see, if you didn’t already know, Russia is old. Like, ancient. Like a wise grandfather to the crying toddler of America. They’ve got churches and buildings still standing that were built 1,000 years ago. Cities were built around ancient fortresses which made for a circular city plan (if you can even call it that) with crooked, narrow streets and no space for enough traffic lanes and definitely no space for parking lots (I have a whole soapbox about driving and parking here, but this post is long enough without it). Russia wasn’t built to anticipate modernity. It was built so long ago that no one could have possibly anticipated that things would change.

But things are changing. People have cars now and need somewhere to park. Old buildings need to be re-wired for electricity and air-conditioning. Every apartment building I’ve seen here is a giant rectangular block of cement that looks ancient and unwelcoming and dangerous (standards of fire safety and cleanliness and all that). But these buildings will still be here 50 years from now. 100 years from now. An eternal testament to the strict efficiency of communist architecture.

There’s a conflict because new technology and greater “civilization” are creeping across the globe, but there’s no easy way to implement it properly in the existing grid of every society. It’s like cramming a round peg into a square whole.

But still, people try, and the points of friction that trying creates are fascinating to me. Like this picture from the master artisans’ room:

Rickety wooden chair? Check. Giant block of wood? Check. Chain saw? Check. What’s a chain saw doing in the room? What did the carvers from three generations ago use? Why has this part of the process become modernized, but not the detail work? Why are there hand-carvers chipping away next to a chainsaw. It’s so anachronistic. Russia is anachronistic. It’s a manifestation to the back-and-forth between the past and the present, between how things were done then and how they should be done now. You know, the more I think about it, the more I think it’s all about that word should. Maybe part of the friction I’m feeling here is because I feel that modern things  should be a certain way. That certain advances, like chain saws or cars for example, should be accepted completely and entirely into every possible part of society instead of haphazardly sewn into its fabric in whatever ways are possible. I suppose it’s just strange to live in a place that was built to function hundreds of years ago. The world functions differently now.

And to end, here is another picture from Cemonov. It is a statue of an artist holding a paintbrush and a duck.

Your argument is invalid.