The Best Russian Books in English

Forget War and Peace: this blog offers reviews of fun and interesting Russian books in English, links to their Amazon pages, interviews with new and upcoming Russian authors, with the emphasis on Russian genre fiction: LitRPG, science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, romance, mystery and other popular reads.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Collecting Antique and Vintage Christmas Tree Decorations: Interview with Expert Kim Balaschak

 Kim Balaschak has every right to be assigned Father Christmas' ambassador on Earth. She knows him personally, in every shape, size and material he's ever been crafted by human hands. In her collection, there are Father Christmases made of cotton and glass, papier maché and plastic. Together with hundreds of other characters one can put on a Christmas tree -- like Puss 'n Boots, bunny rabbits fat with age, frontier guards complete with their dogs -- her entire collection counts over 2,500 antique and vintage tree ornaments.

And not just any old ornaments, either. Kim Balaschak is the world's biggest expert on Russia's vintage tree decorations. From the early 1900s well into the 1960s, her precious collection is like Russia's short history in baubles, where every exhibit speaks of a particular era with its fashions and political agendas.

Her collection is currently on show in New York as part of SKAZKI -- Russian Fairy tales, Ornaments and Postcards exhibition organized by Hermitage Museum Foundation. Today, Kim Balaschak speaks about her unique collection, the history of Russia and how her life was affected by both.

Q. When you first arrived in Russia in 1995, did you miss the American Christmas season?

K.B.: When my husband, Jim, and I moved to Russia in 1995, we were so consumed with settling into our new lives that we didn’t have a chance to miss anything (except for broccoli, which was rather hard to find back then!). Back in 1995, in mid-December, there were no decorations, or lights anywhere, so it didn’t even seem like the holiday season as we had known it. So when we traveled back to the States for Christmas and New Year, we were struck by the decorations on the streets and in the shops.

Naturally, I was unaware that Christmas was not celebrated in Russia and that New Year was the holiday for which the tree was decorated. I’d just not thought about it, but after we started living in Russia, I understood that the modern day New Year celebration, along with the absence of Christmas, was really the product of historical decisions made by the Soviet leaders. 

Q. What particular piece started your collection? 

K.B.: A photograph of a cotton Puss ‘n Boots in the magazine Colonial Homes piqued my interest in Russian ornaments. The article was about the ornament collection of Fred Cannon, an American collector primarily of German Dresden ornaments; however, in his collection, he just happened to have a few other treasures, including the Russian Puss. 

 After that, I went to Izmailovo flea market with an eye towards adding a few of these ornaments to our own holiday celebration. Well, I just couldn’t stop adding this and that one. You see, I didn’t grow up with these type of ornaments (we had single-color trees for a very long time….). So when I would see an ornament that I had never seen before, I bought it. 

The following year, I laid out the ornaments I had acquired the year before and that was when I had an ‘aha’ moment. I had roughly 30 cotton ornaments laying on a chair and when I looked at them all together, I understood that I had something really special. I managed to find my own Puss ‘n Boots roughly 3 years later. One of my vendors had been on the lookout for him and asked the seller to set it aside for me! 

And why tree decorations, and not something else? Let’s call them tree toys – I love that description. Tree toys are brought out once a year – every home has a ‘collection’. What people put on their trees speaks volumes of their values, resources, traditions. Tree toys, to me, are all about that which was positive in the Soviet Union. A turbulent history is softened when interpreted through the symbology of tree toys. Childhood was a happy time and New Year was one of the happiest times of the year.
Q. What advice could you give to Western readers based on your Russian winter season experience?
K.B.: I do think that New Year is more about spending time with friends and families, rather than giving of gifts. Certainly there are gifts involved, but it just doesn’t seem so overdone as Christmas gift-giving here in the States. Actually, the contrast, particularly at the retail level, made me acutely aware of how very commercial Christmas had become in the states and how it had morphed into an obligatory gift-giving day, rather than celebration of the birth of a man, who was to become the spiritual leader for so many. I doubt Jesus would appreciate the frenzied shopping in his name.

Speaking of winter and winter traditions, as you know, Russians love winter. So many people in the states seem to complain about cold weather, whereas Russians relish in it. We learned to love the cold (and dress properly for it as well!). Cross country skiing is now one of our pleasures. 

I fondly recall Russian parks, teeming with activity and energy in winter.- people skiing, skating, strolling, drinking vodka and playing chess, dancing to folk songs from the accordion, even dipping in the cold water through a hold cut in the ice. There was a park at the end of the tramvai line on Ul. 8-ovo Marta. We spent our winter weekends there. 

On the professional side, I did some consulting work for a Russian manufacturer of swim and fitness wear. One day, I was in Novosibirsk dining with a couple of clients and they proposed we walk back to my hotel, rather than hailing a taxi. Why? Because it was -28d C and the next day, it would already be warmer (-12d C)! So we walked and enjoyed the deep freeze before it warmed up.

Q. Do you think there's something Russians could teach the rest of us, or do they still have a lot to learn themselves?
K.B.: Every culture is on a path of permanent evolution, each learning from others, or from its own trial and error. I personally am a changed person as a result of assimilating myself into Russian culture for nearly 14 years. I am more patient and resourceful, enjoy philosophizing over multiple pots of tea around the kitchen table and singing with friends.

One comment to add here – even though I have an extraordinary collection of New Year tree toys, I am really not into the New Year celebration. But I do send out New Year cards! For me, New Year is about my ornaments, which are about the history of the country that I called home for so many years. They completely dispelled the notion that our two countries are enemies. 

While we have our differences, we also have many common goals in life , one of which is the desire to raise and support our families to lead productive, happy lives. New Year is a happy holiday and my tree toys exude happiness. 

The New York exhibition of Kim Balaschak's collection will last until February 4, 2011.

The photos illustrating this interview were taken at Mrs.Balaschak's exhibition in Khimki, Moscow during the festive season of 2005/2006. The author expresses her sincere gratitude to Mrs. Balaschak and the photographer, HitMan

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