Chetkov and the Russian Soul / by Tori Boggs

No matter how poor you were, art was important, beauty was important, which is why folk tales like "The Malachite Flower" are so loved.
Yellow Meadow (2000)

Yellow Meadow (2000)

“In that village of Sultanovo there lived a well-off family. They didn’t have children and according to local lore even strangers told them: ‘Take a child – any child – and you will have kids of your own’. And one morning they woke up and there was a baby lying right on their porch: my grandfather. The baby was wrapped in a very nice silk blanket with lace trim. And there was a birth certificate saying the baby’s name: Andrei Chetkov. Nothing else was known about his origins. So the people adopted the baby and started raising him. He turned out to be a very smart and hardworking boy.” Boris Chetkov

So begins Chetkov’s mythologizing description of his grandfather’s origin, setting the scene for his family’s fortunes and his own childhood. This beginning will be familiar to many readers of folk literature, particularly stories from harsh, hierarchical societies: tales about orphans are common because then a person is not bound by their humble origins and can achieve far above their status but also because in places where life was very hard, there simply were a lot of orphans.

The greatest example in Russian folklore is Danilo in The Malachite Flower. This very famous folk story, which was inscribed by Pavel Bazhov in the 1930s, comes from the same part of the world as Chetkov himself and would have been part of his village lore. Ural folk tales are told in bright colors: the ubiquitous mines in the mid-Ural mountains did not just dig up dark smudges of coal or the mud-red of base metals. They produced the beauties of mining: gold, semi-precious stones, malachite and lapis lazuli. The mining was no less hard of course, but jewel tones soak into the regional tales, and must have met an affinity with Chetkov’s own color-saturated imagination. Consider this description of the halls of the Mistress of the Copper Mountain, the goddess of miners:

“All the walls were different. Some were green, some yellow with golden specks, others again had copper flowers. There were blue walls too, of lapis lazuli. And her robe kept changing – sometimes it shone like glass or sparkled like it had diamonds all over it, then coppery red and then a silky green.” The Mistress of the Copper Mountain, The Malachite Casket: Tales of the Urals, Pavel Bazhov

There is a strong urge in the Russian psyche to make every day beautiful, to vividly decorate everything – no matter how mundane – from horse carts to crockery, and on to the gaily painted cathedrals and churches, which look straight out of fairy tales themselves to western eyes. Contemplate Chetkov’s description of the riches of his grandfather’s attic: “It was filled with decorated antique spinning wheels, a spindle, a painted sledge with a bell... It was like a folk museum of applied art.” No matter how poor you were, art was important, beauty was important, which is why The Malachite Flower is so loved. And Danilo, its resourceful, skilled hero, whose demiurge is so strong he forsakes the human world entirely in order to become a better artist, also has strong echoes in the life of Chetkov.


Chernavino My House (1991)

Chernavino My House (1991)

As a boy, the orphan Danilo Nedokormish (meaning: famished) is beaten for neglecting the cows to examine the beauty of the natural world, explaining that he was distracted because, “There was a bug crawling on a leaf. It was not quite blue and not quite grey, with a just a mite of yellow under the wings.” He finds his place when he is apprenticed to Prokopich, the master craftsman who carves the exquisite greens and swirls of malachite. The half-starved boy grows up strong and handsome under Prokopich’s tutelage, but when the old man urges him to marry, he just shrugs and says, “Time enough for that, they won’t run away. First I’ll be a real craftsman then I’ll think about it.” For Chetkov too, family life always came second to the desire to be an artist, and like Danilo, Chetkov would work all the hours he could, “To bring forth all the power and the beauty [in the stone].”

The beautiful Katya waits years for their wedding but on its very eve, Danilo is warned about his obsessive search for beauty, the eldest craftsman saying, “Keep off them kind of thoughts, son. Or mebbe the Mistress’ll take ye for a mountain craftsman. They’ve seen the Flower o’ Stone, they’ve got the understanding of beauty… if you see it you’ll be sorry.” Danilo persuades the Mistress to show him the Flower of Stone despite her cautioning: “Those who have seen my Flower have left their family and come to live in my mountain.”

Sure enough Danilo cannot be easy. He ups and leaves to join the Mistress and learn how to become the ultimate artist, the definitive example of living only to create.* The path of genius isn’t easy: sacrifices have to be made, hard work is vital, and to be the very best one must always keep looking, pushing, searching for more. 

*Katya eventually lures Danilo out of the mountain, but only after she herself becomes a malachite carver.


Epoch Renaissance (2009)

Epoch Renaissance (2009)

Another famous Ural story illustrates the urge to learn and create. That Spark of Life is about finding the one thing you are good at, and constantly striving for perfection. Timokha Smallhands, “a stout lad and a good worker, with good wits in his head and good fingers on his hands” decides he’s going to master all the local trades.

“In our parts there’s all sorts of trades. Some get ore out of the mountains, others smelt it. Folks wash gold, pick platinum, dig for gems and polish them. Trees are cut and floated down rivers, folks… hunt and trap and catch fish. You’d go into a hut and find one by the stove hammering patterns on knives and forks, another on the bench weaving matting. And for each job you had to have the knack, the spark of life to put in it. The spark’s not something everyone understands about properly even now, but with Timokha a funny thing happened.” That Spark of Life, The Malachite Casket: Tales of the Urals, Pavel Bazhov

Timokha apprentices to one master after another to learn their trade, eventually turning to Grandad Nefed to learn the craft of charcoal making. The canny Nefed takes him on, on one condition – that he will not leave until his charcoal is as good as Nefed’s. The complexity of the task catches Timokha’s attention immediately. He learns his task to the best of his considerable abilities but, to his astonishment, has no desire to leave the job. Nefed laughs, because he knows the spark – the passion for achieving, for perfecting what you do – has taken him, and why it hadn’t before.

“It was because you always looked down, looked at what ye’d done; but when you started to look up, to look for ways to do it better, then that spark caught ye. It’s in every sort of work, it runs ahead of mastery and beckons a man to keep up.” That Spark of Life, The Malachite Casket: Tales of the Urals, Pavel Bazhov.


Birds In The Snow (1980)

Birds In The Snow (1980)

Chetkov, also a master of many trades, knew all about the spark of life, of passion. He had it not only for painting but for glass, describing it thus: “Working with glass is enchanting, it carries you away… Glass gave fire to my soul, and it left a deep burn in it.” And he would have agreed with the wonderful ending note of the story: Timokha’s descendants still “look for that spark, each one in his own job. They know well that learning can add so much to a man’s hands that they will reach up higher than the clouds.”

His description of his startlingly original glass pieces and how they motivated the fellow artists in the glass factory 1BBW echoes this utterly: “[My] glass roosters, Petushki-Bratushki, were inspired by Russian history, the name itself was calling back to old Russian words, it had the same ringing. Petushki-Bratushki were all about people, simple folks, alive in the world. At first sight it is funny, but there is philosophy behind that. My glass works, they were alive! Certainly, they came to life! And other artists, even against their will… they were real artists, you should understand that, and they had the feeling. They felt that those artworks were interesting. And many of them followed my steps. They started coming alive.” Boris Chetkov

For Chetkov this thought-provoking attempt to fold the old into the new, to create a continuance with a simpler time and world, was an essential element of his spiritual make up. For him simplicity was the touchstone of greatness, part of the toolkit for manifesting the self. It harks back to his grandfather’s‘museum’ of his old tools, which were part and parcel of respecting and honoring not only who he was but how he got to where he was: the twinned powers of hard work and the ability to start again. Later in his life, and in an echo of his grandfather, Chetkov would keep all his old pictures in his painting studio. When things got bleak he knew, from his own life and that of his father and grandfather – and further back via folk stories – that you could just keep going. Like many folk heroes, Chetkov grew up with hard work and knew it as a way to find redemption from the worst life could throw at you.


Fire Horses (2009)

Fire Horses (2009)

Chetkov’s childhood would have been spent absorbing folk wisdom that reinforced the lesson of the redemptive value of hard work, and indeed his very first attempts at drawing were of fairy tales. He explains how his mother “made an album for me, she bought me watercolors and brushes. I painted, and I drew, it was the real deal. For example, I tried to illustrate the fairy tales Kolobok, Grey Wolf and Serpent Gorinich.”

Kolobok is a mischievous, boastful character that pops up in many cultures in different forms, including in the west as the Gingerbread Man (“Can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man!”) and comes to a similar sticky end. The Grey Wolf is from the delightful, world-famous tale of Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf. It starts with a firebird who, every night, steals the king’s golden apples. The king instructs his three sons to catch the bird as it sneaks into his garden. The eldest two are lazy, and fall asleep: the youngest, Ivan sees the bird and manages to grab a feather from its golden tail. The king promises his kingdom to any son who can catch the bird, and the older brothers set out on the quest.

“They came to a stone that said whoever took one road would know hunger and cold; whoever took the second would live, though his horse would die; and whoever took the third would die, though his horse would live. They did not know which way to take, and so took up an idle life.” Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf, Russian Fairy Tales, Alexander Afanasyev

Ivan then sets out in turn. He comes to the stone and, undaunted, chooses the path where his horse dies. A huge grey wolf eats his horse, then, taking pity on Ivan, agrees to help in his quest. He variously turns himself into a marvelous horse with a gold mane – like the ones in Chetkov’s piece Fire Horses – and a beautiful princess, aiding the brave prince as he is thrown into jail, forced to do tasks and eventually killed by his brothers. Ivan’s valor in the face of trials – even death – is what keeps the magical grey wolf helping him.


Rays Of Sun (2005)

Rays Of Sun (2005)

The last character Chetkov mentions, the Serpent Gorinich – Zmey Gorynych – appears in Russian folklore in two different ways. In the first, he is the terrible dragon slain by the Bogatyr (super hero) Dobrynya Nikitich in the Russian version of the St George and the dragon story. Zmey Gorynych is green, has three heads and breathes fire. He lives in caves, looks after precious metals – and is not always terrible. For example in The Great Serpent, two orphaned boys are taken under the wing of the miner Semyonich, who has a mysterious friend.

“He was a stranger, and strangely dressed too. His tunic and trousers were of gold brocade… and his wide girdle was of brocade too, only it shone greenish… His eyes were green, like a cat’s. But he had a kind look.” After much deliberation about the corrupting nature of greed, the man decides to help the boys, and with that, “the man wasn’t a man anymore. All of him down to the belt was a head, and all of him from the belt was a neck. The body of a great serpent began to rise up from under the ground until the head was higher than the trees.” The serpent melts into the ground, his body becoming a seam of gold for the boys, with only Semyonich’s warning to remain: “He doesn’t like trickery and swindling… Those that work for what they need themselves, those he helps at times.” The Great Serpent, The Malachite Casket: Tales of the Urals, Pavel Bazhov

The hues of the gold and green serpent could be the colors of the Urals – the green of forest and malachite, the yellow of summer sun and gold itself. Emeralds and vivid greens are much-used tints in Chetkov’s art, and indeed in several of his pictures – for example Rays of Sun and Yellow Meadow – the titles allude to yellow but both are very green. Both have a deep air of love, evoking a certain moment, both very beautiful. They are masterpieces from a master artist, one who had earned his right to greatness by chasing the spark of life.

Indeed there is one constant theme running through Russian folklore (at least the non-comedic stories), and that is that those who are honest and hard-working, who are true to themselves, fearless in experimentation and constantly striving to do their best, who are valiant in the face of sore trials – they are the heroes, the ones who succeed. There is no better description of Boris Chetkov, of his life, art and ethos.

Hermione Crawford