I, Boris Aleksandrovich Chetkov, was born in 1926, October 26, in Sverdlovskaya district, Novaya Lyalya town. My father was born in a village Soltanovo nearby the town. He graduated from a technical college, worked as a HR manager and director of the Metal factory in Krasnouralsk. In 1937 he was disfavoured and fired, later - excluded from the party. During the next 2-3 years, our family was constantly on the move. My mother, Elena Fedorovna, was born in 1905. After the revolution her parents died, and her brother and sister were taken to a children’s home. She herself started working as a domestic servant. Her cousins, icon makers, also disappeared.
My mother’s family moved to Soltanovo village when she was 18. Everyone there had a surname Soltanov, and only my father was Chetkov. The story behind it is like a fairy tale. They were a rich family but could not have any children; they were advised to adopt on numerous occasions. One day, they found an abandoned baby at their door. He had a silk blanket, lacy sheet and a note which read: ‘Andrey Chetkov’. So, Soltanovo village got a Chetkov!
After my parents got married, the family grew rapidly. Anna, Aleksandr, Volodya and Tanya were born soon. My parents were still very young, but worked hard. The grandfather used to say, ‘I don’t care whether you sleep or not during the night, but at 4am all the horses should be ready to go’. They never hired workers, and the six family members did all the work themselves; the family grew to be quite wealthy. The rumours about revolution spread soon, and local workers would come and threaten my father with dispossession of their property - despite him always helping them in hard times.
All was going relatively well - but the unforeseen happened. Everyone was out in town apart from the grandmother who was 90 years old. She tried to light an icon-lamp, but dropped it; the wooden floor immediately caught on fire. The house started burning; people ran outside the church, and my father realised it was our house burning. They raced to the stables to free the horses and cows.
After this, my family gathered what survived the fire and moved to the town Novaya Lyalya. My parents started living separately, and that was where I was born. But I remember that my grandfather had a huge house and a covered yard with big gates, as is usual in Ural. He had two cows, sheep, chicken and goose, and a red horse Gnetko. Everyone gathered at his for festivities and celebrations, having a grand feast and singing Russian and Ukrainian songs. Women would start, men - pick up. Celebrations would last a couple of days!
During one such celebration, I was outside in the yard. Adults would come out once in a while to check up on me; I was just wondering around and singing ‘No one will know where my grave is’. Suddenly, a horse came out of the stable and grabbed my collar. Good that I was wearing a thick scarf. It started picking me up! At this point, my grandmother came outside. She started shouting, ‘Gnetko is suffocating Boris!’ My dad ran outside, and Gnetko let me go, hid in the stable. Everyone was laughing about this later, and I didn’t get any injuries.
When I was about 4 years old, I started visiting grandfather on my own. The town is very small, and is divided by a railway. One day I was on my way to granddad’s and was about to cross the railway. Suddenly, a steam train appeared. The driver had to brake abruptly, and I fell down. After this, I wasn’t allowed to walk on my own anymore.
Still, I kept visiting my grandparents; I loved their house, with all the animals and a big yard. A rooster with an amazing emerald tail surrounded by hens. Geese, ready to fight at a hint of a threat. I remember I was asked to get them back inside the yard in the evening. When I started approaching them, they started hissing and moving towards me - so I ran away. But they followed me with spread wings! I barely escaped.
I had a friend Volodya who lived nearby and used to play with me outside. He was very strong, 1 to 2 years older than me, and always walked around naked. His body was strong as a tree. If it was cold outside, I would tell him to put some clothes on. On these occasions, he would put on his father’s valenki and a coat. He was very curious kid always asking my grandmother questions about the hens, roosters and other cattle - and she would tease him, saying the rooster was about to lay eggs, etc.
I loved being in the grandparents’ house. They had photos of various opera artists on the walls, and a huge colourful reproduction - later I found out, of Rembrandt. They also had a lot of beautiful old books in leather covers, many of them with the pictures of of horses and other animals. In the evening, I loved lying on a furnace and watching all the family members. I knew the house and the yard like a back of my palm - or so I thought. One day, I found a dark door which led to a box-room, and there, fitted to the wall, wooden planks which led to the attic. Immediately, I went there and found a huge, light space. A whole new, different world! There were many things which hadn’t been used in ages, yet still in a great condition. There were saddles, harnesses, yokes... There were also whips tied together, some of them more than 2 metres long, later I was told - gypsy ones. Spinning wheels, a spindle, a painted sledge with a bell... It all was like a folk museum of applied art, the kind I would visit years later in big cities. I was enchanted by the place, and would go there almost every time I visited my grandparents. For a long time, my family did not know where I was going, thinking that I was just playing outside with other kids. But once, my grandfather found me. ‘There you are! We had no idea you knew of this place!’ He spent a long time showing me all the things in the attic, explaining their purpose and history. When I was about 5 years old, my mother gave me a big album made of wrapping paper. I started painting everything I was told about. For example, I tried to illustrate the fairy tales Kolobok, Grey Wolf and Serpent Gorinich.
Later, my parents moved to another flat and I couldn’t visit my grandparents as frequently. During the summer and spring, I would spend all my time with my friends by the river Lyalya. There we loved to run along the slippery timber. Felling frequently took place, and at those times huge piles of logs would lie along the shore, 5-6 storey high; goats would walk on them, and we also tried to climb as high as we could. It was strange to see the goats with blue skies on the background, as if it was a picture; for us they were unreachable. Once, I slipped and fell into the water - but thankfully, a local worker saw and pulled me out. We also used to visit the firemen, who held goats in their stables - apparently, fleas would stay away because of their smell. Horses felt comfortable in their company, and we loved coming around and playing with the goats - but you always had to be cautious, otherwise they would knock you to the ground. Firemen loved their horses, and took great care of their armour such as copper helmets. They would ride troika every time, whether it was a fire or a drill, and they would carry huge barrels of water with them. Passer-by’s would always say, ‘well, goats are in a rush somewhere again’ - calling the firemen ‘goats’ due to their unusual pets.
We later moved to Tatarstan to ‘Blue Zaton’ - Volga’s branch. The area is very hilly, and you can see the river Sinyaa from anywhere. Its shores are very steep, 40 degrees or so. There, I went to a school nearby, 2 storeys high. Other boys and I would spend most of the time outside, playing the robbers and catapulting at different aims, sometimes even windows. Once I started shooting into the school’s windows, I was discovered, and the principal told my father. I remember I hid my sling behind a water barrel that night, but my dad knew what I did and punished me.
I loved ice skating in autumn, when the Zaton River froze. Often the wind was very strong; it pushed me ahead and I felt as if I was flying. No one was around, only me in the night.
After moving to Ural, we bought a house outside the town. My father worked in a factory and often brought metal toys and interesting shapes made by turners. I remember he had a workshop where he was sharpening saws, fixing locks and making keys. I loved being around, listening to the sound of the saws. We had a neighbour Ivan Ivanovich, a guard. He was lonely, and in the evenings would always sit outside and cook a soup called ‘tulka’. His diet consisted of that soup, water, bread, salt and spring onions. Once he bought 50 grams of butter and left it outside on a plate; a dog was passing by and licked it off the plate. Ivan Ivanovich then took a gun and shot it dead. The owners came around and were shouting, ‘we would have paid you for it, what have you done!’ They picked the dead dog up and carried it home. What should have been a great dinner turned into a tragedy. I attended a school and was drawing at home. Not much was happening.
We later moved again, to a village called Drajniy. We bought a house near the lake, and spent the whole summer there, swimming and sunbathing. I would often spend the whole day there, skipping lunch and going back only for dinner. I had a great dog called Jack. I had a dog before, called Drajniy; I stole him when he was yet a puppy and brought him up. He was white, with brown patches on the head. I taught him a trick- I would give him something to smell, and hide it afterwards. He would find it every time! Later I also taught him to pull my sledge across the snow. Jack became my good friend too, and would often accompany me to school. I skipped classes regularly, instead playing football nearby with other guys - and Jack would be there with us, too. However, he had a bad habit: sometimes, he would start running after goats, which made our neighbours really angry. Finally, my father decided to get rid of him. I came home from school and realised he wasn’t there. My mother would evade my questions, simply saying Jack was just running around somewhere. After a couple of days, she couldn’t stand seeing how upset I was anymore, and told me that father killed Jack in a forest. When I found out, I ran away from home. I slept in haylofts and ate whatever I could find. In couple of days, I was found and taken back home. I ran away several times after that, but was caught every time, on a road or train station. I stopped attending school altogether. I didn’t ever do my homework, would just throw my backpack in the corner after coming home from school, and did not listen to teachers.
I didn’t really draw at that time either.
In the evening, my friends and I would sit on the street with our legs straight, so that everyone would have to step over them. We watched the people - especially girls. The adults didn’t like us much as we were breaking their windows with slingshots and spread dung on their houses. Our leader was a guy called Filka. He was a bit older, and a truly wise guy. He lived with his mother and did all the housework.
Once, my mother’s brother visited us. He was 25 years old and lived in a different town. He found a job, and I remember that his uniform was too big for his slim figure. I would always pull at his long sleeves and jacket’s hem, and he would always complain to my mother, ‘Lena, what is he doing?’ - and I would run away. After some time, my family decided to marry him. That was a funny enterprise. They bought a lot of food, laid a huge table and made a lot of moonshine and wash. My friends and I decided to take part - and started stealing the wash. It turned out to be very nice, and I spent the whole evening pouring it in a teapot and carrying it to Filka’s, our leader’s, house from our kitchen. My mother was very surprised that it finished so quickly!
Back to childhood. When I was 5, I would always fight with other kids - and as soon as they would go to their brothers or parents for protection, I would run to my parents, take their hands and pretend to be a nice boy. I was very active, even in the first grade. I was the first one to leave the classroom after a lesson. I remember there was a boy in our class who was just as restless; he would mess around, stain others with ink and tease the girls. So I decided to teach him a lesson. I got into a fight with him, and, protecting himself, he cut my face and hands with a razor.
My mother’s sister worked in town council; her husband was an attorney. When he was young, he worked in Irbit and had to take the family of Pavel Morozov to execution by shooting. The First wagon carried Pavel’s grandfather and father, and the second one was for the guards and a doctor, strong working people. The grandfather had a huge beard, and the father was around 30 years old. It was autumn, the sky was blue, full of white light clouds. It was a warm autumn morning, and a breezy wind shook the leaves on the trees. Pavel’s father was very thoughtful and his grandfather was looking at the sky. Trees were listening the leaves’ whisper. The grandfather said, ‘Nature is so beautiful! I want to live’. They were grain-growers; they kept some seeds to plant in the spring so that they had bread to feed the family. But Pavel, being a Young Pioneer, gave them away. So the officials came and took away all the stock, condemning the family to starvation; it was a tragedy for the family. But Pavel Morozov was proclaimed a national hero, and his grandfather and father - sentenced to death as public enemies.
Coming back to the later period, when we lived in Drajniy. I didn’t want to study, and was sick of the university. Sometimes guys from a trade school visited the village. Their bright uniform attracted everyone’s attention, and they could pick any specialisation they wanted. So I went to Novaya Lyalya where my grandmother lived, and went to a trade school: at first - as a joiner, then transferring to bricklaying. I felt it wasn’t my thing either, and transferred once again, decided to be a locksmith; it was much easier, as I was familiar with the job, having watched my father when I was a kid.
Food was bad in halls, so I often visited my grandmother. She lived in a little house with her daughter. She was a staunch communist, and a very resolute woman. She worked in the police. There was one room and a kitchen in the house. When I visited, she would feed me with potato peelings, saying she didn’t have anything else - while her daughter was lying there in the arms of an officer. If it was late to go to the halls, she threw some clothes on the floor and I slept there. But I could tell from her face that she didn’t want me there.
There were many people from other towns in my college, especially - from Orel town. In the evenings, there always were big fights between the ‘locals’ and ‘Orel people’. I was on the locals’ side, but steered away from fights. I had two friends there: Boris Zaytsev and Ura, I don’t remember his surname. Once we were walking along the street, me talking to another guy, and Ura with Boris behind us. Suddenly we heard noise and screaming, turned around to see what happened, and saw couple of people running away. Boris and Ura then told us that they got into a fight with the ‘Orel people’ and had thrust a knife into one of them. In the morning, my friends were found and arrested; I was, too, as an accomplice. I was only jailed for one year, but the guys - for two and three years. I didn’t follow their lives, still have no idea what happened to them since then.
At first we were held in a lock-up ward, but soon taken to a train station and put into prison wagons. It was a long journey, and the heat was unbearable. We could hear the sound of locks and doors squeaking and cracking as we moved. Prisoners were begging for water, forgetting about food. We could also hear the guards, shouting and swearing. After 24 hours, we were given a herring each, with no bread or water. I was the youngest and the smartest of them all, so I climbed the plank bed and lay there. All those arguments and petitions for water were none of my business. Some of the prisoners even threatened to kill the guards.
Finally, we were ordered to come outside, and were pushed out of the wagons one by one. It was snowing, and very cold. We were surrounded by guards with their police dogs, straining at the leads and baring their teeth. When we were exiting the wagons, guards would scream ‘to your knees!’ from time to time; those who remained standing was hit by a rifle. Then we were counted and started walking in the unknown direction, through the forest. We reached some barracks and were accommodated there. We later found out it was a lumber factory in Nizhniy Tagil Gulag. We constantly heard axes ringing and saws squealing. Some of us had to guard a fire, some - feel trees and saw timber. No-one had any skill of course, we constantly heard screaming- ‘Careful!’ It was 1943, so I was 16 years old. I was very skinny and pessimistic. I was responsible for the fire and also had to carry thins from place to place. All in freezing weather, -25-30 degrees. Soon I was given a uniform which thankfully included mittens, a fur hat, warm vest and old boots. The barrack was divided into sections with the plank-beds four stories high and an iron oven in the middle. Lucky ones got beds near the oven, so they could dry their socks and boots over the night; others spread their socks on the bed and dried them with their bodies. It smelled of dirty socks and damp boots. I would always climb to the top bed, as the youngest one there. I would find some hook or a sticking out nail and hang my socks to dry. The boots were my pillow, the vest my duvet. Mornings started at 4am; in the evening we were given some skilly and a piece of bread. I felt that other prisoners treated me with some leniency; they didn’t swear at me, never took away my food and kept saying, ‘Don’t work too hard, boy’. Yet still, I couldn’t relax: the guards were constantly on the look-out, and in any case sitting down could lead to frost-bitten hands and feet. After 2-3 weeks, I was moved to another barrack where I met my father, who had to serve there for three years. Our beds were standing in one corner of the room, and beds of all the rogue thieves in another. We didn’t exist for them, their life was wine, strippers and jargon. After a couple of days, my father was taken to a battalion, straight to the battle-front. It was hell: the guns were firing, and the shell explosions were killing people, scattering their intestines around the nearby trees. The Germans threw away their guns and fled, and only Russians could be heard, shouting and swearing.
Whenever the prisoners were sent to the battlefield, victory was guaranteed, as they had nothing to lose. They were used to take an important landmark, to win back a settlement or simply for destroying the enemy. The wounded ones were taken to a hospital - only to be returned to a battle-front after recovery.
I was appointed to a factory manufacturing mine parts - at first as a tourneur apprentice, then - as a saddler. I worked 12-14 hours a day, non-stop. It was a very cold winter, and the building had broken windows. Some people would faint right at the workplace, but we kept up with our work; it was war.
Soon, I was promoted: I became a chief of the night shift. By the mornings, I was dead on my feet after running around the whole night, fixing the machines. In the morning, a factory manager would come in and shout: ‘Where is the chief?’ Upon that phrase I would always jump out of the window and run away. Thus, I spent the whole year - after which, I came back home. My father was demobilised after the 20th wounding.
I was conscripted. I was appointed to a tank college in the Kurgan mountains, due to my experience of a technician. We were given red American boots with foot wrap rags and taken to a military camp, already filled with the older officers. On our first day, we woke up at 6am and realised all the boots were gone! We ran to the morning call-over bare foot, where got a greeting from the first sergeant: ‘Went to bed with boots, woke up without, ha?’
So the military service started. Once I remember that a friend and I were on a duty which started at 4am. So my friend invited me to go and visit his girlfriend, to have some tea and come back by 6am; of course, I agreed. We started walking. It was freezing cold, -40 degrees. When we finally arrived, we started knocking on a huge wooden gates.
-Who is there?
-It is me, Vasiliy. Is Masha at home?
Pause... After a moment:
Masha is sleeping with a lieutenant.
Well, at least let us in to warm up a little.
We were let inside, climbed the furnace to get warm - and fell asleep until 8am! We got really worried, we must have been searched for! We started running back, and immediately bumped into some guys from the college. ‘There they are, our runaways!’ We talked to them briefly and they promised not to mention the encounter. Still, I got 5 days in a punishment cell, and Vasiliy - 15, for evading duty.
This was followed by intense studying, and we had no time for entertainment. I learned how to drive and manage tanks of different types; I was a mechanic, responsible for maintaining the equipment. At the exam, I had to drive the tank between the obstacles, with all the crew on board. Obstacles included tank ditches, timber, wood... At one of such, I didn’t manage the tank and it turned over and fell into a pit. The crew got injured; I kept pulling various levers, and the members of the crew all were swearing: ‘What the hell do we need this mechanic for, we won’t get into a tank with him ever again!’ A tractor pulled us out, and a captain said to me: ‘Everything can happen at the war, well done for attempting to fix the situation’. So I became a first sergeant’s mechanic. We were sent to Nizjniy Tagil, where we had to assemble tanks for ourselves. This only took 2 weeks, as the whole process was mechanised. The war was about to end; we were sent to Kurlyandia, where significant German forces still held the territory. We unloaded in Latvia and went to Mitava, only moving at night. There were couple of minor fights and bombings on the way.
After the war’s end, I was demobilised and came home to Novaya Lyalya. I started drawing again, despite my father’s lack of support. There was no opportunity to study art or at least work in anything related. But once, our relative visited us, from Irbit. He looked through my drawings and said: ‘If you come with me, I can help you to become a student in an art studio’. I happily agreed. It was there that I discovered oil-paint; I also remember being struck by the paintings I saw there. In the close proximity I could see all the brush strokes, but move away a little - and all the images appear in clarity. Every Sunday I went to the art gallery. They had a great collection of Russian and Western art. Soon enough, however, I returned home and our family moved to Kazakstan. It was in spring. Narrow streets, camels, colourful and vibrant colours around, noisy markets with plenty of bric-a-brac on sale. I was enchanted by this world, and spent all the time at the market, drawing everything I saw around - despite the obvious public disapproval. Once, I went to the market and started drawing in a quiet corner. Suddenly a stranger approached me and said: ‘I often see you here drawing; you know, an artist from Moscow is visiting the town at the moment. You can go and show him your work, who knows, maybe he will take you as a student! He works in the Kirov’s club’. I rushed there as soon as I could. It was a huge hall with lots of people and many young boys with their paintings and drawings. In the middle was an elderly man, looking through the works and talking quietly. I felt really intimidated by all of this; what was I thinking? So I just stood quietly in the corner, watching the other boys and hiding my ‘masterpieces’ behind my back. The crowd started dispersing, and suddenly the man approached me: ‘What do you have there, young man?’ I gave him my album. ‘Where did you study?’ - ‘Nowhere’. And then he said: ‘You can’t draw, but you can feel the inner state of people. I will take you as my student’. It was Vladimir Eyfert from Tretyakov Gallery, friend of Grabar and Paris Art School graduate. So I became his student, together with another boy - Nikolay Zjirnov. Not only did Eyfert teach us to draw and paint, he also taught us art history. We learnt various techniques and glazing and looked at the works of other artists, some of which we tried to copy to understand their styles and techniques. We would work from 4am till 12pm, every day. Mostly, we would do still life and portraits; working independently, with a following assessment by the teacher.
In winter time, the blizzards were so bad we couldn’t see more than a couple of meters ahead; it was hard to find the studio in such weather. Yet the bigger challenge was to work in -40 temperatures. Paint was constantly freezing, and I had to dilute it with kerosene. That was, however, only possible if you climbed onto a roof. Luckily, most of these were flat. After three years of training, Vladimir Aleksandrovich old us: ‘You are real artists now guys, but you still need an official diploma’.
I had just turned 21; I went to St Petersburg and got into the Roerich Fine Arts School. I wanted a job, too, as I had no connections which would help me in my career. So I took couple of my works and went around studios, hoping to become someone’s apprentice. Everyone rejected me. Once I was told: ‘Go away boy, you obviously stole these works’. So I got a job as a loader, as I needed money to stay in the city. I was working in a cafe, delivering food for them from a warehouse. When autumn came, I got really sick- having only a thin coat and old boots, I was not prepared for early winter. I had a fever-temperature of 41- and was taken to a hospital. For ages, no one could tell me what was wrong. Finally, professor Ragoza diagnosed me with brucellosis. I started taking some American pills, but they didn’t help much. They put me into a separate room; every day a whole crowd of students and doctors came to see me. My feet were wrapped with cotton; I couldn’t stand the smell of food, and weighed around 40kg.
This illness left its trace on my psyche in the form of distrust of the world and a need to search for alternatives. However, it hardly influenced my creativity. When I start working on a new project, I never think of work I had done before; I forget all the uncertainties, insecurities or inner torments. If I had a difficulty starting new works, say, 2-3 days, I would walk around my studio and look at my previous works as if for the first time, they are all forgotten to me. At exhibitions, many tell me that my works don’t have an identity, because they do not belong to any school, and all art should belong to a particular one. I don’t agree with this. To me, following someone’s teaching is like feeling trees or making shoes, boring. Art should be an experiment, without any set rules. No limits, no horizon; not many understand this.
I dived into a fantasy world, which had no connection with reality. I kept making quick sketches all the time so that I could use them for my paintings later; some of them I used after as many as 30 or more years. Sometimes, diving into the colours of surroundings, I ignored the finer details; I realised this was an issue when looking through my old works. It doesn’t matter how long you have been an artist, but if you are not in harmony with your work it will die before the artist himself.
…And at that point, it seemed like that moment wasn’t far away. Every morning my nose was bleeding excessively; to keep me alive, I was given blood transfusions every day, 150-200 units. This lasted for 2-5 years, and no one could heal me. In the end, I was sent home where I was born: Ural. My parents bought a house outside the town, and I stayed there, visited by a doctor every single day. We had a horse doctor living nearby, who took care of local cattle. My father called him up once and said: ‘My son has brucellosis, can you cure him?’ And he said he could. He made a tincture from various herbs including arsenic and sublimate, poured a litre of vodka in and told me to drink a glass of it every day – and forget about any branded medicine. By autumn, I was well enough to become a student of V.F. Shmelev in his studio, a famous protégé of Mashkov. At the same time, I worked in a school as an art and technical drawing teacher. In a year, I got into Sverdlovsk Art College; after graduating went to Art College in Tashkent. From there we got sent to Leningrad, to the Repin Institute – but I wasn’t accepted. I tried the State Art and Industry Academy, but got rejected there too. However, after I showed my works to the commission, a man approached me and said, ‘Boris, I would like you to study in Moscow. I am Voloshin, head of Admissions’. I passed the exams and got into the textiles course at the Stroganov Moscow State University of Arts and Industry, transferring to ceramics and glass two years later. I loved studying there. Extra-curriculum painting classes, the great library, the en suite museum. The famous artist Vasiliev was head of department and the artist Vitachin taught Sculpture. Returning from home, where I went for two months during the summer holidays, I brought more than 300 drawings back to Moscow. Vasiliev organised an exhibition, muttering that my drawings were better than his. I went to Dzintari in Latvia a couple of times, for rest and work. It was the place where I felt completely free and independent. I would organise exhibitions, talks and discussions about art; engaging academics and the general public.
In the end of the 5th year, my painting professor approached me with congratulations; in his opinion, he said, I was exceptionally gifted. I got 5 (A) in all the subjects except Ideology and Political Economy, in which I scored 3 (C). Everything seemed to be going well.
However, trouble came from where I didn’t expect it. The Head of department, Vasiliev, died, and was replaced by a zealous communist Seleznev. However, a couple of times after Seleznev’s appointment I noticed a girl, also a student, who was standing behind a column and scribbling something in her notepad while I was discussing art and, in unflattering terms, social realism. It turned out that I was a black sheep among the communists, most of whom were Young Communist Leaguers in school. On one occasion, I was discussing exhibitions of Soviet and Western art with Seleznev; a seemingly innocent conversation. He suddenly started talking of my works (at that point, we all had submitted them for a final diploma) and giving me recommendations - how I should change them. Later it turned out, they were not suitable due to ideological reasons. Two weeks later, the head of the institute told me that the department insisted that I was expelled; so he helped me to transfer to the State Art and Industry Academy in Leningrad.
Leningrad met me with hostility. At the autumn exhibition, my works were painted over; my paintings and drawings were marked with a mere 3 (C). However, I was allowed to uphold my diploma, even though my fellow communist students were clearly not happy about it.
My diploma was a child’s service; everything was made by myself, including glazing and painting which I undertook at the Leningrad porcelain factory. This work also got a 3 (C) - with a note: ‘he is not an artist, but a good craftsman’.
After graduation, I was allocated to art school №90. I didn’t fit in there either. The Principal was a retired colonel, and didn’t like my independent character; at the teachers’ meeting, my presence in school was on the agenda. However, I saved him the trouble and left the school to work at the glass factory. I loved it there! The place was very lively, with everything shining and glittering, glass ringing and people running around. Living conditions however were appalling. I was renting a tiny room, more like a closet. At nights, I was attacked by a whole army of bed-bugs, so I couldn’t bear staying there and moved out. I stole a mattress, duvet and a sheet from the factory warehouse and made a bed on a working table in the factory laboratory. My workplace, as if in compensation, was great: it consisted of two rooms, and I shared it with two other female artists. They told me that, apparently, artists had no say at the factory. They were coming up with new designs - but introducing a new design to a production line, one would need to make wooden casts and shapes. No one was interested in spending time and effort on that; the factory had a set plan of how many objects it needed to produce, and the artists’ ideas were not a priority. If they wanted to see their design implemented, they would have to make casts themselves - but they lacked the necessary skills. So once, I invited craft workers to our laboratory. I showed them the sketches, and discussed the ways we could implement the designs. I was told that to create a product with a new design, they needed ready birchen forms; just as we expected, they refused to make them themselves. So, I took a saw, axe and a crow-bar and went to the warehouse. I knew how to work with these due to my father; we had always been responsible for chopping and storing up firewood before winter. We prepared bricks of wood and brought them to a turnery. After a long discussion with the head and workers, we decided we would make the casts and get them straight to a joiner’s department. There were other difficulties along the way; we constantly felt unwelcome. Finally, the compromise was reached: the casts were to be produced.
There was a little museum at the factory premises; I gathered goods made at the factory and organised a great exhibition of contemporary and pre-revolutionary glass, pleasing workers and management. Guided tours for public took place a couple of times. I was getting increasingly excited about new projects, as I realised that despite there being many malevolent people, you could always find open-minded people with progressive views too. I started organising tours to the Hermitage and Russian Museum for our workers, trying to uphold their cultural knowledge. I am convinced these tours were at least partly responsible for the increasing quality of glass produced at our factory. Soon our works, mostly of my design, were taken abroad to take part in exhibitions in abroad including America and France.
In 1974-75 I was invited to the International exhibition in Japan, where my works were exhibited in a separate pavilion. Our filmmakers even made a documentary about my participation and screened it in the Artists’ Union headquarters in Moscow. During that time, I was working on a new collection of glass: 5 cups in Russian baroque style, wine glasses ‘Caballero’ and a large service called ‘Age of Reptiles’. My glass works were a success, and I was often taking part in official exhibitions. I also kept drawing and painting, despite understanding that in the Soviet Union, I had no chance of becoming an artist. Innovations were not to be tolerated - even though unofficially, many were longing for new, fresh ideas in art.
The factory gave me an opportunity to go anywhere within the Soviet Union once a year. I went to Georgia and Armenia. At the same time Ervan Kochar, a famous artist, was visiting from France. I got in touch with him and we decided to meet up. At first I showed him my glass works, and he kept saying ‘yes, it is good, yes’. But as soon as I took out my drawings, he became very alert: he stood up, started looking through them with enthusiasm, exclaiming: ‘Who are you? A Jew, a Pole, an Austrian?? - and I answered, ‘I am Russian!’ - ‘Liar! Russians don’t produce such artists!’ He brought in his art catalogues, and I ended up staying at his place past midnight, discussing art, browsing his studio and enjoying succulent dishes prepared by his wife. Encouraged by his comments, I contacted another artist, Saryan - but he was not as enthusiastic, and our conversation didn’t go further than small talk.
I had to go back to the factory. Working with glass is enchanting, it carries you away, liberates your fantasy; the artist becomes a magician when he creates an object from a shapeless hot paste. But everything changes. The Factory’s management changed and the majority of artists went abroad to be replaced by new blood. I realised it was time to move on. To mark the end of my longstanding career, I prepared a small exhibition and got ready to leave the factory.
Glass gave fire to my soul, and it left a deep burn in it. Leaving it behind was like leaving my dearest creation. I was parting with my colleagues, my like-minded fellow artists for so many years who became my great friends. Experience I gained at the factory proved to be invaluable in the stained-glass window production, especially knowledge of technical processes such as contrasts application and usage of opal glass. My new colleagues saw my non-traditional work and called me an ‘adventurer’ - but gradually, other workers adopted my techniques themselves. Stained glass allowed much less room for experimentation compared to traditional glass work. Work didn’t take much of my time, so I kept myself busy by drawing and painting. I spent all my time in the Hermitage library, studying other artists’ techniques and styles and reading philosophy and science manuscripts. I was especially intrigued by chromatics and read everything I could find on the subject.
I soon had the first solo exhibition displaying my drawings and paintings alongside the glass work in the Summer Garden in St. Petersburg. It was covered by national news, and a short documentary was made, which was shown in cinemas before films. More solo exhibitions followed including ones at the Culture House ‘Five Corners’ in 1974 and in the Hermitage and Vladimir Palace in 1981. My paintings were still unpopular among the exhibition curators, but my glass works granted me an access to exhibiting halls. I regularly took part in exhibitions abroad - namely in Germany, Austria, France and USA. In 1994, I was invited to take part in the International exhibition in Venice, Italy, on the recommendation of my good friend Ernst Fuchs. I was representing the Hermitage and was the only Russian artist at the exhibition.
At the moment, my works are exhibited in Moscow, Sergiev Posad, Krasnoyarsk and other Russian cities and towns. Many of them are now privately owned by collectors in Austria, Germany, Italy, USA, Japan, France etc. After the USSR collapsed, major glass and ceramics factories started shutting down, thus closing opportunities for artists to exchange their knowledge. Now everyone has to make their own way to success.
I will stop here. Artists remain artists everywhere, even living in pitiful communal flats!
July 20, 2004
Boris Aleksandrovich Chetkov