Smell of Paint and Sound of Trams: Russia as Seen by a French Artist

PHOTO by Afisha.Daily
An monologue by a Frenchwoman who moved to Russia, traveled across the entire country, made it through two economic crises and managed to raise four children along the way

Marie de la Ville Baugé

From: Paris, France

Occupation: artist and photographer

It was my humanitarian work that first brought me to Russia. My husband and I worked with "Doctors Without Borders" and ten years ago we came to the Caucasus to help rebuild Chechnya. When I first got there I was struck by what I saw. I knew what to expect, but nonetheless it came as a shock to see Grozny in ruins. I was impressed by the courage of the people who had suffered during the war but had decided to stay and continued to work. We helped provide food for residents, rebuild the water system and after that we moved on to restoring households, little farms up in the mountains where they bred chickens and cows. After our mission was over, we left the Caucasus but decided to stay in Russia. We've made it through two economic crises, we have children and I now do art and photography.

One of my new projects is dedicated to the flowers that decorate the halls of Soviet buildings. Here you have a tradition of putting up lamps and flowers in window frames, a solitary human gesture against the backdrop of the lonely snow-covered landscapes. This is why I now embroider flowers on the editorial photographs I bring from my travels across Russia that take me all over the country from Murmansk to Omsk. I remember being deeply impressed by the Motherland Calls statue in Volgograd, a truly magnificent site. Another one of my favourite places is the village of Novositsevo near Orel, where during the Soviet times they turned the old houses into holiday hotels and care homes, but now they are being restored to their original owners. And these houses really do bear the traces of history and time gone by: portraits of Lenin, documents of patients treated for tuberculosis, empty cigarette packs...

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During my travels, I get to see entire cities, some of them incredibly beautiful and yet abandoned by both people and money. As an artist, I never sought to work with the Soviet theme, it's just that during my childhood the Soviet Union was often on the news and I liked to read history books. I also happen to really like the whole socialist realism style. Soviet art was an advertising campaign – had I lived in the Soviet Union in those days, I have no doubt I would have fallen under its sway.

Russians like to laugh and are ready to joke about themselves, which is not characteristic of every nation. Another thing I really like is the Russian ability to accept the absurdity of the reality around them. In general, Russia is the land of the absurd, where men exaggerate their heroism, taking it almost too far in trying to accomplish the impossible and refusing to give up. I remember this one time when I had to carry a huge canvas from my workshop at Chistye Prudy and a small woman in a blue uniform at the metro said it was too big to be carried on the train.

I was completely confused, but suddenly this gentleman with a suitcase came up to me and told me that he was going to take care of everything. We came out of the metro and he promised to find me a taxi. I had only one request: don’t put the painting on the car's roof. He replied with the classic, "I'm a man, leave this to me, and I will take care of everything," and went off to arrange a ride for me. The taxi driver also refused to listen to me and after failing to get the painting through any of the car's doors, ended up strapping it to the roof. It was horrible since no matter what I said, I couldn't argue with those two, so I decided to just let it go.

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I can't say that Russians have any particular issues with understanding reality. On the contrary, they seem to feel it much stronger. I don't seem to be able to produce any abstract works of art here as I don't seem to be able to let go of the feeling of hyper realism that relates to everything happening around me, and everything here seems to be too expressive, sometimes almost brutal.

I remember my first day in Moscow because it was my husband's birthday. A little girl who sat next to us on the plane tried to teach us how to say hello in Russia. This didn’t come in very handy since our taxi driver was so rude that he didn't say a single word to us; he just took our luggage and drove us to the House on the Embankment.

I can understand foreigners who believe Russians to be rude and impolite, but I try to explain that it is simply a different style of communication, very different from the American style, for example, where everyone smiles all the time.

Just yesterday, for instance, I met an American at a supermarket who got something wrong and kept apologizing to the cashier. It made me laugh because I remembered how everyone kept telling us to stop saying "thank you" and "I'm sorry" all the time, and how everyone would ask me whether anything was the matter every time I would smile while out grocery shopping. People would think that there was either something wrong with how they were dressed or that they had perhaps gotten mud on their clothes. Russians establish contact in a different way. But things change and waitresses in Moscow are a lot friendlier now than they used to be, say, ten years ago.

When I was little, my mother used to read me a book about a village girl named Natasha who came to live in Moscow. I remember there were very cute pictures of a girl dressed in a long rabbit-fur coat. She would watch people swimming in a huge swimming pool in winter. I remember feeling certain that one day my dream would come true and I too would be able to go swimming in that pool. Then we got to Moscow and moved into the House on the Embankment. True, we didn't have a view of the Kremlin but there was a charming little church nearby. I knew that the very pool from my childhood book had to be just one street away. I opened my window and the view was exactly the same as in that picture, with just one tiny little difference: a massive wedding cake was being built where the pool had been.

I like to think of the Soviet legacy as a carpet that covered the whole of Russia. I recently went to Vladivostok and even there, more than ten hours away by plane, you can still clearly feel the strong Soviet influence. The locals might feel more freedom from the central authorities and they might behave slightly differently, but you see right from the start that you are still in Russia and that the people there are the same as the people in Moscow.

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I have a feeling people haven't yet had the time to recover from the 2008 economic crisis or even from the last one. The parade of wealth and vanity on display in this country is far from over; the only difference is that it looks like people are starting to treat money with slightly more care. I'm happy that Moscow now has more parks and promenades because people here value that. However, I think I prefer the chaos that used to reign here before. Everything is becoming slightly more reasonable: the façade of our house was repainted recently, even the windows, like a painting by Pollock with paint splashes everywhere.

Moscow taught me to appreciate the small things in life, such as smells and tactile sensations. For example, the pungent smell of paint will forever remind me of spring. Every summer I get to fall in love with how the poplar fluff covers everything like soft snow. I've grown to love the sound of trams rattling down old rails. That too has become for me the sound of Moscow. If I leave this place, I would like to take with me the prints of the floorboards in the workshop or the old intercom buttons – things that I get to touch every single day.

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Yes, I am a Frenchwoman and that makes Moscow seem all the more exotic to me and I hope it remains that way. If you go to a place too often it loses the ability to surprise you, to make you wonder. Last winter I went to Asia with some friends who'd never been there before, and I remember how they marveled at literally everything they saw, from flowers to fruit to bicycles. But since I had often been to Asia before that, I had lost that feeling of novelty, that feeling of wonder. In Moscow, even ten years later everything continues to amaze me.

I have been married for 20 years now, so it's hard for me to judge the way relationships work between men and women in Moscow. Generally speaking, I think they remind me of New York in the 1920s: romantic and mildly patriarchal. Russian culture in general seems to be a tad old-fashioned. I mean, there are almost no modern dancing schools in Russia but the classical theatre and ballet schools, on the other hand, are very strong. And the Stanislavsky School is still very much alive here.

I have four children and they all enjoy living in Moscow. The Russian kindergarten has taught them to eat all kinds of vegetables, including cabbage of every kind, Brussels sprouts and broccoli. They have to dress and undress at least ten times a day, which means by now they've become real experts in that. And they were taught many things no one would have ever taught them in France. What they value most of all here, though, I think, is the sense of freedom. We live in the centre of the city and they walk to and from school on their own. It is true that life in Moscow is a challenge of sorts, but having survived here I feel that I can now live anywhere in the world.

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Another thing that surprised me happened when I started speaking Russian. Everything started to seem a little bit different to me. It's as if by speaking Russian, you become a different person and start thinking differently. It's really hard to explain. At the same time I sometimes feel as if there are two different Russias. I’ve noticed there is a huge gap between those born in Soviet times and those who never experienced them.

Were I in a position to change anything, I would give money to conscious and honest people, who would then spend it on schools, airports and roads. You can clearly see how infrastructure has suffered in the Russian regions and how people need the money. I would help families: it is exceedingly hard to raise a family if you have several kids because there is just no help from the government. Yet at the same time, Russians are very optimistic. Some simply don't pay any attention to reality and just focus on getting on with their lives. On the other hand, what's the point in worrying about where the grass is greener?

Author: Andrey Stekachyov