Thursday, 31 October 2013

OPEN STUDIO: From the Ural Mountains to Shrewsbury - Meet Svetlana Elantseva

Born in the Urals - there can’t be many people in the UK who can say that, and definitely not in Shrewsbury. But Svetlana can.  For the first few years of her life she lived in the mountainous region north west of Kazakhstan, which forms the natural boundary between Europe and Asia. She can’t remember much about the region because she was only six when her parents moved away from Perm where she was born. Most of her childhood memories are of Uvarova in the state of Tambor.  Her mother was a lab technician in a chemical factory and her father an electrical engineer. 

Svetlana has no recollection of her father. It was her first husband who gave her the name Elantseva, which she's kept for the sake of their son, but before that her step-father gave her his name, Grishai. He was like a real father to her. 'He looked after me like a real father,' Svetlana said.   

Svetlana's step-father wanted her to have a proper job when she grew up - to be an accountant, hopefully with a good business degree.  He didn’t like the fact that she spent her every spare minute painting and drawing.  He tried to stop it.  It didn’t work.  Not even punishing Svetlana by shutting her in a darkened toilet or excluding her from the family meal-table worked. 

Throughout her growing years, Svetlana was fascinated by art and driven by the desire to make it.  When she enrolled for college in Moscow it wasn’t to study accountancy, which is what she told her step-father, it was to attend art college.  When she arrived, however, it turned out that because she hadn't been allowed to attend art classes at school, she didn’t have the necessary paperwork, so she trained to be an inspector of textile machinery instead.

These were the days before perestroika. Svetlana’s first experience of the artist’s life came whilst she was working in a factory, when a group of Agitation Artists was looking for young recruits. A competition was set up and, out of all the entrants, Svetlana won a place in their studio.  Here she learned what was needed to produce government propaganda art, making posters, writing copy, making reproductions of famous Soviet works of art, following a clearly-defined house style. 

During this period, Svetlana worked in the town of Klimost. The money was good and the work kept coming in.  She had free holidays and subsidised rates at the local sanitorium courtesy of her trade union. A whole string of government-promoted festivals required posters. ‘Darling, you in the West only seem to know about May Day,’ said Svetlana. ‘Or World International Day,
 as we called it. But there  was also 23rd February - Soviet Military Day, 8th March -International Women’s Day, 9th May - World War Victory Day and 7th November - Victory of the Revolution Day.’  

Svetlana made banners for all these festivals.  The parades marched by and people waved her banners. She earned good money.  She had a secure job doing something that she loved.  And then came perestroika.

The Russian view of perestroika, as seen through Svetlana’s eyes, is very different from ours.  To many Russian people, the years before perestroika are now looked back upon as the good old days. There was an order to things.  Everybody knew what they were doing, and what they had to continue to do, in order to maintain stable society.  The word ‘perestroika’, however, means ‘restructuring’. It was a political movement, meant to be about reformation within the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. But, as we all know, it led to the end of the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War.  

We in the West tend to think of that as a good thing, but it was a frightening thing for ordinary Russians who had to live through it. According to Svetlana, when the old political certainties were swept away, so were the certainties of ordinary life. People lost their jobs.  Their money counted for nothing.  Factories closed.  Art studios closed. People were offered shares that meant nothing to them as a form of redundancy package, and found themselves prey to shysters who’d buy them up for a shadow of what eventually would be their real value. 

‘It was the end of my step-father,’ Svetlana said. ‘No one explained what people should do.  He lost his way. He turned to drink.  Then he had a heart attack and died.’

Svetlana didn’t say outright that perestroika killed her step-father. However, the loss of the old order shocked him to the core. Everybody’s life was turned upside down. Having lost her job, Svetlana studied accountancy, achieved her diploma and ended up working in a friend’s Moscow boutique.  ‘From there I was befriended by a wealthy client,’ said Svetlana, ‘whose business-man husband recognized my potential.  He trained me up to work his way. His company had some very high profile VIP clients. I achieved a directorship. I had a driver, a cook and a cleaner. Given what some people went through post-perestroika, I was one of the lucky ones.’ 

There’s a big jump from Svetlana’s Moscow apartment, complete with cook, cleaner and driver, to her life at Plox Green, which is where she landed ten years ago when she arrived in the UK.  ‘I married an Englishman,’ Svetlana said. ‘In Russia there is one man to every twenty women, so many Russian girls marry foreign husbands and end up moving abroad.’

Svetlana didn’t know what she was in for when her husband told here about the Shropshire home he shared with his father in a place called Plox Green. Her seventeen year old son from her first marriage, however, Nikita, had moved to England ahead of her and told her that she wouldn’t like it. But Svetlana had always been a bit of an Anglophile.  English literature had interested her at school and so keen had she been that Nikita should learn English that she had started him aged three.

‘Besides,’ Svetlana said. ‘I was in love, so I paid my son’s warnings no attention.’ Her family thought that marrying an Englishman was a crazy idea, especially as it involved moving to England. They didn’t come to the wedding.  But it wasn’t until Svetlana arrived in Plox Green that reality struck home.

‘Darling, I came from living on the 12th floor of a Moscow apartment building,’ Svetlana said. ‘I lived a very urban life. Now here I was with nothing but trees and fields and the occasion sheep - no pavements, no street lights, nowhere to go.’ 

Desperate to find that elusive ‘somewhere to go’, but without a car, Svetlana made a series of treks up Hope Valley dressed in Moscow everyday fashion wear, including killer high heel shoes.  On more than one occasion she put herself in danger on the valley’s hair-pin bends. One time a driver rolled down his window to point out the hazards that lay ahead on a narrow road without pavements. In addition, Svetlana’s new father-in-law was a lovely old man, but he needed a lot of looking after. This was not the life that Svetlana had expected.   

‘We were both to blame,’ she said. ‘Not just my husband, but me too. Neither of us recognized the cultural gulf between us.  However, God must have been looking after me because coming to England meant that I at last ended up with an art education.  I got my BTEC in Shrewsbury, then did Art Foundation. Then I went to Stafford University and studied for a BA in Entrepreneurship in Culture & Heritage Industries, which taught me a great deal about business and marketing in Art industries, and from which I emerged with a 2.1 degree.’

The tale Svetlana tells is quite extraordinary, and it begins, ends and is shot through with art. Back in Russia, Svetlana’s paintings reflected Russian culture, in particular that of the Orthodox church.  Here in England, she’s had the chance to explore different landscapes and a whole new heritage.  Her paintings of Shrewsbury buildings, including Rowley’s House, have been sold as cards in Russia, and she’s pulled together a group of international artists who are currently exhibiting together in Ironbridge, following on from Shrewsbury and Moscow.  

‘I’ve made some good friends here in England,’ Svetlana said. ‘Without them I would have got nowhere.  These are people - teachers at SCAT and other friends too – who helped me through some very difficult years.’  

Svetlana is now divorced.  Her son Nikita works for the Shrewsbury company RMW Electrical Services Ltd., for whom she has nothing but praise for taking on a Russian boy and putting him through his training as an electrician. He's buying his own home, and currently Svetlana  lives with him. 'Shropshire is a beautiful place,' she said, 'but it’s not easy to earn money here.  Moscow’s the place for making money, but Shrewsbury is the place for making art. Better to have a quiet life though - do what you wish and have enough - than to sacrifice your life and have no time or energy to spend all your money.’  

Ten years down the line, Svetlana can see pluses to village and small town life. If she were living in Plox Green now, she said, she’d have a greater appreciation of the country way of life.  For his part, Nikita loves Shrewsbury. No way would he move back to Moscow.

Currently, Svetlana is working as a volunteer with the Museum Service conducting audio interviews with Russians in the county, and other Eastern Bloc ex-pats who have stories to tell. One woman told Svetlana that she had felt homeless in her own country, but had made a home here.  ‘I never felt like a foreigner in Latvia where I lived,’ she said, ‘or in my home country, Russia, and I certainly do feel like a foreigner here. But even as a foreigner in Britain, I still feel more at home.’

This year Svetlana has taken time out from working in her studio to organise exhibitions for herself and for the Art International Gallery - whose aim is to promote international understanding through art - of which she is Director. The Art International Gallery includes artists from Britain, Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and China. Both Svetlana and Russia's Alexey Gilarov have exhibited their work widely, and China's Li Bai has a strong profile in her own country.

This year alone, Svetlana has organised ten exhibitions. She exhibited under the heading 'The Journey Continues' at Rowley's House Museum and with the group Art International Gallery at the Llangollen International Festival as part of the 'Art Without Borders' project which started in Moscow in 2012.  In addition, the group exhibited at the Hive, Shrewsbury with the exhibitions 'We were born in the U.S.S.R' and 'Conversation Pieces', and Svetlana also brought the 'Art Without Borders' exhibition to this year's Shrewsbury Art Festival. 

It has been a busy year for exhibitions, including Bear Steps in Shrewsbury and the Ironbridge Gallery. The 'Art Without Borders' exhibition is heading for Moscow in the new year, and from 14th January until 3rd February will be housed in the National Gallery 'Varshavka'. 

A few weeks ago, Svetlana and I met for the first time, and the other day I visited her studio in  the light, airy conservatory at the back of Nikita's house, and we had coffee together.  She never paints when she's unwell, she told me, or when she's unhappy. She always paints in the now, and for that - and to end up with good art - she needs to be upbeat and positive.

Svetlana's fiance, Paul, described Svetlana's painting mode as a frenzy of activity.  'It's a case of out of the way, artist coming through,' he said. 'The studio is off limits. Svetlana needs maximum light, maximum space. Lights, colour, action - that's what it's like.'

So what inspires Svetlana to paint? She's worked in all sorts of mediums and a variety of styles.  Sometimes it's people, she said, who sparked her interest. This old woman, for example, wearing Adidas shoes, became the image for a poster proclaiming 'Adidas Goes With Any Crown'.  

Svetlana has notebooks full of ideas. Colours may set her off, or shadows, shapes or reflections. The notebooks enable her to develop her visual imagination and evaluate her ideas.

Svetlana also has a dictionary [well worn] to help with her English.  As Paul pointed out, Svetlana has worked her way through two degrees in English, so her language skills really can't be that bad. But Svetlana is a perfectionist. Everything she does has to be done well.  'How you say, darling..?' 'Have I got that right..?'  'I don't know the word for...'  Repeatedly these phrases came up throughout the interview. But they didn't need to.  Svetlana's English is far better than she seemed to think.

There's something tough about Svetlana. You can tell that she's been through a lot and come out the other side. Yet she's  gregarious and warm - a charming, outgoing person whom you can’t help but warm towards in return.  Here's the empty wrapper of the bar of chocolate she gave me with its pretty Russian doll of a child with open expression and expectant gaze.  Svetlana's made her home in England, but she'll always have a Russian heart.  


  1. How ironic, the Russian emigre gives a bar of chocolate manufactured in Ukraine by a company called Roshen, this company was placed under severe Russian sanctions in August.

    Yes, the way Thatcher, Reagan and Gorbachev conspired to destroy the USSR was criminal, suddenly everybody went from guaranteed health care; education; employment and accommodation to the anarchy the free-market was corrupted to by the criminal classes, which the whole region has yet to recover from.

    Perm, which I have visited, was a closed city to foreigners, closed because of the skill of it's Rocketry engineers, but possessed and still does a world class art museum and ballet!

    A funny old world as this is composed from my apartment in Kiev, Ukraine!

  2. Why the sanctions, Rupert? I'm afraid there's very little I know about Russian politics and the country's economic life. I do know, from talking to Svetlana, how profound was the shock of the collapse of the old order. Perhaps she'll leave a comment here. She has much to say on that time in her family's life. Perm - the third capital of Russian ballet. I wouldn't have known if I hadn't just looked it up. Thank you for that. And thank you for leaving a comment. A funny old world, indeed, where an apartment in Kiev and an old town house in Shrewsbury can host a cross-borders conversation of this sort.

  3. Most interesting. I love the are work - almost like tapestry!

  4. What a wonderful story. I have had several messages from Svetlana and have been trying to connect with her on Facebook. Unfortunately, my technology skills aren't that great, and I kept getting connected to other things!

    Amazing woman to have lived through all that! I would love to have a coffee with her sometime. I, too, am a foreigner in Britain, although I have always felt very at home here. Even from the very first.
    Cheers, Rosemary from

  5. Thank you very much for your all comments. Sorry I couldn’t answer because I was on Russia.
    This is more information about Russian chocolate Alenka.
    ‘The year 1966 is a momentous one in the long history of the Red October chocolate factory, as it was the year in which the face of the company made it’s – her, actually – first appearance. “Alenka” (or “Alyonka”, Russian for “Helen”) is a little girl who wears a multicolored kerchief around her ahead and an innocent look on her face. Though her origin isn’t completely clear, most versions state that Alenka was modeled on the young daughter of an artist working in the company’s advertising division. There was even a court case in the year 2000 in which a woman named Yelena Gerinas sued the Red October chocolate factory, claiming that she was the model for Alenka and had never been compensated for the use of her likeness. Regardless, the image of Alenka today symbolizes both excellent chocolate and, for many Russians, a time when their country was one of the world’s great superpowers. Artist and media mover & shaker Ivan Zemtsov set out to celebrate Alenka’s 40thh birthday by setting up the Alyonka Mail Art Project, in which participants would compose original artwork featuring Alenka’s iconic visage. The first “Alyonka” show was presented to public in Yoshkar-Ola Museum of Fine Arts in October 2006. Some of the works are shown above.’(Soviet Yum-Yum: Russia’s Red October Chocolate Factory).
    Rosemary , I couldn’t find you an Facebook. Would you like to call me? 07851759761 Thank you.