I like photographing children, anyway those that strike me. They are usually the solemn ones with a steady gaze. Mimi, shown here, could be my great grandchild, as her parents are younger than two of my children. Mimi is the daughter of White Russians. My father was a White Russian but I did not know him as he died when I was four. It is therefore a great pleasure to meet other White Russians.
One day in the summer my wife and I stopped on our walk to watch two girls exercising, one doing perfect somersaults on a trampoline and the other swinging from an aerial silk. Then I saw this same girl who had been swinging on the silk closer to, walking with her Airedale dog. I immediately wanted to photograph her. As we knew where she lived we walked up her drive a few weeks later and we saw her mother sitting outside. I asked if I could photograph her daughter and she said yes. We chatted a bit and it was then that she told us that she and her husband were White Russian. Feeling ashamed that I spoke not a word of Russian I explained why and they understood.
Mimi is eleven years old and a budding circus girl. "She'll climb and swing on anything," her mother said. She also rides. I have not seen her on a horse but I would not be in the least surprised if she rode standing up and could jump from one horse to another at full gallop. Her favorite acrobatics, though, are done on her aerial silk. Most generously she admits her sister Sophia to be the better of the two on a trampoline.
Mimi has a direct and clear way of talking. No likes or you knows, just uncluttered, understandable, un-rushed thoughts and comments.
When Mimi and her mother, Ksenia, recently came to sit in our garden to look at the photographs I had taken of Mimi, the conversation turned to icons. I have an icon but I did not want to show it to her so ashamed am I of how I have neglected it over the years. But Caroline insisted I show it. Ksenia looked at it closely and very delicately moved the pieces of silver that covered the painting back into place. Then she explained that it could be restored very well by her Russian friend living in Carmel.
A few days later I received this text from Ksenia.
I keep thinking of your icon and can't get it out of my head!
Then she told me on the telephone that I had to get it restored because it would guide me in my new life in Richfield Springs, near Cooperstown, where we are moving to in late November. She said it gently but firmly, leaving no doubt in my mind that the icon must be restored.
The icon depicts the Mother of God. What I do not know is how the icon came into my father's possession. Was he given it, along with an uncut diamond that I know his mother gave him before leaving Saint Petersburg for the last time on his way to fight the Red Army, or did my Godfather, Grand Duke Dmitri, give it to him when they met up again in the early 1920s in France? My father was Dmitri's ADC at one stage of his career.
Ksenia thinks that his mother could have given it to him because it was common for Russians to travel with small icons for protection. However my icon is not a diptych and actual traveling icons are often diptychs which fold shut with a velvet cover.
I remember the icon well as a child. My mother hung it in the corner of a wall in the dining room. It was in good condition and she often polished the silver overlay.
It would, I feel, have been hard for my father to have carried the icon in his uniform pocket without it getting damaged. He was, after all, fighting for the White Army in the Russian Civil War. But, may be, he managed to get back into Saint Petersburg before escaping Russia through Finland and that was when his mother gave it to him along with the diamond. However, the city, we must remember, was in the hands of the Bolsheviks and this would have been very risky.
Grand Duke Dmitri was generous to my father giving him all the necessities of life for those days: a gold cigarette case, a gold pocket watch, a silver salver, pearl studs etc. The icon certainly could have been included among those presents, and I believe a pearl handled pistol. I always wondered how my mother got it - she never told me when I asked, and then it was stolen in a burglary.
The icon is being restored by another Russian, Ekaterina Piskareva. Ekaterina’s grandparents and parents remained in Russia after the revolution surviving the Soviet years as artists and illustrators. Ekaterina now lives in Carmel, NY but has strong ties to Moscow where she is remotely restoring, to its original state, her grandfather's house in Moscow, and preparing it for its new life as a cultural center for artists. The house has a plaque on the exterior honoring her grandfather as an illustrator.
Ekaterina has identified the icon as in the style called Smolenskaya, dated 1856. The figures 84 refer to the grade of silver. Icon artists never signed their work, Ekaterina says. Ksenia believes that the initials on the silver may refer to the silversmith, but Ekaterina thinks they are family initials. My grandfather's given name was Boris although the initial K would be correct for my grandfather’s surname.
What started with a walk up a stranger's drive in pursuit of permission to photograph an eleven-year-old acrobatic girl, has become in a flood of Russian connections and activities. Never before have I felt as close to my Russian side as I do today.
Then, to make sure that this new state remains in place and the coincidences go full circle, we are planning to move to a house, (unbeknownst to us before we met Ksenia), that is only a few miles from the hamlet of Jordanville, NY. This hamlet is the home to one of the largest Russian Orthodox Monasteries in the nation. It is also where Ksenia's father gave up cattle farming and became a priest.