A City Within a City – The Kremlin and Vernisazh at Izmailovo
Text by Natalia Shuvalova
Photos by Alia Kashintseva
Nowadays Izmailovo is a Mecca for the tourists coming to Moscow. You can get everything you can ever think of as a perfect present from Russia and even more. It is also a great place to enjoy a reproduction of ancient Russian architecture – the Izlmailovo Kremlin!
If you had come to this part of Moscow just three decades ago you would have found a completely different place.
“Every Russian city used to start with a Kremlin; a sort of fortress. It would be built on a hill which made its protection much easier,” explains Alexander Kushakov, the person who launched the Vernisage and Kremlin project. “When we saw this hill at Izmailovo, we thought it would be the best place to create our ‘old city.’ It is the size that Tsar Alexei Michailovich, the father of Peter the Great, would have chosen for building a new Kremlin.” The interesting fact is that this hill is not natural. In reality it was a garbage dump that was created after the construction of the Izmailovo hotels that were built for the Olympic Games in 1980. Enough years went by for some grass to grow on it. Of course it required some work to make the hill suitable for large constructions, but that was not the only problem.
“It was not that easy. Russian offi cialdom and the bureaucracy did everything possible to not let it happen,” remembers Mr. Kushakov. A few years ago one of the wooden Kremlin constructions were destroyed by fire. Some say that it was a deliberate act of arson. Nevertheless, it did not stop the Kremlin from growing and expanding. “Moscow was not built in a day. It used to be constantly on fire. But that misfortune made people think of better constructions, thus Moscow turned into the white stone city that even Marco Polo mentions in his records. At fi rst we were considering only wooden buildings, as this is a very unique Russian style and it is disappearing. But that fi re made us have a larger historical view which included the stone architecture,” Mr. Kushakov added.
Fake or real? Choosing amber.
Advice from Elena Varina (Kalinigrad); amber designer and vendor
Rub two stones against each other. With real amber you will feel resistance and some noise, while plastic just slides against each other easily. Rub an amber stone with your hand to warm it up; you will sense a slight conifer smell. (They even burned some amber with a lighter for us – but that is not recommended.)
Of course, not every vendor would allow these tests (for obvious reasons), but their refusal may already be enough of a sign to avoid their goods.
The Kremlin has seven museums. The museum of bells, fairytales, national costumes, and vodka are popular. Anyone who is interested in learning more about the national crafts can register for a master class. The Kremlin craftsmen from Ismailovo went to St. Petersburg for the G8 summit last year to teach Ludmila Putina and her colleagues national folk arts. “The plate painted by Mrs. Putina is in our funds,” smiles the PR manager.
The whole territory of the Kremlin is a museum under the open sky. Crossing into its walls, one steps into a 17th century city. There are various festivals and it is especially festive during the Maslenitsa. In winter they create ice-hills, arrange snowball fi ghts and Troika rides with beautifully painted sledges.
The plans for the future are to create an International Craft Center, to build a new hotel and a conference center. This August the annual festival of crafts had not only CIS countries participating but also China. “We want the Kremlin be a place where people can enrich their knowledge about Russia, find something for their soul and, of course, take something back home,” states the founder of this remarkable complex.
The best place to select a Russian present or souvenir is from is the nearby Vernisage. This area is also the domain of Mr. Kushakov. He has transformed it into a civilized art and crafts market.
“In the 1980’s the artists and craftsmen used to sell their works in Izmailovo Park. The offi cials did not like it and made them move away. The vendors tried to resist but could do nothing when they were literary washed away by the fi re brigade. The place that they were allowed to stay was right next to that garbage hill. In fact, it also was a hill but grew from the ground brought from the Sokolniki metro excavations and some burial grounds. During the repressions in the 1930’s, they needed to create some trenches to put the large number of the dead. So they made a trench in the Moscow outskirts and the soil from digging that trench was brought here. This very ground became the hill Vernisazh is on.” Again, the main problem was not the hill.
“The place looked oppressive. The vendors had all their items laid out on the ground. The whole place was crowded with the criminals, not only in art and antiques. In a couple hundred meters away from the place, they would shoot at each other,” admits Mr. Kushakov.
Prices are lower than at GUM or anywhere near Red Square or Stary Arbat. And you are always welcome to bargain. Some of the vendors are the craftsmen themselves. They all admit that from their point of view, most foreigners look for cheap prices but in the end get fakes and low quality items. “I never sell my matrushkas very cheap. I do them myself. I paint different faces on each, they all have some individuality. Look!” A middle aged woman shows us one of her dolls. She graduated from an art college specializing in crafts about 30 years ago. For a long time she was the head of the craft museums in the region but after perestroika it all fell apart. She continued making her own dolls and was selling them on the streets, was part of a cooperative and finally came to Vernisazh. “I come here only once a week, on Wednesdays. I also sell my items in other shops. The rest of the time I work,” she continues. Her expensive mid-size matrushka would cost you 800 rubles. That is more than the average price of 400-500 rubles.
It is really fun to talk to the vendors at Vernisazh. The man who sells poniards, horns and metal cups for the wine will tell you (with a striking Caucasian accent) about his Georgian home from where he brings his crafts. He will mention when and why he moved to Russia, share his worries about Georgia becoming more closed off from Russia, and that now they have to bring their goods through Dagestan. When asked about the price, first he will proudly admit that the horn is “natural Caucasian goat” and only then say “4,000 rubles!”
It is hard to pass by the amber jewelry. Most of it comes from Kalinigrad together with the people who design and sell. “I come to Moscow for two weeks, then go back home”, says Elena Varina. Amber is their family business and she is here with her husband and daughter. The price of their necklaces, rings, bracelets and earrings depends on the weight of the stone. The necklace that has a 74 gram silver mounted amber piece costs 5,900 rubles.
When asking about the prices for the wooden carved Ded Morozes, I was surprised to constantly hear: “800 rubles. But there is a 200 rubles discount so you can have it for 600!” The sales promotion manager for Ismailovo explained that Wednesday is a special day when they have sales. Those who know that, come very early in the morning and buy the best of the goods in bulk. Even if you do not need a whole container of Russian crafts for the coming Christmas holidays, you may still save some cash by arranging to come to Ismailovo on a Wednesday morning.
Crossing the Border
According to Russian Federation Law, every item which is older than 50 years is considered antique and subject to import restrictions. If you buy anything, even a cheap medal at a fl ea market, you may be stopped at customs leaving the country and in the worst case even be arrested. To freely take your purchase out of Russia, you need go to the Moscow Service of Cultural Preservation at:
Stary Arbat, 53/6, Department of Expertise (this is in the housemuseum of Pushkin)
You need to bring 3 photos of the item and a copy of your passport. It may take a week and possibly even a month to get permission so plan ahead.