Where whimsy meets despair


NIKOLA-LENIVETS, Russia - In this dying village, people don't carve out a living. They scrape it with their nails from the soil.

For the old women who have to chop their own kindling and the lonely widows who shed tears at giving their last cow up to the butcher, what use is art?

Thirteen years ago, artist Nikolai Polissky came to this village from Moscow, burning with creativity. He built armies of snowmen and whimsical towers out of hay, or firewood or twigs, whatever was lying around.

To some villagers, he's a madman, the spark for a bonfire of resentment. To others, he's an inspiration who showed them the beauty of art in a place devoid of opportunity or hope.

Radiantly impractical, the towers irritate some people, who grumble that they create a nuisance. Residents are too busy struggling at the grinding business of survival to shuffle the few hundred yards from their homes to gaze and wonder what the constructions signify.

That someone would pay a Paris gallery $2,000 for a photograph of one of these confections is far beyond the villagers' understanding, and only serves to reinforce a sense of heartless lunacy in a market that values people like them at nothing.

But other residents, who at first couldn't see the point of Polissky's works, now are moved by their majesty, ablaze with twinkling light on a purple moonlit night.

"The funny thing is, they talk and say: 'What's the point? Why do we need this?'" says Ivan Parygin, 17, one of the many drawn like moths to Polissky's light. "But when they come down and see it, you can see their eyes shining."

Standing at the top of Polissky's latest creation, a 90-foot tower of twigs and branches that sways and creaks in any gust of wind, it is at first a little difficult to catch a sense of his artistic vision.

The whole thing is hammered up with a properly artistic sense of haphazard asymmetry, a structure so untouched by safety considerations that it makes your feet tingle as you clamber up on slippery birch branches and rustic, homemade ladders.

The reward up top is a splendid view, if you can forget for a moment what lies beneath your soles.

The giant basket-weave structure might recall the ethereal 1922 Shukhovskaya radio tower - pride of the Soviet Union - that inspired it. To some, it's a rocket. It even conjures up elements of the Eiffel Tower.

But the construction is not quite finished yet. Polissky's team of builders began in June, and by late this month it will be complete. Then Polissky will take out his camera. He has a talent for lighting and photographing his creations, capturing the sunlight, the dawn mists, frost and snow that nature's charity adds.

"The snow will come. When there is a thaw followed by a cold snap, the tower will be covered in ice," he says. "It will look beautiful."

Polissky, who devoted himself to painting, and a few close friends first arrived here from Moscow, 125 miles away, in 1989 and squatted on the land.

"The land was like a mysterious island, and we felt we had to build something unusual," he says. "We wanted to make something monumental."

They faced hostility.

"The local people did not take to us," Polissky recalls. "There's a traditional Russian fear of strangers. There was quite a bit of aggression toward us. They were against us as Muscovites. But that was a long time ago."

After a dormant period, when he did little painting, Polissky understood he had failed to find the new, vital direction in painting that he craved.

Two years ago, he put aside his oils and brushes, inspired by new materials that were free or cheap and widely available: snow, hay and wood.

Enlisting villagers, he created 220 snowmen, with carrot noses and bucket helmets, straggling down a slope. He made a structure of hay prosaically named "The Tower" that resembled a great golden spiral shell, inspired by the biblical tower of Babel.

He designed and built a 330-foot aqueduct of snow, and a tower of chopped firewood.

The works made Polissky so well known that people now come from Moscow and surrounding areas to view them.

But the village seems paralyzed by tragedy. There is no work. The place is dying. It never recovered from the collapse of the local Soviet-era collective farm and the slaughter of its 1,500 pigs and 1,000 cows in the mid-1990s.

Maria Kozhevnikova, 65, has harvested a life of hardship.

The widow, alone these past 20 years except for a succession of cats, dogs, pigs and her cow, Malyshka - "little one" - always rose at 4 a.m. to milk, and struggled in winter's bitter snows up the long hill from the river carrying water for the stock. By June, it got to be too much and she knew that Malyshka would have to go to the butcher.

"It was a very sorry day. I even cried. But I couldn't look after her anymore. My legs don't work now."

The fantastical constructions of wood and hay might have made Polissky famous, but they can't save the village or bring back the past. So one might forgive those here who are a little cynical or skeptical of the artist and his work.

When Polissky asked villagers to help him build the 220 snowmen for his first creation, most thought that he was crazy. But money is money.

To Alexander Kondrashov, 48, a former collective-farm worker, the project was "just a job. There was pay. We weren't wasting our time." But to Dmitry Mozgunov, a 22-year-old unemployed man who was born in a milder Central Asian city, it was a fantastic gift, compensation for the snowmen he could never build as a little boy.

"When we built a lot of them, it turned out all the snowmen had different individual faces," Polissky says. "Of course, we had our favorites."

Villager Yevgeny Zelensky, 22, spends most of his free time working on the latest project, despite opposition from his parents, who see it as a dead end.

"They want me to leave the village as soon as possible and get a job," says Zelensky, who wants to find work as a car mechanic.

For other parents, it's a relief that their sons have something to occupy them, even if that is standing atop a 90-foot tower with no safety rope.

And when they see these short-lived skyscrapers, the feeling can be magical.

"A lot of villagers have never been any higher than their rooftops," says Mozgunov, standing near the latest tower of branches and twigs. "The idea scares them. But they go up the tower and they're lost for words."

Yevgeny Zheltov, 44, who was born here, says Polissky and his friends have brought new blood to a dying village and inspired the young. "They've changed the place beyond recognition," he says.

"It's changed my life. It's changed me," said Mozgunov, struggling to put into words his awe of and love for Polissky. There's a shy pause when Polissky's other volunteers are asked what the artist means to them. Ivan Parygin finally finds words.

"I think he's a genius."

Robyn Dixon is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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