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World History in Plasticine
Sergey Olyunin is the founder and co-owner of the Names and Epochs, the museum of plasticine mini-sculpture located in the Izmailovo Kremlin in the east of Moscow. The artist elaborates Russkiy Mir on how this project came about and on its major exhibitions - The Pillars of the Empire, The Tragedy of Russian Time of Troubles, and The Tales of Old Moscow.
– Sergey, how did your Names and Epochs Mini-Sculpture Museum come about?
Ц We kept a collection of figures of world history characters in our house for many years. It had been made by two amateur sculptors - Rostislav Olyunin, my father, and Andrei Miller, his friend, in the 1960s and 1970s. Both of them passed away long ago, but our family preserved their work with care. The idea to establish a museum came to my wife and me unexpectedly and without any apparent reason. Somehow, suddenly, we realized that we owned something that could be shown to others with pride. And in November 2013, the museum showcases had exactly one hundred heroes of the history of mankind placed in. The exhibits still kept the fingerprints of their long-dead authors.
Ivan III. Rus'. 1440 Ц 1505.
Over time, the rows of characters on the shelves have turned into a real museum - as far as our capabilities permitted us. That is, now visitors to the†Names and Epochs, our museum of plasticine mini-sculpture, not only look at another curiosity, but also become imbued with the topic, and charged with knowledge. After this kind of museum upgrade, the visitors have started asking what they should read on this or that topic. Means, their interest has been sparked!
Ц What are the figures made of?
Ц And this is probably the most interesting thing. All of them are made of ordinary plasticine, play dough. However, despite the fact that this material can be affected by being exposed to any adversity, the masters’ works have lived for six decades and, God willing, will survive our generation as well.
Pope Gregory XIII. The Vatican. 1502 - 1585
Ц You have continued your father and his friend's legacy. Did your father teach you sculpturing?
Ц Of course, my first teacher was my father. Anyone would feel inspired watching how a small copy of a human was born in his hands. And then there were professional artists. Their instructions enabled me to evolve the principles developed by two friends half a century ago.
Ц The Pillars of the Empire is an exposition with a sonorous title. What and who is it about?
Ц This is the most recent major collection that has made the museum grow. The Pillars of the Empire features portraits of well-known statesmen of Russia whose efforts created the very foundation of our Fatherland. They are better known than many of the other featured characters. So the joy that visitors experience recognizing them is a great stimulus that triggers interest in the museum in general.
Russian historian, poet, and journalist†Nikolay Karamzin
Ц The Tragedy of the Russian Time of Troubles Ц Faces of the White Movement is another large collection of your museum, it contains figures of Pyotr Wrangel, Anton Denikin, Lavr Kornilov, Vladimir Kappel... How did you come up with the idea to create such a series?
Ц I started working on this topic shortly after the museum opening. At first, I wanted to make five or ten figures. However, having immersed into the topic, my eye was caught by more and more new names and destinies. So little by little, a collection of members of the White movement was formed. It includes 120 figures. There are both individual figures and compositions of two or three (brothers, spouses, sisters, fathers, sons) families who dedicated their lives to freeing Russia of Bolshevism. My goal is to bring their names back into the historical context of today. When I put a figure on the shelf, I revive the person (at least for myself), bring him back from the historical oblivion where he was sent by the victorious demons.
Russian anti-Bolshevik general Anton Denikin
Russian military intelligence officer Lavr Kornilov
Ц Why have you become so fascinated with the topic of the White movement?
Ц My path to this topic was quite intricate. I grew up on novels by Thomas Mayne Reid, H. Rider Haggard, Louis Jacolliot. And it turned out that I read their pre-revolutionary cheap editions only. Over the years, my curiosity about adventure, of course, faded away, but more and more often I thought about those boys and young men who had shared a long-standing love for shabby pages. And then, unbeknownst to me, the children grew up, took rifles, and left home hoping to defend the world that was crumbling before their eyes. This was the way the White movement took me over.
Ц I see that there are absolutely no figures of the Civil War participants from the other, the Red side in the museum. Does this mean that you, as they say, are on the side of the White movement with all your heart and soul?
Ц That's exactly right. My soul, thoughts, desire to embody, revive belong exclusively to the White movement, to those people who lived their lives fighting for the ideals pronounced by Professor Vladimir Davats, the loader of the "To Moscow!" armored train: “It was insane to hope to defeat the Red Army masses with several regiments; it was insane to commence the Kuban Campaign, it was insane to go to Moscow, it was insane to defend Crimea, it was insane to stubbornly keep the army in the camps of Gallipoli and Lemnos - but it is due to this insanity only that we cannot be ashamed for being Russian.”
Ц And which of the historical figures of the White movement are you interested in the most? And whose figure was the most difficult to work on?
Ц It is a very interesting question. Because there is one figure in the collection, the work on which was the most challenging and, at the same time, the most joyful. This is Lieutenant General Yakov Slashchov. It was challenging - because I couldnТt make his, although recognizable, face for a couple of weeks. It was joyful - because my son Anton participated in the work on the portrait for the first time -and it was his assistance that made the character come out the way it was intended. Since then, we have often worked together. And in many cases, the portrait resemblance has been his merit.
Yakov Slashchov,†leading commander of Baron Wrangel's Crimean army
Ц What other portraits of the White movement leaders are featured in your collection?
Ц Starting the collection, of course, first of all, I skimmed the cream - a couple of dozen figures were portraits of the most famous characters - Kolchak, Denikin, Wrangel... But gradually, as the material was studied, the persons came up that are little known or not known to the general public. However, their fate, their deeds could not be ignored. Their influence on history varied - from one attack participated to a whole lifetime contributed - but without them, the history of the White Cause would not, in my opinion, be complete and honest. Those characters include such soldiers-poets as Ivan Savin, Nikolai Turoverov, Arseni? Nesmelov, as well as Maria Nesterovich, a heroic young girl who arranged transportation of officers from Red Moscow to the Don, the selfless nurse Shura who called the legendary First Kuban Campaign Уthe Ice CampaignФ, and Father Nikolai Popov, a holy martyr who was shot for having a portrait of his brother, the marching chieftain of the Don Host, on the wall of his house.
Nikolai Turoverov, Junior Yesaul, the head of the machine-gun team of the Ataman regiment
Ц Surely you made some discoveries studying such a topic as the Civil War, didnТt you?
Ц A photograph of Nikolai Olyunin, my great-grandfather, the last commander of the Admiral Kolchak armored train that operated on the Northern Front, can be seen on the wall of the museum. Furthermore, his figure is featured in The Tragedy of Russian Troubles. Having learned my family history, many people shake their heads in understanding - of course, having a White Guard ancestor, they became interested in the White movement. In fact, there is an inverse relationship. It is the interest of our family in the anti-Bolshevik struggle that brought the great-grandfather-officer back from oblivion.
Captain Nikolai Olyunin
The fact is that the older relatives were silent about him. And then, having plunged into the history of the Civil War, I accidentally read about a certain 1st rank captain Olyunin. I imagined that this person was my ancestor and collected information about him for a long time. Information kept accumulating. I managed to find out that this man left for Finland after the front had collapsed. We got documents about Olyunin in the archives of the Finnish police. I opened them, and there was a white officer at the photograph who looked exactly like my father, even the mustaches were of the same shape. So the search became deeper, more targeted, so step by step the life story of Olyunin, my great-grandfather, was cleared.
Ц There is also another exposition in your museum - The Tale of Old Moscow. It is based on the work of Ivan Shmelyov, a writer. Please, tell us about it.
Ц Ivan Shmelyov was one of those who shaped my White Guard worldview. It was not about The Sun of the Dead, but rather The Summer of the Lord. Only having read the latter, I truly understood what world the white warriors had dreamed of saving. So while working on this collection, The Summer of the Lord was one of my inspiration sources. Another great-grandfather of mine, Ivan Sokolov, also spent his childhood and youth in Zamoskvorechye, went to the same gymnasium with Shmelyov. And he left memories of that period of his life. So the very spirit of Zamoskvorechye comes from there as well.
Maslenitsa booth. Confusion on stage
The principles that this collection has been developed on are completely different from those that underlie The Tragedy of the Russian Troubles. First of all, the figures are not of the portrait type. Moreover, the compositions feature a hefty dose of soft irony, friendly engagement in the lives of these characters. At least I tried to make the audience feel it too.
When the cat's away the mice will play
Egg rolling, the first week after Easter
Ц Your museum enables visitors to see the original sculptures of historical figures and to listen to interesting lectures based on their biographies. Is this communication mode in demand among the public? Who attends such meetings?
Ц Lectures are only given for groups of 10 visitors or more, so such a conversation mode is rather rare. More often there is an opportunity to communicate with visitors one-on-one - and this is a big advantage. After all, personal communication makes it easier to convey your point of view, express your creative principles and inspire others to immerse themselves in a particular topic.
All kinds of people come. Some visitors are interested in the characters, others - in the subtlety and accuracy in depicting faces or in costumes of a particular era.
Ц Who helps you with your projects?
Ц This project is entirely our family's business. Our museum has operated for eight years now. And we could not find anyone to help us with development. So we have been progressing step by step. But we do not depend on anyone and no one dares to order us what and how to exhibit in the museum.†