Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Izbah

The Russian izbah (or as some would spell it, izba) is the Russian peasant's home.  This humble abode was the center of many scenes in my novels. Izbahs, or izbahi, were first described in my initial novel Ikons: Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker. When I started writing Ikons, I had no idea of the intricacies of the izbah and how important it was to Russian life.  I saw old black and white pictures, colored ones from the photographer Prokudin-Gorsky, and grainy photos taken by my uncle, but all were exterior views.  From these I imaged Hutava as it may have appeared in 1900.
* * *
Nothing distinguished Hutawa from any of her Russian sisters scattered everywhere.  Two dozen monotonous wooden izbahi topped by the chimneys of the ubiquitous Russian stoves stood shoulder to shoulder in a ragged line defining the village.  Only an occasional muted yellow or green trim placed on weather beaten walls differentiated one home from its neighbor. 
* * *
During one of my assignments to the former Soviet Union I had the opportunity to visit an izbah in an historical park in Minsk.  The interior was probably much cleaner than the typical turn-of-the-century izbah, but it did give a starting point.  Based on that exhibit, I wrote detailed description of my characters' home in the first chapter of Slogans: Our Children, Our Future as Akulina's laments her sons belief they are rich.

An historic exhibit of the Russian izbah
* * *
Rich?  Akulina inhaled the heady mixture of wood smoke, shchi, night dirt and unwashed bodies and glanced about her.  The wooden izbah she shared with its owner, her father and two young sons was no better or worse than the other two score dwellings the nearly three hundred residents of Unkurda called home.  Like most Old Believer dwellings it consisted of a single small room, half of which was occupied the pyechka, the large Russian stove made from stone and clay.  Circling the pyechka were the sleeping ledges and goose down comforters for the people and assorted animals.  True, the walls were covered with religious ikon and multicolored tapestries, but the tapestries were not for show but to keep out the winter wind.  The room boasted one thick table, four stools, a shelf for the stew pot, two grimy glass windows, ropes of onions and garlic and nearly a dozen balls of aging cheese hanging from the beams.  No doubt a place fit for the Tsar.  “We are not rich, Stefan Mataovich.”
* * *
The interior - Note the samovar on the left
The Russian great stove is on the right
In the early 1980's my uncle John, Vanya, returned to Hutava after a fifty year absence.  He claimed the village hadn't changed much with the passage of time.  While there he took several photographs and recorded several reels of Super-8 film.  Unfortunately, an overly enthusiastic Soviet X-ray machine fogged the photographic images.  The film, however, came through in pretty good shape.  Below are some clips from film taken in Hutava.

Vanya posing before a Hutava izbah.

Vanya demonstrating he hasn't lost his driving skills

During the various wars that swept across Russia in this century, thousand of izbah were burnt either by the Russians scorched policy or punitive actions by invading armies.  Either way the hardships foisted upon Russian citizens were horrific.
By whose hand?
Hutava was destroyed during the First World War by the retreating Russian army.  The description of its destruction was described simply in Banners: For Gor, Tsar and Russia.
* * *

By late afternoon only a thick column of sooty smoke marked the location where the village of Hutawa had stood.  By the next day that too was gone.
* * *
Twenty-five years later, Hutava again suffered the same fate.  This time at the hands of the advancing Germans.