Along the fertile banks of the Ural River, located in the Orenburg Region
of south central Russia, the southern most steppes of the Ural Mountain
range stretch across a seemingly endless expanse of treeless terrain.
This terrain doesn’t appear to end until you reach the border
of the neighboring republic of Kazakhstan.
that make up this small corner of the Russian Republic, just one of
several post-Cold War entities that now comprise what is called the
Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS, give one a sense of going
back in time to the late 19th century, a time when picturesque country
communities of thatch-roofed houses adorned with shutters of intricate,
hand-carved mosaics were commonplace.
are warm, friendly and extremely inquisitive. They delight in welcoming
strangers into their homes with a sense of dignified hospitality. While
enjoying cups of freshly brewed tea, they want to hear of the ‘outside
world’, for most villagers will never venture beyond their local
borders. In reality, life has changed very little for these simple,
but hardworking and proud people.
Once a major stop on the ancient silk route that snaked its way from
China to Eastern Europe, the Orenburg Region is still considered the
intersection of the boundary dividing Asia and Europe. It is, for the
most part, a simple life...on the surface seemingly uncomplicated by
the intrusion of the electronic media, post-Cold War politics, and the
inevitable enslavement that modern technology leaves in its wake.
hardly fitting our modern day definition of cosmopolitan, the talented,
creative people that call this region home have perfected a craft literally
of which legends are made. For centuries, the ‘women of the steppes’
have been hand knitting exquisite gossamer web shawls from the down
of a very special breed of goat indigenous to this area.
legend records it, this tradition finds its roots in the 18th century,
borne of the desire to end the almost unbearable boredom for the wives
of Russian soldiers stationed in this remote section of the expanding
Russian empire during the long and bitterly cold winters.
time, the Orenburg Region was home to a number of nomadic tribes whose
craftsmanship with the locally produced goat down was destined to become
the subject of Russian folklore. The soldier’s wives, impressed
with both the beauty and warmth of the undergarments made from this
fiber, began to perfect the art form themselves.
Over subsequent generations, the knitting patterns became more intricate,
evolving into the legendary spider web designs we see today; shawls
so fine that they can easily pass thru a common wedding band, hence
the name ‘wedding-ring’ shawl.
knitted lace has represented an important part of the Russian character
for centuries. For the women of Orenburg, it has meant so much more
– a tradition...a legacy...a livelihood that has guided generations
from adolescence to adulthood, providing a basic sense of personal achievement
The breakup of the former Soviet Union was inevitable, and the enormous
disillusionment and economic chaos that resulted, although somewhat
surprising in its depth and intensity, was not altogether unexpected.
But the unabashed fervor with which so many of Russia’s treasures,
particularly her art, found their way to the open market, available
to the highest bidder, was beyond comprehension.
Russian citizens it represented the loss of a piece of their soul as
they bore witness to the savage rape of much traditional Russian heritage
for motives of profit and personal gain. For sure, the Orenburg lace
knitting industry could not escape the turmoil that followed in the
wake of glaznost and perestroika.
The success of this once-thriving cottage industry had depended largely
on its modest government subsidy, and the termination of this meager
funding ultimately caused the Orenburg lace cooperative, or Kombinat,
to close its doors permanently in 1995, effectively rendering the industry
obsolete. With no resources, guidance or market strategies available
to them, many knitters were forced to abandon their only source of income,
most often the families’ sole income vehicle.
as it was to accept, an art form was literally on the verge of extinction.
But with Galina Khmeleva’s tenacity, dedication and focus, today
Orenburg knitted lace is in the midst of an unprecedented renaissance,
highlighted most recently by the remarkable resurrection of the Orenburg
Kombinat Knitted Lace Cooperative, nearly ten years to the day that
this Soviet-Era casualty of the Cold War met its demise.
about GALINA ALEXANDROVNA KHMELEVA.