How Old Are These Things Anyway?

Did you know…

…how many old Russian things are really NOT? All these neat, beautiful, cute, amusing knick-knacks we all love and thought have been here forever are really only 19th-century creations, often devised for tourists like us.

Take the Kokhloma style, the lacquerware with red, black and gold designs of flowers, fruit, and vines. We’re all familiar with the lacquered spoons, and the cups, bowls, goblets, and other kitchenware. I have them displayed in my kitchen, too, and I love the colorful designs. They look like the patterns and paints should date back at least 500 or 600 years. But no. Only to the XIX century.

Now some (or most) of the shapes of the lacquerware are very old. Spoons and bowls are similar to the wooden utensils found in excavations of medieval sites. Goblets look like the containers that haven’t changed shape in thousands of years: from mugs to buckets, they hold their form through the centuries.

The same is true of the lacquerware boxes. It would appear that both the workshops and the style date back no further than to the 17th or the 18th century. Some may have come into existence as far back as the 15th century, but not as producers of cute display items. That is a 20th century affectation. Their original purpose was as icon-painting workshops. And yes, even as far back as their early years, they could paint miniatures… of icons.

Some musical instruments have been discovered, and they look strikingly similar to modern folk instruments, and lead to suppositions that medieval music may have sounded a lot like the more familiar Russian folk music.

As for the fabled balalaika, that triangular, 3-string instrument, that is also a XIX-century creation. Let’s not even mention the ubiquitous accordion. And any musician can trace the appearance and travels of the guitar, another of today’s favorite instruments.

So if you want to explore the everyday life of a medieval Russian, don’t rely on anything you know of today’s culture. You’d probably be wrong. Follow my links, and then make your way to the nearest research library. Oh, and taking some Russian language classes wouldn’t hurt.

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