Monday, September 24, 2007

Of Kings and Queens, Pawns and Lacquer-ware

Checkmate! SHAKH-mat-ee, the Russian word for chess, is a cognate of the English checkmate and last Monday strolling through Gorky Park, I happened upon some SHAKH-mat-ee action. It’s not uncommon to see chess in the park but this was the first time I’ve seen women playing. It was a mild September afternoon and the players were so absorbed in strategy, they were oblivious to being photographed.

Russians have been playing chess for more than 1,000 years and today consider chess an official sport and include match results in television sports coverage. Grooming starts young for those with potential. Vasgen is a sharp kid 10-year-old in our children’s Bible classes and today I asked him about his chess classes. He noted that his classes included five and six years olds and that once he was beaten by a four year old. He has since switched to judo.

Russia has produced legendary players including Garry Kasparov, world champion of chess in 1985 at age 22. He has retired from competition but uses his notoriety to help push Russia toward democracy, he says. And nowadays when headlines scream his name it’s about his sharp criticism of the Kremlin. Kasparov has written a book *Life Imitates Chess.* I would have suggested he consider writing *Chess Imitates Politics* or vise versa. Certainly the political scene is ripe with moves and countermoves. And occasionally we’re reminded rather graphically that some of the key movers aren’t just playing. Checkmate!

A stone’s throw away from the kings, queens and pawns, a souvenir vendor had her khokhloma wares – pronounced hok-lom-A – on display as she does every day, regardless of the weather. Good thing it’s all waterproof, heat-proof and impervious to the elements. Khokhloma is easy to recognize with its red and gold paintings of flowers, leaves and berries on a black background.

Khokhloma is a 300-year-old style of woodworking that developed in the forests along the Volga. Producing a piece is a multi-step process which takes up to three years. Logs are dried for two years, turned on lathes in a workroom where, according to proprietary legend, there are still lathes used by Peter the Great. After more drying, comes hand-painting which can take weeks.

Like everything else, khokhloma has gotten more expensive and so it has been a while since I’ve stocked up on it as a souvenir to take home. A small spoon might run 20 rubles that’s about 80 cents. A little box would probably be 250 rubles or $10. But maybe I should reconsider stocking up on khokhloma spoons. Now that I think about it, they have been a hit with kids back home.

I’m reminded of a young girl in Montpelier, Vermont who just loved the spoon I happened to give her, not sure the occasion. I met her at church summer of 1998 when I was there enrolled in Russian language school. The girl’s mother told me later how much she enjoyed the spoon and insisted on eating her oatmeal with it each morning and then washing it in the dishwasher. Maybe I should reconsider those spoons. As colorful as khokhloma is, I find it a bit garish for the typical home. Perfect for Christmas though, isn’t it? And for kids too. Guess I might start a stash of khokhoma spoons and small items.

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(Teach Yourself) Russian Language, Life & Culture. (2002). Stephen and Tatyana Webber. By McGraw Hill./ Golden Khokhloma, website./ NPR website./ TimesOnLine (UK)./ Book worth checking into: Secrets of the Russian Chess Masters:

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