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The Siberian Times

Revival of ancient art of birch bark carving in Western Siberia

By Antonina Koshcheeva
25 September 2015

Flourishing trade in souvenirs and household goods.

The birch must be cut in early spring: too early or late is no good, and an unusually warm winter can prevent the right kind of bark being harvested. Picture: Antonina Koshcheeva

It is similar to leather, but not a leather; somehow like cardboard, yet not cardboard. Light, velvety and solid. But if you smell a box made of it, you will certainly take a whiff of the Russian banya (steam sauna), the incomparable smell of birch. This is also a business that is distinctly Siberian.

Birch bark goes back a long way: manuscripts dating from the Middle Ages were made of it. It was used in construction, with birch bark roofs lasting 40 years. It could be used for clothing and jewellery. In Tobolsk and Tomsk regions, local craftsmen made birch bark 'pussies', a rug-like creation used as a rain cover.

During Soviet times, with the country making a giant leap towards industrialisation, these traditional crafts died out. 

Inna Gnedkova, a 48-year-old business woman, said: 'In the late 1980s, Moscow's Izmailovsky market looked desolate: there were about five people selling traditional handcraft items. Then in 1991, the financial crisis hit (as the Soviet Union collapsed), and many people lost their jobs in banks, factories and offices. 

Siberian birch bark
Western Siberia has the finest trees, the right climatic conditions and the most skilled artisans. Picture: Inna Gnedkova

'The new capitalist system brought demand for customer goods, so some of the redundant people found their way recalling ancient crafts and began to make money out of it. Whole villages, for example, were making blank matryoshka dolls for further painting, doing pottery and practicing other long forgotten crafts.

'Izmailovsky market in Moscow was soon full of these beautiful things which you can easily find today.'

Among them were birch bark products, many originating in Western Siberia which - experts say - has the finest trees coupled with the right climatic conditions, not to mention the most skilled artisans. Such products included tujes (storage boxes), bread containers, salt shakers and pepper casters, pocket mirrors, passport covers, bast shoes, goblets, jewellery and hundreds of other articles. 

Siberian birch bark

Siberian birch bark
'In birch bark containers milk doesn't go sour even after a while, and other products last longer.' Pictures: Antonina Koshcheeva

The heartland of the revived industry is the Tomsk, Novosibirsk and Kemerovo regions. Asino - a town near Tomsk - is famed for its Golden Birch Bark festival.

For birch bark 'extraction', an annual temperature veering between extreme cold and heat is ideal, otherwise a birch tree will not 'give away' its bark, as artisans say. Such climate features are inherent only in Western Siberia and some northern regions. 

The frost makes birch bark thick enough and flexible for cutting: that is why bark obtained in the Urals or near Moscow is good only for weaving, making a thin layer over hardboard or some very small objects. Other parts of Siberia are not suitable, too: for example, in Barnaul birch bark suffers from a slightly warmer climate.

In Omsk region, the soil is less suitable. 

Siberian birch bark
Svetlana Masankina, 49, birch bark master from Asino, with her artwork – a folder for A4 papers. Picture:  Antonina Koshcheeva

The next requirement is pure air. As Inna Gnedkova said: 'Once we tried to cut off a sheet of birch bark in a city as an experiment and saw visible grey and black spots on it, proving that birch bark absorbs harmful substances.'

The birch must be cut in early spring: too early or late is no good, and an unusually warm winter can prevent the right kind of bark being harvested. It sticks to the trunk. Birch bark has qualities beyond its attractiveness. 

Siberian birch bark

Siberian birch bark

Siberian birch bark
'Beer or any other liquid doesn't get too warm in birch bark jugs.' Pictures: Antonina Koshcheeva

'In birch bark containers milk doesn't go sour even after a while, and the berries and other products last longer,' said Inna. Vermin won't appear in the groats. Beer or any other liquid doesn't get too warm in birch bark jugs.'

Another popular product today is bast shoes or inner soles woven from the fibre of birch bark. Birch bark shoes are less durable than those made of linden, but they are comfortable and have a great therapeutic value: the tar they excrete cures skin diseases and old sores.

Carving is not mechanised, so the individual skills of the craftsman are important, and lead to each one having his own style. As birch bark carving is taught practically nowhere, only a few artisans have an art degree or special education, but those who've studied arts and can draw are the most precious of all. Often a 'master' invents a particular object and makes only this; usually they specialize in either tujes or caskets and seldom both.

Comments (3)

PLEASE: give us a URL whereby Germans, Irish, and we Yanks can buy such wonderful items!
Buck Turgidson, Ekalaka, Montana, USA
09/10/2015 04:33
Incredibly beautiful artwork with a practical use... wonderful! I am enchanted!!

But now, how can one find this anywhere in western Europe, the Internet.... to buy it?

I love reading your articles and finding out more about Siberia, ist people and culture!

Greetings from north-west Germany.
Iris, Bremen, Germany
26/09/2015 16:14
Offering the opinion of an an artist from the western world this is an incredible display of talent....I'm almost speechless...birch has a beautiful bark and to see such pieces from it's use is a joy....I have used wood in my own artwork but these images display craft work on the grandest of scales.
Carmen, Ireland
26/09/2015 08:40

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