Buranovo is a modest village of 600 inhabitants close to the city of Izhevsk in central Russia. It achieved fleeting prominence a couple of years ago as the home town of the Buranovo Grannies (Buranovskiye Babushki), the singing pensioners who charmed judges on the Eurovision song contest in 2012. For the most part it is a place untroubled by fame. Wild strawberries grow in the fields and hills and there’s a river nearby that’s perfect for fishing.
Last summer I travelled from Moscow to meet the artist Zoya Lebedeva, who was staying at her parents’ house, which she has turned into a museum dedicated to her family history and the Stalinist Purges. Lebedeva chiefly uses basket weaving as the basis of her work. Formerly based in Moscow, she returned to her Buranovo, where she grew up, to care for her frail mother ten years ago and has never left. Today she makes baskets, dresses and textiles using local materials and the Udmurt language (which is indigenous to the region) as inspiration where possible. Given how heterogeneous Russia is, it’s not uncommon for artists to work with themes that represent the culture in which they grew up. The result is art that is created within personal frames of references and outside the boundaries of institutional spaces.
Lebedeva is one such artist. For her project Census, she walked through the village, asking neighbours to sing a song that was either meaningful to them or a reflection of their feelings at that particular moment. When not engaging the local community in her work, she gives lessons in basket making and is vocal about the commercialisation of the village, a push that has intensified since the Buranovo Grannies gained recognition. Lebedeva though is against marketing the village as the home of the “Buranovo Biddies”.
Instead, Lebedeva is creating an archive of village life, including recordings of traditional Udmurt music, with music producer Alexander Yuminov — and a little help from the Soros Fund. A keen storyteller, she is determined to preserve the world around her for the next generation. Joining her is designer Alexander Pilin who moved to Buranovo after its most famous residents, the grannies, found fame. He travelled to the village on a mission: he bought a centuries-old house and turned it into a felt museum and gallery. When he’s not at the museum, he’s lecturing on decorative arts and crafts at Udmurtia State University where he also teaches marketing. Together, Pilin and Lebedeva have approached the village administration for help to fix up the village to boost local tourism. They were predictably ignored — it’s rare in Russia for initiatives to begin from the bottom up, no matter how beneficial they may be.
Pilin went as far as devising a strategy to foster tourism and even offered his graphic design services as part of the village rebrand. “There are so many ways to make this happen, but noone is doing anything. We have been given us a budget and the media coverage has done its part thanks to the grannies,” he says. “The village’s administration doesn’t understand that there is money to be made if only they’d pull their finger out.” Another of his suggestions is to bring back the Gul Bazaar, a large market where people sang songs and sold locally produced goods from milk and honey to hand-made dolls. Pilin’s idea to market these products to tourists. “The residents of Buranovo can’t get their heads around the idea that nowadays people buy the potatoes that are in the prettiest packaging not necessarily the ones that taste the best or are the healthiest,” he says.
Pilin’s experience is by no means unique — most of Russia is largely outside of Moscow’s sphere of influence which means it’s more difficult for things to get done despite the numerous skilled individuals who wish to bring about reform. Looking at the bigger picture, the political situation in Russia at the moment — which is governed by nationalism and Orthodoxy — just isn’t conducive to cultural or social life. When I speak to Pilin, he tells me that people need to move forwards. “In Izhevsk there are state-run arts and crafts centres but none of them has it in them to create anything new,” he says. “They see things exactly the same way as their grandfathers did. In the end, Pilin’s project to develop Buranovo as a cultural outpost has been nothing more than a pipe dream: marketing in Russia doesn’t work, especially in the provinces.
When I visited the cultural centre in Buranovo the building had just been fitted with high-speed internet. During my visit, I helped staff print out tickets to a Buranovo Grannies performance — not one of the five young women working at the centre knew how to do it. Soon after I chatted to the centre’s director about culture in the village and future plans. From our conversation, I gathered the following: there are no plans, there is no money, hardly anyone is involved and they don’t know what to do. I guess that’s why Buranovo is stuck with the Grannies.