Out of one, many

Valentin Kozhevnikov

Photo by Larry Dalton

In the middle of the carnival that is Old Sacramento, a number of importers have opened up shop. One of the most interesting, Russian Collection, is owned by Valentin Kozhevnikov, a Russian art-dealer who sells beautiful hand-made nesting dolls and icons from his hometown. Featuring everything from simple traditional female images to characters from Alice in Wonderland and fine golden paintings of the Virgin Mary, the nesting dolls are each hand-crafted and can take, according to Kozhevnikov, as much as a couple of months to make.

How did you decide to open a shop in Old Sacramento?

Oh, it was a long time ago. In 1994, I came here to Sacramento … This art business is business of my wife actually. She’s a Russian artist. I’m not an artist. I have another business … I know everything about business, about economy. I pay taxes, I do everything here, but I have no idea how to paint these nice things here. We have an art studio in Russia and there are approximately 40 or 50 different professional artists. We travel forth and back twice a year for new merchandise. And we receive articles by mail also … We prefer to travel to Russia in the summertime and stay here in the wintertime.

Where is the art studio in Russia?

It’s a city on the Volga River. Name of city is Ulyanovsk City. It’s approximately 600 miles from Moscow to the east, closer to Siberia. It’s real Russia. Do you know real Russia? Real Russia is rural Russia. My American friends here, they say, “Don’t believe it. New York is not real America. Real America is something different.” So, Moscow is not real Russia. We live in real Russia.

What is real Russia like?

Very, very good-natured. Beautiful river, wild nature—real wild nature. Very good summer, and very cold winter. Lots of talented people; lots of talented artists.

How do your artists choose their subject matter?

Artists who paint traditional things like this … you see? Traditional ethnic dolls. It’s exactly like they made it 100 years ago. Just woman’s face here [points to doll’s painted face]. No nothing except some ornaments, flowers, no more. Modern artists, they paint everything, all over the world. Fairy tales, I don’t know, cats and dogs, everything; subjects from country life …

How did the tradition of making these dolls get started?

The meaning of this doll, it’s a family meaning. One life was born inside other, and that was born inside another one and so on and so on. So here is woman’s face, not by accident. They never painted man here. Woman symbolized the origination of life, not man, in olden time. Now woman doesn’t have same symbolic meaning … In old time, woman was person number one in family. Grandma was person number one in family. Man was always in the second place. Man was some kind of provider, just for hunting, fishing, drinking, enjoying [laughs] …There was a legend in old times, that if you keep nesting dolls in your family, your family will never stop. It will continue and continue.

What are your favorites?

[Moves through shop] There’s an artist, her name is Tanya. She works in our Ulyanovsk studio. Her work, it looks like ceramic. It is all wood, but it looks like ceramic. She’s professional artist. She formed ceramic paint school, it’s very old art school in Russia, in central Russia near Moscow. Seven-hundred-year-old tradition of painting. Her family a couple of years ago, they moved to our city, Ulyanovsk City on the Volga River, and there’s no ceramic at all. And we suggested to her to paint on the wood. And she said, “OK, I’ll paint on the wood, but it will look like ceramic.”

Do you get a lot of Russian customers?

From Russia? Yes. Some tourists, when they come from Russia to visit California, they come to us and say, “We never see these things in Russia.” We don’t sell them in Russia. We sell them here.

Is there anything you really miss from Russia?

Hard to say. We are missing our friends, of course, but this is our business. We come here to make business, to make money. We create work for Americans here, and create work for Russians in Russia. We help to build a bridge between two countries, and I’m very proud. It’s a tiny business, very, very small business, but it’s a good idea. Two countries, Russia and the USA, should be closer and closer. Why not? We were split many, many years. Now, I believe it’s time to be close, and I’m very proud. I’m very glad that many Americans here, they understand Russian art, they love Russian art. They can appreciate it.

Do you have any artists who live in America who work for you?

No. You know why? I know lot of people here who can create the same, maybe even better … but nobody will work for such money. This collectible doll … it’s $430. This set, this artist, her name is Irene. I know exactly. We ordered this doll from her in April and received it in July.

It takes her how long to make one?

Approximately two months … The retail price here, it’s $430. If you find me an American artist who agrees to work for two months for $430, just give me a call! [laughs]