Julia Elman-Fish

Amsterdam , July 2007

 

He never was the same person to me as he probably was to others who knew him well or didn't know him at all – Lev Razumovsky, an artist, a sculptor, a war veteran, a man of an extraordinary and valiant fate. To me he was simply Uncle Lyova, a relative, my grandmother's brother. He was also a delightful magician of my childhood. When we are small we all await a miracle; a child's soul is prepared to absorb it entirely, instantly and unconditionally. Uncle Lyova probably knew it, sensed it, or perhaps just couldn't act otherwise; therefore every time I saw him was a special event. Memory is brutal; it tosses to me only glimpses of my childhood, but all of them are coloured in the joy, the warmth and the fascinating kindness of this extraordinary person. Perhaps now, after so many years – alas, not personally – I will make an attempt to thank him for this.

Uncle Lyova had a beard. None of the people I knew had a beard but he did, and the beard tickled me lightly when he kissed me hello on the cheek. He didn't kiss me often though; he treated me as an adult, with much seriousness and attention, and only deep in his eyes one could see the twinkling of little devils dances. In his presence I always somehow pulled myself up and felt a little shy, but my confusion would vanish in a split second when Uncle Lyova began to entertain me. Oh, how he could entertain! He told me unimaginable stories; he would tell them straight-faced, and surprised me and thrilled me and made me laugh till I cried, till my stomach ached, till my knees went feeble. By some sixth sense he guessed what would look funny and fascinating for a five-year-old girl, and scattered sparks of improvisation around him. Now when I play with my own kids I often think: what a great art it must be to understand a child and to lift him to your own level; to have a feel for him and make him happy never sinking to sweet lisping, a common mistake that even the best of grown-ups often make.

Uncle Lyova had a black glove on his left hand. I perceived it in the same way as his beard – it was some sort of a magic feature, as, for instance, would be an illusionist's hat or a sack of Father Frost. The black glove so naturally matched the romance of this image that it did not cause any sorrow or pain.

Uncle Lyova constantly made drawings. He didn't draw trivial princesses that I would request from anyone who could handle a pencil. No, his drawings were as bright and unexpected as his stories. No one could draw better, and the trick was not in his professionalism. Only he could, halfway through his cup of bergamot tea, draw this very Bergamot, a funny fat behemoth clumsily flittering transparent wings above a flower bed. Only he could transform my artless watercolour spots into a liquid weeping autumn with its fall of the leaves, rains and dampness. Only he could instantly make a series of pictures to a silly ‘the house that Jack built'-like story invented by my younger sister, and make it a brilliant killing comics set that my sister and I remember until this day. My clever grandmother keeps many of extempore art pieces by Uncle Lyova. Unlike me, she had always understood that his drawings were as invaluable as they were swift, and she tried to preserve these magic moments. Now when I hold these old faded sheets of paper, they warm my fingers.

I went to visit Uncle Lyova as other kids would go to the theatre or the circus: my heart sinking, my eyes wide-open. His flat was full of magic things, but unlike theatre or circus, the wonders in Uncle Lyova's flat were tangible. They lived there in an easy and even everyday manner, and this was most wonderful. Behind the glass on a kitchen shelf stood chess pieces; they were not ordinary chessmen but an opposition between Paradise and Hell, filigreed and very funny. Best of all I remember the pawns shaped as clouds and, respectively, flames. In the room on the piano there stood a little clown – you could put him on your hand, a finger or even on the point of your nose, and he wouldn't fall down but balance on his foot as if he were alive. Also, Uncle Lyova had a musical ball hanging in the doorway. You needed to pull the string and the ball would play a lovely tune. The ball hung quite high under the ceiling so I had to ask someone to wind it up for me, and this too had some mysterious charm, a combination of proximity and inaccessibility. For some reason I remembered these items best of all, although the house was full of paintings, toys and sculptures.

I realize now that everything connected with Uncle Lyova for me was an idea of an ordinary miracle. Every year for my birthday my grandmother would write a play that was performed by the puppets designed and made by Uncle Lyova. I was privileged to have my personal puppet theatre and had a chance to touch this magic each time I sorted my toys. My parents had a tubby Karlsson in their room, dressed in dark-blue trousers, with a happy smile on his lips. This work of Uncle Lyova was widely acclaimed and sold well in shops, but this was OUR Karlsson, the real one, Uncle Lyova's, our own Karlsson! This was kind of a home habitual miracle, so I wasn't surprised at all when I learned that Uncle Lyova had tea with Astrid Lindgren, the author of Karlsson books – with an idol of my childhood – when he visited Sweden . Why not? If I were told that Uncle Lyova had lunch with Father Frost, I would easily believe it as well.

When I was nine, a letter was found in our post-box, addressed to me. The mere fact that I got a letter was astonishing: I was a hothouse plant and there wasn't anyone in the whole world who could write me. Yet it was not just a letter but a love confession written in an uneven boyish handwriting, with ink blots, corrections and glaring errors! It was an offer of friendship, hand, heart and something else, with a drawing representing a red-haired hooligan on his knee in front of a skinny lanky girl with a long nose, the spitting image of myself! The hooligan's name was Petia Sinichkin, at least so it said in the letter. Naturally, I didn't know any Petia and no one had any doubts as to who was the author of this creation. All my family laughed then. I laughed too, but at the same time deep in my heart I melted, because it was the first love confession in my life, and it didn't matter that it came from Uncle Lyova. Didn't matter. And it is only now that I realize – yes it did matter; in fact it mattered a great deal. He must have loved me so much, this busy grown-up man, if he could make time and effort to think of me and give me part of himself, even at a distance, in a letter, in a drawing…

On a wall of my living room in Amsterdam I have a painting by Uncle Lyova. An inscription on the reverse side reads, “To my niece, to my beautiful girl, as a keepsake from Petia Sinichkin.” When Uncle Lyova died, the frame of the painting broke.

I wouldn't want to finish this sketch in a note of sadness. Uncle Lyova never made me sad, though God knows how much sorrow and grief he had to bear in his life. Let other people – those who knew him well or didn't know him at all – write about it. I just wanted to say a few words about a man who was a feast, who was a surprise, a generous magician of my childhood – this he will always stay for me. I am a happy person, because in my life there was a miracle designed by Uncle Lyova.

Many thanks to him for this.