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Sunday, 7 July, 2002, 14:29 GMT 15:29 UK
Painter's rural idyll irks Russian villagers
Russian countryside
Much of the countryside has not changed for generations

Mekhovitzi's houses are the traditional Russian "izba", made of logs and boards and painted in rich blues and deep greens. A long, slow, winding river, snakes around the village, a hatching place for legions of merciless mosquitoes.

From a population of approximately 1,000, the village has dwindled to about 100 souls

There are no cows because no-one needs milk and cheese as most people left Mekhovitzi when the state-run linen factory closed down - and the linen factory closed down because the USSR closed down.

The Bolshevik revolution emptied Mekhovitzi, 60 kilometres (39 miles) east of Moscow, of its priests and landowners. The capitalist revolution is emptying it of everyone else.

From a population of approximately 1,000 in the early 1990s, the village has dwindled to about 100 souls.

Simple life

One of them is Pavel Petrovich Leonov, a painter who creates works of timeless, translucent beauty, but lives in a run-down hovel with his wife Zina and two cats.

Picture: Virtual Museum of Russian Primitive.Catalogue
Zina Riding a Horse (Zina - an Athlete). 1996

In winter they sleep above the stove and eat potatoes and onions. In summer Leonov spends the long days outdoors working on canvases nailed to his shed, while Zina tends their vegetable plot.

Mr Leonov arrived in Mekhovitzi in 1980, having been a carpenter, metal-worker, road-builder, factory-hand, and artist.

The former skills were mostly acquired during 20 years of forced labour, after he quarrelled with an army officer who pushed in front of him in a theatre queue in 1930s Kirovgrad.

Now aged 82, Mr Leonov is referred to as a "naive painter" - Russia's greatest - though there's nothing naive about this small agile man with skin like shoe-leather who has lived by his wits as both prisoner and free man.

Our life is not only toil ... work and festivities must be in harmony

Pavel Petrovich Leonov

Entirely self-educated and independent of any gallery network, Mr Leonov is an artist who has never eaten a canape, never done coke, never encountered the frozen white spaces of a contemporary gallery.

He's never even been to one of his own exhibitions. Yet the global village comes to him. That kind of popularity can rub people up the wrong way.

Imaginary village

Mr Leonov's neighbours are irritated by this artist who spends all day painting visionary images of a fully functioning community with a library, a theatre and a thriving church, while the real village - including his own home - falls to pieces around him.

Russians hope change will be more peaceful than in 1917

"That was a good house until Leonov and Zina moved in," says a woman leaning over the fence.

She plonks down her pail of water to examine one of Mr Leonov's canvases pinned up on the shed.

In the painting, bathers swim, fountains play, farmers are riding tractors, wives are feeding chickens and boys are fishing in the river.

"It's a salad," says the woman. "Absolutely unrealistic."

But these comments just wash over Mr Leonov.

"Our life is not only toil," he says, speaking the hard, functional Russian introduced during the Leninisation of agrarian life.

"Work and festivities must be in harmony. Joy comes from balance."

'I show what people can do'

What upsets the balance is when people steal his potatoes so he can't eat and his paints so he can't work.

My child can paint better

Mekhovitzi villager

Mr Leonov says he isn't interested in reproducing things as they are.

"I show what people can do: sing, dance, ride horses." He even depicts his wife Zina, who has suffered a drinking problem for many years, riding a beautiful black horse across summer fields abundant with crops.

"Of, course," says Leonov, "I have never seen her like this." He rolls up his painting and leaves.

The woman walks off, carrying her bucket of water and shaking her head in disbelief. "My child can paint better," she says.

As I head off for my potato dinner, washed down with 'samogon' home-made vodka, I spot a couple of teenage girls heading my way. The first kids I've seen all day.

Now that parliament has passed the land reform law there is a chance that people might return to the villages

"What do you think of Leonov?" I ask. "Crazy" they say. What do you want to do after you finish school?"

"Leave Mekhovitzi."

"What would make you stay?"

"A good disco."

Not an impossible dream.

Now that the Russian Parliament has passed the land reform law there is a chance that people might be encouraged to return to the villages and Leonov's legacy will not just be the "absolutely unrealistic" visions of a crazy optimist.

If the young people will stay, then the power is there, not just for tractors and harvesters but for discos too. It's a question of balance.

See also:

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