Irina Kopchinskaya: To ensure that Belarusians are seen and heard...

Moscow resident Irina Kopchinskaya, originally from the region of Grodno, is awarded the Frantsisk Skorina Medal for philanthropy
Moscow resident Irina Kopchinskaya, originally from the region of Grodno, is awarded the Frantsisk Skorina Medal for philanthropy

The President of Belarus has recently awarded the Francysk Skaryna medal to Irina Kopchinskaya, Art Director of the Belarusian folklore ensemble ‘Yarmarka’ from Moscow, for her considerable personal contribution to the strengthening of cultural ties between Belarus and Russia.

Information about the Moscow resident can be found both online and in the press, in her unusual way she has enriched Belarusian national culture. The newspaper Golas Radzimy printed an article entitled; ‘If two motherlands are in your heart’ (GR, January, 24th, 2008). The article reviewed a conference being held by the Society for Expatriate Links for the leaders of creative groups from Belarusian communities abroad, and Irina was among them. In the interview she described how the Yarmarka group began mainly due to her liking for Belarusian national costume, "I restore the details of traditional clothes, searching for them in ethnographic sources. My collection is growing and I currently have twelve reconstructed models. I imagined how beautiful the combination of costume and song would look on stage, and I decided to create an amateur group." Irina explains, “I was born in the capital, and my parents are Moscow residents, while my grandfather is a native Belarusian.”

During this year’s conference of Cultural Diversity in the Federation, in a session entitled ‘Belarusians of Russia’, the Chairman of the community, Valery Kazakov, invited Irina Germanovna to contribute. “A unique project works within the limits of autonomy and maybe autonomy works within the limits of this project...” she said humorously. “I refer to Irina Kopchinskaya`s long-term work and her invaluable cultural group." Well-known in Russia and in Belarus, writer Valery Kazakov asked the congress to ‘give Irina five minutes’ to show her work in order to have a true taste of Belarusian culture. Irina not only sings, but also revives the melodies of old songs and recreates Belarusian costumes, including distinctive dresses from the different regions. Seeing the costumes makes it possible to imagine how people looked at festivals and holidays in the past.

Why is such detail and accuracy, present in Irina Kopchinskaya’s work, so important in the costume business? In Belarus for instance, there are many groups and singers who attempt to appear on stage looking like ordinary people, without penetrating the peculiarities of Belarusian national costume. National costume is sometimes seen, even in publications, with a gaudy mixture of styles, colours and cuts, not typical of the Belarusian tradition. It is important that someone with knowledge of the traditions can give a good example to others.

During her speech at the ‘Celebration of Cultural Diversity’ event, the native Moscow resident welcomed everyone in the Belarusian language, "Hello, honourable state! I congratulate you all on this meeting!" She drew attention to the fact that she was wearing the costume of her ancestors from Grodno Region and reminded the audience that she has been making copies of traditional Belarusian costumes from the different regions for the last 20 years, keeping closely in touch with Belarusian cultural historians from the National Academy of Sciences, and also the Chair of ethnology from the University of Culture and Arts: Tatiana Pladunova and Vyacheslav Kolotsey.

“The special relationship between national costume and song is received in Moscow and at the various festivals with great interest,” Irina said. “For almost 10 years we have been regularly visiting different places. Thanks to the songs and costumes, many people have seen and heard of the diverse Belarusian culture: there is a distinctive Belarusian language, which has four basic dialects, as well as a distinctive style of clothing. This year, our ensemble celebrated its 20th anniversary, and four singers have been in it from the very beginning. They are Tatiana Grekova, Olga Yatskova, Galina Ivanova and Lyudmila Maslennikova. We work hard, we sing songs in different dialects. We do a great deal to ensure that Belarusians are heard and seen in Moscow. We have 16 well-prepared cultural programmes.” To give an example, Irina Kopchinskaya sang two couplets from songs in various styles, which were recorded in different regions, and delegates and visitors to the conference applauded her.

At the end of September, when the Business and Culture Centre opened in Moscow in the Belarusian Embassy, the special guests were welcomed by the amateur artistes of the ‘Yarmarka’ group. Irina Kopchinskaya introduced five traditional Belarusian costumes from different regions of the country. The residents of Moscow take a great interest in the creativity of the group and its leader. As well as performing in Belarus, Yarmarka participated in the first Festival of creativity of Belarusians from around the world in 2012 in Minsk and Vitebsk. As a journalist, it would be interesting to learn more about her work, following our fascinating conversation.

Irina Germanovna, I heard that while creating the national costumes, you use the drawings and sketches of the well-known artist and historian Mikhail Romanyuk.

Yes, the research of such a well-known expert cannot be underestimated. I also have various slides and photos which show in detail valuable exhibits from regional Belarusian ethnographic museums. I know that the creative heritage of Romanyuk is used by young artists from Rostov-on-Don. The Belarusian artist Vladimir Bantsevich teaches them.

Vladimir is also the author of interesting books for children, leads Russian-Belarusian cultural projects, and has been head of the Union of Belarusians in Don for many years. Is it possible to say that his pupils use his sketches when they paint about national Belarusian ceremonies?

I have heard that this is the case. Also a beautiful booklet with those children’s drawings was issued. I think it is wonderful that the young are interested in Belarusian national costume. I also use Romanyuk’s work. I consider it to be part of the general cultural heritage of all Belarusians.

Mikhail Romanyuk is an intermediary between the owners of rare authentic costumes and modern artists, and also designers and fashion designers.

I have interesting volumes by Mikhail Romanyuk entitled; ‘Belarusian National Costume’, published in Minsk in 1981 and 1992 and ‘Belarusian National Costumes’ (2003). Romanyuk created one of them with Victor Govorov (he made slides in particular) in the 1980s. I noticed that not all of them were included in the album, those that were not used are now in my possession: the widow of the photographer, journalist and writer gave them to me. It is interesting to see how he described crafts: he revived both traditional blacksmithing and ceramic crafts, and even learnt to do all these skills himself. On October, 20th, 2012 we had a Memorial event devoted to Victor Antonovich Govorov: about 600 of his slides were shown with distinctive background music. We have held more than 20 of these literary-musical meetings called ‘Get Acquainted: Belarus’ in the cultural centres and libraries of Moscow. Victor Antonovich came to live in Moscow in the 1970s, although he came from Vetka, the well-known regional centre near Gomel. My collection has one costume from Neglyubka, and I’m expecting to get another one from Vetka. However, I sometimes hear that Russians in Moscow trace their roots to the southern part of Belarus and see Gomel as part of their Russian heritage. For example, the Moscow ensemble ‘Narodnyi Prazdnik’ in its project ‘Funeral of the Arrow’ introduces Polesie’s tradition as ‘Russian’ (though it is from Belarus’ Gomel Region) and teaches people folk singing changing the Belarusian words. They even issued an album where traditional Belarusian songs are presented as Russian. And in answer to my comments they just say: ‘What’s the difference!!!’

Only those who are ignorant of the facts would see Gomel Region as Russian. It is easy to refer to the history of Vetka to understand who the native residents are and who are immigrants. Representatives of other nations have lived peacefully in Belarus since ancient times. Belarus has long experience of multinational life. Old Believers ran from Russia to places where they could profess their belief freely. They came to Belarus as refugees where the local people protected them and gave them shelter. Belarusians did not destroy their belief or culture: so it blossomed... However, we return to costumes. What do you call what you do?

Our costumes are reconstructions. They are created anew based on those Belarusian models which are available in museums of local folklore, and ethnographic museums.

But how is it possible to get an exact reconstruction without weaving and spinning traditional materials such as flax?

Well, I am not a spinner or weaver. We restore colour and form not fabrics. The exact cut and form of the costumes corresponds to how people made them. How they made it can be seen in the valuable volume ‘Belarusian National Costume: Cut, Embroidery and Decorative Seams’ by Olga Lobachevskaya and Zinaida Zimina (Minsk, Belaruskaya Navuka, 2013). While the texture of the fabric in my costumes is different I try to choose the closest as possible to the original. I take modern flax and fabric, and the basics of the clothes are made from it. I make a copy of hand woven work on the fabric and do the embroidery myself. As a result, I have costumes which are close to authentic models. This is my passion.

Do you consider yourself to be an expert in Belarusian costume?

No, just an amateur... though, to tell the truth, I know the main features of pattern and cut. While well-known art historians Olga Lobachevskaya, Zinaida Zimina and Maria Vinnikova are professionally engaged in this business in Belarus, I cannot encompass it all. I see a certain model and I decide whether I can restore it or not. I look at the colour and use everything that I can find on a certain region. I pay attention to whether the pattern is dense or sparse as well as other nuances. From a pile of different fabrics I choose the one I need and make a costume. I already have more than ten costumes complete and, as I am not rich, I collect different rags, and people also bring them to me: as they can be useful in my work.

What do you do for a living?

I earn my living using my knowledge of German culture, language and German dialects. I also worked in a defence complex for 20 years, with radio-electronic equipment. When the defence complex collapsed at the start of the 1990’s, I finished courses at the Lomonosov Moscow State University and earned the right to teach the German language. I worked in a specialist German language school under the Academy of pedagogical sciences. We involved children from lyceum number 1571 in some of our projects and photoshoots, I had previously taught the German language there. For the last 6 years, I have been teaching lessons on the programme ‘Belarusian Cutting image’, which I devised myself. The picture here shows a beautiful Grodno costume. There is a purpose to my working at this lyceum, which is involved in cross cultural exchanges between Belarus and Moscow.

The newspaper Golas Radzimy (October, 4th, 2012) wrote about Gubarevich under the heading ‘Romanticist keen on archives’.

Thanks for the prompt. Perhaps he could help me to learn more about the gentlemen of the Gubarevich family to which I owe my roots. In 2011 I received the previously restricted documents, and I needed identification of my grandfather: his name was Stepan Osipovich, his surname was Gubarevich-Gubarenya. I prepared an article for literary miscellany ‘Skarynich’ using archival documents describing the history of his life, his period of oblivion and memory regeneration. It is possible that, for some reason, he called himself Gubarenya in 1913, working at the Petrograd steamship company. While in 1921 he was already using the double surname in his documents. He was born in the village of Kashubintsy, located 10-20 kilometres from Skidel on the Kotra River. I was born Gubarevich, while Belarusians also have a close surname: Uborevich.

We know that you have creative contacts with well-known folklore expert and ethnic cultural expert Ivan Kruk. How did you establish them?

We became acquainted in Minsk during a training course for the leaders of creative communities abroad: he was the previous speaker to me and I paid close attention and had many questions for him. I attended four such courses. Ivan Ivanovich sometimes visits Moscow book fairs and we often meet to discuss various cultural-national problems. To be honest, it was he who helped me to move closer to my Belarusian origins.

Has your ensemble changed over the years?

Not really. Since 1994 the ensemble has had 4 participants, and since 1997 has been called Yarmarka. Everyone has grown up, the women have three or four children. Now the group has 8 people, I. Betanova, E. Naryzhnykh, L. Sopelkina, N. Seliverstova, T. Yeliseeva are our old-timers. We perform often and also hold festivals in the Moscow House of Nationalities, in the Northwest district of Moscow (Strogino). Sometimes we have a problem when those who would like to work with us want to show off on the stage, to be famous while we need ethnographers, artists and composers. Certainly, new costumes appear in our group. Here is [she shows pictures] the Gomel costume, and I have collected all the fabrics to restore it. While this is a Slutsk costume fully restored. The fabrics are stored in 38 boxes for 38 different costumes, I probably won’t make any more.

Do you loan your dresses for films or any presentations?

No. I do not give them to anybody. Purposely. I would not want them to become misshapen or pulled in tight. I also want to protect them from getting lost! If we visit or perform in a particular place, we give them information that we use songs and costumes from certain regions of Belarus. Today our repertoire contains more than 400 songs which we have managed to collect from different regions. We have created 16 programmes and all of them are different. In general, I write a programme for each performance, I mention the names of folklore experts, place of recording, names of rural singers etc.

Do you show both songs and actions on the stage?

We do not have a lot of acting as concerts are usually time-limited. For example, some ethnographic collections include sayings, and songs recorded without notes. We take folklore which has not been recorded with a musical background. I have recorded over 240 ethnographers who for more than 120 years worked in this field. I am creating a catalogue of their work.

In one of Anatoly Statkevich-Cheboganov`s books from the series ‘I’m Your Son...’ [it is easy to find them on the Internet, the author transferred them to the library of our Embassy in Moscow] there is an article about the literary critic, Evlaliya Kazanovich. She is a native of Mogilev, comes from a Belarusian aristocratic family, worked in the Pushkin house in St. Petersburg and was one of its founders. She recorded and investigated Belarusian Volochebnye songs and published ‘Dialects of Ozeransky Land’, they are introduced in the book.

"Thanks, I am constantly in search of new ideas as I host the `Get acquainted: Belarus` events. It takes a lot of time, but I make progress learning many interesting things.

I read that one Russian woman, during the concert in the Moscow house of nationalities, characterised your singing as ‘mischievous, inviting, guttural and even erotic according to modern terminology’... What do you think of such comments?

It is just the opinion of an amateur, professionals would laugh at such a review. The way we try to sing the Belarusian songs in our group Yarmarka, is called deep-resonance. In Russia people sing like this unless they are in ethnic Belarusian lands such as Smolensk Region, Bryansk and the Western part of Kursk Region. We learnt to sing in the authentic Belarusian language in remote places of Belarus, and we even passed an examination in Minsk, to the Associate Professor of the chair of ethnology and folklore of the University of Culture and Arts, Tatiana Pladunova.

Apart from museum models, what are your reconstruction of costumes based on?

The collection of Victor Govorov, about whom I`ve already spoken, has two and a half thousand slides. 600 of them were digitized, including those of the writer and activist of the Belarusian diaspora in Moscow, Valery Kazakov. In due course, I would like to give this valuable material (which I keep in memory of a remarkable person and researcher) in digital format to Belarus, to Gomel. It would be marvellous to hold a Victor Govorov memorial meeting there.

Do you have other projects in progress?

Yes I have. I want to issue a retro-album under the title ‘Travel across Belarus of the 60-80s’, the years when Mr. Govorov made those slides. I also plan to put to rights those songs which are still heard but which are not recorded. To sing, to record them, to translate into Russian... And then to issue all this as a collection entitled, `Belarusian Yarmarka sings: 20 years`, decorated with pictures of costumes and stories about the separate regions. Once I was given a folklore collection from 1934. The texts were interesting. I remember the words and melody and I also found unknown lyrics in that collection. It is important to get them written down in time.

In Belarus some folklore groups perform at exhibitions and fairs to entertain the buyers. They create a cheerful festive atmosphere. Have you taken part in such events?

Yes, we take part in Koliada [the pre-Christian winter festival], we also participated in the Kupala Night holiday in Moscow’s Kuzminki Park, as well as the Slavic writing days in Moscow Oblast and Christmas meetings in one of the Catholic Churches of Moscow. We took part in national holidays in Suzdal, Bryansk. But folklore is different and cannot always be performed in town squares. I consider our art in some measure elitist, because I believe that national culture has a highly spiritual mission.

Interviewed by Ivan and Valentina Zhdanovich

Time to comprehend traditions

How do experts see the work of Irina Kopchinskaya? Are her reconstructions of national costumes, based on models, valuable for Belarusian culture? We asked well-known researcher and ethic culturologist, folklore expert and teacher Ivan Kruk. The author of 15 monographs and numerous articles about the spiritual heritage of Belarusians now works as Editor-in-Chief at the Publishing House Obrazovaniye i Vospitaniye (Education and Upbringing).

We can confidently say that the works of Irina Kopchinskaya are of great value, as well as the famous Slutsk belts. Belarus has such authoritative experts as Valery Zhuk and Boris Lazuko who consider this to be a national brand. However, it should always be made clear what is original and what is reconstruction. Master gunsmiths make historical reconstructions, restoring old weapons and armour. If a reconstruction is made at a high professional, artistic level it is very worthwhile. When my grandson, for instance, was born I wondered how to give him the experience of Belarusian fairy tales and other national creativity? The main thing is that spiritual traditions should be passed from one generation to another

Sometimes, at meetings with different audiences there are disputes: for example, should we wear embroidered shirts for the sake of preserving Belarusian authenticity, or not? Although it is not outside appearances that make you what you are, and there should not be any specific rules, traditional clothing can influence the soul. Actors know this feeling well. I have often heard them say that if you put on traditional clothes for a performance you feel and play your role completely differently.

Every day we wear the clothes that everyone usually wears, while at Christmas and for special occasions you can wear our traditional outfits. Not everything that is in our souls should be turned into a show, much less `to be sold` or performed on stage. I remember that once we arrived in Loev District of Gomel. The local women came to one bank of the river Dnieper, while the second group appeared on the other bank. They started singing! Songs flew across the river to one side and returned from the other. It would be impossible to recreate such a special moment in stage conditions?
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