Every Soviet home had two types of dishes: those for everyday, and those for celebrations. The first was kept in the kitchen cupboard and the second proudly exhibited in the living room.
Glassware is the most commonly exhibited item in the home, from stemware to ornate salad bowls. Even today, we’re likely to take the same attitude with our ‘special pieces’ lifting them out carefully a few times a year for proud use. In Soviet times, owning crystalware was a sign of being well-off and having good connections, since it was difficult to acquire. Of course, as we all know, serving from a crystal salad bowl makes the food taste more delicious, just as champagne tastes better from crystal.
One of the largest crystal production centres in the USSR was the town of Berezovka, sited in Grodno Region.
Glass and crystal production in Berezovka began as far back as 1883. Even earlier, they began to blow beer bottles for the local landowner. The workshop was bought by the chief engineer of the famous Dyadkovo factory, Krayevsky, and the head of the atelier Stolle. They built a few more shops, and founded the Neman factory. By 1911, the company’s price list contained almost two thousand items, sold not only in Russia but in Western Europe. The factory was rebuilt from scratch twice, having been blown up by the retreating White Army, and then damaged during the Great Patriotic War. The first pieces produced in peacetime had to be designed almost from memory.
A spring tide of prosperity began in the 1960s, when Neman gained new shops and workers began to beat Stakhanovite records, making six million stem glasses annually. Belarusian crystal began to be found in every home.
“After the Dry Law was issued, we were forbidden from making glassware, or anything associated with alcohol, having to melt down pieces, and turning carafes into vases,” says factory employee Anton Gerasimov.
The 1990s left a serious imprint on the factory, since demand for luxury glassware fell dramatically. It survived only due to state support. . Now Neman exists mainly thanks to the help of the state. The Deputy Director for Sales, Zoya Novitskaya, tells us, “Recent years’ conditions haven’t been very favourable for the company, which specialises in handcraftsmanship. Inexpensive dishes from Southeast Asia have claimed most of our traditional market.”
Belarus continues to support its factories. Moreover, Berezovka, with its 10,500 residents, relies on Neman as an employer. About 2,000 are employed there, with crystal hand blown and hand painted.
The management of the factory is seeking out new markets, since two thirds of goods are exported. Neman crystal is appreciated even in the USA, where deliveries began ten years ago. Boxes of valuable and fragile cargo are sent to France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Bulgaria, and, of course, to the CIS countries. The factory’s portfolio contains more than 5,000 items of glasses, vases, dinner sets and other utensils.