Heirs of prominent Russian artist Ilya Repin come to Belarus from abroad for first time to visit memorable sites relating to their famous forefather
In 1899, the outstanding Russian painter Ilya Repin bought land in the village of Kuokkala (near St. Petersburg), building Penaty Estate. After the 1917 Revolution, Kuokkala became Finnish territory and the artist was obliged to emigrate.
The life of his granddaughter, Tatiana, was just as complex. In 1892, she settled at Repin’s summer home: Zdravnevo Estate, near Vitebsk, on the picturesque bank of the Zapadnaya Dvina River. With her husband, Ivan Diakonoff (the son of a local priest), she worked as a teacher at a local primary school. However, the political Sword of Damocles hung over them, as they were former land owners. Unsurprisingly, in 1930, the family moved to Repin in Finland and, after the artist’s death, went to France. Until recently, none of the Diakonoffs had officially visited former Soviet sites previously connected with the famous painter. Only once did Tatiana’s son — Kirill — visit Moscow, accompanying the Mstislav Rostropovich Orchestra in the early 1990s.
Not long ago, a landmark event occurred, with Kirill’s four children visiting Repin’s homeland in Ukraine, also coming to Russia and Belarus. Let’s look at how they were welcomed in Vitebsk and their feelings on visiting Repin’s Zdravnevo Museum-Estate, which is situated not far from the Belarusian regional centre.
Kirill Diakonoff’s children — Ivan, Nadine, Michel and Serge — arrived with their families and numerous relatives, making a large delegation of 18 people. The oldest was 59 year old Ivan Diakonoff, who works as an engineer with the famous France Tйlйcom Corporation and lives in Lyon. The youngest were Nadine’s 20 year old daughter, Celia Autechaud, who is a student of classical literature, and Michel’s 14 year old son, Cyprien, who is a college student.
“It was only on visiting Kiev, Kharkov and Moscow that we discovered Ilya Repin’s true popularity within the former Soviet states,” admits great-great-grandson Ivan Diakonoff. “We are astonished to learn how carefully his memory is being cherished in Belarus and how much his artistry is known here.”
“Of course, visiting Belarus, we’d like to learn more about our prominent ancestor,” explains Ivan’s brother, an engineer and computer specialist from France’s National Institute for Applied Sciences, Michel Diakonoff. “Zdravnevo was where our father Kirill was born (unfortunately, no longer living). Looking at your woods and fields through the train windows, we imagined our father as a small boy, running through this beauty. It was very exciting.”
Unsurprisingly, Nadine Diakonoff, a physical culture teacher from St. Йtienne, burst into tears on approaching Repin’s Zdravnevo Museum-Estate, filled with emotions. “Some view these places as part of the history of art but, to me, they embody the history of my family,” she admitted. Ilya Repin’s father is buried in a village cemetery near Zdravnevo, as is Dmitry Diakonoff — the father of Repin’s granddaughter Tatiana’s husband. When the large French delegation arrived at the cemetery with flowers, it was as if a broken link between centuries and generations was restored.
Judging by the names of Repin’s heirs — Veronique, Alexis, Sophie and Adrian — it’s evident that the family never forgets its Russian roots.
Ivan Diakonoff’s daughter Marina works at a primary school and, on being told that her Russian name would be Marina Ivanovna, says, “Of course, to some extent I feel myself to be Russian, being proud of my roots.” As if confirming these words, she repeats a Russian phrase often heard from her grandfather Kirill: ‘Don’t talk with your mouth full’.
Speaking of whe-ther they speak Russian at home, Nadine notes, “My father spoke fluent Russian but, as his wife was French, he spoke French with his children — showing respect for her. The Diakonoffs were obliged to flee their native home, leaving behind Repin’s pictures; they took only a few small drawings from Zdravnevo, which were later sold in France, to help support the family.”
Michele confirms that the Diakonoffs’ forced escape to France was a true tragedy for the family. “It was such a drama!” he admits. “I’ve always felt that my forefathers were nostalgic for their homeland, which they loved but had to leave against their wishes.”
Interestingly, among Repin’s French heirs there is an engineer, a teacher, a manager, a carpenter-cabinetmaker and a financial consultant — but not a single painter. Svetlana Terekhova-Mayorgas is a remote relative of Ivan Diakonoff. She was born in Pskov and now works with the Union des Russophones in France. It is she who organised the large family’s visit to Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. Svetlana is the only delegation member to speak Russian, explaining, “When the family settled in France, no time was left for art. To ensure a steady income, all the young people were taught engineering.” However, even among these ‘technicians’, some are clearly talented and artistic. Serge Diakonoff is an engineer and electrician but is keen
on restoring old watches. “These outlandish mechanisms are my passion,” he smiles. “I restore them for myself and my friends but, not long ago, I also restored a large clock from the tower in my village.” On being asked whether he is an artist, he replies, “I hope so.”
Nadine’s son, Ivan Autechaud, has other talents: teaching physical culture and playing the accordion with a band. “I’m impressed with the grandeur of Zdravnevo Estate and am surprised to see so many interesting photos of my relatives,” he says. “I play reggae with my band and feel inspired to now learn Russian, so I can compose a song in this language. I’ve been told about the Slavonic Bazaar Festival in Vitebsk and believe that it would be fantastic for our band to take part.”
The Diakonoffs have donated a hand written collection of Repin’s poetry, belonging to granddaughter Tatiana, to Zdravnevo Museum-Estate. The original was sadly lost from Zdravnevo during an inspection by the Soviet KGB. In France, the poems were rewritten from memory, with some new poems added in French. Lovers of Repin’s Zdravnevo Museum-Estate may now form a club in France; a similar club already exists in St. Petersburg and, on learning of it, Michel Diakonoff immediately expressed his eagerness to find out more.
By Sergey Gomanov
Nostalgia for Zdravnevo
[b]Heirs of prominent Russian artist Ilya Repin come to Belarus from abroad for first time to visit memorable sites relating to their famous forefather [/b]In 1899, the outstanding Russian painter Ilya Repin bought land in the village of Kuokkala (near St. Petersburg), building Penaty Estate. After the 1917 Revolution, Kuokkala became Finnish territory and the artist was obliged to emigrate.