People and puppets of long bygone age

The Museum of Theatrical and Musical Culture History leads a quiet life, attracting only the most dedicated. Its current exhibition, on the everyday life of Soviet Jews, includes witty and moving anecdotes, portrayed via Valeria Gaishun’s puppets
The Museum of Theatrical and Musical Culture History leads a quiet life, attracting only the most dedicated. Its current exhibition, on the everyday life of Soviet Jews, includes witty and moving anecdotes, portrayed via Valeria Gaishun’s puppets. 


Exhibition leaves none indifferent

The Jewish theme originates from her family: Valeria Gaishum was born in Leningrad, although her family later moved to Bobruisk, her grandfather’s home town, where the would-be puppet-maker lived for several decades. Her felt figurines show typical, slightly exaggerated features, made with humour, love and nostalgia. All the puppets demonstrate daily routines and household chores: cooking in classic Soviet kitchens, hanging out freshly washed linen, reading books, getting married and nursing their babies, leaving for Israel for permanent residence, playing the violin, working, and purchasing ‘imperfect’ goods under-the-counter.

Her characters’ prototypes are inspired by friends, neighbours and relatives, one depicting the artist’s beloved grandfather, as he sits, gently embracing puppet Valeria. Her puppet husband is also here.



Of course, each felt figure has its own history. It all began with the creation of the fictional Kantselson family. Valeria tells us, “The main character was the first Jew that I made, called Girsha. First, he was alone but, later on, he was joined by his mother; look, she’s sitting in a rocking chair. Although she has arthritis, she’s still the master of life. Whether a puppet is ready is clear immediately, as no more detail or addition is needed. Girsha’s mother was quite a hard job for me; I couldn’t think it finished until I’d hung a bunch of keys on her finger. After she received her keys to life, she calmed down and let me make other puppets. Afterwards, Girsha gained a wife, Rosa. As I wrote in a short story about this family, Rosa came with an enigmatic smile on her face; she was looking past Girsha, although he was always near her. Thus I understood that she needed a boy to cast her love upon. This is how Monya was born. Rosa is cooking, standing by the oven, while Monya is playing the violin for his mother. Then, Monya gained a sister.

After this, the Kantselsons needed neighbours, so Valeria invented company for them, and more puppets appeared.


Characters of the author

There are 39 felt characters on display, placed on old, dilapidated, Soviet leather suitcases, to symbolise emigration and life in the USSR, where most people took suitcases from upper shelves once a year, for their holiday. More puppets could be exhibited, but many are now ‘living’ with their prototypes in Europe, America, Israel and, even, the Philippines.


Valeria Gaishun

Valeria Gaishun is thinking about publishing a book of puppet stories, such as that about Nonna. She tells us, “She’s pulling her son, Dodik, in a sledge to kindergarten. She’s thinking about preventing Dodik from wetting his mittens when he washes his hands and from falling ill. She gave him a teddy bear to keep him from being sad. She thinks only of Dodik! Suddenly, Sara Tsalikovna appears, walking in the morning from the store where she bought milk. Can you see her facial expression? She’s realised that Nonna is wearing a coat made from the same fabric as she bought recently from a department store!”

Each of us can recollect dozens of such stories. Yet, not everyone is able to craft such characters, modest witnesses of historical events who, in small ways, bring to life a period of history forever gone.

By Irina Ovsepyan

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