A Cup of Art

Ivan’s Garden: An Autobiographical Landscape

A good man is hard to find.
— Flannery O’Connor

Georgia O’Keeffe once joked that she came from “the tale end of the earth.” My artistic origins are best described as “a frozen-fringe off the fabled Eden.” Ivan’s Garden was the name our family affectionately used to identify our summer dacha. A dacha is the Russian version of the American cabin but with a significant difference. A Russian’s dacha is rarely that second home in the country maintained merely to escape the normal work routine a few weeks each summer. For most families in Russia, ours included, it was that indispensible ground to grow food to survive the coming winter. The drawbacks of the Soviet social system could only be outmaneuvered with extraordinary effort. And in our case, that struggle was led by an indispensible man named Ivan.

Ivan's GardenPapa Ivan, as my sister and I lovingly called him, was not a simple man. Despite his usual soiled clothing and unkempt appearance, both caused, of course, from toiling endless hours in his garden, Ivan was well educated and quoted extensively the words of Lenin and Tolstoy. Like most men of his era who fought Russia’s Great Patriotic War, he was hardworking, hard-drinking and a loyal Communist. But his quiet independence and overall competence engendered suspicion with local party officials. As a result, Ivan was never offered well-paying important positions. He spent most of his life toiling physically taxing odd jobs with little pay.

Our dacha was located on the Siberian-Steppe in Central Asia; a 25-minute bus ride from Semipalatinsk, the small city where we all lived and were born. Papa Ivan was proud of where he came from because it was the outpost a Tsar exiled his favorite Russian writer, Dostoevsky. It is a harsh environment that produced a tough people and — according to what Ivan always acknowledged — collectively provided each of us a natural opportunity to seed, cultivate and harvest special talents. Like Dostoevsky, Ivan was conscious of being entrapped within the era he lived. So it was in his garden where he worked on, planned for and dreamed of that better life toward which all Russian social ideals aimed. Papa Ivan inspired my ambitions; and it was in his garden where I first learned to paint and dreamed of becoming an artist.

The three of us shared this dacha with Papa Ivan and our Babushka Olga. Ivan and Olga were not our actual blood relatives. Just before her divorce, my mother adopted them as grandparents for my younger sister and me. Her parents had unfortunately died when she was young, and Ivan and Olga were never blessed with children. They lived next door in our apartment building. The close relationship we developed was an ideal fit. Ivan and Olga were loving and honest, but poor. Our dacha needed strong man’s hands to tame it; and with our drunken father completely out of the picture, we all came to rely on the protection Ivan’s fortitude provided. For Ivan, the garden was like discovering a blooming fountain of youth. It offered him a second chance. His considerable exertions renewed his soul while they nourished our bodies.

Like everything in Soviet life, there were formidable rules governing dachas. The actual dacha dwelling itself could not exceed 100 square meters and was never allowed to be more than one-story high. The entire property was precisely limited to 4,225 square meters, a hair over one acre. So, in the summers we were packed tightly together inside our dacha, while Ivan made sure every available square-meter outside was under some form of cultivation. Being a lone man surrounded by four women, he reserved plenty of ground to grow a wide variety of flowers.

It took Papa Ivan two long summers to complete a brick wall to fully enclose the dacha house and its garden. Unexpectedly, the neighbors complained, organized a protest, and persuaded the area agriculture deputy to order Ivan to tear it down — a Mr. Georgi Obuchevski, an incompetent yet overbearing apparatchik Ivan derisively nicknamed: “That Idiot, Mr. Gorby.” One day, a large message suddenly appeared, nailed to our dacha gate from Mr. Gorby: “Tear Down This Wall!” But Ivan had thoroughly and accurately weighed the complicated regulations, and my mother hired a lawyer. As long as it was under 150 centimeters high, a brick wall surrounding Ivan’s Garden could not be forbidden. It stayed.

The well-built brick wall successfully kept deer and countless rodents from feeding on the garden’s abundance. But before long, Ivan noticed it also discouraged bees from frequenting the garden as often as they once had. He solved that problem by raising his own bees in wooden boxes stacked carefully in the far back corner near the apple tree. It didn’t take long before Ivan made peace with the neighbors with seasonal gifts of honey. And about five pounds of it a year was usually enough to keep “That Idiot, Mr. Gorby” from further muddling Ivan’s plans.

Enclosing Ivan’s Garden accomplished his ultimate vision: Ivan maximized the yield of the entire area by using the additional vertical space the brick walls provided for vine-growing fruits, a variety of garlic, as well as delicious blue, black and other berries. And in a section where the wall was perpetually shaded, Ivan planted climbing ivy. The spiraled English ivy he chose included a unique green flower that burst wide open each summer, but for only two weeks. Every summer, exactly when it bloomed, Ivan would repeat to me the same sweet compliment: “Luba,” he would smile with his few remaining teeth, “this flower will always remind me of your beautiful green eyes.”

It was within Ivan’s Garden where my love of landscape painting first took root. I painted that shady wall with its special ivy numerous times, later adding the words “Ivan’s Garden” across the bottom of one of my better compositions. Within those two words, four green flowers emerged between the closed-loops made from my careful Cyrillic lettering. Ivan framed the painting in sweet smelling pine he cut from the nearby forest; it hung for years in Ivan and Olga’s apartment directly above their kitchen table.

Ivan and Olga are both gone now. My mother has abandoned our dacha back to nature. The painting of Ivan’s Garden now hangs in my kitchen, here in America, next to a window where I look out over my own garden. And on its wooden fence, back in the shade, grows that English ivy.