The strangers you’ll never forget

Traveling is about the places you see, but just as much about the people you meet. Once in a while during your travels, you have an unexpected encounter with a stranger that leaves a big and unforgettable impression. The Russian painter Anatoly Deryabkin is that kind of stranger to me.

How I met Anatoly Deryabkin

Novgorod is one of the oldest cities of Russia. The city centre is small but cosy, a bit quiet and neglected here and there but preserved and elegant enough to be World Heritage since 1992. It’s the perfect getaway from busy, noisy Saint-Petersburg. Me and my two travel companions were walking around  just outside the walls of the Novgorod Kremlin, the historic city centre. We crossed the pedestrian bridge from the left bank of the Volkhov River to the other side and stumbled upon at least a dozen of little churches and chapels, scattered throughout the area. Some of them were restored, others were left untouched. Right in front of one of those freshly painted white churches, a man came from the other direction, slowly, with a big smile and a twinkle in his eyes. He looked like he was in his sixties, had grey, uncombed hair but a well-groomed mustache and glasses with more lives than a cat. An improvised necklace with a collection of oddly shaped keys was dangling around his neck, against his bare chest. He introduced himself as Anatoly and started talking in Russian. 

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Even though one of my travel companions understands and speaks Russian, the translation was a real challenge: the conversation seemed to be a mixture of jokes and actual facts but we were never quite sure when to laugh and when to be serious. For example I remember us standing there, as Anatoly pointed at a stone in the grass right next to our feet. “My wife is buried here”, he said with a sudden sadness and we all looked down, staring at the ground, wondering what to do next. That was a joke. He told us he was a painter, flaunted the keys around his neck and said his studio was right around the corner. If we care to have a look inside? We followed him towards a big metal fence on the right side of the white church. It had several heavy locks and Anatoly opened them all. Before we entered, he said he actually lived in a big house just a few miles away but preferred to work and live here, in the basement of the church. We never found out if that was a joke or not, about the house.

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The door on the right was the entrance to Anatoly’s studio
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Anatoly opening the gate to the basement

Moments of genius

The basement was dark, dirty and dowdy, smelling of wet paint, leftover food, old blankets and damp air. There were books, paintings, posters, pictures and papers everywhere, covering the walls and furniture, with huge amounts of useless clutter piled up on one side. The only window was covered with a thick, red blanket and a vintage lightbulb made the room bathe in a yellow shine. Anatoly made room for us to sit on his bed and proudly presented us his works. Turned out he was a genius artist with an amazing life so far. In one of the art books that he was featured in, we read that he’s an art major and that he had worked on the reconstruction of many ancient Russian cities, restoring famous monumental fresco’s, oil paintings and icons. Meanwhile he started making his own paintings and drawings, which allowed him to travel the world and participate in several exhibits. He talked to us about the fake antiques that were sold to tourists  (Novgorod is famous for its ancient icons), showed us pictures of his family (or at least we think it was his family), pulled out different kinds of interesting old objects (like 13th century jewelry) and handed us a heavy folder containing dozens of his drawings and paintings. We each got to pick one to take home. I asked to take his portrait several times, but he failed to stand still at each attempt, continuously looking around for other stuff to show us.

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Inside the studio

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Anatoly pulling out all kinds of objects
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Showing us how to see the difference between real icons and fake ones
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A feature on Anatoly in an art magazine
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One of his family albums. I think this was his grandchild
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One of the rare moments I was able to take a decent photo of Anatoly

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Another object Anatoly gave us as a souvenir: an old abacus.
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Posing for a photo together. FLTR: Lieven who speaks Russian, Anatoly, Isabel and me.

After we left, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of loss. It’s weird how a complete stranger can touch you like that. I didn’t know whether to feel sorry for this man who looked like he was living only half the life he used to live, or to feel happy and even lucky, for meeting such a creative person, rich in experience and rich in life. All I know for sure is that he’s a stranger I’ll never forget. If you ever go to Novgorod, try to locate that little white church with the big gate on the side. If you see Anatoly, tell him he’s somebody’s favorite memory of Russia.

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One of the paintings we got to take home
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And another one

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