The Russians are Here 

Gallery 5 puts together an ambitious month-long festival on all things Russian.

When it comes to cultural festivals, Richmond does not lack in diversity — from the Greek Festival to the Italian Festival to the Festival of India. Just when you thought all the bases were covered, Gallery 5 presents the month-long "Mending Fences: A Festival of Russian Arts, Culture and History." While other festivals tend to rely heavily on food to draw a crowd, Gallery 5's festival casts a much wider net with a goal to promote understanding between the United States and Russia. The festival features an ever-growing list of events that will appeal to an eclectic group — including Cold War buffs, art enthusiasts, music fans and people with an interest in Russia — and offers a rare opportunity to experience Russian art and history.

The festival kicked off with a private reception Nov. 1. Keeping close to the bridging-of-cultures theme were a cold meat and cheese platter from the European Deli and generous pours of Richmond-made Cirrus vodka. Attendees included a delegation from Belarus, business and civic leaders, and art patrons, mostly in suits, a departure from the 20-something crowd that usually gathers at the gallery.

Richmonder Olga Carpenter, Mrs. Virginia United States 2005 and a native of Belarus, welcomed the crowd in a big tulle dress and crown. Francis Gary Powers Jr. a Midlothian resident and the son of U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, was on hand to promote his Cold War museum, which is currently mobile but looking for a permanent location. Such a diverse crowd may well indicate the vast cross section of the local community to whom the festival will appeal.

Aside from promoting the artwork, Amanda Robinson, Gallery 5's founder and creative director, would like to change perceptions as well. "We've had this Cold War mentality for so long," Robinson says, "and we're trying to show that Russians are people, and they have a lot of rich tradition and culture, and a lot of that is in Richmond." Of special interest to Robinson was the fact that most gallery goers have not had the opportunity to experience Russian art. "I was a minor in art history, and I was exposed to one or two artists who were Russian," she offers as example.

The festival is a collaboration among a variety of organizations, including the Russian Cultural Centre, the Russian Art Project of Maryland and the Lazare Gallery, a Charles City gallery specializing in the School of Russian Realism and master paintings from the Soviet era. The collection of artwork — some of which will be part of a commercial art auction on Nov. 18 — ranges in style from impressionist work to political propaganda to avant-garde and religious iconographic paintings from the early 19th century.

"I was very interested in the propaganda posters," said Powers Jr., who will share stories from his father's career on Nov. 14. "I didn't know what to expect when I got here, and this is just wonderful."

A showcase of vintage Russian film reels and photography from World War II, along with a selection of photographs from Yuri Gripas, official photographer of the Russian Orthodox Church and a Reuters news agency photographer whose work has been featured in major publications like The Washington Post, The New York Times, Time and Newsweek, are also on display.

Along with the history, art and lectures, music will also have its night Nov. 8. Local band Special Ed and the Shortbus will open for popular Russian rock band Billy's Band. (Their last album was titled "Being Tom Waits," which sounds like a good indication of their aesthetic.)

"This show has grown exponentially since we first thought about it, and instead of having an art show with some video and photos, we have the entire month with different things going on," explained Tom Robinson, Amanda's father and international liaison for the Russian Federation's Ministry of Emergency Situations, and a festival collaborator and speaker. "It has grown because the Russian community is very interested. No one has really told their story before."

Olga Carpenter is excited by what the festival means for the community. "We are so similar in many ways, and I think this is a great chance to learn," she said. "I think what makes this different is that it's set up by people's initiative — not the government or the state — it's Gallery 5, and people who love the idea that put the festival together." S

"Mending Fences" runs through Nov. 25 at Gallery 5, 200 W. Marshall St. For a full schedule of events go to or call 644-0005.

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