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Vladimir Grechukhin "The “Mind, Honour and Conscience” of Pipe Design in Russia" (article from Cigar Clan Magazine)

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In the Grechukhins’ flat, the smell of tobacco is barely perceptible. For sometime now the head of the family has preferred the non-aromatized types of tobacco and, apart from him, no one else in the flat smokes. It’s a typical flat in a typical dormer suburb of St. Petersburg. From outside, you would never guess that this was the home of Russia’s chief master pipe-maker (the title is unofficial, but for many years it has been beyond doubt and disputed by no one), and only a couple of dozen briar pipes found in one of the rooms without any of the reverence due to their origins provide a slight hint as to the profession of the head of this household...

Vladimir Kazimirovitch, what interests me is where you got your passion for pipes from. Was it something hereditary?

Well, bearing in mind that the pipe was traditionally an attribute of the aristocracy and the intelligentsia, and that my grandfather was a peasant and my father had proletarian origins – though he later became a soldier and reached the rank of colonel – I hardly think heredity comes into it. But, it’s true; my father did smoke a pipe, though since he died when I was only six, I can’t remember seeing him actually smoking it. I do remember messing about with it, but my mother soon put a stop to that, and the pipe was taken away never to be seen again – by me, that is.

No, the real connection came a bit later. What happened was that during the 1970s my mother worked as a fire service inspector, and her area of duty included the arts workshops in the Smolensk District of St. Petersburg. One day, she got a visit from the legendary Alexei Borisovitch Fyodorov for permission to open a pipe-making workshop. At the time, I was eighteen years old, had finished my schooling and was trying to get a place at the Mukhina Academy, but failed the selection board. So my mother asked Fyodorov whether he would consider taking me on as a pupil. And, as it happened, Fydorov was looking for two apprentices.

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He took you on without any selection process?

There was a three-month trial period, but by the end of the first month I was taking part in a joint exhibition with Fyodorov. True, I was not showing pipes, but the men’s and women’s cigarette holders that I had made according to Fyodorov’s instructions. I’m not wishing to sound boastful, but my cigarette holders turned out well – literally from the day after I started work. Actually, this was not as surprising as it may sound, because I’d been going to arts school since I was twelve, and I’d been carving wooden figures since I was a kid...

Had you heard anything about Fyodorov before you actually met him?

Where from? I knew practically nothing about smoking at the time. I’d just tried a couple of cigarettes, that’s all.

And did the old man let you work with briar straight away?

No way! This wood is incredibly rare, and there were enormous difficulties getting hold of it through various devious means.

Was it smuggled in?

Pretty much so. It had to be brought in from abroad, because it doesn’t grow in Russia. At the Yava Factory, they utterly ruined it... It made us furious to see the rubbish they turned out. Briar pipes from Yava cost from three to six roubles, whereas the pipes that me and the old man made from what they called hard woods – plane tree, maple and others – cost from thirty to fifty roubles. Enormous sums for those days!

It sounds as though your work was almost immediately on a par with that done by Fyodorov?

No, each of us did his own thing. It’s good for master craftsmen to work alongside each other so they can help each other, but not try to compete against each other. That always leads to conflict. And when you work together, there’s nothing to squabble over. Apart from which, don’t forget that I was only nineteen, while Fyodorov was seventy five. I won’t say we became close mates, but I was a frequent guest in his home, we went to the baths together and had interminable conversations on all sorts of things. The old man liked to philosophize and he had a brilliant singing voice. If you like, I’ll put on a cassette of his songs...

Who wrote them?

Yuri Rost. At one time Fyodorov performed professionally on the stage under the pseudonym, Alyosha Kochevoi. And he went down very well with the ladies. Later, though, he unfortunately lost his voice.

They say the old man had a problem with alcohol.

He drank like Professor Preobrazhensky: forty drops before a meal. He called it ‘wetting his whistle’... But a drunkard could never have worked to the age of 85. Fyodorov used to come to the workshop in the morning, work for a couple of hours at his bench, and then have his lunch. After that the talking would start... I have to admit, I didn’t like being distracted. I was so much into pipes that I’d spend Saturdays and Sundays in the workshop. And to have the opportunity to work there during the day, I even transferred to evening courses at the Mukhina Academy, where I’d got a place in the Faculty of Design.

Were you with Fyodorov till the end?

Only for the first three years. After that we split up. The old man wanted a workshop right in the centre of town on Zhelyabova. It was a tiny, dim cellar. I got offered a place at a decorative and applied arts combine, which was a beautiful, bright workshop and just a ten minute walk from my home. I talked it over with Fyodorov, and then went to work there.

And the master didn’t object to his fledgling now flying away from the nest?

I hope he understood me... But in any case we had to go our separate ways so we could work without treading on each other’s toes.

When he was very old, Fyodorov publicly recognized that you had surpassed him in the making of pipes.

Well, that’s only natural, I suppose. I mean, I had an academic education and I’d learned a lot about drawing when I was still a kid. I’d imbibed the concept of proportion with my mother’s milk, so to speak. I was accepted as a member of the Union of Artists twenty years ago for a collection of pipes made of mahogany. But the old man... excuse me for saying this, but he was completely self-taught. A self-taught genius, mind you.

A pipe requires a special approach, filigree work and absolute precision. Incidentally, that’s one of the reasons why I’ve never allowed any of your photo-correspondent colleagues into my workshop. You can take some fine pictures of a glassblower or even a smith, but I just sit in front of a small vice with a tiny file in my hands... And I don’t do anything much except move the file backwards and forwards very, very carefully. Sometimes I might lick the surface of the wood to gauge its smoothness – and that’s about as exciting as it gets. There’s nothing in the least photogenic about my work. On the other hand, the slightest wrong movement – and a valuable piece of wood has to be scrapped. A bit that you’ve cut off can’t be glued back on... On the other hand, if your hands are working properly, you can make a first-class pipe with literally one nail.

When did you get the right to put your own stamp on your work?

There are no rights of that sort as such – it’s something each person decides for himself. In my case, everything happened almost immediately. Fyodorov gave me the letter ‘G’, and I put it on my very first works. Fyodorov himself used the letter ‘F’.

On certain pipes that the old man considered particularly valuable, he marked them with three ‘F’s.

At the end of his life he put the triple stamp on everything.

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And you?

At first I tried to imitate the old man, but then I thought that I shouldn’t single myself out especially. Signatures aren’t written out three times... Anyway, that’s my personal opinion; if the old man wanted to do something else, he had every right – he was after all a legend in his own lifetime. Incidentally, Fyodorov didn’t achieve real fame till he was seventy four, so I’ve still got everything to look forward to...

On Fyodorov’s desk there was a framed photograph of Alexei Tolstoy smoking a pipe. On the reverse side of the photo, the classic writer had written the following words which I remember by heart: “Old friend! Look at the piece of rubbish I’ve got in my mouth. Something needs to be done to it. A.Tolstoy.” It was quite true – as was the fact that the old man made around a dozen pipes for that famous French smoker, Georges Simenon, including a completely unique one on wheels. I made three pipes for the creator of Maigret and two cigarette holders, on which Simenon wrote the word ‘Beautiful’. At the time I was 23.

Incidentally, that reminds me of a true story, which sounds more like an anecdote. At the first ‘Slow Smoking’ competition that was held in St. Petersburg four years ago, I was the honorary chairman of the jury. When the competition was over, one of the competitors – a very striking man of about sixty – triumphantly announced that he was the possessor of a unique collection that contained six Fydorov and four Grechukhin pipes. Then he proposed that the next competition should be held in memory of those two great pipe masters, Fyodorov and Grechukhin. I timidly raised my voice from the hall and said: “Excuse me, but I’m not dead yet...” You should have seen the man’s face – his eyes almost burst out of their sockets. It turned out that the poor chap, who was about ten years older than me, had bought the pipes a quarter of a century ago and put me among the classics – and, as we all know, the classics are supposed to be dead...

Well, you know what they say in Russian: whoever gets buried before they die is bound to live a long life.

Well, I’m in no hurry to get to the next world, I can assure you... But the point I’m getting at is something else. I started making pipes years ago and worked on them for about nine years without a break. I must have turned out about three thousand at the very least. But then what? It’s not so much that I got tired of doing it, but suddenly I felt like trying my hand at something else, while remaining a free agent. I’ve never in my life received wages or a salary, only payments...

What about your company that was involved in selling pipes?

It’s not something I like to recall very much, as the experience was not one of the best. Everything went well at first and we made a good living for three years. Then tragedy struck: the person in charge of the commercial side of the business was killed in an air crash. I’m an artist; business is not my field, so... Basically, I changed over to industrial design and began designing plastic toys, turbines and all sorts of things. I forgot all about pipes for a while and left them alone for several years. But then I got the urge again. I got a very nice bench and put it in the corner of my workshop, and gradually went back to my old trade. But now I made pipes exclusively for enjoyment. Of course, I sold them – but that was no longer the main issue. In my opinion it was these pipes that really made my name.

And you’re not sorry you sold them?

You see, I’m a romantic at heart. I believe that every pipe has its own destiny. There are some that have lain for years in their boxes waiting for the right owner to come along. And one day without doubt that new owner will turn up... But in any case, my finest pipes were never sold, but given as presents. I gave Yuri Rost one, for example, and never took a penny from him. Then I once made a beautiful straight pipe with a very long neck and gave it to Alexander Shirvindt on his sixtieth birthday. And I gave him quite a few other pipes too. I also gave pipes to Arkady Arkanov and Kirill Nabutov... I could allow myself that luxury, since for the last twenty five years I’ve been earning my living in a different way. When a pipe is made on a conveyor belt, it takes about four hours. But I’ll take a week or more over it. The longest I ever spent working on a pipe was two years. It was a very tricky pipe – every time I took the block to start work on it, I stopped afraid that I might make a wrong cut and spoil it completely. I finished it in the end and for a couple of years I kept it at home. Then a pipe collector from France came to St. Petersburg. His name was Bruie – perhaps you’ve heard of him. He’s an artist and an archaeologist, who has done a lot of excavation work in Jerusalem. We were introduced and I showed him the pipes I had to offer. Bruie looked at them, then shook his head with regret: “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t afford to buy pipes like these.” Then, as is the way of things, we drank some vodka, and I told him I would give him any pipe he chose for the purely symbolic price of $100. Bruie was no fool, and immediately got his paws on the very pipe that I’d sweated over for two years... Later, my friend Vasya Azemsha went to see Bruie in France, and told me that in his home he had a whole wall full of pipes, but that mine stood apart from the others in the place of honour.

Had he at least used it – or put it straight among his honoured exhibits?

Of course, he’d smoked it. I said that each pipe should have its own destiny. And once a man has chosen it, that’s the way it should be – that is its destiny. A pipe is not a hobby, not a habit, but a lifestyle. I know of nothing that can be closer to a man. Some people are mad on cars, others collect weapons, but you can’t put a car in your pocket or walk down the street with a gun in your hand – unless you want to end up in police custody. But a pipe is always with you in the palm of your hand. And you may have a lot of pipes, but each, like the concubines in a harem has its own love story with its master.

Have there been occasions when you have refused to give or even sell a pipe?

There have. If I don’t like the customer. I’m never rude or anything like that – I can always find a diplomatic way of turning down an order. What’s important for me is that the customer loves pipes and knows quite a bit about them.

I can guess your answer to this question, but I’ll ask it anyway: does Oleg Yankovsky have any of your pipes?

No... I don’t want to offend Oleg Ivanovitch, but all his pipes are curved one way or another and, to my mind, do not suit the form of the face. Basically, they’re gift items. When I earned my living making pipes and needed them to be bought, seven out of ten I made would be curved and only three straight. I knew that a real connoisseur would only choose a straight pipe for himself; a curved pipe would be bought as a present for someone else: it’s more showy, attractive and appealing to the eye – so the dilettante would automatically choose it.

So what about Sherlock Holmes’ pipe in the films where he’s played by Vasily Livanov? Is that wrong?

I don’t want to seem to be a snob or an anorak, but I’m sorry: the actor doesn’t know how to smoke properly and the pipe is all wrong. I was there, incidentally, when it was made, but it was one of the orders I turned down... Livanov posed nicely and had a fine profile before the camera – but that was about it. Now there are lots of people who like to pose with a smoking pipe before the camera – they think it gives them an added charm. But if you want to see a master pipe-smoker, then watch Alexander Shirvindt. Have you seen the film Three Men in a Boat? Amazing! And all of Shirvindt’s pipes are straight. They jut out horizontally and look as if they’re part of his body. And he can sit like that for a whole evening. Stanislav Govorukhin is another person who smokes properly, doing everything as it should be...

You can spot a real professional from a thousand different indications: how he holds his pipe, how he fills it, how he lights up with match or lighter... But apart from all this, there are some faces which are quite unsuitable for pipes. A suitable face should be adult and impressive, and then a pipe will go well with it. Young people would do better not to take up a pipe so as not to look ridiculous. They may have a lot of money to spend, but there are things they can spend it on more sensibly. And as for young girls – among whom I understand pipe-smoking is becoming fashionable these days – well, I think it’s not even amusing... Then again, I go to the pipe-smokers’ club, where I chair the slow smoking competition, but I find it hard to imagine Yefim Kopelyan taking part in such a contest. Previously the relationship between a man and his pipe was different – more respectful and romantic, I suppose...

Can you betray a pipe with a cigarette?

It’s not betrayal, just weakness. There have been periods in my life when I couldn’t smoke a pipe for up to a year. And on some occasions I’ve smoked a cigar with great pleasure. True, I understand absolutely nothing about them, and certainly don’t try to pretend I’m any kind of connoisseur. A cigar requires a special approach of its own, but in my view it can’t compare with a pipe, which requires peace of mind, a certain thoughtfulness and measure. You can smoke a cigarette in the street or at a bus stop, and people turn to cigarettes when they’re under stress and nervous tension. None of this is suitable for a pipe. I’ve got a friend, Tolya Shaginyan, who emigrated to the West years ago and worked with Alexander Galich on Radio Liberty... He’s an inveterate pipe-smoker. But after a good meal, he always likes to smoke a cigarette, justifiably claiming that after a sumptuous meal, a pipe is not suitable; it needs a more subtle atmosphere.

I know you’ll deny it, Vladimir Kazimirovitch, but I detect a faint breeze of snobbery wafting through your words.

I don’t in the least deny it. On the contrary, I’d say it was essential. Every smoker is convinced that his pipe is the best and that he is better than anyone else at choosing tobacco. But do, say, dog lovers behave any differently? Ask any of them and you’ll be told that they have the finest dog in creation. And that’s the way it should be!

Have any of your pipes ever been advertised?

There have been several occasions, but I’ve always changed the pipes without giving any explanations as to the reasons. You see, sometimes the wood can have hidden defects which result in the pipe burning. On the other hand, I’m not perfect – just a person doing a sophisticated piece of engineering, where everything from the smoke channel to the thickness of the walls of the bowl to the angle of incline are important...

Could you ever smoke a pipe made by somebody else?

Yuri Rost gave me several pipes, and I smoke them occasionally out of respect for him. But I can’t imagine going into a shop and actually buying a pipe. I wouldn’t find that in the least interesting! I’ve never looked through pipe catalogues in search of ideas and I’m never likely to. I much prefer looking at automobile magazines. There I can see the curvature of lines and unexpected designs, which I often feel I’d like to be able to reproduce. I have bought some old antique pipes, but not for the purpose of copying – merely for aesthetic interest.

Of course, what they sell in our arts salons under the name of ‘pipes’ is another story entirely. As far as I’m concerned, they’re no different to Christmas Tree decorations – bits of lacquered wood with rings round them. Pipe kitsch! They must turn that stuff out by the thousand – and not a scrap of soul in any one of them...

But there are world famous brands, like Dunhill, Savinelli and BBB, the quality of whose products cannot be doubted.

Undoubtedly there are. But take Dunhill – in the first place that is a skilfully promoted brand. Yes, the quality is impeccable; yes, the product is excellent, but... Do you know the history of the company? It was started at the turn of the last century and specialized in making cheap pipes for soldiers. The fashions were primitive, if not to say crude. But then someone got the idea of converting this simplicity into the company’s style. The idea was gradually refined, brought to perfection, and became the company’s symbol everywhere. Today, a Dunhill is as much a part of a gentleman’s belongings as a Parker pen, a Brioni suit and a Mercedes automobile...

It’s said that Stalin only smoked a Dunhill.

I’ve no idea, but I wouldn’t be in the least surprised, if it turns out that this story is yet another skilful move on the part of the PR men. As for Uncle Jo himself, I don’t consider him in any way to have been a serious smoker. What sort of serious smoker would shake out the tobacco from Hertsegovina Flor cigarettes and use it to fill his pipe? Incidentally, the old man once made a pipe for Stalin – on his own initiative as a gift. Then he went to an exhibition where they were showing the numerous gifts that Stalin had been given. He couldn’t find his pipe among the other exhibits, so he decided that Josef Vissarionovitch had kept it for himself... Maybe he did, but there’s no historical proof to confirm it.

Have you got any of Fyodorov’s pipes?

Well, there’s this one, for example. With a triple ‘F’. But I’m not a collector, you understand. I just keep it in memory of the old man. And to remind me that I still owe him a debt. Shortly before he died, he told me that in place of a gravestone, he wanted a pipe that had been sawn in half to be placed on his grave. At the time I promised to do it, but have still not got round to it yet. It’s shameful to admit, but after the funeral I never once visited his grave. As I’m telling you this now, I realize that it’s time to repay my debt...

And share the inheritance – the creative one, I mean.

You know with my pupils nothing much ever happened, even though they were talented lads and very promising. Obviously, in our trade patience and skilful hands alone are not enough. But I don’t get depressed about it, when I recall that the old man first saw me when he was seventy four years old. So we’ll wait and see...

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