Things are moving in the East !

by Erwin Van Hove

10/03/11

A decade ago, even the most knowledgeable pipe connoisseurs were not capable of quoting the name of a single Russian or Ukrainian pipe maker. Since then, things have changed. Radically. Who amongst you hasn’t been open-mouthedly admiring the fascinating creations of Michael Revyagin or the masterpieces of Victor Yashtylov ? And who can still ignore the existence of Russian and Ukrainian pipe artisans now that American and European pipe shops like Smokingpipes, Smokers’ Haven, Quality Briar, NeatPipes, Pfeifenstudio Frank, or la Compagnie des Pipes have started to sell the work of Shekita, Ailarov, Cherepanov, Grechukhin, Ponomarchuk ? And believe me, this is only the beginning. Because behind the Eastern borders of the European Community a tidal wave of new talent is building up.

How can we explain the fact that Russia and Ukraine are so rapidly evolving into a new El Dorado of the pipe ? The reasons are both diverse and logic. After the implosion of the USSR and the unbridled leap towards capitalism that followed, a middle class began to develop and genuine fortunes were made as well. Consequently, a luxury market was born. The work of the most prestigious Scandinavian, German, American and Japanese pipe makers was imported and offered for sale to moneyed customers. Parallelly, the internet spread and was democratised, and hence the Russian and Ukrainian citizens could discover both the images and the prices of the artisan made pipes. Obviously, these images spoke to the imagination, inspired and ended up launching vocations. All the more so as the prices must have spoiled the appetite of the less wealthy pipe fans. That’s why it isn’t surprising that some of them took the decision to attempt to manufacture themselves those pricey objects. A few even must have nurtured the thought that pipe making could become an interesting source of revenue.

Thanks to the internet, these budding pipe makers managed to find out which tools they needed and where to buy high quality materials. Next, the first Russians, like Victor Yashtylov, appeared on Pipemakersforum.com, the online American forum where experienced carvers answer the questions of the novice ones. Some even made the pilgrimage to the Chicago Pipe Show. And since, little by little, Russia became an export market for the European, American and Japanese artisans, these master pipe makers started to attend pipe shows organised in this promising new market. In short, the up-and-coming Russians and Ukrainians began to be in touch with the international pipe elite.

Suddenly, a triumvirate stood out and captured the attention of the most blasé collectors. In record time Victor Yashtylov, Michael Revyagin and Sergey Ailarov became genuine stars of the high grade pipe. And in their wake, a whole bunch of aspiring new artisans began to carve pipes and some of them managed in their turn to get noticed and to build a growing reputation. And this evident success for sure attracts, motivates and enthuses new candidate pipe makers. For proof, it suffices to observe the online forum where dozens of pipe makers established all over the Russian-speaking territory, discuss technique and aesthetics, comment each other’s work, exchange information and advice.

A last factor that explains the recent exponential growth of the number of Russian and Ukrainian pipe makers, is purely an economical one : according to the testimony of several neophyte artisans, it were the economic crisis and the unemployment that pushed them to transform their hobby into a real profession.

It is high time to discover the pipe scene in these two countries that have come to join the small club of pipe producing nations. Mind you, this isn’t exactly a sinecure. First of all, there’s the huge linguistic barrier : most of the pipe makers don’t master any European language and obviously all the websites have to be decoded with translation software. And God knows that when it comes to electronic translations, the computer scientists still have a long way to go ! Moreover, a lot of Russian and Ukrainian artisans neither dispose of retailers who sell their work, nor of a personal commercial website. Therefore, in order to find traces of the existence of the pipe makers who are unknown in the West, one has to browse through blogs, Picasa albums and Russian speaking forums. That’s why, even though the survey I’m on the verge of presenting to you, might seem rather complete, in fact it does in no way pretend to be exhaustive.

1 Pipe related info and forums

Several of my sources agree to point out AIPC, the Armenian International Pipe Club, as THE forum in Russian. And indeed, dozens of Ukrainian and Russian pipe makers are members. One thing is certain : it’s a very active discussion group and the section dedicated to local artisans is an invaluable source of information about what’s happening on the Russian speaking territory. Highly recommended.

Here’s the address of another forum that contains a lot of pipe info, though it clearly pays less attention to local pipe makers.

Among the blogs I found, there’s one that distinguishes itself through the richness of its content and through its beautiful illustrations.

2 Retailers

Undeniably, the number of online pipe retailers in this vast land hasn’t exactly reached its saturation point. Moreover, these businesses seem more interested in pipes imported from all over the world than in the local production. Most of the time they only sell the work of pipe makers who are also distributed in the West, for instance Ailarov, Shekita, Grechukhin, PS Studio.

http://artisanpipes.com/sale/Russian.shtml
http://www.tabachok.ru/
http://www.pipeshop.ru/
http://www.pipes.su/index.php

http://gevorg.net/, the only retailer I personally did business with, seems to be the exception that confirms the rule : they sell the work of pipe makers like Nazarenko, Aivazovsky, Savenko, Ryzhenko, Brishuta, Berezhnoy I didn’t find elsewhere. Besides, the owner is a passionate pipe fan who is very active in the AIPC forum. The communication in English with a charming and helpful employee went smoothly, rapidly and efficiently. Furthermore, this business accepts Paypal payments and proposes watertight guarantees. Recommended.

3 Pipe makers

How should I present them to you ? I could do it in an alphabetical order and overwhelm you with biographical data. But is it really that interesting to learn that X was born in Chechnya, but currently works in Moscow or that Y was an electrician before he became a pipe maker ? It seems much more interesting to discover the work of these artisans and to have an idea about the quality of their production. Hence, I’ve chosen a double approach. Rather than writing comments, I’ll show some images that are representative of the style and the craftsmanship of each pipe maker. Moreover, I’ve allowed myself to classify these pipe makers in five categories, which will, at least I hope so, give you an indication on their rank in the hierarchy.

By definition, this kind of classification is neither definitive nor perfectly objective. I’m well aware it is debatable and in certain cases it might even seem unjust. That’s why it is necessary to present to you the criteria I used to define the categories.

  1. top
    Pipe makers who are part of the international elite. Their technique and aesthetics are top notch. They’re considered by their pears and by the knowledgeable collectors as star carvers.
  2. high grade
    Pipe makers whose work shows a genuine command of pipe shaping and an unmistakable aesthetic sensibility. They work with high quality briar and only use hand made stems. Their execution, fit, finish and bits are, or will soon be, of a quality that is similar to that of the international competition in the high grade niche of the market. Hence they have the potential to compete sooner or later with the high grade artisans from Scandinavia, Germany, the USA,…
  3. mid grade
    A category that is both larger and less strictly defined. It contains pipe makers who are promising but not yet skilful enough to guarantee a technical and aesthetical quality that is constantly high ; those who go for an attractive price/quality-ratio rather than for excellence ; those who deliver technically proper work, but whose sense of aesthetics is not always convincing ; those who use premolded stems ; those who make respectable pipes in briar that presents obvious visible flaws, and so on. In short, these are capable pipe makers, but who neither offer the formal mastery nor the quality of execution and of finish one expects from a genuine high grade pipe.
  4. factory made pipes
    This is plain and simple : these are pipes that haven’t been made by an artisan, but by anonymous workers in a factory.
  5. amateur work
    Real debutants who still have to make a huge progress, and those who apparently don’t have the talent, the tools or the high quality materials that are necessary for a professional career in pipe making.

Now that this is clear, let’s discover without further ado the parade of thirty-nine pipe makers living in Russia or Ukraine.

1 Top

Sergey Ailarov

Michael Revyagin

Victor Yashtylov

2 High Grade

Armen Aivazovsky

Yuri Aksenov

Sergey Cherepanov

Vladimir Grechukhin

Alexey Kharlamov

Roman Kovalev

Nikolai Kozyrev

Maxim Nazarenko

Aleksander Ponomarchuk

Andrey Savenko

Konstantin Shekita

Valeriy Shevchenko (Yabuhebi)

Boris Starkov

3 Mid Grade

Sergei Akimov

Alexander Berezhnoy

Alexander Brishuta

Valery Chapkovsky

Sergei Demin

Stanislav Kamensky

Leonid Kobychev

Eugeni Looshin

Alexander Penkov

André Peschke

PS Studio

Valeriy Ryzhenko

Alexandr Saharov

Sergey Sakirkin

Zinovi Seniak

Artem Shcherbak

Vladimir Zlobin

4 Factory made pipes

Golden Gate

5 Amateur work

Sasha Gavrison

Andrei Orlov

Rodiin

Ruslan Sharyga

Alexander Ulitin

At the end of this survey, can we conclude that there is a recognizable Russian-Ukrainian style ? The answer is neither simple nor unambiguous. It can’t be denied that within the international pipe scene, Revyagin’s avant-garde designs, Shekita’s patiently carved briars or Kharlamov’s reptile-pipes stand out by their exuberant creativity and highly original character. But it clearly is impossible to claim that these individualists personify a national style. The work of Grechukhin visibly borrows from the classic Danish style ; certain Kovalev pipes are the spitting image of Roush shapes ; Cherepanov carves Nordh-like Ramses pipes ; Yashtylov has been inspired by shapes created by Negoita or Gotoh. In short, the Russians and Ukrainians don’t live on an island and fatally undergo the influence of the international elite. However, even if strictly speaking there’s no typical Russian-Ukrainian style, I have to admit that certain recurrent elements strike me.

Probably due to the fact they don’t own a blasting cabinet, several artisans have concentrated on rustication techniques and have developed innovating rustication and carving methods that result in original and visually pleasing effects. Besides, various pipe makers demonstrate a rather exceptional mastery of woodwork and, in addition, they’re not afraid to spend the extra hours these virtuoso rustication and carving techniques must cost them. Could it be these Stakhanovists have to make the best of visually mediocre briar blocks ?

The English love silver bands. The Germans are fond of boxwood decorations. The Russians and Ukrainians seem to favour horn shank extensions. That’s another stylistic characteristic that strikes me. But the feature that, to me, best defines the Russian-Ukrainian aesthetics and sensibility, is the lust for roundness : an insatiable fascination for sensually spherical shapes. The Russian quintessential pipe is a voluptuous apple. That’s why I consider Sergey Ailarov to be the most Russian of all Russian pipe makers. He is indeed the unrivalled champion of the unlimited variations on the apple theme. And whether his apples are straight or bent, whether they’re slender and refined compositions or, on the contrary, compact and chubby nose warmers, they systematically exude an equilibrium and a harmony that are near perfection. In der Beschränkung zeigt sich der Meister, said Goethe. And with the Russian master the less is more-principle never results in an icy minimalism : his gracious and appealing shapes with impeccable proportions, his lively stains, his resplendent finishes incite to shameless hedonism.

Russia and Ukraine balance between the iconoclastic universe of Revyagin and the contemporary classicism of Ailarov. That is to say that the lack of national style is largely compensated for by an eclecticism that can only be qualified as captivating by whoever makes the effort to explore the breeding ground of an ever-growing herd of various talents.

If at the end of this article, you feel the urge to get acquainted with the work of some of the pipe makers I presented, I have the pleasure to announce that shortly I’ll submit a sequel in which I’ll share with you my personal experiences with the Russian and Ukrainian pipes I recently imported.