A woman's bid to escape Stalin saves art lore


The thought came to her as she stood in the bathroom, hands full of dripping wash, that she had to leave her home now, this instant, with nothing.

Stalin's secret police had taken away her husband, and Tatyana Scherbatova-Shevya-kova sensed they would come for her, too. So in 1935, Ms. Scherbatova-Shevyakova took a bag and her four-year-old daughter and fled Leningrad forever.

She went where no one would look for her: to Stalin's homeland of Georgia. There, while the Soviet dictator destroyed entire families, entire peoples all over the rest of the Soviet Union, Scherbatova-Shevyakova went about quietly preserving a rich artistic heritage left to ruin.

From 1936 to 1987, when she finally returned to Russia, she single-handedly reproduced an extensive record of paintings in Georgia's far-flung medieval churches.

Many of those churches are now gone, overtaken first by the Soviet state's neglect and, more recently, by Georgia's own poverty, made worse by by civil war and annual coup attempts.

Scherbatova-Shevyakova's copies of the church frescoes are the remaining documents of a rare school of Byzantine art that is disappearing day by day, brick by brick.

On Dec. 9, an exhibition of her collection opened in Moscow, and in the spring, "One Thousand Years of Eastern Christian Decorative Arts" will arrive at New York's Cooper Union School of Art before traveling farther in the US.

"What she's done is unprecedented not just for one person, but in that she actually rivals entire museums. They have teams of people who do this," says Alexander Konov, head of Museum Design, a Russian firm that is designing and installing the exhibition for free.

Georgians lived and worshiped in remote mountain villages. Scherbatova-Shevya-kova ventured to one church after another, often alone, living on tea and crackers while she painted scaled miniatures of what remained on the walls. On the back of each drawing is detailed information about the church as well as the painting's location within it. Her work includes about 800 miniatures from 80 Georgian churches, all built between the 5th and 17th centuries.

Now in her 90s, Scherbatova-Shevyakova lives with her daughter in a wooden cottage decorated with the blue and terra-cotta swirls, diamonds, and flowers she saw in Georgia's churches. "Everything was secondary to her work," says her granddaughter, Maria Aeschlimann. "People asked her all the time why she chose to devote her life to this, and she once answered: 'This is a great love.' "

Scherbatova-Shevyakova's life is a reflection of the Russian century. She was the youngest child in a famous noble family, the Scherbatovs. A sister, a brother, and a grandmother were executed by the Bolsheviks. Because of her background, she was denied admittance into the university in proletarian Leningrad and took up art history and reproduction at a small academy.

In the late 1920s, she first traveled to Georgia to copy religious art. The state, home to some of the oldest frescoes in this part of the world, was known as "a museum of paintings under the open sky."

When Stalin's purges began, Scherbatova-Shevyakova returned to Georgia because she loved it, and she could help preserve what she loved.

She also preserved herself.

Years later, Scherbatova-Shevyakova learned from an old Leningrad neighbor that Stalin's police came for her hours after she ran away.

Her reproductions are all that remain of much of the David Gareji complex, a 10th-century monastery built in caves dotting a cliffside. The monks carved stone pillars and benches out of the cave walls and decorated those walls with archangels. But much of it was destroyed during the Soviet era, when the Army used the caves for target practice for their mortar launchers.

"Sooner or later, there will come a time when these churches will be rebuilt," Museum Design's Mr. Konov says, "and her work, for future generations, will be an important basis for it."

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