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‘I grew up in the family where they were whispering about God, about truth.’ : Emigre’s Dream: to Open Museum of Russian Art

The handsome, dark-haired woman replaced an intricately enameled Faberge egg in its case and turned with more interest to the panel paintings that covered the walls of her Irvine home.

“We Russians, we believe that icon is living God image,” Svetlana Nenov said, inspecting a golden-hued portrait of a resurrected Christ. Scanning the surrounding paintings--an assortment of religious figures rendered in deep, intense hues--her almond-shaped eyes registered obvious satisfaction. Some were framed in finely wrought silver, some in gold. Some were covered with sheets of the precious metals, leaving only the faces, hands and feet of the painted figures exposed.

“Icon is a member of family,” explained Nenov, who has since moved to Mission Viejo. “It has spirit. We pray to icon and apply for wonders. Icon gives additional power.”

Without that power, Nenov said, she would not be where she is today. A 45-year-old Russian defector whose grandfather, a master artisan, worked with Faberge, Nenov has lived a rags-to-riches story relying on what she knows best: Russian art.

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Since her escape from the Soviet Union 11 years ago, Nenov has owned and operated galleries in West Germany and Los Angeles and has built an international reputation as an icon expert. Her consulting projects take her to museums and galleries in New York, London, Paris and Brussels, among other distant cities.

When her husband took a new job in Irvine last year and the family relocated from Los Angeles, Nenov closed up shop and began working out of her home. Still, her schedule is a hectic one of antique shows (“only best in country”), European buying trips, consulting projects and occasional museum displays. But her primary project now is seeking benefactors and a site for her planned “Museum of Faberge and Fine Russian Art.” Nenov has secured nonprofit status for the project but admits that everything else is in the initial planning stages.

Exhibits for the museum should be no problem. Besides the treasures of many American collectors with whom she has dealt, Nenov can call on her own million-dollar-plus collection of Russian art and artifacts. That collection, safely stored in a bank vault, ranges from Faberge eggs and curios of Russian royalty to the devotional panel paintings, or icons, that have hung in the palaces, homes and churches of Russia since the 10th Century.

And it is the icons that are Nenov’s most prized treasures.

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“Icon is like your patron,” Nenov said. “Russians who adopted Orthodox religion have icons for all occasions. If person is baptized, they buy icon of baptism. If the lady’s in love, she buy icon of Madonna of Love. If the man needs help in his business, he apply to Nicholas. For health and power, we apply to Christ.”

That is why when President Reagan was shot in 1981 Nenov sent him a 19th-Century icon of Christ, along with instructions on how to use it.

Her Slavic accent thickened as she explained. “When the President was shot, I become so worried that if it’s another leader killed the country will go down--this country, where for first time I know real freedom. Then I remember our habit to pray to icon and especially apply for wonders, and I decide to save him.”

But before sending the icon to Reagan, Nenov first took it to the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Virgin in Hollywood, “where we made a service for the safety of our Czar and President, as we always did when the Czar was sick. And the priest wrote on the back, as usual: ‘In the name of God and our Czar (Czar, it means King, President, leader).’ ”

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Nenov speaks softly when she shows the thank-you letter from Reagan.

“I am just so happy that he would use it in our tradition, as it said in the letter.”

Nenov’s interest in icons first began to develop during the school vacations she spent in her early teens with her godfather, who was bishop of Stalingrad and Astrakhan. After Stalin’s death in 1953, her godfather undertook a campaign to restore the few churches that had been reopened in Russia.

“I was born in difficult time during war, when all churches were closed, especially in Siberia,” Nenov said, explaining that her family had fled to the frigid region from Moscow in the face of Hitler’s advance but returned to the capital when she was 5 years old.

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“I grew up in the family where they were whispering about God, about truth. They forced themselves not to think that life in Russia is so awful, because if they would be tortured they might say truth. As human beings, they were thinking about the prolonging of life, of their children.”

But when Stalin died and Khrushchev came to power, things relaxed somewhat, according to Nenov, and the bishop insisted that she be baptized.

“He was like saint,” she said. “He taught me about Christ and about icons, that they are miracle image--living person in the house.”

Nenov helped with the restoration projects and quickly absorbed the wealth of information that surrounded her.

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She learned that the Russian icon traditions were almost as old as the country itself. In 989, Vladimir I of Kiev, prince of Russia’s first state, returned from a successful Crimean campaign baptized into Orthodox Christianity and brought with him a zealous faith as well as a collection of Byzantine icons. Veneration of the icons, he had learned, was transferred from the icons to the saints they depict. Within days, according to one account, Vladimir ordered the pagan idols of the city destroyed and the people herded down to the river for a mass baptism into his new religion.

Under her godfather’s careful supervision, Nenov learned to peel off layer after layer of grime and paint in her restoration projects, thus witnessing the evolution of Russian iconography and learning to identify the various schools by style and materials used.

She saw the stoic renderings and muted colors used by early Byzantine iconographers give way to the vivid-hued, emotional depictions by Russian monks who were believed to have painted the icons by divine inspiration. Many icons, she found, were framed in gold, silver and precious stones, while others were “dressed” in garment-like coverings of the materials. The covers, or riza, were decorated by silversmiths in accordance with the motif of the icon and, Nenov said, were what first established the reputations of many famous silversmiths, including Faberge.

But Nenov’s tutelage under the bishop was not to last. When she was 17, the Soviets launched a campaign to discredit the churchman, and he was soon defrocked and exiled to Siberia, where he died three years later.

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The loss of her godfather fired the conviction that had been growing in Nenov since she was 10 years old: She had to get out of Russia.

Living with her parents in one room of a nine-story building confiscated by the Soviets from her grandfather, Nenov had heard what life was like before the Revolution.

“My mother, my grandmother, they told me many stories how we live in house with many rooms, what kind of food we ate, how many maids we had,” Nenov recalled.

At the same time, she was introduced to the Western life style through the pages of old Life magazines.

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“I look at dates in magazines, 1943, 1945. Pictures were during war, but still the people they were well-dressed. And pictures of food,” she breathed wide-eyed, “such food we never dreamed to have.”

Even so, by Soviet standards, Nenov’s family was not badly off. Although the Bolsheviks had appropriated her grandfather’s landholdings and his silversmith factories, the family was left with his art and furniture. The government didn’t want that, Nenov said, because the country was glutted with such items from the wartime looting of Germany. The possessions, however, were sometimes a curse.

“We didn’t have many friends there,” Nenov said in a near whisper. “You never know who people are. Every third is secret police. Always there were reports to the police because of jealousy. They say we must be spies to have such things.

“So at 10 years old, I start to think about all this and about how they call us traitors,” Nenov said, explaining that her family was so labeled because her aunt had married an English pilot and fled Russia (leaving behind her Life magazines) three days before Stalin closed the frontiers. The turncoat tag, she said, condemned them to second-rate jobs with no possibility of advancement.

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“So then I decide,” she said. “If my aunt can escape, why not me?”

In 1975, at the age of 34, Nenov seized her opportunity. With a degree in English from Moscow University, she had been working as an interpreter and icon consultant for a Dutch trading company that was buying art from the Soviet government. On an approved trip to Holland to consult with the company, Nenov and her newly wed husband, Bogden, absconded with their daughter, Yanina, to West Germany and appealed for political asylum. It was granted.

Nenov immediately opened an icon gallery in Dusseldorf and watched it flourish in fertile ground: She had inadvertently stumbled into an area flooded with the art of Jewish emigres that was smuggled out of Russia by African diplomats.

“At that time Soviets were seeking political foothold in Africa,” Nenov explained. “African diplomats could take anything out. They weren’t checked because if Soviets check African diplomats, then Africans will check what Russians carry in and out of Africa.

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“These diplomats were traveling on train that passed East Germany, and they entered Berlin. So (West) Berlin become center for Russian icons, and the Russian Jews start centers where they were buying them.”

Sometimes, Nenov said, the diplomats would bypass West Berlin altogether and come straight to her Dusseldorf gallery doors.

But with the new supply of Russian art flowing into Europe, demand increased and icon forgeries proliferated. Buyers soon became leery, and the market was threatened. Nenov’s response was to offer authentication services at reasonable rates to prospective icon buyers. Hitherto, she said, such services had been unavailable in Europe. Thus was the foundation laid for her reputation as an icon expert.

Although Nenov’s business prospered in Germany and her growing recognition brought consulting projects around the globe, Svetlana and Bogden Nenov began to worry about what the future might hold for their two children if they stayed in Europe.

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“The most important thing,” Nenov said, leaning forward and knitting her dark brows, “is to feel freedom, not to be afraid that someday someone will knock (on your door) at 3 o’clock in the morning and put you to prison.

“We want our children to smell in the air this kind of freedom. That you have rights. You don’t feel that in Germany. You feel that the Communists, they are watching you.”

So in 1980, the Nenovs moved to Los Angeles and applied for U.S. citizenship with their daughters, Yanina and Theodora, now 23 and 12, respectively.

Nenov obviously plans to stay. “When we come to this country,” she said, “we never thought to be rich. No. We come to country, and we say we want to be safe. Here we are safe. Here we stay. Here we can work.”

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And work she does.

“Ah, yes, I am busy. All the time I travel, and I have many shows,” she said, displaying an overflowing appointment calendar.

“But my main purpose now,” she said, steeling her eyes and setting her jaw in characteristic determination, “is to open museum and teach people expertising, restoration, so to protect name of Russian art. I want that more people will know beauty of Russian art.”


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