Stepping out in style in Russia

“Stupid as boots,” the old Russian saying goes, but the makers of “valenki”, the traditional woollen boots worn in the countryside in Arctic temperatures, are determined to see that their product earns a little more respect.

Three years ago, officials in this northern town where boot-making is a leading source of employment opened a “valenki” museum devoted to upgrading the image of the pure lambswool boots that Russian country-folk have worn for generations.

“Until recently, valenki were seen just as grey, old-fashioned boots. We want to overcome this stereotype. It is absolutely wrong that they’re seen as stupid,” said Svetlana Durandikova, a local official in this town of 6 000 souls.

The workshop in which the “valenki” are made is a gloomy, humid shed reeking of lambswool and acid.

The boots themselves look like thick socks, not quite the sort of thing in which to cut a dash on the Champs-Elysees, though Valentina Romanova, the workshop director, boasts of a “large order” placed by a French tourist who passed through the town last year.

“Three years ago our only customers were farmworkers.
Now you see ladies wearing valenki as they walk in the park with their dogs,” Romanova said.

As the museum shows, local artists have spared no effort to ring the changes on “valenki” design.

There are boots with fir trees painted on for children, embroidered boots, boots with inlaid glass beads, “disco” boots with special soles for young people, football “valenki” with studs, “valenki” useable as skates, or in the form of Roman sandals.

As a result, boot production has risen sharply. “Valenkis and funeral services are the main economic activities in Myshkin,” Romanova said.

A visit to the town’s main store confirms this analysis.

Prominently displayed are a mound of boots grouped around a coffin.

Boot-making at Myshkin used to be men’s work, but now it is mainly women who beat the boots on heavy machines.

Each “valenok” is cut out of a single, seamless strip of lambswool. It is dipped in acid and then in boiling water. Before being oven-dried, it is beaten into shape to form a heel and a point at the toe. Some boots are “shaven” to make them more

water-tight.

Rural legend has it that “valenki” have therapeutic virtues. The lambswool hairs allegedly stimulate blood circulation in the feet, strengthen the immune system, cure impotence and ease the effects of rheumatism and hangovers.

“Tsar Peter the Great, every morning after a feast the night before, used to order a bowl of cabbage soup and a pair of valenki,” Durandikova said of the 18th-century founder of Russia’s second city Saint Petersburg.

Empress Anna Ioanova, who used to complain of pain in her legs, was another believer in the virtues of “valenki” and used to allow ladies at court to wear lambswool socks with their ballroom gowns.

Red Army soldiers during World War II, often fighting in Arctic conditions, regarded a pair of “valenki” as the best possible present from their families.

Going back further in time, in peasant society the boots were regarded as a means of communicating with the “house spirit”. If the family had to move, they would pray to the spirit to lodge in one of their “valenki” and follow them.

Young peasant girls would throw a boot onto the ground in the belief that the point would indicate where their future fiance lived.

Today, more prosaically, “valenki” continue to be routinely worn by country policemen, soldiers and gas inspectors.—Sapa

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