Forever Blowing Baubles

 Report from a Christmas decorations factory in Krasnoyarsk with over 50 years of history  01/10/2014, 20:06

Yuri Pushkarev
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Forever Blowing Baubles
Photography by Vera Salnitskaya

Biryusinka, the only Christmas decorations factory in Siberia, employs about 100 people, mostly women. December is the most active month due to the holidays, corporate orders and tours for schoolchildren. Sib.fm’s correspondent visited the workshops where magic is made, watched master glassblowers at work and was plunged into furtive melancholy.

Decorated Christmas trees appeared in homes during the holidays in the first half of the 17th century in Germany and the Baltic States

Perhaps we should immediately say that the Biryusinka Christmas decorations factory in Krasnoyarsk probably only survived these complex and capitalist times because it produces rubber and soft dolls as well as baubles. This means the local manufacturer can fulfil any New Year order — from custom baubles with glitter and carnival costumes to gifts of sweets for children inside a felt Santa Claus. Nevertheless, it’s surprising that it’s more profitable to produce all this here than to import substandard Chinese counterparts. Besides, the factory ensures that its products comply with the countless government standards and sanitary regulations, which is especially important to get orders for New Year gifts from nursery schools and other childcare centres.

Another thing is that the history of the factory is pretty surprising in itself. In 1942, when the local machine-building factory was short of hands to make mines, the plant opened a workshop for the manufacture of wooden toys and papier-mâché dolls. After World War II, in 1959, the workshop was expanded into an entire factory.

Since then, very little has changed. In any case, the separate parts of dolls’ bodies are still melted in the same furnaces as in the second half of the last century, although the moulds have changed slightly. For example, the factory’s artist has made a doll that looks like her daughter. Indeed, one can only imagine what she feels when she sees a good-natured worker taking a dozen of her daughter’s PVC legs out of the furnace. After the furnace, the «dismembered bodies» enter the paint shop.

Within an hour, one faceless, bald blank can become a Dasha-2 doll, turn into Snow White or even rubber boy Pasha. Everything depends on the hair and «make-up».

The painted boy, girl, granddad and granddaughter dolls continue onto the sewing shop, where they are dressed and sent to be sold. A two-inch rubber wolf retails for 40 roubles ($1.20), whereas «Pig number 2 (with sound)» costs 250 ($7.50).

However, the production of Christmas baubles is more interesting. They are blown from glass in the next room by a dozen women to the eerie hum of extractor fans and industrial burners that have been here since the 1970s. Almost all of them wear headphones or earplugs due to the noise.

By the way, there have never been male glassblowers at Biryusinka. It’s loud, the work is monotonous and smoking breaks aren’t allowed.

Young people aren’t too keen on working at such a factory either — for 15,000 roubles a month ($450), it’s easier to sit in a supermarket and work as a cashier. What’s more, there are no glass-blowing courses in Krasnoyarsk — the workers are self-taught and pass on their experience and skills to rare rookies.

250 the number of baubles glassblowers at Biryusinka make per shift

Glass is transported to Krasnoyarsk from the Moscow Region. It’s much more pure than regular glass and is used to make medical utensils, flasks, beakers and, of course, Christmas baubles. The maximum size of the future tree ornament depends on the diameter of the tube used to blow it. The glass blanks, solidified in the correct shape, are sent to the plating plant. There, in a sealed vacuum tank, the glass is coated with aluminium — the bauble becomes stronger and the layer of aluminium can be painted. At this stage, the products are split into two batches. Some baubles are painted in one colour and sent to shops, while others are handed over to the artists.

It is important to remember that the aesthetic component of these Christmas decorations was controlled by Moscow in Soviet times. The factory’s chief artist first presented a collection of sketches to the regional artistic council for judgement, where a third of the ideas were immediately swept aside. It was believed that Christmas decorations and ornaments should have an educational function, so the Board of Education rejected everything that wouldn’t help to shape a child into a morally sound Soviet adult.

Pine cones, cartoon character Cheburashka and cosmonauts were ideologically correct guidelines for young citizens, while aggressive Pokémon and Bakugan certainly wouldn’t have been approved of in the USSR.

Today, everything is much easier; Biryusinka only submits its toys to the Handicrafts Commission at the Ministry of Industry and Trade for approval. And that’s only to get funding and government orders.

The factory make baubles such as «Festive Komsomol» and «Chapel in the forest», «Hockey player» pendants and a «Goat» Christmas costume.

Drawing on a spherical object isn’t quite the same thing as a flat canvas, although it’s more a matter of habit than a special talent. For the simplest baubles, it’s enough to write a name (from Anna to Zoe) in gold paint, specify the coming year, sprinkle some glitter on the top and send them to be sold — they cost 70 roubles ($2.10) in the factory shop.

Souvenir balls with views of Krasnoyarsk, the emblem of the USSR or Comandante Che Guevara require more time, and are therefore in a different price range — an average of 100 to 300 roubles apiece.

Handmade baubles are a special luxury. Of course, all products from Biryusinka are handmade, but some stand out among the others. For example, the factory’s trademark is a Rowan branch made from foam bubble halves.

An artist cuts polystyrene beads in half with a razor, sticks them onto a bauble in the form of a cluster of rowanberries, then paints the orange berries on top, sprays on a snowy texture and draws a bullfinch.

By the way, special baubles to mark the year of the horse are this season’s trend. This is Krasnoyarsk-style know-how: a «mane», made from leftover scraps of Santa’s cotton beard from the neighbouring soft toy shop, is glued to a bauble painted with a horse’s grin. Now that’s what you call waste-free production.

7 seconds are required to blow out a bauble. If a craftsman doesn’t do it in time, the glass solidifies and is rejected as defective

There are guided tours for children at Biryusinka throughout December. For them, the factory still remains a temple of magic: teens record videos on their smartphones with admiration and implicitly follow the guides’ commands: «Keep quiet! No flash photography!»

In this sense, the factory is different to its overseas counterparts. Venice, for example, is famous for its glass items, and each shop with coloured beads has its own attraction: master glassblowers put on a show for groups of tourists, melting a piece of glass, blowing out a fragile horse (for some reason it is always a horse) and giving it to one of the onlookers . Everything is different at Biryusinka. The craftswomen are very modest, don’t engage in conversation and don’t pay attention to children or journalists. They just get on with doing their job — making baubles.

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Yet, in spite of the children’s enthusiasm, a furtive feeling of sadness lurked in the mind of Sib.fm’s correspondent in the workshops. When the machines are older than their operators, and you see a glassblower screwing a piece of plastic tubing into an «Icicle» pendant on her 70th birthday, it’s hard to escape the idea that a Christmas decorations factory should really be quite different.

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