It is always very interesting to see women in typically male professions. During these moments, I personally start to think about the essence of the feminine. I try to sincerely understand their choice and not to label them. But it doesn’t work. Whenever I get to know someone who took a yacht trip around the world or could ski to the North Pole, who swam across the English Channel, who drove a supercar along a Formula 1 track or drove a 130-ton BelAZ , who conducted the orchestra - I was always amazed and admired them, but also understood, that I wouldn’t be able to do any of that. The hero of my new story is a female blacksmith - Anna Biletskaya. Last Fall I visited her workshop in Belokurikha. Going forward, I should say, I couldn’t be a blacksmith.
Anna heated up the furnace and deftly put an iron piece into it. The bar quickly heated up and became red-hot, as the heat blazed from the furnace. I watched the process standing behind Anna, looking through her long earrings dangling from her ears. She pulled out the red-hot part, turned around, put it on the anvil and began to work with a hammer.
I could not handle the first couple hammerings, I shuddered, such a noise is really uncomfortable. Anna was focused on the process, she repeated this dance with the red-hot iron and tongs, turning between the furnace and the anvil, a couple of times. Then she suggested that I try to make a couple of hits. This was supposed to be a horseshoe forging workshop. But it is unlikely that I could really learn how to forge in half an hour. That was a rather small introduction to women's blacksmithing.
When the noise died down, I asked Anna questions. But I didn’t ask the main one - why? A handsome smith in a skirt, very open, she was so serious as she answered my questions, without a hint of a smile. She even asked me not to take pictures of her smiling. Anna talked about blacksmithing traditions, and I asked if she could shoe a horse or tear a villager's tooth out? She smiled (finally), but immediately turned serious: "I would tear it out, if necessary." Looking at her strong hands, I had no doubt.
“I discovered my vocation in blacksmithing and art. I was born in Astrakhan, I received a law degree; I graduated from an art school. Since 2008 I have been living in Altai, in Belokurikha. I started to forge in 2012. I am a member of the Union of Artists in Russia. I live with my spouse, we opened a museum,” Anna rapped out, as if with a hammer, when we first met in a small room of the museum. “You seem to be reading your resume,” I smiled. I looked around at the exhibits on the shelves, tried to spot something that might belong to the hostess, but I could not find anything. The main theme of the museum is the blacksmithing of Russia, but among the exhibits are mostly toys, samovars, old sledges, a bicycle, a sewing machine, a gramophone…
“What is the reason to collect all these things?" I wondered.
“These are just old things that I like. I travel around the villages, buy some of the things or exchange something. Some are gifts to me, for example, this old German chest. We are trying to expand the exhibition."
In the next room there was a collection of gifts from blacksmiths around the world, with whom Anna was in touch and met at various events and forging championships. There were painted aprons, and the works of other masters including a lot of very elegant flowers made of iron.
"This collection will later move to the 'Village of Masters'. I was given 2700 square meters of land to build a village. Masters from all over Russia will live and work there. We will invite artisans to share experiences," Anna continued.
Looking at the fire (btw it is about 1500 C in the furnace), Anna talked some more about blacksmithing. “The blacksmith was the most important person in the village. Everyone went to him for advice, he was even officiating wedding ceremonies - 'to shackle newlyweds.' Well, he had a very strong and confident personality, he was very resistant to stress. A blacksmith could control all the elements - air, earth, wind and fire. In his temple, in the forge, there is a combination of two energies: female and male. The furnace is responsible for the male, the anvil for the female. The anvil is called mom, mother, the guardian of the hearth. There are a few different types of anvil: hornless, one-horned, two-horned.
The one-horned Mother-Anvil 'takes the heat' of a horseshoe."Anna took a red-hot piece out of the furnace. She handed me a hammer, showed me where to hit and carefully held the future horseshoe with tongs. The hammer was so heavy, I really felt like a little girl. I hit it a few times and, of course, just deformed everything. “There will be no happiness, if my horseshoe is so crooked,” I thought. But Anna didn’t not allow anything to get in the way of my happiness - she deftly corrected everything, pulled and bent the metal as necessary.
"Don't your hands really hurt?" I asked, weighing the sledgehammer with my hand. It weighed as much as two dumbbells.
"Well, it’s hard. My hands didn’t hurt at the beginning, but over the years it’s getting difficult. When I used to do visiting workshops, I could hit with a sledgehammer from morning till night without a break. It weighs about 2-3 kg, though."
"Is that the normal size? Or kind of a light, feminine version?"
“There is not a feminine version,” Anna shrugged it off.Anna has a daughter, I wondered if she will continue her mother’s business. "No, she is fond of stained glass, she wants to be a sculptor."
During the next stage of our workshop in the forge, where "we" make a horseshoe, she trusts me to clean the iron part with an iron brush. But again it's too heavy for me, Anna, again, properly finished everything for me.
"How long have you been studying blacksmithing?"
"Oh, I am still studying. This is the kind of profession that must be studied forever. But I was lucky, everything worked out for me from the very beginning. I started to forge staples and loops. Then I forged a candlestick right away, and a horseshoe a month later."
By the way, Anna, to my surprise, is not the only female smith in Russia. There is another one - Olga Stenno from Perm. After watching the video of her sculptures on the Internet, I sincerely admired the female blacksmiths again.
Now, Anna does not earn all her money from forging. She used to take any orders, she even forged parts for vans. But now, she takes only a couple of big forging orders a year. She is mostly working with workshops for tourists, a lot of people want to see the female blacksmith working in the forge. Anna also forges souvenirs that sell quite well.
"And what comes out the best?" I wondered.
"I am currently working on two copper paintings. I try to forge paintings. I was invited to participate in the American reality show 'Forged in Fire', I will learn to make weapon blades."
"And what is the most difficult thing to forge?"
"It's complicated. There are gunsmiths, they don’t have an artistic vision, but they make blades and swords. And others cannot forge weapons, but they make complex sculptures."
"And do you 'shackle' the newlyweds? How does this even happen practically?"
"Well, I meet them, and I make the ancestors' drink - water with honey in clay mugs. They should drink and remember their ancestors with good thoughts, write notes with all their bad memories which we then burn. Then we are symbolically feeding the fire. It is the bride's responsibility to throw cereal grains into the fire three times. Then I help the newlyweds forge a horseshoe - a symbol of well-being and a happy family. A horseshoe 'knows' if you are in a bad mood. If nothing happens with the forging, it is better to leave and come back again later."
My horseshoe was also ready — I was clearly on the same wavelength with her. In total, it took about half an hour, but the blacksmith admitted that it usually takes her about 15 minutes. Anna put the horseshoe in some kind of press machine, stamped her own brand mark, drilled holes so that I can hang the horseshoe above the door, and handed it to me with such kind words that I felt very pleased. At the end of the day, Anya gave me an autographed photo as a keepsake. And posed for the final photo, barely holding-back a smile.
If you visit Belokurikha and want to get into the forge, come to the Anna Biletskaya's Blacksmith craft museum, it is located at: Belokurikha, st. Builders, 72.
Phone +7 960-965-94-86 (Anna Biletskaya)
The Four Seasons of Russia project is supported by the Russian geographical society www.rgo.ru
A visit Altai Krai is recommended by the Russian Geographical Society.
The tour operator LB Tour, in Altai, will arrange for you to see the beauty of Altai, to learn about local traditions and have a real adventure LB Tour.
You can see the photo report about Altai Krai and Altai Mountains here.
Also read about Altai:
Looking for a snow leopard
The Princess of Ukok
The most beautiful places in Altai
The most beautiful places of the Altai Mountains
Karakol Valley: Protected by Spirits
Translation: Irina Romanova, Instagram: @astrabella1