IN THE HEART OF MOSCOW lives the seemingly always happy and slightly quirky Varvara Sveshnikova. Varvara and her partner have just come back from picking up their art installation from the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow, one of the city’s largest galleries. The project, completed together – “I was his hands, he was the head” – is a half chessboard, which on reflection through a mirrored TV screen, becomes whole. The theme of the group exhibition was called ‘Check mate’.

At the time of the shoot, Varvara still lived in her family apartment. The one she has lived in all 23 years of her life. Her parents reside in Russia for six months of the year, the remainder they spend in India. Last year Varvara went out to visit them for a few months, and like her parents, fell in love with the relaxed lifestyle. When she came back from all the meditation and yoga, she noted people looking at her oddly and questioned why there was always a smile on her face. She had relaxed so much she became quite out of place in Moscow.

A yoga mat now lies in the middle of her room permanently and her room is filled with plant pots placed in any available space – a hollowed out computer included. The room is scattered with images of her and her partner, and different works from her university days.

Having already completed a graphic design course, she is now already part way through her second course in Classical and Contemporary Music. Alongside study, Varvara also completes her art projects and weekly freelance illustrations for the local political newspaper, Vedomosti. Although this type of illustration is not really of interest to her style wise, it’s good to get some extra money – even though, as she says, she doesn’t need to worry too much about that seeing she is living at home.

I wonder how this will change now she has just married her partner. Her grandfather, who is the bishop of two congregations of the Orthodox Church in Moscow, married them. Varvara shows me the picture of her parents getting married by him when they were young. They are dressed in traditional headwear and theatre costume attire. I wonder if this costume was all her parents’ choice or that of her grandfather? Her grandfather, before finding his life in Christianity, was a director in an animation studio. This, according to Varvara, makes him the most “charming” bishop in Russia!

A photo of her parents on their wedding day

The Orthodox and Indian lifestyles seem at odds. For Varvara though, it isn’t an issue. “I think God is one, but He has many prophets in different times and countries. I think it’s good not to become a fanatic in Orthodox and not a fanatic in yoga. It’s good to have balance.”

Varvara admits there are huge differences though between the two countries. “Firstly, the weather and percentage of sun. In Moscow, for six months of the year we can’t see the sun. We get very, very sad. Secondly, in India, you only need to think about something and it will come to you. You learn that you don’t need wishes. In Moscow though, all your life is a wish. Lastly, in India you live very strongly within your mind and inside you heart. You think a lot. In Moscow, you don’t have time to think; you need to do and to do right now!”

Varvara does love her home city. “I love Moscow’s vibrant culture, it has a lot of museums, music concerts, shows – you can find here whatever you want. I love the Russian ability to have very intimate dialogue with people. I love our nature and I’m very proud of our history.”

I get the feeling Varvara is much like her mother. And her friend confirms this. In the few hours I spend with her, Varvara changes her outfit three times. Not for reasons of vanity, but more changes of moods. She starts with a patterned skirt, moving to a summer dress from India, and ends with a mix of different floral clothing, layering them up like it is winter. Well, maybe not a Russian winter.

I asked a little more about what it was like for her grandfather and parents living in Soviet Russia when they were Orthodox Christians (75% of Russians now claim to be Orthodox Christians), because in the early 1900’s many bishops and priests were killed as the Communist regime tried to eradicate religion. It was obviously hard for them, but she tells me the children (her parents and aunts) couldn’t be in the Young Pioneers (much like scouts, but run by the Communist political party), so it made them outcasts amongst their peers. And her grandfather could not preach openly in Soviet Russia.

Varvara walks out with me, she needs to go pick up her Visa for her cello. She is playing in Poland next weekend with her partner, and for her to be allowed to take her cello, she needs a visa to get it out of the country. From what I gather, people used to try to smuggle out antique musical instruments of historical value, so just to make sure no one does this again, everyone’s musical instruments need a Visa.

Varvara and her partner are part of a musical theatre in Moscow and perform with children with learning difficulties. The shows are only music and dancing – no words. Varvara says sometimes it’s the only way to communicate with the children, who can share and take part in dialogue through the language of improvisation.

You can see some of Varvara’s work on her blog here

Some of the illustrations Varvara does for the local political newspaper, VedomostiPhoto: Varvara SveshnikovaPhoto: Varvara SveshnikovaPhoto: Varvara SveshnikovaIllustrations: Varvara SveshnikovaIllustrations: Varvara Sveshnikova