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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

June 12, 1986|M.C. McPHILLIPS

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.

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.

"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).' "

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.

"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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