Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Portrait of a Russian- A Sweeping Tale

She's Moscow's only female chimneysweep. A chemistry graduate from the ecological faculty of the Moscow Chemical Technical Institute in 1981, Galina Yuryevna now runs 'Art of the Chimney sweep', a chimney cleaning business in Moscow.

She says she started out in her dream job as a fashion designer. Gradually though she made more contacts amongst people who worked with fireplaces, and when she learnt there was no company dedicated to maintaining Moscow's fireplaces, she saw a gap in the market and hasn't looked back.

Whilst showing me round her company's workshop Galina tells me about some of the more interesting chimneys they've cleaned in their time. Some years ago she was phoned by the Russian army. They had seen an article in a Russian tabloid which had made fun of her 'cleaning Putin's chimney', (they have, in fact, cleaned the Kremlin's chimneys). But when the officers saw the article they invited her to clean the flues of the old Red Army's wartime headquarters, and the one in Stalin's bedroom!

When she heard I was from England she related to me a story about her invite to a wedding. As folklore has it William the Conqueror was saved from being trampled by a wild horse when a chimney sweep stopped it. As a reward the sweep was invited to his daughter's wedding. Ever since it was deemed good luck to have a chimney sweep at one's wedding, and even in far away Russia Galina and her crew were invted to a colonel's wedding, 'in the English tradition'.

In another odd call out a man explained to Galina down the phone that they needed her and her team's expertise to extract a bag from the inside of a chimney flue. When they arrived they saw that their clients had already tried to get the bag, and as they worked with long poles and a remote camera they realeased the bag was full of money! They never retrieved the bag, she adds with a rye smile.

What is it like being the only woman in the chimney sweep business and boss of a team of men? Galina takes it in her stride. 'They can be difficult', she muses, 'but they're easier to control than a team of women!'

When we asked Yevgeny, one of her workers, what she was like as a boss he said he has the deepest respect for her. 'Clients are sometimes scpetical when they hear she's in charge,' he adds, 'but they soon change their mind after five minutes on the phone.'

We finished our tour on top of an old roof in central Moscow. She and her team spend much time up here, in a space above most people's heads which is seldom tread. She says the job really is quite romantic, with every roof in Moscow, even on buildings designed exactly the same, turning out to be unique. She says she never gets bored of the varying challenges.

Which is good because it must take some kind of motivation to stay up here in the snow and wind!

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