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A Russian Capitalist Abandons the Rat Race to Pursue a Lost Art



Interesting, but I'm getting REALLY tired of this "lost art" thing...

The New York Times
Sunday Money and Business/Financial Desk
September 5, 1999,

THE BUSINESS WORLD; A Russian Capitalist Abandons the Rat Race to Pursue a
Lost Art


By NEELA BANERJEE

WHEN he seemed to have everything, Pyotr Suspitsyn felt only loss.

Five years ago, Mr. Suspitsyn owned and ran a thriving import-export
business and several restaurants in St. Petersburg, and he made plenty of
money. But none of it quenched the spreading emptiness inside him.


''At some point, I realized life is so short and fragile that you need to
do something important,'' Mr. Suspitsyn said. ''It's not about vacationing
on the Canary Islands or buying an expensive house to show off to your
friends. I asked myself, 'What's all this for?' And I realized I was losing
-- losing something every day.''

Under the strain of work, Mr. Suspitsyn's marriage disintegrated. That was
the final push that he needed to abandon his old life and begin a new,
riskier one: He sold control of his businesses and used the proceeds to
open a tiny publishing house called Rare Book of St. Petersburg, which
issues handmade books in very limited editions.

The successful entrepreneur who drops out of big business to pursue an
arcane labor of love is a familiar type in the West, but in Russia, Mr.
Suspitsyn is as rare as his books. Most business people here race to make
as much as they can, any way they can, in case Russian capitalism proves
short-lived.

Stepping out of this age of greed, Mr. Suspitsyn, 35, is working to revive
a tradition of making books so exquisite that each is a work of art. Rare
Book's editions of venerable texts are printed on 19th-century presses that
he found and restored. An artist illuminates each book, adding
illustrations and ornamental decoration to the pages by hand. Mr.
Suspitsyn's Book of Psalms has a walnut cover with a brass engraving of
King David playing the lyre; the palm-sized edition of Shakespeare's
sonnets is bound in velvet; his edition of ''Antigone'' in the original
ancient Greek of Sophocles is bound with ceramic covers showing the
heroine's head cracked like a dinner plate.

His work has attracted esteem -- and purchase orders -- from libraries and
museums in several countries, including the New York Public Library. The
Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has held one exhibition of Mr.
Suspitsyn's books and plans another.

''There was a time when books were looked upon as something that embodied a
culture in terms of its art, its technology -- when the best volumes were
viewed as artifacts themselves,'' said Edward Kasinec, librarian of the
Slavic and Baltic collection at the New York Public Library, explaining Mr.
Suspitsyn's publishing venture. ''I think that's what's driving him: this
glorious, glorious tradition.''

The son of a naval officer, Mr. Suspitsyn grew up around books and art, and
for a time wanted to be an artist himself. Instead, he studied for service
in the merchant marine and dabbled in everything from boxing to the Hare
Krishna movement before going into business for himself when Communism
collapsed in the late 1980's.

Mr. Suspitsyn still moves in the big-money world: he retained minority
stakes in his old companies and receives dividends, much of which go to
subsidize Rare Book, which has yet to turn a profit. But in his printing
studio, Mr. Suspitsyn has fashioned a refuge from an increasingly bleak
Russia. The studio occupies space in a Baroque building, across a
humpbacked bridge from the Hermitage palace. No nameplate or sign announces
its presence, only Mr. Suspitsyn's silver Jaguar parked in front.

''I wanted to create the atmosphere of a monastery here,'' Mr. Suspitsyn
said in the studio's kitchen, darkened by the towels drawn across its one
window. ''My door is locked. The world stays out there.''

One afternoon, Andrei Doktyev, a slender bookbinder with the angular face
of a Byzantine saint, leads visitors into the Rare Book printing studio.
The place has the air of a different era. Flat blocks of limestone lean
against the entrance wall with etchings of square-jawed Soviet heroes on
one side; the backs of the stones bear the lithographic drawings used to
print some of Rare Book's volumes.

In the studio, the light is golden, reflecting off a wall of polished
wooden drawer cases where 20 kinds of Latin and Cyrillic type are stored.
Printing machines crowd the 12-foot by 30-foot room; across one end is a
clothesline where each carefully imprinted page is hung to dry.

In the adjoining kitchen there is soldering equipment for making covers of
marble, wood and leather. The rooms are hushed. A Russian blue cat named
Pyotr Mikhailich rubs against the furniture.

The six workers in the studio, including Mr. Suspitsyn, do everything but
the illumination work; for that, he contracts with outside artists, 11 so
far for the 19 titles that Rare Book has issued. In fact, he generally
chooses the artist first, then selects the book to be published in
consultation with the artist. Print runs range from 5 to 30 copies and can
take several years from conception to completion; production is done in
small batches so that the artists do not tire of the work. Rare Book's most
ambitious project so far has been the Book of Psalms, in painstaking
progress for four years.

Mr. Suspitsyn continues a tradition that had almost been lost, according to
Mr. Kasinec of the New York Public Library. Russia had a rich bibliophilic
movement that flowered at the turn of the century and enjoyed a revival in
the late 1960's and 1970's, when Soviet publishing houses turned out
gorgeous collectors' editions. But the country's lurching transition to a
market economy wiped out many of those houses; others turned to producing
inexpensive, mass-market romances and mysteries.

Rare Book's offerings, which range in price from $1,000 to $8,000, are far
beyond the means of Russia's mostly cash-starved libraries and museums;
foreign institutions are among the few customers Mr. Suspitsyn has. The New
York library bought one copy of ''The Story of the Battle Between Life and
Death,'' a prose retelling of an unsigned 17th-century Russian epic.

Some of Mr. Suspitsyn's previous business colleagues occasionally buy his
books, usually for expensive gifts. Mr. Suspitsyn said he has little in
common with them any more: they do not understand why he chose to give up a
thriving business for books that barely sell.

They might find the answer in one of the first songs he chose for his
compilation of Psalms:

Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands.

They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. Resting his hand
on the warm wood of the book's cover, he explained, ''I thought it would be
a good beginning.''

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