Antikvariat: A Treasure of Soviet and Russian Antiques
By Michael Jacobsensoviet_hat_ekz

Walking down a nondescript street in Astana, past a nondescript shopping centre offering the basics of everyday life, you would have no idea that just a few feet away is a treasure trove of Soviet and Russian history spanning nearly 300 years.

But that is exactly what you'll find if you enter the tiny Antikvariat shop located in old Astana about two miles from downtown. There in a cozy space of not much more than 10 feet by 10 feet, you'll find Russian coins, old typewriters, Lenin statues and other artifacts collected over more than 50 years by a local Kazakh family.

The richness and depth of the collection is apparent the moment you step into the store. To your right, you see old newspaper clippings from World War II and the head gear and goggles worn by Russian soldiers. Below that are holsters for old hand guns and even an old cigarette case that used to be handed out as Soviet propaganda. Beside the holsters sit vintage record players and century old statues.

To the left, on the floor is a two-foot tall bust of Vladimir Lenin, one of many Lenin statues lining the shop's walls. Above Lenin are a varied collection of Samovars, or Russian tea urns. They come in all sizes and are a part of Russian and Kazakh culture. And looking straight ahead behind the counter, you'll find Soviet military uniforms and coins dating back to Russian tsars. And above the counter, against the back wall, are a line of Soviet era cameras. There is even a tiny camera used by KGB spies. Every inch of Antikvariat is packed with vintage and century-old treasures representative of a Russian and Soviet era that has all but disappeared.

soviet_coins_ekzAnd standing behind the counter in the midst of all of the treasures is 34-year-old Dmitry Semenov, the son of the original collector and chairman of Astana's Public Association of Collectors. Semenov runs the shop along with his father Valery Alekseyvich Semenov and mother Vera Nikolayevna Semenova. The father is an artist who always had an eye for collectables. It was Valery Alekseyvich, 58, who began the collection more than 50 years ago.

He started out as a child collecting the casings of Soviet cigarette lighters. He then moved on to post cards. And, he said, over the next 50 years collecting became "like a disease." Though he doesn't know why, he says it was just something he had to do. That passion was passed down to his son Semenov who began as a child collecting vintage model cars and continues to do so to this day. Even the mother, who is considered the business person of the operation, joined in and is now collecting old Russian bells.

The group became so passionate about preserving Russian and Soviet era artifacts that their collection began to take over their home and once occupied six rooms of their house. It was then that they decided to open the shop. The store was opened six years ago and remains one of the few, if not the only place for hundreds of miles where you can buy in one location such a diverse collection of Russian and Soviet antiques.soviet_camera_n_statue_ekz

But, say the owners, making money and selling their items is not their primary goal. In fact, Semenov says it is getting harder and harder to find these types of items and not everything in the shop is for sale. All of the items are mixed together on the shelves and you have to ask what they are willing to sell and what they want to keep. Some of the items are on loan from local families who bring the materials in for safe keeping and because they too want to share a little bit of a bygone era.

A sizeable number of the items, however, are for sale and the shop attracts customers of all nationalities and interests. Die-hard collectors often come for the coins that date to Russian tsars and four or five serious collectors stop in regularly to see what new Soviet era cameras the shop has in stock. Corporations like to buy old TVs and other vintage items to add flair to their offices and many of the shop's Chinese customers seem to favour the Lenin statues, says Semenov. The older generation also often stops by with their children and nephews to show them what life was like in the old days.

soviet_phone_ekzThe artifacts range from 1735 to the current day. Semenov, who holds a degree in history, says that each new ruling class and government over time has written its own history -- the Soviets erased the history of the tsars and independent Kazakhstan has begun replacing Soviet history and customs. And the shop is a way to show and preserve each era as it existed at the time. The historic value of the collection, in fact, was recently recognized and was the subject of an April 2011 exhibit at Astana's Museum of Modern Art.

So far, the shop sells only locally and advertising is largely word of mouth. There is no website – though they are working on one -- and they don't yet mail items internationally. So if you want a coin from a Russian tsar, if you want Lenin to sit on your coffee table or if you just want to chat about an era that is gone, then find your way to the tiny little shop in a nondescript shopping centre where 300 years of history sits just behind the door.

Antikvariat is open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and is located at 33 Seifullina Street.