19th Century Russian Burak Decorated with Cockerels

Waterproof container made from birch bark

Birch is the main type of tree seen in Northern and Eastern Russia and has a spiritual significance for Russian peasants. The bark and wood provided an excellent material for creating domestic wooden objects, like this 'burak'. This container was carefully constructed with overlapping layers so that it could be used to hold liquids as well as dry foodstuffs, such as flour.

This burak dates from the 19th Century and is interesting for its decoration of a painted cockerel. Domestic animals and birds were one of the most commonly used motifs in Russian folk culture. The cockerel features often in Russian folk tales and in some cases held a magical significance. This type of folk culture gained wider appeal in the early 20th Century, for example, the tale of 'The Golden Cockerel' formed the basis of the opera ballet, 'Le Coq d'Or', which Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company first performed in London in 1914.

Birch bark is harvested at the beginning of summer, in late May and early June when birches are full of juice and the bark easily comes off the rest of the rind. If it is done properly and the next rind layer (zazelen) is not damaged, no harm would be done to the tree. In construction, birch bark was used as damp insulation material. Thanks to its waterproofing and antiseptic properties, birch bark prevented wet rot.

This birch bark box makes up part of Haslemere Educational Museumís European Peasant Art collection. This collection is of national importance as it links the town of Haslemere with the wider Arts and Crafts movement at the beginning of the 20th Century. The founder of the museum, Sir John Hutchinson, established a revolutionary new role for museums by emphasising the importance of education for everyone. Hutchinson encouraged the open display of artefacts. He believed that people could learn as much through their hands as their eyes. This was in great contrast to other museums with their sealed cases and 'do not touch' signs. Haslemere Educational Museum was one of the very first museums to allow children into museums.


Significance - important
Motif - repeated theme or pattern
Folk culture - belief in old local ways over new
Birch - tree with bark that sometimes looks like paper
Art and Crafts movement - style of design between 1860 and 1910
Diaghilev - important Russian person influencing art and ballet at the beginning of the 20th Century

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