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Japanese Flower Art Helps Calm a Frantic Moscow

As Moscow watched the Soviet empire collapse around it in 1991, an expert in the ancient art of Ikebana flower arranging flew in from Japan.

For most of the 16 years since, Midori Yamada has taught Russians to search for harmony in the lines of branches, flowers and vases -- as attempted coups, and spectacular booms and busts played out on the streets outside.

"Our school is very strict, each flower has its laws," she said. "With constant work you finally learn them, but it is not the head that learns, but the heart," she said in a north-western Moscow apartment, transformed to feel like a little corner of Japan.

Yamada is one of dozens of masters sharing the ancient secrets of Ikebana with students seeking refuge from the frantic pace of the booming capital.

"The city drains your energy and this creativity revives you. It allows you to defend yourself, to become a normal person again," said Dina Gorodetskaya, 47, a student at a Moscow school. Popular when the pace of life was slower under the Soviet Union, the art is today taught by Yamada and her fellow teachers as an antidote to the frantic existence in the new capitalist Russia.

"It's an immense pleasure, it gives you energy," said biochemist Yulia Yarlykova, 40, a 10-year veteran of the art. Her teacher, Moscow native Olga Fomicheva, is equally wrapped up in the lines of composition.

"When the weather is very hot, it is vital to evoke an impression of freshness," she told a class in Moscow recently. "If your composition is too dense, it will not quiver." Back in 1991, Olga was a young researcher for the Soviet space programme, when she realized the upheavals shaking her country might endanger her job.

Inspired by Ikebana, her hobby at the time, she began to organize floral decorations for one of the first luxury hotels in the capital. Today she directs the Russian subsidiary of the Sogetsu school, which
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